'Defiant Dreams' memoir tells of Afghan woman who risked everything to get an education

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Sola Mahfouz (left) and Malaina Kapoor (right) are the authors of "Defiant Dreams." (Courtesy of Mark Wilson Images and Opened Shutter Photography)
Sola Mahfouz (left) and Malaina Kapoor (right) are the authors of "Defiant Dreams." (Courtesy of Mark Wilson Images and Opened Shutter Photography)

In 1996 — the year Sola Mahfouz was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan — the Taliban took over the country for the first time.

Under a brutally repressive regime, the Taliban banned girls from attending school and confined women to their homes. But the country would undergo major changes.

Mahfouz says her parents remember Sept. 11, 2001 well. They learned about the attack from a BBC radio broadcast. At the time, none of them had ever heard of New York’s Twin Towers or of Osama bin Laden. But finding out about the attack still caused Mahfouz’s grandmother concern.

“‘Do you think what has happened in America will affect us?,’ she asked at dinner one evening,” Mahfouz writes in her memoir “Defiant Dreams,” co-authored by Malaina Kapoor. “My father and my uncle actually laughed at her. They couldn’t imagine that a tragedy from so far away could ever have an impact on Afghanistan.”

But then, in October 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom, leading an international coalition in Afghanistan in response to 9/11.

Women regained some freedoms during the occupation, but Mahfouz says the city of Kandahar, 300 miles away from the capital of Kabul, did not see much progress. The Taliban still threatened her for attending school. At age 11, after they told her parents they’d throw acid in her face if she kept on, she stopped going.

But Mahfouz says she envied her brothers’ ability to get an education. So she eventually took the matter into her own hands.

“At age 16, I did not know how to add and subtract,” she says. “I started learning English and math, and this was the first thing that I was able to do it all by myself. I think just being able to do that was so empowering that it just kept me going.”

Co-author Kapoor says Mahfouz’s life, which had been geared towards taking care of domestic tasks around the house, changed drastically when she began learning on her own. After reading a Time magazine that had arrived from Pakistan, Mahfouz learned about Khan Academy, an online learning website.

“Using this extremely slow dial-up internet connection, she was able to access the website in the middle of the night, the only time that she wasn't required to cook and clean,” Kapoor says. “She set her sights on this goal of getting to the United States, and she kept working at it to the point that within three years, she was studying calculus and college-level physics.”

Mahfouz managed to cross a dangerous border into Pakistan to take the SAT test. She passed and obtained a visa to study in the U.S. And so the teenager who couldn’t add or subtract at the age of 16 became a quantum computing researcher at Tufts University just about a decade later, and she details her journey in the memoir “Defiant Dreams.”

Book excerpt: 'Defiant Dreams'

By Sola Mahfouz and Malaina Kapoor

I began to grow up the day my mother warned me to stop laughing. She was terrified that even my momentary giggle could bring a strange man to our door, ready to yell, kidnap, or even kill to silence the sounds of a young woman. Don’t dance outside your room, she’d warn me. Don’t sing in the hallways, where the sound can carry. I was eleven years old.

I was more interested in playtime than in my mother’s fears. I escaped the thick heat of Kandahar, my Afghan hometown, by jumping through the water pump inside our family compound, shielded by walls so tall they kissed the cloudless sky. I dragged a speaker into the kitchen to blast the Bollywood music I’d heard on TV, flinging my arms into the air and moving with my sisters and cousins to the strong beat. Outside my home, bombs were exploding. Soldiers patrolled the streets, and the Taliban shot to kill. But in those days, I still woke up mostly oblivious to how brutal a place my country was to live in. I was excited just to race my brothers or buy fried snacks at the crowded bazaar, my skirt hiked up above my knees and the dusty wind sweeping through my tangled hair.

Just before my twelfth birthday, my female cousins and I were biking in our courtyard. We were the only girls in our entire neighborhood who were allowed to ride bicycles. However, we still had to stay behind the walls that closed in our sprawling family compound, where I lived with my parents, siblings, and cousins. I perched precariously on a metal-frame bicycle far too big for me and raced freely in the waning sun, giggling. One of my cousins burst into a popular Bollywood song, and we all sang along, laughing harder and harder as we pedaled across the small squares of pavement that framed the garden.

Suddenly, something came sailing over the walls. Before we could figure out what it was, we heard a group of boys just outside the compound erupt in laughter, whooping at their victory. Their voices were sharp and caustic, and we froze at their tone. They roared even louder once they realized they’d silenced us.

Eventually, after the sound of their voices receded into the alleyways behind our house, I turned to see what the boys had thrown over. Two unidentifiable packages lay just a few feet away from me. Immediately, I grew afraid. I wondered for a moment if the packages might be bombs or containers of acid meant to blind or disfigure us. I stepped forward for a closer look and then recoiled in disgust. The
boys had thrown two large plastic sacks stuffed with excrement. One of them burst and leaked across the grass and toward our rose bushes. The awful scent assaulted our senses, but we stood still, stunned and horrified and unable to move.

After that day, I listened to my mother’s warnings. I began to understand her fear. I started to live the same life as so many women and girls in Afghanistan, trapped within the four walls of our kitchen. I was deeply jealous of my brothers who would go on road trips together, talk politics, and speak of visiting bazaars and enjoying street food. By age thirteen, I rarely left the house. When I did go outside, I viewed the world through the crisscross slats cut into my first burqa.

Excerpted from "Defiant Dreams" by Sola Mahfouz and Malaina Kapoor. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted with the permission of Penguin Random House.

Adeline Sire produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Sire also adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 15, 2023.


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