As the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled their war-ravaged homeland, writer and journalist Atia Abawi would sit with her parents for hours by the television at home in the United States, anxiously scanning the news channels for reports of home.
“That was probably the reason I became a journalist. I grew up watching the news,” the 34-year-old says at an interview in Singapore in May.
Despite being born in Germany and raised in the United States, she longed to go to Afghanistan, where her parents had grown up. She eventually became a journalist and spent more than a decade covering news in the Middle East. Recently, though, she turned her hand to fiction and released a young adult novel called The Secret Sky.
The book centres on young couple Fatima and Samiullah who come from different tribes – she is Hazara and he, Pashtun. They plan to get married but are sabotaged by Samiullah’s cousin, theTaliban-influenced Rashid.
The novel is sometimes violent, with descriptions of beatings and torture, as well as allusions to rape.
Abawi says the book is inspired by “bits of real stories that I covered as a journalist, of people I met in Afghanistan, and descriptions of all the things that I saw”.
One that made a deep impression was of a woman who had her ears and nose cut off for running away from her husband’s family, who wanted to sell her into slavery.
She says of the regular Afghans she has met in her work: “These are good people who are trying to get by. They want to laugh, make jokes and have a peaceful life. But their country is so broken apart.”
Her first job was as a reporter at a television station in Maryland, United States, in 2003. She was later recruited to CNN, where she eventually rose to become the Afghanistan correspondent and the bureau manager in Kabul, the country’s capital, in 2008. She is fluent in English, Persian and Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan.
In 2012, she married Fox News correspondent Conor Powell, 38, with whom she has a son, Arian, aged one. The couple met in 2009 while reporting from Afghanistan.
The same year, she moved from Afghanistan to Jerusalem, where she is now based, to start work on her book.
“It was always a dream of mine to write fiction. When you work in war zones as a journalist, your imagination fades, you lose it completely. The colour in my life just faded,” she says.
She worked on the book for about 18 months, writing during vacations and whatever break she found between her work.
She eventually resigned from work full-time in 2014, when she became pregnant.
“It was around the time of the Gaza war then. I was thinking to myself: I’m pregnant. Do I run into the war zone?”
Abawi is now working on a second novel set against the backdrop of the Syrian refugee crisis. It is slated for release next year.
She adds, with a laugh: “Being a writer and trying to recapture the things I’d lived through was one of the hardest but also most fulfilling things I’ve done. If being a journalist is in my blood, being a writer is like getting a blood transfusion.” – Straits Times/Asia News Network