That is what her name means in Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns. It is a more poetic and uplifting post title than the more dramatic one I was concocting. Here she is, her face staring down from a poster twenty feet high in the Forbidden Palace, Beijing.
Her name is Sharbat Gula and we all know her from Steve McCurry‘s photo on the cover of a National Geographic, an accidental shot of which she, ironically, was completely unaware until tracked down in 2002 by the National Geographic. That expedition was to see if the NG could discover her name and her story. The story is here in the National Geographic.
If her eyes are haunting as a teenager, and they most certainly are, then her adult face is even more haunting. For the difference those intervening years has wrought has not been a kind one. To say she has had a tough life is to trivialise what she has been through, eking out her existence on the hillsides of Afghanistan and in various refugee camps. Today I walked past a cosmetic advertisement which simply declared “I am 43” – the face could have been ten or fifteen years younger, which was the whole point. Then there is Sharbat who has been hardpressed just living let alone focusing on her cosmetic beauty. She looks older and harder than her years deserve. But her eyes tell the same haunting story of appalling things witnessed and trauma lived and hatred lived with.
I have always found those eyes haunting but the older face more troubling. Not because of what she has seen or experienced. But for what she has missed out on. And what she would miss out on even if we were to transplant her into our community in some sort of perverse extreme makeover. In our society that worships youth and youthfulness she would have no place. Here she would only have rubbed into the wounds of her soul all that she has missed out on. No doubt she would miss the irony of having her photo posted up in a photo exhibition in the Forbidden City, in its own way a centre of the worship of beauty for centuries and today witnessing a rush to materialism on a scale the globe has never before seen.
But she reminds me too that there are numerous opportunities to take people and to create opportunities for them to excel, to live decent lives, to enjoy the same privileges we do in our more affluent societies, and to be the “flower girl” Sharbat never had the chance to be. Good reminders in the days when we want to rue the crashing of stock markets and the loss of virtual money, all trivial events in the face of Sharbat’s gaze.