‘Letters From a Pen-pal’ by Bella Hill

I once had a penpal named Salma. She was from Afghanistan and her name meant “peace”. Her epistles were peppered with scintillating dreams of becoming a doctor and exuberant outings with friends. Despite being four thousand miles apart I had never felt so close to someone. I joked that talking to Salma was the equivalent of speaking into limpid waters reflecting my own image.

I kept her letters on my bedroom wall. Plagued by murky ivory and thin cracks along the plaster, Salma’s brightly coloured card submerged the room in an ebullient glow. Little doodles of flowers and neatly printed cursive covered every facet. Each told a story: one about her mother’s recent birthday, her shopping trips, another denoting small confessions about that boy in maths class who she seemed to develop a liking for. Never before had I felt so involved in the gaieties of someone else’s life. I could feel Salma right next to me when I read those letters.

Things started changing last year. Arriving infrequently, her writings no longer cultivated evocative images of grinning friends, convivial shopping trips, or nice boys. Salma was frightened. Something was coming back to her country. This eldritch presence, whatever it was, had stopped her mother and millions of women from having freedom when it was in Afghanistan before.

The news talked about it too. They said everything would resolve itself and since people weren’t perturbed by it, I told Salma not to fret either.

I was running out of space on my walls but I still hung up her letters.

News reports now sported horrific headlines; people paid no more attention to them as one would background noise. They said women’s education was being wrested from their grasp, liberty torn from their fingertips. The Stygian storm of forced domesticity blanketed Afghan women like a pall covering a tomb.

Salma’s careful print was now a scruffy scrawl on the back of old paper. She said that it was safer to stay inside nowadays.

People still didn’t care. It made me angry. Was Salma not human too? Her desperate cries for help and disconsolate tears stained the letters that  detailed how she couldn’t be a doctor now, not with the Taliban holding guns and fundamentalism above her head.

News reports quieted after some months, bored with unremitting stories of human exploitation. Online posts and petitions fell into an expunged archive of forgotten troubles. No one wanted to read the letters on the wall. They begged to be acknowledged by others who could offer peace to the troubled heart who wrote them. My hopefulness suffocated in a despondent ocean, sinking further beneath the murky surface as more turned blind eyes to Salma’s weeps.

Was this just? Treating the misfortunes of those like Salma like an exhibition and abandoning them with repugnant cruelty when something more interesting appears? I didn’t think it was.

I once had a penpal named Salma. Her name meant “peace” and she wanted to be a doctor. She doesn’t write anymore.