Remember her? I do. It was 1985. Mr. Right and I were still in Pittsburgh, and had not yet moved out to the country. I was working for MCI Mail. And I still eagerly awaited the monthly delivery of National Geographic in my mailbox. It wasn’t woke. It didn’t lecture. And every month, it contained dozens of fascinating articles and vignettes about the human and the animal world. Yes, sometimes photos of bare-breasted women held one’s eye. And other times, primitive man’s “meat and two veg” were on–umm–prominent display. Somehow, though, we persisted through it all without blushing or averting our eyes, and along the way we read, we learned, and we delighted in the variety and the scope of this wonderful world.
But, Lord. I remember that face on the cover. Those cheekbones. That red scarf. The grubbiness. Her wariness in front of the camera. And above all, those arresting green eyes.
She was a teenager. A refugee from the Soviet bombing of her Afghan village who’d walked through the mountains with her family to the relative safety of a Pakistan refugee camp at the age of five or six in a parodic replay of the Von Trapp family’s escape from Hitler over the Alps. God only know what atrocities she’d been subjected to or had seen.
She, anonymous at the time–just a fortuitous snap–made her photographer famous. And we didn’t even know her name.
Seventeen years later, we did. In 2002, Steve McCurry–who’d had an itch in his heart for almost two decades–found her in an Afghan village where she’d been living since her return to her native country in 1992. Her identity was confirmed via facial and iris recognition studies, and at this point, at the age of about 30, our darling looked like this:
Married somewhere in her mid-teens to Ramat Gul, Sharbat (Say Her Name!) had three living daughters, was a devout Muslim, and was reluctant to be photographed because of Islamic proscriptions against it. Still, she made the cover of NatGeo once more, becoming one of the exceedingly rare “double cover” subjects.
And then she disappeared again.
Until 2017, when National Geographic intruded into her life for the third time. By then, her husband had died of Hepatitis C, a disease for which Sharbat had also tested positive. She was 45 years old with four children, and with no special achievements to recommend her except a single photograph taken more than three decades previous.
Powerful stuff, in the ultra-connected twenty-first century.
And so, in 2017, to forestall a descent into even more dire circumstances (and probably a public excoriation of the state that had allowed it), she was gifted a home by the Afghan government, together with a $700-a-month stipend for living expenses and medicine. It’s the first actual home she’d ever known, and although her road to it had been rocky and had, at one time or another included the threat of imprisonment for simply trying to survive, she seemed–in this 2017 story–to be content to be part of a burgeoning Afghan minority–the 17% of native Afghan women who own their own home. She’d enrolled her daughters in school. She–an illiterate country woman–was thinking about becoming a spokeswoman for the oppressed: ““My message to all my sisters is not to marry their daughters at a young age, Let them complete their education the same as your sons do.” (No argument there. She may not be literate, but she’s not dumb Bless. Bismillah.)
And yet today, I find myself drowning in pity and sadness for the fate of this woman, one whose image and circumstances were used for most of her life to enrich and enfame others. And who became, eventually, the star of what is essentially an Afghan reality show–“Look, we took care of the ‘Afghan Girl!’–with gifts and largesse that she hadn’t really earned, probably didn’t understand, and no doubt didn’t know what to do with–just because those in power couldn’t bear the thought that they’d be ripped apart on Twitter for letting her descend into poverty and anonymity yet again.
I wonder what’s next for her.
And I hope she’s OK.