Daughter Courage: The Girl Who Could Not Speak

by | Oct 30, 2015 | Creative Nonfiction

The girl was always on the roof. Not necessarily the same roof, but a roof somewhere on the camp. At the U.S. military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2010 people were busy, but this girl was always climbing up on a new roof. As most of the troops scampered around in a futile frenzy of activities, this young officer was always climbing above it all. Upon the flat-top roofs of shipping-container buildings, a captain the Afghans called “Farzana”[1] would drag her collection of notes, notebooks and poetry up to the highest, sometimes most perilous, rooftop-heights to look out upon the Hindu Kush mountains. She went there to soak up the Afghan sunlight she cherished and meditate on Persian poems or other literature. Many other people tried to stop her, mocked her, or otherwise discouraged her apparently misfit efforts to break away from the norm and make sense of it all.

She wrote poems there. Most people thought she was crazy, but the Afghans revered her. American officers warned me to stay away from this apparently crazy lady. She spoke the local Persian Dari dialect impeccably, however, and I was more than willing to take a risk and recruit her into our unit, tasked with daily dialogues with local community leaders. She joined us, and I saw first-hand what she was capable of. I ultimately put her in charge of our team’s operations. I never once regretted that decision, and though she spent plenty of time up on the roof reading and writing, when Farzana came down she produced the results of a half-dozen ordinary officers combined.

She earned a Bronze Star medal[2] for her service over the next two years in Afghanistan. Farzana led us out on over 350 low-profile “outside-the-wire” missions. The “low-profile” part meant that our job was to blend in with local Afghan society armed with nothing but our wits and words. Our mission was the opposite of killing–we weren’t hunting terrorists. We were hunting the Good Guys. Our purpose was to discover and connect with the good-willed members of Afghan communities who could teach us, partner with us, and help us fight against corruption, the cesspool of lawless impunity in which the terrorists thrived. Throughout that time, these war-ravaged Afghan citizens taught her about the costs and casualties of war. She devoted her time and attention to the problem of impunity, the role of social integrity, and the means of combatting conflict and corruption through education, art, and cultural awareness. Though steeped in a US military culture that idolized sophisticated weapons systems and “special” operators, her military service exemplified the principle that “language is your primary weapon.” The enemy never found a counter to Farzana’s weapon. She was unstoppable. Afghan hearts belonged to her.

After Farzana got out of the military, I had an opportunity to introduce her to my academic colleague with whom I taught pre-deployment training for very senior military officers. My colleague was an impressive man who served for years in a military special operations capacity in Afghanistan during the 1980s. One of the toughest men I know, his dissertation work was full immersion ethnography in American motorcycle gangs. His tattooed arms and bearded face seemed to dwarf Farzana’s petite frame as we met in a sports bar to share our tales from Afghanistan. I asked Farzana to read one of her poems, “Warnography,” for my burly colleague, thinking he might appreciate her take on the war experience. As she read the words aloud, my hulking friend was reduced to weeping sobs. I sat in stunned silence as her recitation ended. The two of them wept in mutual understanding. The girl who had ascended the rooftops had come down with words that could cripple a giant. Warrior hearts belonged to her.

Farzana chose an epigraph for that poem from Mother Courage and Her Children by Berthold Brecht:

War’s like love.
It finds a way.
Why should it ever end?

That reference haunts me. Farzana came back to Afghanistan to finish her dissertation on Afghan women poets and to serve again the NATO coalition against the Taliban. There, she fell in the line of her duties; a massive stroke rendered her unable to speak or write at the age of 31. In the play Mother Courage, the heroine is Kattrin, a girl who cannot speak, robbed of her voice by the trauma of war. In the end, Kattrin sacrificed her own life to save her village from an invading army. Ignoring her personal safety, the girl climbed up on a rooftop to bang a drum loudly to warn her neighbors of the approaching danger. Mother Courage’s daughter defied all dangers and ultimately fell in a courageous effort to save her people. Her sacrifice spoke volumes when her voice could not.

Farzana is for now silent. Fortunately for humanity, her neighbors, the drumbeat of her poetry and prose resounds to warn us of the dangers of life, war and impunity. She is our own Daughter Courage, her pages scribbled on rooftops, an outcast bravely beating. There is truth in Farzana’s work, but no truer words than those Farzana wrote in her poem, “Sort by Thread:”

Did you ever notice that the girl who could not speak shouted loudest at the end?

My heart broken by the shout of Farzana’s sacrifice, her story fills my eyes with tears.

– Dr. Timothy Kirk, Colonel, US Air Force (Ret)
Kabul, Afghanistan
October 2015


[1] “The meaning of the name Farzana is: Intelligent, wise. People with this name have a deep inner desire to create and express themselves, often in public speaking, acting, writing or singing. They also yearn to have beauty around them in their home and work environment.” http://www.sheknows.com/baby-names/name/farzana accessed
30 Oct 2015.

[2] “The Bronze Star is the fourth-highest award for bravery or heroism. It can also be awarded for meritorious service of non-combat nature. Overall, the Bronze Star is the ninth highest among U.S. Military Awards and Decorations.” http://www.ehow.com/about_6457048_bronze-star-medal_.html accessed 30 Oct 2015


From Eight Slices of the War in Afghanistan by Farzana Marie

Introduction by Dan Cafaro, Publisher
I: To Merge, To Erase
II: Restrepo: One Slice of the War
III: Inside with an Itch
IV: Enter to Search
V: To Fight
VI: To Find or Be Found
VII: When Language Fails
VIII: Tea with Terrible Questions
Afterword by Dr. Timothy Kirk, Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Ret)


Photo: Dr. Timothy Kirk, with Farzana Marie

About The Author

Dr. Timothy Kirk

Dr. Timothy Kirk is the Executive Director of Civil Vision International. He is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and Afghan Hand with experience in security force assistance, logistics and counter-corruption programs. Dr. Kirk is a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and a German Minor, holds a Master’s Degree in Sports Medicine from the U.S. Sports Academy, a Master’s of Logistics Management Degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology, and a Doctorate of National Security Strategy from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He is also the former speechwriter for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a graduate of the Defense Language Services Afghan Dari program.