On a particularly sweltering summer afternoon six years ago in Shiraz, the city of wines and gardens in southwest Iran, Abeeda decided to taste freedom. And freedom to her, at age 20, was breaking out of the icy clutches of a ‘Talib’ home, defying orthodox strictures and the heavy weight of her burqa. Along with her sister Ayesha, who had been married off to a Taliban chief settled in Iran, Abeeda boarded a bus that was taking the dirt-road back to Mazar-e-Sharif, their home for 19 years. But their euphoria was short-lived. Upon reaching the city of the blue mosque nestled amidst the low, rugged hills of Balkh, fears of a punitive Taliban caught up with the two girls, who were then advised by their uncle to migrate to safer shores. “We had little money, no hope and almost felt like runaway prisoners,” says Abeeda, now 27, as she recounts her flight to freedom.
In New Delhi, which has been home for over six years now, in the warren of ill-lit lanes that makes up their neighbourhood, a narrow one takes us past small shops, vegetable and fruit vendors, round a deserted curve to a small two-room apartment outfitted with a kitchenette. In her large verandah, the brightest spot in the house, Abeeda greets us with a warm smile. She’s in faded denims and a red tee, and her deep-blue, kohl-lined eyes accentuate distinctively Afghan features. After we savour cups of flavourful kahwa, she flops down on her worn-out Persian carpet, leafs through a book and pauses to read from the Third Epistle of John. “I saw a light in my room one night and Jesus revealed himself to me thrice.” Lifting her hard-bound copy of the Farsi Bible, Abeeda tells us how, in 2007, she’d met an Iranian family that had converted to Christianity. “They shared the Holy Book with me. After reading it many times, my faith in religion was restored,” she recalls. The baptism ceremony was of course a closed-door affair. It was held at an underground church in Delhi run by Afghans. All people who had walked that path before her—baptism and refugeehood, in whichever order. A tiny community trapped in its own mini exodus.