Anthrow Circus

Yalda: An Afghan Winter Story



Setara, a 17-year-old from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, remembers falling asleep at her grandmother’s house as a girl. Grandma Gul, or Grandma Flower, would sit beside her with a cup of chai and rock-sugar candies and tell her stories. One of these was the story of Yalda, a traditional Afghan tale about a village girl who meets a feared “witch” on the longest night of the year.

In late 2021 a group of Afghan teenage girls living in Athens, Greece, recreated Yalda’s story using mixed-media collages, watercolor, acrylic, and digital art. They call their art group “Till We Have Faces,” a title from C. S. Lewis that reflects their journey of self-discovery and their desires to share themselves with others and bring peace between people. The video features Setara as narrator in the English version and Setara’s mother in the Dari version.

In Iran and Persian-influenced countries like Afghanistan, people celebrate Shab-e-Yalda, loosely translated “night of light or birth,” on the winter solstice. In late December, families and friends gather and stay up all night, reading poetry (especially Hafez), telling stories, and eating traditional snacks like watermelon, pomegranates, nuts, and dried fruit. The holiday centers on the idea of light conquering darkness, the triumph of good over evil.

As we continue to observe the most recent wave of challenges faced by the resilient Afghan people, Anthrow Circus gladly presents Yalda’s story here. May this piece of art provide insights into Afghanistan’s rich culture of hospitality and remind us that light always pierces darkness.

Till We Have Faces used music from the 1973 record Afghanistan: Music from Kabul as the background to Yalda’s story. To listen to the full record, click here

Till We Have Faces created a Dari version of this video in addition to the English version. Click here enjoy the Dari version.

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Till We Have Faces is comprised of around 15 Afghan teenage girls currently living in Athens, Greece. Four afternoons a week, they gather after school to hang out, make art, and discuss topics as varied as culture, health, and storytelling. Allison Oosterhuis, a community art specialist for Veemata Mazi (Taking Steps Together), leads these activities and fosters the safe space where community building can happen between these displaced teens. Employing her degree in intercultural leadership and her studies in art at The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, Allison has worked among refugee communities in Athens since 2017. This video of Yalda’s story was illustrated by Setara, Fati, Nana, Tayebe, Mahdieh, Roya, and Bahar, with Allison’s assistance.

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In addition to serving as Anthrow Circus's assistant editor and proofreader, Heather Surls regularly contributes stories to the site, drawing inspiration from her relationships and experiences in Amman, Jordan. Her creative work has also appeared in places like Catamaran, Brevity, River Teeth, EthnoTraveler, and Nowhere. She is working on her first book, a collection of essays about Jordan and Israel/Palestine.

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