Defiant Dreams: The Journey of an Afghan Girl Who Risked Everything for Education
Defiant Dreams tells Sola Mahfouz’s story of growing up in Kandahar, Afghanistan under Taliban rule, secretly educating herself from the confines of a house she only left five times a year, and escaping to the United States.
How did you first meet? How did Sola decide to trust Malaina with her story?
MALAINA: Sola and I first met through a mutual friend back in the summer of 2020. It was the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and so we were unable to meet in person. Instead, we began talking over Zoom – Sola told me stories from her life and I wrote them. Eventually, these stories became the basis for Defiant Dreams.
After spending a year apart, Sola and I finally met in 2021 when she flew to California to visit me. From that moment on, we started spending holidays together and traveling across the country to see one another. We even spent the last few months of the book – which were incredibly emotional – alongside one another, since the chapters were unfolding as we were writing them. Through this process, we’ve moved from being collaborators to friends to, now, like sisters.
SOLA: In 2020, I confided in Malaina and shared with her a memory of my childhood: how I used to walk to school in Kandahar, clutching my backpack and scanning the street for signs of danger, where at any moment a suicide bomber could detonate himself. She turned my words into a scene. As I read it, I felt transported to Kandahar, where I was eight or nine years old. She had captured exactly what I had hoped for.
Why did you both choose to write this story?
SOLA: I was born in Afghanistan, a country that has been at war for most of my life. I left when I was 20, seeking a safer and more stable future. But I never stopped thinking about my homeland, the place where I learned to love and fear, to laugh and cry, to hope and despair.
I decided to write a book about my life in Afghanistan, not as a victim or a fighter, but as a human being. I wanted to tell a story that was not defined by the headlines but by my memories. A story that showed the complexity and nuance of being an Afghan in a turbulent time. A story that resisted the stereotypes and clichés that often distort the reality of my country and my people.
MALAINA: I was of course drawn to Sola’s story because of her incredible persistence. At every turn in her journey, she faced obstacles that appeared insurmountable but somehow managed to overcome them. One of the most powerful stories in the book is the story of how Sola took the SAT. The test was her only chance to make it to the US, but it wasn’t offered anywhere in Afghanistan. So Sola crossed one of the most dangerous borders in the world into Pakistan – a crossing marred by violence, where men and women are separated and people are required to take multiple vehicles just to get across. She managed to secure the last spot in a test administration in Pakistan, and, even in all this chaos, somehow scored high enough to apply to US colleges. Through this book, our goal was to share stories like this one that showcase the undeniable power of human determination and resilience.
What do you hope readers take away from Defiant Dreams?
SOLA: Afghanistan is more than war and violence. It is a land of rich culture and history, of humor and grace, of resilience and adaptation. Afghans have suffered immensely, but they have not lost their sense of humor. Through jokes, we express our anger and hopelessness at the situations we face. Humor is a way of surviving, a way of resisting, a way of living. These are the things that the news does not show, that make it hard for the world to empathize with Afghans. Because we are just known for our collective despair.
But there is also beauty and dignity in Afghanistan. There is a society that has endured and evolved, despite the odds. There is a country that deserves to be seen and heard, not just pitied or feared. This is why I am telling my story: to share the paradox of living under constant threat and yet finding beauty and joy in small things.
MALAINA: At a fundamental level, this book is a story of women and all that they endure in their quest for freedom. Right now, there are an estimated 2.5 million girls in Afghanistan who are being denied access to education. Defiant Dreams is the story of one girl, but it is also the story of a generation of girls who are being denied the basic human right of education. Our goal with this book was to amplify these voices and urge the world not to turn away from their stories.
(c) Sola Mahfouz and Malaina Kapoor
Sola Mahfouz photo (c) Mark Wilson Images
Malaina Kapoor photo (c) Opened Shutter Photography
About Defiant Dreams: The Journey of an Afghan Girl Who Risked Everything for Education
At age eleven, Sola Mahfouz was told she could no longer attend school. The Taliban threatened that any girl who dared to continue their education would have acid thrown in their face, be kidnapped, or worse. Confined to the walls of her home, Sola watched as the few freedoms of childhood were stripped away. She was forbidden to play, to sing, even to laugh. Her early teenage years were consumed by restrictions.
Realising that she would have to either succumb to this life or find a way out, she decided on the latter. At age sixteen, without even a basic ability to add or subtract, she began secretly learning maths and English. By reading dictionaries and taking free online courses, she taught herself theoretical physics and philosophy, all from a home she could only leave five times a year. In the space of nine years she achieved the level of education that a westerner might take 25 years to do and against all odds moved to America to study quantum computing.
It is a radical act to tell the story of an Afghan woman. Too often, they are portrayed only as victims, their identities erased by thick veils and blanket reporting. Defiant Dreams will change the narrative. It’s the story of an Afghan girl who dared to ask for more.
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