Remembering Fifteen

And I feel so young
Pains start growing inside of me
I begin to hear
You have to
have to
have to
I have to live with “have to.”

I have to buy a burqa and
hide the world under it
I have to forget the sun
To talk  about the moon is a risk
I have to wear clothes
people choose
The colors they dictate
I have to live with negative imperatives:
Don’t laugh!
Don’t speak loudly!
Don’t look at men!
Shut up!
I am bored hearing: “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t”

I am fifteen and
the boy I cannot forget
waits on the street
to see me with my burqa
on the way to Lala’s bakery
and gives me postcards
of birds flying in a sky
filled with freedom
he knows my smell
love is blind for him
he lives with the smell of a woman.

And Mama always says, be like other people,
be like other people
I wonder If I agree.

I have to learn how to bear
the pain of being human
the pain of being a woman
the pain if Dad discovers
the postcards hidden between the bricks of the wall
the pain if the neighbor’s naughty son steals the postcards
the pain if Dad says, never ever go to the bakery
the pain if the rain washes the mud off the wall
where his letters are hidden
The rain does wash the mud away along with his words on the letter
“I love you and I love your blue burqa.”

But the rain can’t wash his love from my heart
the rain can’t wash the pain from my heart
still I keep my blue burqa
in the museum of memos
still I paint the birds
with blue wings.

and Mama still says, be like other people, be like other people
and Mama still says, be like other people,
and Mama…

By Roya


  1. Judith Terzi says:


    Your poem achieves a wonderful quality of contrast between freedom and the requirements of culture. In light of the recent discussion of the wearing of the burqa in France, this poem is a perfect reminder of the intensity of beliefs in any culture. Keep writing, Roya!

  2. Kim Gamel says:

    Dear Roya,
    Thanks for a very compelling poem. You did a really nice job incorporating all five senses — sight, sound, touch, smell and taste! It really conveys the main character’s frustration and confusion in being forced to comply with such a confining tradition.
    Best, Kim

  3. Stacy Parker Aab says:

    Roya, I love this poem so much. I can’t wait to get back into the classroom again and share this poem with other students. I will use it as a model–they will read it and then write their own 15 poems. It is so good. “I have to live with ‘have to'”…”and Mama always says, be like other people”…”the postcards hidden between the bricks of the wall”…oh, there is so much to quote and love here…such a timeless poem to me…you are blossoming, blossoming…sometimes I think you’re more like fireworks than flowers!

  4. Roya, this is an eloquent snapshot of the internal conflicts faced by so many of us. Do we follow the paths set by others? Or pursue our own course? Your words certainly evoke the feelings that many people feel as they attempt to reconcile these choices. I hope to see more of your work here.

  5. Dear Roya,
    Your poem moved me. I wanted to share it right away with my children, friends, students. I particularly liked the third stanza, which called back to me a very different time in my own life. Very nice work. Susan

  6. Ritu Sainani says:

    Dear Roya,

    This is a beautiful poem. You have conveyed your thoughts so perfectly and in such simple language.

    Great work!

  7. Kathleen says:

    Dear Roya, Your poem is beautiful and touched my heart.

  8. Nancy Antle says:

    This is a poignant view of life for a young woman in Afghanistan. It is also incredibly sophisticated poetry writing. As always — I’m very impressed. You continue to be one of my favorite poets!

  9. May I mention again how much I love this poem and how much this poem means to me?
    Incredible work. Incredible writer.

  10. Dear Roya,
    I congratulate you on the power of this writing. I love the way you have used repetition to express your frustration, confusion, dream. Thank you for the poem.

  11. Roya,

    My name is Kindra, and I got the opportunity to read this poem at the University of Illinois at Chicago last night, where I go to school. I chose to read your poem because I love the imagery and I loved how it showed that feelings (especially adolescent feelings) are universal. No matter where you are from, where you grow up or how you live, everyone remembers the rush of feelings when they first fell in love. My favorite part of this poem is the lines where you paint the birds with blue wings. That image just makes my heart soar.

    Thank you for giving me the chance to read your wonderful, heartfelt poem. Keep writing!


  12. Beautiful poetry Roya!!
    You have a wonderful talent to capture your thoughts, feelings, frustrations, culture and images into words. Your fears about the rain destroying your postcards, washing away the mud, and the agony that it cannot wash away your pain – this piece was very compelling for me.
    Thank you for sharing your writing.

  13. Renee Swanson says:

    This is such an amazing and univeral poem that speaks to the power of the thirst for freedom and your desire is so strong you will always think of a way to to oursmart those who hold you back. I am reminded by a poem I read many years ago by a prisoner of conscience called “The Best Ink” by Armando Valladares. He says “They took away the pens, the pencils, but I still have life’s ink, my own blood, and with it I can still write poems”.

  14. This is a wonderful poem that beautifully captures the feeling of being fifteen, growing up, falling in love, dealing with your parents’ expectations. It deals with some universal feelings of growing up, but also with the unique issues that you face as a young Afghan woman. I love the repetition that you use in certain places of the poem, it creates a powerful effect. My favorite stanza is the second to last, and especially the lines “But the rain can’t wash his love from my heart / the rain can’t wash the pain from my heart;” it illustrates the dual feelings of love and pain that are central to the poem, and central to so many young Afghan women’s lives.

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