Soccer-playing Chemistry Major Shahir Azhar K’16 committed to a Senior Individualized Project (SIP) in the English Department and ended up authoring over one hundred pages of his memoir, which now serves as the first official draft, or manuscript, of a book that he hopes to complete in the next two to five years.
“One of the reasons why I did it was because I knew I was going to spend a lot of time on my SIP, no matter what, so I wanted to be able to invest in a project that I could continue to work on beyond my college career,” says Azhar.
But his memoir possesses a significance beyond Kalamazoo College in many ways aside from its promising future. The content delivers a creative yet historical glimpse into his experiences in Afghanistan during the war and thereafter.
Many of his stories take place during his childhood.
“I lived there until I was twelve years old, so a lot of it is written from a child’s perspective. Later on, I return to each event with a more reflective, adult explanation of what was happening,” he explains. Azhar also includes relevant information about the country’s history to give the reader some context as to why people have been fighting in Afghanistan since the Cold War.
“In westernized places like the United States, people don’t share my perspective, because that [crude] level of violence doesn’t really exist here. For me, growing up during the war, seeing people get shot, and seeing places get bombed was my normality—and I was just a child. One theme that I try to convey through my writing is that everyone has a different definition of normal. When I came to the U.S., I experienced a completely different version of ‘normal,’ but now I realize that what I saw at home shouldn’t even be [considered] a norm.”
In his memoir, he covers issues such as depression, PTSD, and OCD and how that has impacted his family’s life. He points out the scarcity of books that actually narrate the suffering that civilians face during and after war. However, in his preface he mentions how Khaled Hosseini’s popular novel “The Kite Runner” inspired him to write his own story, because he can relate to the voice of the Afghan-born American novelist and physician.
Although he submitted his 1-unit SIP just a few weeks into September, Azhar has worked on his project for much longer than the usual three-month arrangement.
“This is something I knew I wanted to do from the very beginning,” he explains. In the summer of 2012, before most of his first-year peers moved into their dorms, Azhar and his teammates were on campus for preseason training. When they met with professors Marin Heinritz and Diane Seuss to discuss their summer reading literature, he stayed afterward to reach out to Dr. Heinritz.
“I told her about the project I had in mind, and she told me which classes I needed to take in order to have a writing SIP in the English Department, even though I was planning on declaring a Chemistry major.”
Azhar describes how his competence has flourished over the years.
“When I came to K, I spoke English pretty well, but my writing skills needed improvement. [The idea] was always on my mind, but I never knew how to approach it.” After following Dr. Heinritz’s advice and taking Intro to Creative Writing, Creative Nonfiction Workshop, and Advanced Nonfiction Workshop, he developed skills that thoroughly prepared him to write his SIP.
“I think it really shows my growth as a student. Freshman year, I couldn’t imagine writing a memoir, and now I have written at least one hundred pages of quality material.”
During the writing process, Azhar decided to dedicated his work to his mother and all of the innocent civilians who have been impacted by the war(s) in Afghanistan. He inserted critical moments of his mother’s life into his memoir, including how she experienced oppression as a woman in that society.
“My mother ran an all-girl school in our home during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. One of the scenes I wrote about was the violence I witnessed when our house got busted,” he recalls.
“My SIP is really all about my family, why we ended up where we did, and how we got separated from each other.”
Azhar has two brothers and three sisters who are still alive; they are all geographically isolated from one another. He and his siblings left Afghanistan as soon as they had their chances, and that didn’t necessarily mean together. Their mother now lives with one of Azhar’s sisters in Atlanta, another sister currently lives in London, one brother lives in Toronto, and he still has a brother and sister who are living with their families in Afghanistan.
“Stains of War, to me, represents how the war has [tarnished] our lives in innumerable ways, including isolation and depression, and it’s kind of hard to know whether or not those stains are erasable.”
Ultimately, the goal of his project is to begin gathering all of the disconnected pieces into one cohesive story. He has hope that, once he and his family come together again, perhaps their lives will no longer be “stained.”