With pink balloons still hanging from her youngest daughter's birthday party and an impressive view of a sunset from her backyard, Newark resident Fariba Nawa appears to be just another stay-at-home mom living in suburbia.
But the reality is that she is a journalist and a writer who was born in a war zone and whose work has been featured and read by people all over the world. Last year, she published a book about her birth nation.
Born in Afghanistan, Nawa moved to Union City at the age of 10, but said she felt much older because of her past experiences. Her skill for writing was first noted at the age of 12 by her seventh grade English teacher.
“I was much older for my age,” she explained. “Other 12-year-olds around me were not like me because I grew up in a war zone, so we had to grow up very quickly. I didn’t get to experience much of a childhood in the U.S. So I was thinking about my future at the age of 12."
She said she was aware of her ability to write and felt journalism would be interesting.
"It made sense practically and emotionally; I was connected to it. It was a calling, it was a passion," she said.
When she was a student, Nawa was involved with the student newspaper, The James Logan Courier, and she and her classmates did not shy away from controversial issues. They wrote about teen pregnancy and racism at a time when tensions were heightened due to the Los Angeles riots, she said.
After graduating from Logan, Nawa went on to study at Hampshire College in Massachussets and New York University and aquired degrees in both Middle Eastern studies and journalism. As a freelance reporter, her work has been featured in numerous publications and are focused on issues relating to the immigrant and Muslim communities.
“The reason I write about it is because I know it,” she said. “I like to write about things I don’t know but, often, what intrigues me or interests me are things that I have a personal stake in or knowledge in.”
In regards to how the Muslim community has changed in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, Nawa believes that it has changed the identity of the entire community. While some women refuse to wear Hijabs (the traditional head scarf in the Muslim faith), others put them on to show that it’s OK to be Muslim. She also explained how the Patriot Act has taken away basic rights for many innocent Muslim Americans.
At the same time though, she noted how there are communities such as the San Francisco Bay Area where Muslim Americans are still fully embraced without such backlash.
Last November, Harper Collins published Nawa’s book, Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan. The book discusess the impact of the opium trade and its affect on the people of Afghanistan.
For Nawa, it took five years of research and two years of writing for the book to come about. While conducting her research in Afghanistan, it wasn’t until she saw a group of high school girls performing an anti-drug skit that led her to realize just how big the opium trade was. She wanted to bring it to attention amidst the constant attention the United States gives on the war in Afghanistan.
In addition, the book also doubles as a memoir for Nawa’s trip to Afghanistan, as it was her first trip back in 18 years.
“My story wasn’t supposed to be in there,” said Nawa, who said the publisher asked her to add it in. “I had to share who I was, and it was interesting because I’m both Afghan and American so I could straddle both cultures and sort of explain Afghanistan in a way that other people couldn’t and other reporters who didn’t have the background."
“I started writing and I found it really cathartic and it’s sort of become a document for my family and a document of our history," she added.
Nawa admitted that writing the book and consistently editing and re-writing was frustrating at times – she even thought about giving up a few times. At the same time, she said she found the writing process very satisfying.
“I had the freedom to write what I wanted, how long I wanted to build narratives, to build characters, to be a writer and not just a daily report,” she said. “It’s very different. It’s very gratifying if you enjoy writing.”
Nawa now works part time from home in order to take care of her children, Bonoo and Andisha Azizian. She noted how she and her husband don’t plan to live in Newark forever and have plans for moving out of the United States eventually.
She does hope to write a second book about the Afghan community here within the area. While she hasn’t started on it yet, Nawa intends for it to be emotionally lighter than her first book.
Nawa’s Opium Nation can be found wherever books are sold, including at Newark’s local bookstore, .