San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 2003

Berkeley writer tells story of little-known Afghan activist
Her subject, Meena, was killed in 1987

Susan Parker, Special to The Chronicle

In the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, longtime Berkeley resident and activist Melody Ermachild Chavis learned as much about the country's situation as possible.

Research was nothing new to her: she has worked as a private investigator on behalf of death-row inmates for 25 years. Looking for a way to give the Afghan people "something from the United States other than bombs," she found an organization that was already making a difference: the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, which has been educating and providing medical help to Afghan women since 1977.

Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan, click here to order it
Heroine of Afghanistan

Melody Ermachild Chavis

The moment Chavis discovered its Web site, she knew that she had found "a way to help innocent Afghans caught in the crossfire." The result is Chavis' newest nonfiction endeavor, "Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan" (St. Martin's Press, $19.95).

"The women of RAWA hold the keys to positive change in Afghanistan," Chavis said. "Their demands for education, health and freedom could bring a better world for everyone."

As she researched further, Chavis became fascinated with RAWA's charismatic founder and leader, Meena, who was assassinated in 1987. Virtually unknown outside of Afghanistan, Meena is revered as a martyr for the cause of a democratic, secular government that recognizes women's rights. Chavis realized that one way she could help RAWA would be to write, publish and get national and international distribution for the first-ever biography of Meena.

Armed with a two-page proposal, she met with "Tamenena Faryal" in November 2001. Using a pseudonym to shield her from possible attacks when she returned to Afghanistan, "Faryal" was touring the United States as a RAWA spokeswoman. Within a few days Chavis received a brief e-mail from RAWA. "We are much excited to hear about your suggestion and wholeheartedly support your efforts for completing the book as soon as possible... We accept your proposal and want to help you in whatever way possible."

Chavis got moving immediately. She contacted her literary agent, who had sold her first book, "Altars in the Street," a memoir about the crack and gun wars in her South Berkeley neighborhood, to Bell Tower Press in 1997. Chavis already knew how to put together a powerful study of social interaction set on the hard streets of her home turf.

Together, she and her agent wrote up a proposal and very quickly sold their idea to St. Martin's Press. At the same time, she began raising money to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan; she would need to meet in person with the men and women who knew and worked with Meena. Funding came from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a national organization, with headquarters in Berkeley, that practices socially engaged Buddhism. Chavis has been a Buddhist since 1987.

"I felt I was the perfect biographer for Meena," Chavis said. "As a private eye I put my clients under the microscope and the result is a social history of their lives. I did the same for Meena. I was apprehensive about going to Afghanistan, but I go to tough places on my job everyday. I understood Meena's values, her opposition to war. My father was killed in World War II and my stepfather, who fought in Korea, died from the effects of atomic testing in Nevada. I'm older than Meena, so I remember the history she lived."

Chavis begins her Afghan tale in 1969 when 12-year-old Meena was suffering from a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever. After miraculously recovering, Meena vowed to use her second chance at life for a purpose "larger than herself."

Chavis chronicles Meena's high school achievements as well as the historic changes happening in Afghanistan during the 1970s. When Meena was ready to enter law school at Kabul University, the Soviet Union was destabilizing Afghanistan, aiding the overthrow of the king and installing puppet regimes. In 1977 Meena connected with 11 other women who recognized the need for Afghan mothers, daughters, and sisters to lead the fight against both Soviet and fundamentalist repression. Together they formed RAWA with the goal of restoring democracy to Afghanistan.

Soon Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan and anticommunist Islamic rebels warred against the occupiers. While huge anti-Soviet demonstrations took place, Meena warned her compatriots that despite Soviet oppression, fundamentalist rule would be worse.

Her predictions came true. In 1982, along with thousands of other Afghans, she was forced to flee to refugee camps along the Pakistani border.

There, RAWA set up schools, workshops, orphanages and a hospital. RAWA members clandestinely made the dangerous journey back to Afghanistan again and again in order to help those trapped within their homeland.

But on Feb. 4, 1987, Meena, age 30 and the mother of three, disappeared. Six months later, her body was found.

In the midst of a nationwide book tour, Chavis is excited about the future of RAWA and the positive impact her book may make on the organization.

"All author royalties will be donated to aid RAWA's medical and education projects," she said.

RAWA at crafts fair

RAWA's crafts, made by Afghan widows and refugees, will be for sale at Sanctuary Covenant's Holiday Crafts Fair of artwork made by women's organizations in Afghanistan, Haiti and nations in Asia, Central America and Africa. The annual fair is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Dec. 13 and 14, at First Congregational Church, Channing Way and Dana Street in Berkeley. (510) 524- 7989.

Melody Ermachild Chavis will read from "Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan" at noon on Dec. 14 in the church library.

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