Interview with UNHCR Ambassador, tech executive, and author Zaheda Ghani

We had the pleasure of speaking with UNHCR Ambassador, Zaheda Ghani on her debut novel, Pomegranate & Fig. We spoke about her work, finding somewhere to call home and subverting cultural expectations.

11 July 2022

To start, what inspired you to write Pomegranate & Fig? It's obviously built a lot around your life and experiences, but was there anything(s) that propelled you to make a narrative of it all?

Pomegranate & Fig is a novel and a work of fiction about three characters Henna, Rahim and Hamid and their journey before and during the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. I have always dreamt of writing a novel and being a writer ever since I was a kid.  I created these characters and put them against the backdrop of war. While there are connections between their experiences and my journey such as leaving Afghanistan, traveling to India, landing in Australia and their home being in Herat - the path their life takes is similar to many Afghans. My family left Afghanistan when I was about five, so it took some research to get enough of the details about the situation and place that was Herat in those times. 

Did your work with UNHCR inform or shape your novel? If yes, how?

It didn’t inform or shape directly but I think it would have helped me. For example, I did spend time in Herat and Kabul during 2004 and 2006 to see family as well as spend time with UNHCR programs. On that trip we visited many places and talked with a lot of people as part of a small donor documentary we made for UNHCR. It enabled me to learn more and to feed my imagination about what life might have been like in the era I was writing about.

The theme of home is very strong throughout the book, and the difficulty of having somewhere to call home, that feels like home is one that I think a lot of our customers can relate to. Did the process of writing Pomegranate & Fig change your own perspective on the concept, or maybe solidify it at all?

I have always been interested in how no matter which country we come from as refugees or migrants, we occupy a space that can best be described as a nexus between two universes. The nexus of the culture and traditions of the country we fled and the culture of the country we have adopted as our new home. We can choose the best of both worlds and create our own culture and ways of understanding the world. My characters also occupy a nexus between the Herat they left and their new home in Australia. 

Your story exists outside of the traditional western canon and it was so refreshing to see you subvert expectations of cultural traditions that anglophone media often demonizes. What do you hope that your readers will be able to take away from this?

I love the freedom of writing fiction and experimenting with language and imagining characters who become real to me. This was my objective - to tell a story the best way I could and hope that others enjoy reading it. After I had written the book and from talking about it to people who read early manuscripts version, I realised that perhaps in a small way the story could highlight our shared humanity too. I have a hope that the next time people see a refugee narrative on the news, they can understand a bit more about them as human beings who did not choose to become refugees and want the same things we all want in life.

 Where do you feel most represented in literature/media?

I feel lucky to live in a country and a time when access to the content that I am interested in is at my fingertips. Thanks to the internet, which has changed media completely, I can access the streaming and written content that suits my taste and needs. This is a different world to when we had a set number of television channels and newspapers in a given geography and had to consume what is presented to us. 

Zaheda Ghani, also known as Zoe, is one of Australia’s top technology executives. She was the Chief Technology Officer of online fashion giant THE ICONIC, before taking up her current senior role at software giant Atlassian. Zaheda served on the board of Australia for UNHCR, the private sector partner of the United Nations Refugee Agency from 2017 to 2021. She is now an Ambassador for Australia for UNHCR and has an active interest in UNHCR's humanitarian work

Cover image provided by Hachette Australia.

Interview with UNHCR Ambassador, tech executive, and author Zaheda Ghani

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