Category Archives: literature

Afghanistan through the (creative) eyes of others

Afghanistan, as a subject, has been crossing my path over the last year – through both my work in the development sector and via various forms of film and writing.

We in the west get a pretty limited view of the state of affairs in Afghanistan, mostly filtered through news media. It should not surprise anyone that the view is pretty limited, as in general our traditional media isn’t really capable of nuance or complexity of perspectives.

Afghanistan, of all places, is certainly a country with a complex history – this latest chapter of over a decade of American involvement represents just a sliver (although, our involvement actually stretches further into the past than many of us realize).

A still from "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year".

A still from “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year”.

After 2001, Afghanistan became the hot topic of numerous documentaries and books. Most focused on the war, usually from the point-of-view of American soldiers or allied troops (Restrepo and Armadillo). Others focused on the myriad of projects and initiatives that were bringing opportunities to the citizens of Afghanistan (Beauty Academy of Kabul).

Earlier this year, I saw/read three works about Afghanistan that transcended the traditional story lines to tell stories beneath the surface that shed light onto the complicated and complex nature of Afghanistan’s history, culture and present day political situation.

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year – by Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy

This powerful film follows an Afghan National Army squad fighting insurgent forces in the southwestern province of Helmand. This is a rare glimpse into the world of the local army. Despite the trainings they received from the invading armies, they’re not always fully prepared for combat. On top of that, what they’re fighting against is not always clear, as the politics of the nation place warlords in governance positions in local provinces. These soldiers are not sure of themselves and are often frightened by the circumstances they face.

Michael McEvoy was a Liason Officer, working with the Afghan Army for 9 months. What he witnessed compelled him to make a film, and he was introduced to Saeed Taji Farouky as someone who would be a compatible co-director. Their collective approach is in-the-trenches, observational, and revealing. The film is intense and immersive, disorientingly so at times. But you feel like you are embedded with these troops, and the confusion you feel is often a reflection of what the soldiers are experiencing as well.

When the usual focus on allied interests and the larger “Afghanistan” narrative is stripped away, the film reveals the personal stories of soldiers who are doing what they can to survive (even if they haven’t gotten paid lately). As the film’s summary says, “this is the war in Afghanistan, through the eyes of the Afghans who live it.”

(The film won the Amnesty International Film Prize and the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. I saw it at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. You can watch the trailer here.)

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

Jenny Nordberg’s book is a fascinating look at bacha posh, the tradition of girls being dressed and passed off as boys. The main story looks at various bacha posh youth and their families, covering how the girls experience boyhood (and the transition back to girls/young women) and why families make this decision for their children.
This tradition is intricately tied up with the gender politics and culture in Afghanistan, which is not always as simple as it seems. This leads to another strain of the book, which focuses the push of western aid agencies for female independence and equality and the common failure of not entirely understanding the complex cultural history that feeds into gender politics. The book paints portrait of mothers and girls who are balancing tradition with new opportunities and how complicated that can be.

(I got the chance to see Jenny Nordberg and Faheema, one of the bacha posh from the book, in conversation at New America Foundation. You can listen here.)

Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis isn’t interested in the traditional narratives that media puts forth. Using a treasure trove of archival footage, he weaves together unique takes on major issues facing society. His most recent work “Bitter Lake” takes a look at the history and story of Afghanistan that few are telling you. The West’s interest/relationship with Afghanistan did not begin with 9/11. And the United States is not the first country to be engaged in this complicated country. We’re also not the first to try to empower women or make education more accessible. The Russians tried to do that before we ever got there.

Another theme of the film is the United States’ long alliance with the Saudis, aspects of which Curtis credits for the development of Islamic extremism in the region. At times, the history and interpretation Curtis presents is simplistic and it can feel like he views the Afghan people as disinterested in “progress.” But the film challenges the common narrative of Afghanistan, in history, politics, and culture, and overall lays out a series of complex, interconnected stories that challenges us to learn more.

(I saw the film at the 2015 True/False Film Festival. You can watch it on the BBC player or here.)

– Karen Cirillo

Exploring China through a Writer’s Youthful, Creative Eyes

What do I really know about China? I know there’s a lot of good food, only the tip of which I have experienced here in New York City (I believe everyone who has been there and attests that the food in China changes everything you thought you knew about Chinese food.) I’ve seen a lot of dramatic films recounting tales of dynasties and cultural revolutions. I know there are serious human rights issues to contend with, notoriously profiled around the Beijing Olympics but stretching past that in every direction. I know that the Chinese have made their mark on development throughout the Asian and African continents. I know there’s a rich cultural history, from tea to literature to art.Beijing-Bastard-cover-final-397x600

What I don’t know a lot about is the art and everyday life that don’t make the headlines. I’ve been able to glimpse some of that through independent documentaries, like Last Train Home and Up the Yangtze – films that shed light on major societal issues through the lens of ordinary individuals – and Disorder.

I imagine the latter film is in the vein of the film that made Val Wang excited about going to Beijing in the late 90s. In her recent memoir, Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China, Wang writes about her journey to and through Beijing, where she had gone to immerse herself in the underground cultural scene, meet extended family and produce something creative along the way. She was inspired by an underground documentary she had seen in college (Beijing Bastards), and when she arrives in Beijing, she is faced with a changing city, shedding itself of some of its old trappings.

I was excited to read her memoir because it gives the reader a portrait of China that is far different from the mainstream stories we usually get.  She befriends Yang Lina, whose documentary Old Men captures the lives of old men sitting on the sidewalk through four seasons. “The documentary had consecrated a completely nondescript spot on the sidewalk, though the old men were no longer there,” she writes. “Through her film I was seeing a side of the rapidly changing city that was hidden in plain sight. It offered me one of the deepest understandings I had of the city yet.”  And this is what Wang’s book does for me.
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