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A Bridge from Darkness to Light: Thirteen Young Photographers Explore Their Afghanistan
By Bill Wright
Wings PressCopyright © 2013 Bill Wright
All rights reserved.
A Bridge from Darkness to Light
In the spring of 2006 I received an unexpected email from the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Public Affairs Officer there, J.B. Leedy, wanted to know if I was planning a trip to the area in the near future. The message continued by saying that the embassy could not officially invite anyone to Afghanistan as it was in a war zone, but should I be interested in coming anyway, she wondered if I would volunteer to teach a short course in digital photography sponsored by ASCHIANA, an Afghan non -government organization (NGO). The project would also be supported by the United States Department of State. ASCHIANA was dedicated to providing Afghanistan's "street-working children" who sold gum and washed auto windshields on the streets of Kabul with skill sets for a brighter future. The organization maintains seven campuses around the Kabul area and works with over 3000 students.
The prospect of a public-service photography project in Afghanistan made the decision easy. Already on my short list of countries to visit, Afghanistan is indisputably fascinating. Occupying a central position in the geography of central Asia, it has been a focus of conflict for centuries. Over two thousand years ago, Kandahar was a key stop on the ancient Silk Road linking Asia from the eastern edge of the continent to the west. In the early part of the 19th century, Afghanistan was in the middle of the "Great Game" between westward-expanding Russia and British-occupied Kashmir. Russian interest never flagged and on December 27, 1979, Soviets invaded Afghanistan, streaming through the famous Khyber Pass and occupying the country until they were defeated in April 1989 by the resilient Afghans with American assistance. The vacuum left by the Russians culminated in a savage civil war that brought the Taliban to power. They in turn were subdued but not eliminated by the United States in 2001.
By 2006, with American interest shifting to Iraq, the resurgent Taliban were again on the move. They threatened to retake control of the country and re-impose their severe Sharia religious law, limiting the rights of women and punishing all who deviated from their strict interpretation of the Koran. I figured this opportunity to help young Afghans might be my last chance to see some of their homeland.
I wasted no time in contacting ASCHIANA, the NGO that caused J. B. Leedy to seek me out. With the help of an Australian volunteer, we devised a program that could, within the space of a week, give the students a working knowledge of digital photography. See their website: http://www.aschiana.com Though friends and family urged me not to go, I felt Kabul was relatively safe at the moment. What's more, the opportunity to visit a land so steeped in ancient tribal customs, to aid young people who had known too much war, was irresistible.
On Friday, July 21, I headed towards the Abilene Regional Airport with digital point and shoot cameras and other supplies donated by friends in Abilene and across the country. A short American Eagle hop to Dallas was the first of four connecting flights for the long 26-hour trip to Kabul.
Fortunately, I was able to upgrade to business class for the Dallas to Zurich leg and spent the time reviewing my scant knowledge of Kabul and working on my course curriculum. The students I would be working with had already participated in some introductory photographic training and some even had experience developing their own photos and exhibiting. However they had no experience with digital photography so I knew I had to begin with the most basic information that would enable the students to operate the digital cameras and, as the days passed, introduce various concepts in response to the work they turned in after the previous day's shoot. As our flight rushed eastward toward nightfall, I did my best to put my notes aside and get my mind into sleep mode. I knew I wanted to arrive as rested as possible because my plan was to start the instruction with intensity and maintain it for the week I would be there.
I arrived Saturday, at 7:50 a.m. Zurich time a little bleary eyed from the overnight flight. The Zurich airport was clean and modern and after a wait till 12:45 p.m., I boarded an American Flight operated by British Airways to Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates. Looking at the map it showed a direct route across southeastern Europe, then Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and on to the Gulf. We arrived in Dubai at 8:45 p.m. I wondered if the flight made detours across the airspace of some of those countries but I never found out. After a cab ride to the adjacent emirate of Sharjah, at 9:25 a.m. Sunday morning, I boarded an Arab Air flight G90283 to Kabul.
I found an aisle seat next to a Pashtun man from the south of Afghanistan, the ancestral home of the Taliban. He immediately began his silent prayer as we both adjusted our cramped tourist class seats. I was also hoping for an uneventful trip and week ahead. As our flight began its approach into Kabul, a moderate dust storm buffeted the plane from all directions. I leaned across the Pashtun seated beside me to glimpse dark-crested Afghan desert mountains stenciled against the desert's light tan. The pilot, dipping one wing, crabbed firmly into a moderate crosswind. The touchdown was bouncy with the plane skidding and lurching to moderate taxi speed. I found myself checking out the emergency exits.
All in all, it was a skillful crosswind landing, and as we taxied toward the terminal I watched an unfolding panorama of ancient and modern aircraft parked on the ramp. There was a preponderance of helicopters with tarps over windshields and rotor hubs to protect from the wind and sand. The buildings seemed to be of ancient adobe with metal sheeting in places, hardly inspiring in comparison with the ultra modern terminal I had encountered in Dubai.
We deplaned, filled out entry cards, and passed through customs to the luggage area. The ancient conveyor belt was heavily laden with all sorts of packages wrapped in plastic and tied with ropes. There were bags of every vintage and description. A kaleidoscope of color and form contrasting with the somber, crudely constructed terminal itself. The creaking and lurching of the belt stopped, eliciting a choral groaning from the impatient crowd. A ten-minute delay ensued while repairs were made or the electricity restored.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. A bouncy young Australian voice inquired: "Are you Bill Wright?" Turning around I was captivated by an infectious smile and responded gratefully "yes!" It was Sarah Johnston, my contact from ASCHIANA. I had wondered how I would ever find her in the tightly packed crowd. Beside her was Fardeen Hussami, my interpreter-to-be who was my ticket to communication with the non-English speaking students. Two weeks before my departure, I had called the U. S. Embassy in Kabul and was given contact information for Fardeen, whom they recommended as a dependable and knowledgeable "fixer." I had called him immediately and, sight unseen, hired him to cart me around for the week and serve as my interpreter.
Fardeen had already proved himself a good choice. Earlier that morning after picking up Sarah and starting to the airport, alarms signaled a bomb threat and the road to the airport and several major traffic circles were closed. Fardeen skillfully rerouted the van along back roads enabling him and Sarah to arrive at the airport on time. A live bomb was later found in a trashcan along the main airport road — but not in the U.S. Embassy as circulating rumors had suggested. I was beginning to think my worried wife and friends had given me good advice when they suggested I not take the assignment.
We loaded the bags and headed toward my hotel, stopping only to offload the cameras and other equipment at ASCHIANA's headquarters where the U.S. Embassy staff had already delivered the needed computers and a digital ink-jet printer. I met several students and some of the ASCHIANA staff.
The Serena Hotel was heavily fortified. The entrance to the hotel led through a car trap where steel beams lowered while security personnel swept a tilted mirror beneath our van to inspect for bombs and prohibited items. Cleared, we passed into a motor court where we unloaded my luggage and I registered. I was required to pay for the room in advance. The Serena accepted cash only, a policy I imagined was the result of past experience. The exchange rate was 1 to 49, and they readily accepted my U.S. currency. After making plans with Fardeen to pick me up the next morning, I went directly to my room. It appeared comfortable, and the shower, which I tested as soon as I was alone, worked beautifully.
Sarah had made plans for dinner at the hotel that evening. Her husband, Mark, would be a bit late, but would join us in time for ordering. Mark was employed as a policy consultant for the Afghan government on a British project trying to tackle the drug problem. The cultivation of opium-producing poppies created an enormous cash flow into the country and the U.K. and U.S. governments were trying to replace it with alternative crops.
Both native Australians, Mark and Sarah had reinvented themselves several years before leaving their public-service sector jobs in Australia, sailing to Thailand on a 33-foot boat and then starting work as consultants, Mark in the field of government policy work and Sarah in education and training. Mark had spent four years at Harvard at the Kennedy School and was awarded a Ph.D. in Public Policy. Their current "permanent" home was in Bangkok, but they saw little of that with their journeys from one assignment to another. (The next would take them to Ulan Bator, Mongolia.) Sarah had always been successful in obtaining employment teaching English and in exercising her considerable management skills on behalf of non-profit organizations.
J.B. Leedy, whose e-mail had launched the project, would also join us for dinner. I met Sarah and J.B. in the lobby at 7 p.m., and we proceeded to the hotel restaurant to wait for Mark. There were no cocktails before dinner as Afghanistan is a Moslem country, so J.B. and I enjoyed a diet coke, and Sarah chose a local melon drink. I thought I might try the melon drink, but she advised against it to ensure I would continue to be "fit" for the remainder of the week and not cut down by "the Taliban's Revenge."
I found that the "J" in J.B. stood for Jean, and that she was as passionate regarding her job as her email indicated. She and I discussed the role of Public Affairs Officers in conflict areas. J.B. found it frustrating that embassy personnel were prohibited from circulating freely about town, making the cultural affairs component of her responsibility much more difficult. Of course, communication was perpetually complicated. While interpreters were certainly employed by the embassy, they were not always available, and because it was a war zone, J.B.'s ability to mix and mingle with cultural groups was restricted. In addition, her actions were further complicated by religious restrictions. The Western culture that that had pervaded the Arab world did not find favor with the more traditional Muslims. Western music was too suggestive, dress too provocative and on top of that, as a woman, the more conservative Muslims believed she should not be circulating in public at all.
J.B. related her duties and the opportunities to create cultural activities in Kabul and I was amazed at the responsibilities she shouldered with so few resources available to her. She attended public cultural events representing the U.S. Government, and supported many cultural and non-profit Afghan organizations with grants. I immediately believed she was certainly a worthy representative of America to the people of Kabul.
J.B.'s husband, a military officer, was assigned to the Pentagon in Washington. As a Department of State employee, J.B. had the option of one year of solo duty in Afghanistan without her husband or two years solo at another more friendly and enjoyable location. She chose the one-year separation.
Mark arrived a short while later and with typical Aussie style, pulled up a chair next to mine. His friendly and engaging personality set me instantly at ease, and I appreciated his informed candor regarding Afghanistan and the opium trade that made up so substantial a percentage of its gross national product. It would be no small task to provide poppy farmers with a lucrative but legal alternative. Our discussions continued through a delightful dinner of Australian lamb in the hotel restaurant. It was a good first day in the country.
After my dinner hosts departed I returned to my room and jotted down some notes and names. Even after almost 26 hours of travel, I was so excited after our dinner it was difficult to sleep, even with the air conditioning. After running through the day's events several times, however, I finally drifted off.
I awoke early on Monday morning and at 6:00 a.m. I was in the lobby to get an Ethernet cable for my laptop and a quick breakfast. With the cable I downloaded over 200 emails, many from friends wishing me best of luck on my journey. Fardeen, my driver and interpreter, was scheduled to meet me at 7:45 a.m. for the trip to ASCHIANA.
Fardeen was prompt and swiftly introduced me to Kabul traffic. By comparison, traffic in Cairo a few years ago had been a snap. Our trip to the school was mercifully short, but in the space of only a few miles we narrowly escaped at least a dozen collisions — the condition of the vehicles we passed suggested others had not been so lucky. Amid a blur of color and motion, scowls and gestures, horns blared and rules of the road were undecipherable. I asked Fardeen if the number of toots on his horn, one toot or two, sometimes three, meant something specific to other drivers. He confirmed that it was a generally understood code. One beep was to announce a person's presence, a couple indicated they were passing, and three indicated impatience without the international visual symbol. Few traffic lights had worked since the Taliban were routed from the city during the days of the American entrada in 2001, but somehow traffic continued to move.
Fardeen was nonchalant. He chatted easily, inquiring about my family and life in the United States. We talked about the troubles in Afghanistan and the rest of the world. He was born in Afghanistan, but he left for Pakistan when the Taliban took over. After the war he returned and hoped that they would never come back. "Enemies," he said, "continue to surround Afghanistan." Pakistan was considered the most serious threat, always seeking Afghanistan's rich mineral resources. He was also worried about Pakistan's internal stability because only its capital was secured, with radicals controlling the countryside despite the army's efforts. In addition, Iran presented another threat — a constant source of infiltrating fighters who passed through Afghanistan enroute to Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan and other Arab countries, destabilizing them.
We arrived whole at the school, and shortly Sarah met us there. This was to be the big day — distributing the cameras and working with the students to make their first photographs. I wanted to get the computers set up and ready for the students so they would be able to see some results from their cameras immediately.
One small problem. The classroom containing the computers and cameras was locked, and no one could locate a key. Sarah, a model of efficiency and persuasion, determined that the office manager was out ill, and was able to roust him from his sickbed long enough to dispatch the key.
While waiting for the key, I took the opportunity to visit some of the other classrooms at ASCHIANA. I was amazed at the quality of the various students' artwork. Art is very important in Islamic cultures. Originally, fearing idolatry, religious leaders forbade depicting the human form as well as other living figures. Consequently, Islamic art developed geometric and floral designs that students are trained to master. Contact with Western traditions has moderated this prohibition in recent years, but these patterns remain popular and traditional.
My class began filtering in at 9:00 a.m., the appointed time, but some were late. When they arrived, Sarah laid down the law. Tardiness would not be tolerated. No certificate of completion would be awarded to anyone who was not in attendance for the full week. I didn't hear a single whimper in response.
I was worried about being able to communicate adequately and hold the students' interest. I need not have worried. Efficient Sarah, assisted by Fardeen, kept everything on track. The class was eager and fully invested in the prospect that what they would learn would open doors for them and increase their earning power. My My baker's dozen of students ranged in age from a young boy of twelve, to three University of Kabul students, the eldest of whom was 26.
Prior to this training many of the students had first met in a joint photographic project linking students from the University of Kabul and Aschiana. Both boys and girls had participated. After a successful exhibition at the University of Kabul they has asked ASCHIANA and Sarah (who had just joined ASCHIANA at the time) to hold a second exhibition of their photos that they had taken and developed. Most of the group of students who faced me on this first morning had all participated in this earlier training and a successful exhibition supported by the expat community and had had to make a written application explaining why they should be included in my digital photography program.
Excerpted from A Bridge from Darkness to Light: Thirteen Young Photographers Explore Their Afghanistan by Bill Wright. Copyright © 2013 Bill Wright. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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