Wednesday 9 June 2010

Once upon a time in Afghanistan

Where do you think this photograph was taken: somewhere in Europe or America, perhaps, circa 1960? In fact it's a picture of a record store in Kabul, Afghanistan, at around that time. It's one of a remarkable series of images from a photobook of the country published by Afghanistan's planning ministry in the late '50s or early '60s, and bought in a market by an Afghani schoolboy, Mohammad Qayoumi, who emigrated to the States and is now president of California State University, East Bay.

Other photos (which you can see here) show mixed-sex groups of students and workers, in modern dress, at universities, factories, parks and cinemas. In case we're tempted to think this was some kind of sub-Soviet propaganda exercise, it's worth remembering that the pictures date from before the Russian invasion, which initiated the process of dismembering modern Afghanistan that continued during the civil war and Taliban takeover. Qayoumi uses the photographs to counter the myth, recently reinforced by Liam Fox with his 'broken 13th century country' jibe, that Afghanistan has always been 'an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills'. Qayoumi begis to differ:
But that is not the Afghanistan I remember. [...] A half-century ago Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.
Qayoumi admits that the images were 'perhaps a little airbrushed by government officials', but they serve as a reminder that, even in a country ravaged by decades of conflict like Afghanistan, 'disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable.' Some of the photos, and Qayoumi's comments on them which point up the contrast with the current situation, are incredibly poignant: 'Remembering Afghanistan's hopeful past only makes its present misery seem more tragic'.

There is an overpowering sense of generations of lost opportunity, of lives constrained. The images are a reminder, too, of the sheer barbarism of the fundamentalist ideology that laid waste to much of this burgeoning modernity, and the stupidity of a cultural relativism, present as much in pseudo-leftist posturing as in Fox's post-imperial condescension, which assumes that secular modernity is a 'western' phenonomen whose benefits are not relevant to the lives of people in other 'cultures'.

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