Hearts, minds, and dancers

Saturday, 5 May 2007 / Shanbeh, 15 Saur 1386 (Hijra Solar)

Where the Damage Remains

This morning I pulled out of my side street and merged with the stream of bicycle traffic on the side of the main road towards the university. Then I noticed that the cyclist in front of me had crutches strapped to his rack. Then I noticed that he only had one leg. My first thought was ‘Oh, I am seeing fewer amputees these days.’ My second thought was that my expectations are definitely recalibrating to local standards here.

There is a sharp difference between age cohorts in the degree of visible and emotional scarring. An unverified rumor here was that in the mid-1990s, foreigners and expatriate-Afghans could be quickly identified by their absence of scars and mutilations. That might be an exaggeration in terms of visible scars; but Afghans assure me that psychological damage among adults is widespread if not universal. Last week I was riding in a taxi and the driver took a wrong turn away from where I was going. When I reminded him where I was going, he mentioned the neighborhood several times in a distracted way, then pulled over, stepped out of the car, and slowly put his hands to his head. “Saram kharob ast…” he began; ‘my head is no good.’ He became very upset and seemed to lose the ability to concentrate on navigation–the core asset of a taxi driver. I had to talk him down and guide him across the city, which I suspect was mortifying. But that loss of ability to concentrate on abstract items looked like a classic case of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The real destruction in Kabul is not the blasted buildings, which are only 20% of the city, maximum. The real damage resides within the hearts and minds of a whole generation of middle-aged Afghans. In the US this would be the high-earner cohort, at the peak of their economic productivity.

Music and Dancing at the Sarai

Aga Khan Trust for Culture runs a variety of projects in Kabul. One is the restoration of Babur’s Garden, another is a music school. By chance I got to sit in on a concert given by the master-musicians for the masons, carpenters, and engineers who are restoring Babur’s Garden.

Left: restored entry of sarai; Right: passage into court.
Sarai entry Passage into court
Panoramic from the balcony level
Left panel right panel

Food for thought about Western voyeruism and interpretation of difference: I took the following photos, and you will look at them. Westerners love to do this. In the 19th century, Muslims visiting Europe noticed a disturbing tendency of Europeans to stare at them (ref: Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, chapter 1) . For several hundred years now, Westerners have marketed spectacle as commercial entertainment–from the Scala opera house, to Exhibitions, to televisions. You will see other Westerners in these pictures: up on the balconies, at some remove, taking pictures. Voyeuring, as we are now. The difference is eerie, even among savvy Westerners who would probably rather be down there dancing as well.

Rather than getting too caught up in the pretzel logic of alienated self-consciousness, I ask:
How many songs can you sing, on demand, that represent your culture?
How many dances can you do?
How many stories can you tell that express your identity and worldview?
We have been sold ‘entertainment’ as a commodity. I suggest we take it back and become carriers and producers of our own culture again, not just consumers who are nostalgic about other people’s fun.

Culture of the gaze, visually consuming ‘real’ events.
Dancer and photographer Wallflowers

Meanwhile the fellows who got out to dance are all men. Among most Afghans, mixed-gender dancing in public would be considered lewd. For all you women sitting behind the pardah (modesty screen) of the internet, I think this glimpse is considered proper:

Workers with the moves
Duo, first photo Duo, second photo

Fabulous. Now I owe the workers six prints of portraits I took. Thank God they have good photo-finishers in Kabul.

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