Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.
Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.
Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.
Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.
Traces & Narratives
0096. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
Barrett, Bruce. "Deb with Some Afghan Gentlemen." Digital image. Nordicshutter's Flickr Photostream. Accessed September 4, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/juiceybrucey/2190412453/. Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en
After 40 years of peace in Afghanistan, in 1979 the Soviet Union sent troops across the border to provide support to the Marxist government.
At that point or shortly after that period, the Pakistan government, and with the assistance of the Americans, the Saudis and other foreign interests, began to funnel money, weapons and other kinds of support to mujahideen, to Resistance Fighters who were opposed to the Marxist government in Afghanistan and to their Soviet sponsors.
And from that period on, new forms of wealth and new forms of power began to pour into Afghanistan in the form, for example, of AK-47 machine guns and RPG shoulder-launched rockets that were used to take out armored personnel carriers and tanks and that sort of thing.
Particularly in Pashour in the ‘80s there was, if not a romanticism about the war, at least it was put in a positive light. And the Afghans at least for public consumption were not unhappy to be portrayed as you know a warrior culture so to speak.
Traditional Afghan carpets showing images of war have been little studied, but they can provide insights into how Afghans portray themselves… and how outsiders often view the people of Afghanistan.
It’s sort of now been you know close to 25 or 30 years you know that various varieties of these carpets have been made. In 1988 when I wanted to pick up one of these carpets to bring home I went to a carpet dealer and he had quite a number of them. They all came directly essentially out of observations from the Soviet War. That is it’s not just helicopters, these are you know particular types of armored personnel carriers with the number of wheels, the type of guns, and particularly the Kolishnokoff which they were most familiar with having all of its little parts available.
You know that the person that did the design knows the weapons.
And it’s a tradition that still continues to some extent today and also for the tourist trade is that as soon as the Americans invaded there became World Trade Center war carpets with planes flying into the Twin Towers and what not.
Historically, there was no relationship between the people who made carpets and the people who obtained them.
Afghanistan is a major exporter of carpets which even centuries ago tended to move very, very long distances. We’d see them in Dutch paintings and obviously the Dutch have no idea where these come from but we can look at the tribal patterns that are indicated by the carpets and know they pretty much came from this part of Central Asia. And the people who made them had no idea where they ended up either.
In more modern times, carpet weavers and sellers in Afghanistan have learned to produce the kind of carpets that foreign buyers want to buy.
But what are the dangers associated with Afghans portraying themselves as a warrior culture… and with others seeing them in this way?
In October of 2001, there was an article that appeared in The New York Times about the archive. And when that article appeared, that morning when I got to my office, I think I had close to 70 voicemails from different programs, from different media outlets and 60 Minutes and Good Morning America and every other program that you could imagine. Because at that point they knew, the producers of those shows, knew that within a week or so, probably in all likelihood, America was gonna be at war, and we were gonna be fighting in Afghanistan. So they wanted this material desperately.
I did not want, at that moment in history, for us to be contributing pictures of Afghans killing Afghans, anything that would dehumanize Afghans, [to] make it easier to imagine them as savage and barbaric and not to fully understand the nature of that society and the ways in which they themselves had been manipulated, the ways in which they themselves had been taken advantage of by Osama Bin Laden and other people. So we resisted efforts to use those pictures, and in fact did not allow people to use the pictures immediately because we were very worried about how they might be misused.
Art and photography reflect reality—but they also have the power to affect reality. A critical look at war motifs.