Friday, February 29, 2008

Paintings by Afghan Women

There is an exhibit this week in Kabul of paintings by young women, many of them students in the arts faculty of Kabul University. The show is really remarkable because until the fall of the Taliban in 2001, figurative art was forbidden, and women were not allowed to work or venture outside their homes alone without a male relative. It's not clear to me if women were even allowed to paint under the Taliban.

Afghanistan has been locked in civil war and strife for the past 30 years, and the society remains very conservative, placing many restrictions on women. Although these painters were allowed to create what they pleased, much of the imagery related to war and weaponry...

confinement or entrapment, as with this fetus locked up behind barbed wire...

and suicide or hopelessness.

Many of the painters depicted women in burqa -- the all-encompassing cloak many women are forced to wear before stepping outside their homes. Many men will say that women want to wear the burqa, but women complain it is uncomfortable and makes every day a bad hair day.

Men want their wives, sisters and daughters to wear the burqa so that other men cannot see them, otherwise those men might want to marry the women or rape them. One reason women wear the burqa is to avoid being harassed by men, but why can't the men just behave and not make cat calls?

This painting evokes entrapment and hope.

This painter describes her work: It shows how a person can have two sides -- appear perfectly normal when veiled, but maybe absolutely mad underneath.

The young women shown here spent two weeks weaving out this piece, showing the order of the world outside Afghan borders; when that foreign order enters Afghanistan, it stirs the country into total chaos, as seen in the messy ball of strings the colors of the Afghan flag.

This piece reminded me of the Taliban campaign to destroy figurative work, slashing and tearing countless paintings, many of which are still on display in a cabinet of artwork ruined by the Taliban.

This was my favorite work of all, only because of the story behind it:

The painter pulled aside my Afghan male colleague and asked him what he thought the image depicted. He said it shows the respect that men give women by letting them ride on donkeys on a long and arduous trip.

She responded, "Not quite."

She said the work shows how women are not allowed to choose their own paths, placed on donkeys that are guided by men. If the donkeys (or the women) go out of line, the men have sticks to beat them back into their place.

This anecdote perfectly depicts the divide between the Afghan sexes: Afghan men will often tell me that women are afforded a special pedestal in society and are greatly respected. The women, on the other hand, will tell me countless tales of being physically and psychologically oppressed.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Refugee Camp in Kabul

I visited some refugees living on the outskirts of Kabul to see how they were faring this winter, which has been described as the worst in 30 years. The lowest recorded temperature was -30 degrees Celsius.

This was one of a few children who was not wearing pants. I don't know why -- go figure.

Twin girls...

who, like many children at the camp, were traipsing around barefoot in the freezing mud and snow. I, meanwhile, was wearing two pair of ultrasuperwarm hiking socks, fleece long johns, wool trousers and four layer on top, in addition to my wool scarf and cap.

This boy's t-shirt says "Born to be Wild -- Afghanistan" and the little cartoon figure is wearing a dogtag that says "OEF" -- Operation Enduring Freedom.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Kabul's Old City

I wrote about the old city of Kabul -- with its quaint maze of narrow alleys and beautiful mud and thatch houses with carved wooden windows. When standing in the courtyard of these houses, it feels like you're standing inside an intricately decorated jewel box. The slide show with the story includes amazing historical images. (Here's another link to the Old Kabul story on a web site called "Happy News," though it has dubious url links highlighted throughout the story.)

This neighborhood, Murad Khane, was stacked high with mud and trash, which can be seen behind the children in this photo.

There was a massive clean-up, and for a while, this family's door was left suspended in mid-air because its entrance was built after several years of mud and trash had piled up. Their door has since been repaired, but the plastic bags and trash can still be seen on the wall next to their door.