JAN 9 — No matter how much I read and watch the news about Afghanistan, the one thing that always frames my perspective when it comes to the country is its Islamic extremism. And I know that this is how many people around the world perceive it as well.
So, during my time in Afghanistan, one of the issues that interested me was the fact that so much of the country’s culture had been suppressed, or even eradicated, by the Taliban during their rule.
And now that the United States has blown the Taliban out of political power, a lot of this culture, which was deemed haram by the Taliban, is making a comeback. I spoke to Ahmad Bilal Raghbat, my local fixer, about this and the first thing that came to his mind was movies.
“I love watching movies but during the Taliban time, cinemas were shut down,” said the big Bollywood fan.
After days of driving and walking around Kabul with Bilal, I noticed that there was actually quite a big cinema in the middle of the city right next President Hamid Karzai’s office. It’s called Ariana and you can hardly miss it due to all the brightly coloured movie posters adorning the walls on the outside.
So I asked Bilal if we could arrange for a meeting with whoever was running Ariana Cinema. He said it should be possible and true enough, after a cold call knock on the door of the cinema’s director, Kadirullah Amiri, we were granted permission to shoot inside.
“The cinema has a 50-year history, but it was destroyed during the war with the Russians and when the Taliban came to power, it was just abandoned,” he said.
As soon as the Taliban left and foreign forces took control of the country, foreign aid, mainly from the French government, came in to rebuild the cinema. Now, six years has passed since the reopening of the cinema and Amiri is proud to say that it receives around 5,000 cinema-goers a week.
However, I noticed that a lot of the posters on the walls of the cinema were of very dated movies from India and Hollywood. There were even posters of old Rambo movies and Dolph Lundgren action movies!
“We screen a lot of Hindi and American movies. And the popular movies with the local Afghans seem to be the old American war movies!” laughs Amiri.
I guess the Afghans like to see their own country starring on the big screen. Who knows, they probably feel a sense of national pride as they see a young and buff Sylvester Stallone running around topless and firing bazookas at Russian communists in the mountains of Afghanistan!
I meet one of the patrons of the cinema (the movie that was screened that day was the Bollywood blockbuster “Krissh!”) as he was entering the building. He had a friendly and smiling face so I decided to ask him a few questions. When Bilal approached him, he smiled and agreed to talk to me.
“The Taliban banned cinema when they were in power. What do you think? Is cinema and movies un-Islamic?” I asked quite directly.
“Well, the government censors most films that have sex scenes so I guess it isn’t against Islam. But anyway, if they’re already showing these movies, we have an obligation to watch. Or else it would just be wasted, wouldn’t it?” laughed Mohammed Daud.
I laughed at his answer. It was obvious that Western cultural imperialism has already started taking strong root in Afghanistan after only 10 years of foreign forces occupying the country. Oh well, in a way, it’s “winning the hearts and minds” of the locals, definitely!
I thanked Daud and continued to walk the halls of Ariana Cinema together with Amiri. There was a big plaque on the wall near the entrance that thanked the French government for their generous contribution towards the cinema. I thought it was apt since France is usually considered the birthplace of film as an art.
“Look at the top of all the doors leading into the cinema hall,” Amiri motioned.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that each door was dedicated to a film icon — Buster Keaton, Jean Luc Goddard, Satyajit Ray, and so on. I wondered if the Afghans who entered the cinema today actually knew who these names were. I also wondered how the Afghan film industry was.
“Unfortunately, the film industry here is almost non-existent. We do have several people making films but they’re all amateurs. They probably churn out one film a year. Hopefully, it will grow in the future,” explained Amiri.
After a good few hours spent chatting with Amiri and walking around the cinema, I thanked him and left. I had another appointment that day and it was also related to arts and culture. I headed for the National Museum of Afghanistan, which was on the outskirts of Kabul.
When Bilal and I arrived, we were greeted by Ismail Daud, an employee of the museum, who has been working there for the past 20 years. He welcomed us and offered us a tour of the entire museum. It is a surprisingly decent museum considering the state of the rest of the country.
Large corridors and halls played home to a lot of historical artefacts. There were idols and statues of Buddha, which was testament to Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic history, and also coins, armour, ornaments and daily utensils which painted a nice picture of the civilizations that had existed before in this region.
“The national museum was founded in 1919 but during the war, it was actually closed and made into a military base,” said Daud.
I expressed that I was amazed that a lot of the artefacts and even the building had not been damaged.
“Oh no. During the war, we managed to smuggle a lot of these valuable artefacts out of the country for safekeeping. And when the Taliban came, they actually destroyed a lot of the artefacts, especially the idols and statues which we are trying to restore,” he said.
Daud added that now the museum is open, they are actually slowly receiving back all the old artefacts that they had smuggled out of the country. Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands had played a role in their safekeeping and are now shipping them back to the museum.
In fact, these same governments are also providing financial support to the museum so they can rebuild and also somewhat rebuild Afghanistan’s sense of culture and history. Now that the doors are open, the museum receives regular visitors like schoolchildren and even tourists and expatriates who are living in the country.
“The museum has a responsibility to preserve and promote Afghan history. We do our best and even advertise in the local media so local Afghans are aware,” said Daud.
As we were walking through the halls, we bumped into several people who were looking at the exhibits. I stopped to chat with them.
“You know, it’s unfortunate that the Taliban destroyed so many of our historical artefacts. But I’m really glad that the museum is up and running and Afghans get to see all this again,” expressed Muhibullah Nazidi, who has been to the museum several times before.
“I was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, but I am Afghan. And after 20 years, I am finally in Kabul. This museum is great, especially for youth to learn about their country,” said Mehdia Bina, who plans to write a book about the Afghan people.
I’m happy to see that after decades of war, and even if the violence hasn’t totally ended, Afghanistan still puts a certain priority towards their culture and history. The people seem to understand that the core values of their country and society really stems from their history and culture.
* Stay tuned next week for Part 6 of Zan Azlee’s “Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite”. View videos of his adventures at http://fatbidin.com/afghanistan/