When National Geographic Magazine commissioned me during the early 2000s to do a story that would ‘reveal’ Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S.-led NATO occupation, I was somewhat panicked. As with other foreign correspondents who had been covering Afghanistan since the December 1979 Soviet invasion, I had reported the war by trekking across mountains and deserts with the mujahideen, as the Afghan resistance fighters were known, or roamed the refugee camps of Pakistan. Later, during the early 1990s, I went to Kabul to report on the brutal civil conflict that had erupted amongst the guerrilla groups who had taken the city. I then covered the fighting between Ahmed Shah Massoud’s United Front (Northern Alliance) and the Taliban, and finally travelled and reported across Afghanistan during the post 9/11 period, when so many ordinary Afghans thought – and hoped – that with the arrival of the international troops their nightmare of never-ending war was over.
As a journalist, I considered myself relatively well-informed. But did I really know Afghanistan? Even though I had first travelled through as a teenage ‘overlander’ on the Hippie Trail on my way to India in 1970, I felt that I lacked context. So I turned to Whitney Azoy, a Persian speaker and perhaps one of the most insightful expats I knew with a fountain of knowledge about Afghanistan’s history and culture. If anyone could put Afghanistan into context, it was Whitney, or Whit, as we all knew him.
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I had first met Azoy during the 1980s in Peshawar, where all the main guerrilla factions and international aid operations were based. I always enjoyed listening to his tales and renderings, but also his guitar playing. He was a walking encyclopedia. He was also known for his expertise on Buzkashi, a tempestuous Central Asian version of horse polo, which he wrote about in his 1982 book: Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan. A lot of us used Azoy for our articles and documentaries. He always had something profound or revealing to say, and usually in a highly poetic manner with an accompanying anecdote.
Did he wish to accompany me on my reporting trip with all expenses paid by National Geographic? All we had to do was travel and explore together. Azoy didn’t hesitate. Within days, we were heading north by 4×4 via Bamyian to Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh and Kunduz. And he had a background story for every step of the way. His exceptional observations and ability to provide a sense of historic vision, always recounted with his deeply resonant voice and visual story telling ability, were invaluable.
And this is precisely what Afghanistan: A Partial Comprehension offers, notably a sense of understanding that few, whether Afghan or expatriate, can provide, even if Azoy himself admits that he, too, is only looking from an outsider’s point of view. Not only are his pictures exceptional – he adds a technical camera note at the end of the 162-page book for photo afficionados – but each Kodachrome shot comes with a story based on notes (three binders worth) he kept at the time.
As Azoy writes: “On the surface this long-nurtured collection of photographs and capsule stories deals with a distant land (Shelley would have deemed it “an antique land”) once obscure but recently much in the news – and much the worse for it. Beleaguered Afghanistan confounds even its own inhabitants and Westerners all the more. As we (meaning US forces) now seek to withdraw, fitfully and after nearly two decades of muddled hyper-involvement, a basic question remains: What to make of the place?”
The bulk of Azoy’s photos were shot during the early 1970s and nothing after 1977, one year before the first armed clashes leading to Afghanistan’s civil war. But they include a vast array of people and scenes all of which contribute to a broader view of what this country once was, but also what it is today.
For Azoy, the essential questions for humanity – Afghan or Western – are phrased not in statistics or empirical fact, “but rather in terms of the human heart”. Yet the lack of ready answers amongst his photos should not be regarded as a “disqualification”, he maintains. Instead, “it makes their asking all the more worthwhile.” And its been that way ever since. “Now, despite all the years…I’m still left without answers to questions first noted in Afghanistan more than four decades ago. After all this time, I claim at most a partial comprehension.”
Here are several extracted photos and tales from Azoy’s book.
Art historian Robert Byron traveled overland from the West in 1934. His subsequent masterpiece, The Road to Oxiana, is full of arch pronouncements. My favorite: “Afghanistan is where Asia loses its inferiority complex.” (Editorial note: In many ways, Whitney’s “A Partial Comprehension” is the visual version of Byron’s Oxiana book)
This picture was taken by the Panjsher River 40-some years ago. Panjsher means, famously, “five lions”. River and valley, it runs parallel to the Hindu Kush mountains. Its mouth intersects Afghanistan’s only north-south all-weather road, and if you want to move an army from Central Asia towards the Indus, you must cross the Panjsher mouth. As Russians were to learn in the coming decade, you do so at your peril. Panjsheris feel inferior to no one.
Look at the mouth on this man. I’d passed on horseback – an easy outing – and seen him sitting by the river. He hadn’t been fishing, hadn’t been eating, hadn’t (as far as I could tell) been doing much of anything except sitting by the river.
Ours was the briefest of conversations. He responded, politely but minimally, to my “Salaam aleikum”, and then he simply nodded Yes when I asked to take his picture. Look at the mouth. Now up to the level eyes. Then to the eyebrows and, above them, the three rows of symmetrical furrows. Note also that only his head turns. The rest of him continues to face the river.
But for Panjsher, the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad would probably have failed. Time after time mujahedeen from the valley attacked Russian convoys. Eight times, to secure their supply line, the Russians invaded Panjsher. Eight times they were driven out.
I didn’t ask this man’s name in 1976. I didn’t know – and neither did he – that all hell would break loose two years later.
And now what do we know more than four decades later? I don’t know whether he survived or where he is today. Nor does he know – or care – about me.
What do we know? Only that Robert Byron had a point.
Alexander the Great spent nearly three years in this region: pursuing regicide Persians, crossing the Hindu Kush in spring snow, marrying a Central Asian princess in Zoroaster’s home town, and founding half a dozen eponymous cities – all in history’s first attempt at merging West with East. The proof’s in the coinage: Alexander put his name in Greek on one side, and on the other his profile flanked by the Central Asian power symbol of ram’s horns. All told, a hard act to follow.
Undaunted, these kids tried. Street urchins turned metallurgists, they scavenged tin cans from garbage dumps, then lit a pit fire and fanned it with a bicycle wheel powered bellows. The molten tin was poured into a mold to make ancient Greek coins.
Cheerful counterfeiters, the boys wore proud and grimy grins. The molds had been made “by our grandfathers” from copies of copies. Sometimes, “for the fun of it, if we have money,” a bit of silver was added to the mix. Their mold had two rows of five impressions – ten Alexander look-alike coins per mold. “Tourists believe these are real,” one scamp claimed.
“They are real,” giggled another. “They’re real fakes.”
Believers in diversification, these entrepreneurs made other models. I purchased samples for sixty cents apiece, and matched them in numismatic catalogs: Diodotus and Strato, Agathocles and Menander – the gaggle of Greco-Bactrian mini-kings who lasted for two centuries after Alexander left. But “Iskandar,” as they called him, was their favorite for sound business reasons: Even without silver, he fetched twice the price of Strato on the Chicken Street antique market.
They didn’t know why, except maybe for the ram’s horns. “So tell us,” they asked. “All these old coots look a lot a like. What was so great about this guy Iskandar?”
What was missed in the Kunduz bazaar
Taken four decades ago in the Kunduz bazaar, this picture was meant as a treatise on wool and cotton. The woollen items (mostly colourful, handmade clothing) appear in the upper background. The foreground goods (cords and bands) were all made of local cotton.
Wool stood for timeless pastoralism. Sheep had grazed the same rain-watered hillsides for millennia. Cotton was more recent – booming in bottomlands only since a 1930s government irrigation program – but nonetheless organic and home-grown. Here, I told myself, was the past and present of Kunduz material culture, all in one snapshot with two turbaned heads up front.
I missed, entirely, the plastic future. Note the two skeins of plastic rope – blue and pale-green – and the identically pale-green prayer beads. Such beads, one for each of God’s 99 names, used to be hand-carved of wood. The young man with the white turban had opted, even in the mostly pre-plastic 1970s, for more modern instruments of worship.
In all 21st century Afghan bazaars, even the most remote, plastic has now become king. And not only beads and ropes. From sandals to buckets to dasturkhaan (the sheet, formerly made of wool or cotton, on which meals are served), everything comes in plastic. It also comes from somewhere else: hyper-populated China, for instance, or dysfunctional Pakistan.
Today this picture would be much the same in human terms. The grandsons of these two men would display similar turbans, postures, and expressions. They’d sell the same categories of merchandise – clothes and bindings. So far, so good.
But what of the future, which I’d so blithely missed when taking the photograph? How long can the heart of a culture survive – manners, ideas, and identity – when its day-to-day tools are made of plastic and come from somewhere else?
Knowing of things and people in Herat
Herat’s magnificent Friday mosque was founded in our year 1200. For the past eight centuries it has been continuously revered, restored, and recorded. Art history’s word “palimpsest” expresses precisely its capacity for being understood. Scholars know which sections were built when. You can see one panel of a 13th century Ghorid arch by the front door. A Timurid arch, 200 years younger, is visible alongside. You can see the difference and have it explained to you by local tile makers. Their workshop has occupied one corner of the mosque since its foundation. To say that they know their work well would be an 800 understatement.
What do we mean by knowing well? Take this great 14th century bronze cauldron in the foreground, four feet across. Its facts are known. We know how it was made and, word for word, what its calligraphy says. Even recent location shifts are traceable. When Robert Byron visited in 1933, it was “kept in a hutch on the steps of the main ivan….” My 1972 photograph shows it out in the courtyard. By 2001, when I visited Taliban-held Herat, the cauldron was under cover again.
All these things are known. Notice how much of our knowing is of things.
The second picture was taken on the same day in 1972. Show it to a Herati, and he can tell you, no matter what the decade, where in the mosque this walkway is located.
But what of the blue burqa-ed woman? She was begging, as destitute women and men beg in the outer courtyards of mosques, but what else is known about her?
And what of the two men silhouetted against the interior courtyard?
In 2001, despite lurking Taliban, the master tile maker gave me a tour. He even looked over my shoulder at the print and confirmed that, yes, that worn spiral column was indeed the same one.
But then I asked him about the woman. Beggars have regular beats, and maybe she had come here everyday. “32 years ago?” he said. “Who can say now? I’ve been here my whole life, but a lot’s happened in these past 32 years. And, of course, I never would have seen her face anyway. I wouldn’t have spoken to her, wouldn’t have known her.”
A burqa and two silhouettes. Notice how little we know of people.
Turning from diplomacy to anthropology, Whitney Azoy has devoted much of the past 45 years to Afghanistan. His 1982 book, Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, pioneered the connection between play and politics. Now retired from the directorship of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies in Kabul, Dr. Azoy lives with his wife in Spain.
The quality print edition of Whitney Azoy’s Afghanistan: A Partial Comprehension can be ordered (50.00 USD plus p&p) from: Attention Brad Hanson email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Global Insights Magazine editor Edward Girardet is a Geneva-based foreign correspondent and author, who first began reporting Afghanistan in October, 1979, three months prior to the Soviet invasion. He has written and/or edited half a dozen books, including Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. He is also co-editor of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan, which has been published in fully revised editions, including contributions by Whitney Azoy.