I recently attended a presentation by photojournalist Connie Frisbee Houde, who traveled to Afghanistan 4 times since 2003; her last trip, in late 2009, was with an activist women’s organization, spending 10 days in Kabul.
She began with a slideshow of a visit to Kabul’s street of music stores, focusing on one musician in particular (see photo), whom she labeled “the essence of Afghanistan.” His music was handed down among generations; music, poetry, and story-telling are crucial to Afghan culture. However, music was outlawed under the Taliban. People buried their instruments; some were later recovered, some were lost forever (like the giant ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan that the Taliban destroyed as un-Islamic.)
Houde presented some sobering Afghan statistics: 87% lack access to clean water; 53% live below the government’s poverty line (the Afghan government’s – not the U.S. poverty line); 40% are unemployed (much more if you count women); 70% are malnourished; Infant and childbirth mortality are both the highest in the world; more than a quarter of children die before age 5 (unclean water a major factor); life expectancy is about 43; literacy 35% for men, 10-20% for women; and 3.7 million Afghans are still refugees in neighboring countries (as against total Afghan population of 12 million).
Houde spoke glowingly of Kabul’s wonderful street markets, mentioning grapes in particular. The Taliban regime had seen the grape-growing region as hostile, and hence attempted to destroy the industry by poisoning the vines. Houde never expected grape growing to recover, and expressed surprise that she turned out to be wrong.
Another aspect of Afghan culture banned by the Taliban was “wedding palaces.” For Afghans, with huge families, weddings are a very big deal and are celebrated lavishly. With the Taliban’s ouster, the “wedding palaces” are back.
The Afghans also have a great thing for birds, and sellers of birds and cages were legion in Kabul. Now, that is; under the Taliban, guess what? Yup, banned. What a bunch of killjoys.
Houde also talked about an orphanage she visited; Afghan orphanages are full not only for the obvious reasons but because many parents simply cannot afford to care for their children (this happened in Hosseini’s book, discussed above). The orphanage Houde visited was featured in an MSNBC story, resulting in over $100,000 in contributions. Houde saw this as demonstrating that we Americans “really want to do good there.”
Not everything in the country reflects progress. There was much controversy about recent enactment of a new Family Law for Shias (about 10% of the population) which has been called a “marital rape law” since it requires, among other things, that women submit to spousal sexual demands four times weekly. But women have mobilized in opposition. One was Soraya, 52, a gynecologist, who fled Afghanistan upon the Taliban’s advent and was one of the first to return after their ouster. She currently leads a women’s rights organization, insisting that women need to become political. To that end, Soraya is now working toward a Political Science degree. Houde also spoke about a peaceful protest march by women against a big madrassa (religious school); when the marchers were met with stone-throwing, the police protected them, and no one was hurt; a perhaps surprising and encouraging outcome.