Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Variations on a theme

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Guess where this is?

Afghanistan 1950s

I wish I could offer a prize, but I am too useless at getting to the post office, and you would be waiting crossly for months for your promised parcel.

Anyway - drumroll, please - it is AFGHANISTAN.


But seriously, in sixty years, we have gone from those those groovy chicks buying the latest discs from a smart, polite-looking gentleman, to this:

burka afghan women

Excuse me while I go and have a small feminist conniption in the corner.

That's better.

Actually, this follows on from yesterday's post. I was thinking about the marvellous synchronicity of the blogs and the internet, and how it led me to a beautiful hidden corner of Afghanistan, of which I had never heard. Then I received my daily dose of loveliness from the magnificent How to be a Retronaut, a site so good it should get a government grant. And that day's post was an extraordinary collection of pictures of life in Afghanistan from fifty and sixty years ago. Go and have a look here. If it does not smash every single one of your cultural stereotypes to tiny shattered pieces, I do not know what will.

Interestingly, and still on the theme of the blogosphere, a very talented cook, originally from Pakistan, does a wonderful food blog, called the Spice Spoon. I thought of her today, because a few months ago she told me that her grandparents used to go ballroom dancing in Pakistan in their youth. It was a lovely moment of the utterly unexpected. I would not have imagined young Pakistani courting couples whirling about the dancefloor, so long ago. The picture of the women in the record shop made me feel the same way. My lesson for the day: beware of my careless Western assumptions.

When I say Western, I do not mean it in the knee-jerk derogatory sense in which some leftish commentators currently use the word. I am not slipping into moral relativism, oh no. There are many things in my Western world for which I am passionately grateful: equal rights, freedom of speech, democracy, for instance. I know all about babies and bathwater. What I do mean is that it is easy, from the comfort of a safe, first world country, to carry assumptions that have nothing to do with reality. Sometimes I think that the first thing I should do each morning, before cleaning my teeth even, is to crank my mind open with a heavy implement.

These are the reproachful looks I get when I jump to conclusions, and I deserve them:



A couple of quick flowers, before I go:






  1. I'm stunned by that photo of Afghanistan and would not have guessed the country in a million years. Thanks for the mind opener.

  2. That's just...appalling. (I'm using that word a lot these days. Go figure.)

    Your last post brought to mind for me two great books on Afghanistan--An Unexpected Light (Jason Elliot), which I read just after the 2001 terrorist attacks and is simply beautiful and melancholy and enlightening and everything a travelogue should be, and Eric Newby's 1958 A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, in which Newby and a friend, having trained for mountain climbing for a total of four days in Wales, ventured into a part of Afghanistan so rugged and forbidding that no European had been there in half a century. (I read this while backpacking this summer...it made my own trip seem like a short walk in a park.) They're both enthralling.

  3. Weirdly the thing about Afghanistan being very liberal pre-Taliban was one of the things I *did* know.

    I had my mind expanded by seeing some male village elders in a small town in Pakistan setting up a girls' school (after the Taliban and floods had destroyed them all) in the abandoned house of a Talib general as they thought he was unlikely to bomb his own house. That story cheered me immensely. I hope it is still there.

  4. i wouldnt mind getting those reproachful looks every morning - the love is in there,somewhere tee hee
    thank you for this beautiful photograph of Afghanistan and for the honourable mention of my grandparents- my grandfather was from Kabul- settled in pakistan- i shall tell you the story over a glass of wine (or a roast chicken) when we meet one day...i wish i knew more about Kabul and what it was like while he grew up. all i know is that Pakistanis call it the Paris of the East. and rightfully so, i can imagine. thanks for this beautiful post. and for always caring about such issues-so many of us are just numb to such things now... love, s

  5. Deb - isn't it amazing? I am still in a state of astonishment.

    Staircase Witch - thank you so much for book suggestions. I am rushing to the library.

    Siobhan - love the story about the school.

    Shayma - always so lovely to hear from you. Adore the thought of the Paris of the East. And thank you so much for putting up the link on Twitter (am too shy to link to my own posts for some childish reason). xx

  6. The nice part is that you are aware of where you are being presuming and rein yourself in. Lots and lots of people dont realize this at all.

    I think you could package that picture and title it reproach. What did you do to her?

  7. You are right in cautioning against stereotyping....the 1950 and 60's were the Halycon days when droves of Pakistani's would visit Kabul in August to revel in their Jashan-e-Istiqlal. This annual festival was attended by men and women...the latter with or without burqa. Let no one underestimate the determination of Afghan women under the tent like burqa...they are just waiting for the opportune moment!

  8. Mystica - reproachful look is, I think, because she really has decided she does NOT like having her photograph taken. Beneath her dignity, perhaps?

    Anonymous - what a lovely hymn of hope. Here is to the opportune moment.


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