Kabul, Afghanistan | August, 2003
And another week has gone by with no sign of time or strength to write a diary. I guess the closing weeks of this epic voyage really had their demands. I have just shipped off my boxes with FedEx (cargo freight). I chose these guys, over dozens of possibilities because I had developed something of a relationship with them – starting with when they showed up at the workshop to sing happy birthday to me and deliver a cake.
The past month has flowed by like a voluble patch in a river. So much is beginning to blur, but I must describe yesterday when Luke Powell came over to take pictures of the women. It all happened so magically. I had only discussed the issue with him once many days before when he had just left for Bamiyan with his daughter. With my own idea of a date in mind and no consultation with Luke, I told about two-thirds of the women that came to see me over the course of 10 days. I had to break it to them gently that they were going to be photographed by a nice American man and his lovely daughter. That he was a hugely talented and published photographer on Afghanistan with a real mind for this place. For the women, to consider such a thing was like volunteering for a surgical procedure, but they all had agreed, quietly and with little objection. So then Luke casually calls the night before this potential storm shows up, and says “are we on?” With no telephones, no confirmation methods, no way to really gauge who would and wouldn’t show up, I started to get nervous that nobody would come. But in continued evidence of their dire need for work and income, they ALL managed to show up. When we arrived, there were already about 20 of them there, neatly seated in the two classrooms flanking the entry hallway. The rest began to stream in, as if out of the woodwork. But this time, the vibe was chilled out – no stampede, no need for bouncers (did I ever write an account of the day of the great stampede two Wednesdays ago?). They just sat on the benches of the classrooms gazing at me in calm silence.
I could now scan my eyes across the room, observing who was who and remembering all of the little interactions – who did great work, who screwed up and drew pen marks on the fabric, who was talented but demanding, who was whose aunt, cousin, sister, etc., who was a widow, who was unmarried, etc. A pretty blissful closure to an intense, often turbulent, and even violent set of interactions between us. I talked to all of them (30 in one room, with about that many in the next), trying to distract them from noticing that this man was climbing all over the furniture to take close up shots. I would try to point individuals out to Luke (while we vocalized to the room that we weren’t picking favorites but were after “good light”) who I had worked with and had grown impressed by. Whether it was the brilliant illiterate crocheting and everything girl – Rosama, to the other everything-douz Marzia and her clan, I had all of Afghanistan in front of me…every tribe with its every matching physiognomy. Hazaras filled the bulk of the room because they were simply the most talented handiworkers around (and the most Asian and patient to do the often numbing task of counting threads). The Pashtuns gave things a little extra spice and tended to bring a totally unique skill level and knowledge of patterns into the picture. It was an excellent way to close shop…Luke taking pictures and seeing the dance of those self-conscious moments as these Afghan women modeled for me (and maybe slightly for each other?).
In Mr. Powell’s opinion, it was one of the most enjoyable portrait taking experiences he has ever had. It was not everyday that he had this kind of access or such a relaxed audience. I chose to attribute it to the unique rapport that had been established between all of us. I was not a sap, was too concerned about quality control to talk about human rights, and was a screaming intolerant witch when someone drew pen marks on my fabrics, but I did care A LOT about being fair to these women, I did exert MASSIVE amounts of energy to explain things to them and show them how to do things right, and I did set an example of a liberal and liberated “Muslim” women that these ladies could draw a few lessons from if they so chose….Maybe all of this can make a real difference in the end.