In 1998, I hitched a ride with two American grad students through Bosnia. I had been traveling through Roman ruins in the relatively intact countryside of Croatia, before I took my most memorable detour.
In a rented eggplant-colored Daewoo Tico, my traveling companions and I traversed villages that were now piles of rubble instead of the apartment complexes and bustling town centers they had been prior to 1992. One building had its front wall scythed off; it looked like an apocalyptic dollhouse. A handheld showerhead dangled precariously from a tiled wall, giving the appearance that someone had been trying to bathe as the shelling started. Although I had intellectually known the statistics and numbers and political realities of the Bosnian war, nothing speaks to the scale of war more than the recognition of one victim.
Edward Grazda’s Afghanistan 1982-2002 exhibit at Duke’s Franklin Center gives visitors a sense of that same immediacy of day-to-day Afghan lives. Grazda offers two separate triptychs of bullet-ridden buildings almost identical to the ones I saw in Bosnia. One set features the Macroroyan Apartments–first, in 1992, alive with people–then in 1997, with windows shot out, telephone poles blanketed with bullet holes, and most of the outer wall missing. The building looks uninhabitable, yet children play outside and clotheslines hang from balconies. In the last photograph, satellite dishes on rooftops let us know that life returns after war.
Grazda, who got his photography degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969, has been a photojournalist since the early ’70s. He initially traveled to Afghanistan in 1982 (he first documented Afghan refugees living in a camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1980), and has covered Afghanistan as well as other developing countries like Guatemala, Vietnam and India. He has also published two books on the region–Afghanistan Diary: 1992–2000 and Afghanistan: 1980–1989, and recently contributed photography for New York Masjid: The Mosques of New York City, published in 2002.
In the late 1970s, a Soviet-backed coup gave communists control of the government and for the next 10 years, the opposition, known as the Mujahideen (“the strugglers”), fought the tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers that invaded their country. A civil war followed and almost two million Afghans were killed with millions more displaced. After several factions failed at attempting to organize a government, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, bringing some semblance of order, while imposing their strict fundamentalist interpretation of shariah, Islamic law taken from Quranic and post-Quranic texts.
Grazda continued to document Afghanistan during the war and the Taliban regime. However, you won’t see many photos of the Taliban; photography was banned–as well as many other forms of entertainment and daily conventions.
“Under the Taliban, there was nothing,” says Grazda. “No music, no movies, nothing. People were sitting around, just glum.”
While Grazda’s images chronicle change, through the political and the profane, most of the best photographs from his book–the ones that show the faces of average Afghans –aren’t featured in the exhibit. If you look closely, you’ll see the symbolism of change, but don’t expect lengthy explanatory captions about what an empty office is meant to signify. Grazda’s images are a wonderful photojournalistic tool, but it is his young Afghan friend and co-exhibitor, Khalid Hadi, who brings this exhibit an intimacy that no foreign photographer could have.
Eight hundred and fifty of Hadi’s more than 5,000 photographs are spread out in a display case, as well as blown up and displayed on an upstairs wall.
Born in 1981, the year after Grazda began photographing Afghans, Hadi is the educated son of a former Afghanistan army general. Already showing an interest in photography at the age of 13, Hadi was asked to take identification photos for a foundation that supported orphans, old men and hundreds of war-wounded soldiers, including Mujahideen and Taliban.
Most of Hadi’s subjects sit or stand in front of a dark curtain, which is sometimes surreally covered in a quaint flower print; behind one legless man, a painting of an English country scene is featured, complete with thatched cottage, wandering brook and daisy-covered meadow. A toddler stands on metal crutches, his flowing robe empty below one knee. Men and young boys sit stoically, presenting their severed arms and legs to the camera as proof. The sepia tones from the paper-negative images, threadbare Afghan garb, and backdrop facades, lend the collection the look of a nightmarish “Get Your Old Tyme Photos Here!” booth. But mostly, you notice the eyes.
These are eyes that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t begin to imagine the torture they’ve seen. Some look resigned; others express an unadulterated anguish that can’t be hidden. Many–especially the children–look scared and broken. Others emanate pure vitriol. Almost no one smiles. Men pose with long and short beards and, pre-Taliban, no beards at all. They wear tribal clothes and turbans wrapped carefully around their heads. Long shirts and pants have been pushed aside to reveal stumps of arms and legs.
Hadi was initially affected by the carnage, but eventually got so used to his surroundings that he was able to photograph doctors operating with no anesthetic, removing limbs with kitchen forks and knives because they had no surgical tools.
“He [Hadi] said at first he was scared of bloody things,” Grazda says. “But it’s just part of life in Afghanistan. It’s hard for us to fathom that, but for them, it’s an everyday thing.”
Hadi’s most famous photograph isn’t in the exhibit, but ran in the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine. It’s one of the only images of Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, and one of Osama bin Laden’s closest allies. In Vanity Fair, Grazda details his journey with Hadi back to Afghanistan to find other photographs and a letter indicating the survival of Mullah Omar. It’s well worth a read.
In “November 2002,” Grazda recalls of the last time he was in Afghanistan, “things had totally changed, especially in Kabul. Now you see cell phones, Italian restaurants, traffic … people are opening stores.”
A series of Grazda’s photographs illustrate this growth and change by documenting the maturation of Anwar Khan Jegdaleg, a former Mujahideen army commander. In 1983, there he is, relaxing with his fellow holy warriors in what, at first glance, looks like an opium den.
“They were living in Anwar’s home village, camping out in a house that hadn’t been totally destroyed,” explains Grazda. “There’s a lot of hanging out in war.”
Nine years later, Jegdaleg is working for the Mujadiddi government as the Minister for Refugees and Orphans. The most recent image is of Jegdaleg, the sophisticate, calmly watching a buzkashi match clad in a Western-style button-down shirt and jacket. It’s November 2002. He’s now the mayor of Kabul. How peaceful this country has become.
Painfully absent from the exhibit are any images or descriptions of buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan. If Mad Max played polo, this would be it. Although Grazda was assured there were rules to buzkashi, he couldn’t discern any. Men mounted on horseback ride around holding the legs of a headless, dead goat. Each team takes turns trying to get the goat into a goal-like apparatus on either end of the field, while the opposing team tries to keep this from happening. Grazda says at the particular match that Jegdaleg attended, a riderless horse stampeded into the low-rent concrete bleachers every 10 minutes or so, with 20 or 30 hollering traditionally dressed players chasing the horse, sometimes forcing it to jump off the back of the bleachers.
Grazda’s Afghanistan 1982-2002 is about change and phoenix rising, albeit slowly and painfully. What’s often lost in war is a sense of history and place. Cultural institutions are destroyed, universities bombed, libraries emptied. Thirty years of fighting in Afghanistan has seen even greater devastation than other wars, since cultural icons weren’t just unfortunate bystanders, but specifically targeted.
Several of Grazda’s photographs have also had a lasting impact on Afghan society. The triptych of Abdul Haq, an Afghan freedom fighter, documents him in 1988, planning an attack on Kabul. In 1996, he addresses the U.S. Congress on the fate of Afghanistan. Mistakenly thought to be an American spy, Haq was hung by the Taliban when he returned in 2001. Afghans made a memento mori poster, memorializing Haq, with Grazda’s photograph from the congressional hearing. And that has brought Grazda a sense of accomplishment and gratification, for spending so many years photographing the same place and the same people.
“It’s kind of fun,” Grazda says about the poster. “I’m sort of part of the landscape that I’ve been photographing. Those are the things that kind of make me happy, when you see a long-term commitment turn out like that. It’s been a kind of reward for me.”
Afghanistan 1982-2002, through Feb. 5. Artist talk, Thursday, Jan. 30, 4-6 p.m., with Edward Grazda (please RSVP to email@example.com); artist reception with Grazda and Hadi, Friday, Jan. 31, 5-7:30 p.m. (both events are free and open to the public). John Hope Franklin Center, 2204 Erwin Road, Duke Campus, Durham. 684-2765. Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Parking available in the Erwin and Trent Street lots.