Foreign Policy has a gorgeous photo feature about the Afghanistan of the 1950s. It really underlines the tragedy that Afghanistan and Iran, among other Near Eastern and Central Asian countries, share--a past that seems almost unthinkable after it was wiped out and covered over by civil war or civil strife and extreme social repression.
I wrote an essay a couple of years ago that dealt with the treatment of Afghan women as one of its case studies, and my research for the paper turned up nostalgic accounts of this past, as the authors I read sadly sought to fix in history the fact that Afghanistan enjoyed a brief, but not negligible period of stability, higher education and far more equitable gender relations for about thirty years up until sometime in the 1970s (the year escapes me--Afghanistan is not an area of my expertise). The photos give that period a clearer face, and so in some ways a sadder sepia tint.
Afghanistan is one of the few cases where I feel pretty comfortable abandoning the relativist skepticism of broad negative statements that was drilled into my every pore as a liberal child of a liberal family in a liberal city getting a liberal education. I certainly don't mean to say that Afghan culture is necessarily or inherently retrograde, evil, or anti-women; but Afghanistan--and Yemen, while I'm rambling--are the two places from which stories of women's lives consistently go much further than making my feminist blood boil and induce a simple, awful sadness in me. It's a place with some really incredible cultural heritage, as an exhibit at the Met last year demonstrated beautifully (that is the only time I can actually remember buying the damn book at the gift shop--the combination of amazing artifacts and a syncretic tradition that I knew nothing about was irresistible).
There's just something tragic about a place spanned by the Silk Road, whose history includes Mesopotamian influences,
South or Southeast Asian influences--there are things about this that remind me both of India and Cambodia--
and a nomadic culture that carried around artifacts like these:
(The crown is collapsible, if I recall correctly!) That is to say, a place whose heritage included all of this, as well as, eventually, some pretty great-looking record stores:
Only to have nearly all of it burned and bombed away. The collection that was loaned to the Met is only extant because some courageous museum workers hid it in the presidential palace; the rest of the Kabul Museum's collection was lost in the civil war.
From all of that (with, of course, a great deal of history in between about which I admit I know next to nothing), to dark streets and girls burning themselves to death rather than be sold in marriage to pay off opium dealers.
I hope I get a chance at some point to learn more about Afghanistan's rich history that is not quite so recent. The introduction to the FP photo essay begins:
On a recent trip to Afghanistan, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox drew fire for calling it "a broken 13th-century country." The most common objection was not that he was wrong, but that he was overly blunt. He's hardly the first Westerner to label Afghanistan as medieval. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince recently described the country as inhabited by "barbarians" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.
But that is not the Afghanistan I remember.
It's important to remember not only what is lacking, but what was lost.