Journey into the heart of Afghanistan
A film by Mohsen Makhmablbaf
Kandahar is a story of a young woman’s odyssey into Afghanistan to find her sister who has become so depressed with life under the Taliban that she is contemplating suicide on the same night of the last eclipse of the 20th Century. The film is based on a true story of the Afghan born Canadian journalist, Nelofer Paziera, who with her family was forced out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Her father, a doctor, her mother, a professor of Persian Literature, Nelofer—then sixteen, and her brother lived in Kabul. Because of his refusal adhere to the Taliban’s ban on male doctors assisting women patients her father was arrested and placed in jail . He spent sixteen months in jail. When he was released he gathered his family and with only their clothes on their back, they walked for ten days to the Pakistan border. From there they were able to emigrate to Canada and begin a new life.
Nelofer finished school and became a journalist. Since leaving Afghanistan she had stayed in touch with a friend back in Afghanistan. Her friend, an economics graduate who had a job working in a bank, wrote how depressed she was that the Taliban had forced her to quit working and stay home. She was not even allowed on the street without a male family member. Fearing that her friend was contemplating suicide, Nelofer flew to Iran and tried to enter Afghanistan. As a journalist she could not get a visa for Afghanistan making it necessary for her to go in illegally. At the refugee camp on the Iranian border she tried to enlist someone to help her get to Kabul but was told that it was far too dangerous for her to travel across Afghanistan. If she tried and was caught she would not only endanger herself but others as well, perhaps even her friend. With that caveat she abandoned the trip and returned to Canada. A few years later she heard from her friend; she had moved to Mazer-e-Sharif in the northern part of Afghanistan where conditions were more relaxed.
In the movie Kandahar, Nelofer plays an Afghan born Canadian journalist, Nafes, on a trip to find her sister who is contemplating suicide. She arrives at a refugee camp on the Iranian boarder with just three days to reach her sister. At the camp we are given a glimpse into life in Afghanistan. In 1979 when the USSR invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist government that was growing shaky from a civil war, as many as five million people poured across the borders. Three million went to Pakistan and the other two to Iran. Nafes is to travel with a group of young girls returning to Afghanistan.
“This will be your last day of school,” the girls are told, “but remember the wall is tall but the sky is taller”. The education of women was abolished by the Taliban.
Before leaving the girls are given a lesson on how to avoid land mines. The Soviets had placed over a million landmines during the war without any mapping as required by the Geneva Convention’s rules of warfare. In places they had carpeted the ground with “butterfly” mines dropped from an air planes. They looked like butterflies as they fluttered to ground landing easily to avoid detonation. In an act of cruel desperation the Soviets had disguised bombs as dolls and stuffed toys. War is not a pretty thing. The bombs were small and not designed to kill, but to wound. The Soviets felt that a wounded, crippled person would be a greater burden than a dead one.
Because of the mines Afghanistan is populated with people with only one leg, or no legs at all for that matter. The International Red Cross has a program for providing artificial limbs but it is nowhere close to filling the needs. In a scene in the movie artificial legs are dropped by parachute from a helicopter as if floating down from Heaven and the crippled men rush out to gather them.
Reminiscent of Nefeler’s father’s plight, along the path Nafes meets a doctor trying to treat women. He is an American who came to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. His job is a difficult one. He has to try and treat the women without even looking at them, they are on the other side of a blanket hanging from the ceiling. He must use her child as an intermediary to talk with her as he is not even to talk with the women patients.
The landscape of Afghanistan is barren with only about twelve percent of the land cultivatable. Mostly it is mountains and desert. The great Hindu Kush mountains in eastern Afghanistan are some of the roughest in the world. Rocky and with very little vegetation they are spotted with a few valleys that can be used in agriculture. The Afghan people are only a few generations away from being nomads who moved across the land grazing their livestock until the grass ran out then moving on. Before the Soviets came and the civil war that followed there were areas that produced pomegranates and grapes for export. But, the trees, vines, and irrigations systems were destroyed by war. Today Afghanistan’s major crop is the opium poppy which is exported to Europe and the United States to be made into heroin. Afghanistan produces 70% of the world’s opium poppies. In the tradition of the herding nomads, the second biggest export is Karakul skins, the hide of a new born lamb taken while the fur is still curly. About 800,000 skins are exported annually. One skin will bring about $30 on the open market, a big price for a farmer whose total income for a year may not exceed $200.
After the Soviets withdrew in 1989 leaving a power vacuum, Afghanistan erupted into a civil war with several groups vying for power. Afghanistan has never had a real national conscience being a land made of up of tribal areas that reach into history over a thousand years. Even the national boundaries we put in place by the British in the nineteenth century to keep Russia out of India. The one unifying factor is Islam. In the 632 the Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven from Jerusalem, leaving behind a fanatical army of horsemen to spread his message. From here the Arabs began to take Islam into the outside world. By the seventh century it had reached Afghanistan where Buddhism was the biggest religion. It was centered in Kandahar, Herat, and the Bemiyan province where in the third and fifth centuries the Buddhist monks built two large statues of Buddha over 150 feet high. In 2005 the Taliban bombed and destroyed these statues as a mortified world watched in disapproval.
Islam is a very important factor in Afghan life. Whether it is saying prayers five times a day, or fasting during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, or giving zakat, the mandatory giving of alms to the poor required by the Quran. No other people show more observance than the Afghan people.
There is an old saying about Afghanistan: “It is me against my brother. It is my brother and I against my cousin. It is my brother, my cousin and I against the world.” Afghanistan is a land of warriors. If they have no common enemy they war with each other. When the Soviets left, so left the common enemy and civil war broke out. The loosely knit cohesive social fabric that existed during the war with Soviets disintegrated. There was no system of laws. Power was to the strongest. After a rape of twelve year old girls in Kandahar and several murders, the Afghan people wanted some sort of order. Enter the Taliban. With their harsh ways and strict adherence to the Sharia, the laws of Islam, they also brought order.
The Taliban, which translates to student, are the holy warriors for Islam. They are of the Sunni sect of Islam with the goal of creating a purely Islamic culture governed by the strictest interpretations of the Sharia, Islamic Law. This set of laws requires the most austere of lifestyles: no music, no books except the Quran and other Islamic texts, and very little social interaction. Women fair very badly under the Taliban; they are not allowed in public unless wearing a Burka, a dress that covers the woman from head to toe leaving only a screened area for her to see and breath. This is to keep men from wavering in their dedication to Islam and becoming tempted by the flesh. Women must be accompanied on the street by a male blood relative, and they are prohibited from attending school or work. Under the Taliban public executions are common, and the Sharia prescribes the most barbaric of punishments: the cutting off of a hand for stealing, beheading, and blinding.
The Taliban are tied very closely with the Wahabbi Sect of Sunnism of Saudi Arabia another very strict culture. The rich Saudis contribute a great deal of financial support to the Taliban as well as supplying them with young enthusiasts from their madrassas’, religious schools. On her journey to Kandahar, Nafes, encounters a young man who had been expelled from the local school, a school that teaches only the Quran and the attributes of the Kalashnikov rifle. The goal of the school is to send out Mulahs, religious leaders. The madrassas’ are the only form of education in many Islamic countries and this presents a real problem. The young men educated in these schools are taught the Quran and other Islamic texts but no other skills. They in turn are not prepared for any other occupation and are unable to find employment. Many of them emigrate to Europe seeking employment with no employable skills creating a problem for many European governments.
As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they began to provide a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and their road to 9-11. Ironically as the Saudis provide much of the financial support for the Taliban. That money comes from oil purchases from the United States.
Makhmalbaf, the Kandahar film director, uses his camera as a wide brush to paint the long horizons of the desert along the Iranian Afghan border. The sand is interrupted only by low growing spindly plants spaced apart from each other. And, thus the road to Kandahar.
The DVD, “Kandahar” is available at the many public libraries.