Afghanistan21-LookListenLocal amplifies Afghan voices and experiences as the international community leaves the country and the Taliban dominates the battlefront. The project will include new videos, photos and written stories by Afghans. This is the second in a series of articles about the lives of the Afghans who participated in Community Supported Film’s 2010 documentary filmmaking training and production of The Fruit of Our Labor-Afghan Perspectives in Film (TFOL).
By Jamaluddin Aram, for Community Supported Film
[Ed. Note 07/21: The subject’s last name and image have been removed due to the worsening security situation in Afghanistan.]
“You are so brave and quiet I forget you are suffering.” You can take this Hemingway line from A Farewell to Arms and say it to any Afghan woman, and every time it’ll be true.
Imagine it is the late 90s, you live under Taliban rule; you are nineteen years of age; a woman; a Hazara—for whom the century long memory of discrimination, persecution, massacre, and patriarchy run unbroken in their DNA. If that’s not harrowing enough, imagine an evening and a knock on the door and a small group of men and women walking into the courtyard and by the night’s end when they leave you and your family have been forced to say Yes. Soon you are married to a member of the Taliban, an older man, you neither know nor like. You share a bed with him, he enters your body but he can never find his way to your soul.
Then Americans come. The man disappears. Given his rank in the Taliban hierarchy, he is probably picked up by Afghan intelligence and sent to the next world. But your in-laws still await his return and blame you for his disappearance.
It gives you chills imagining. It is not a small thing.
For Aqeela, however, that is only a chapter of this thing called life.
Unlike reports filed for western papers from Afghanistan, this Afghan, Aqeela, doesn’t go by one name. She has a last name, a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and three children from that man. In the hope of what slim protection anonymity may grant her, she doesn’t disclose her last name. What she does disclose is that the journalism degree never landed her a job. The TV people didn’t look at her degree, they looked at her face and concluded her Hazara countenance wasn’t pleasant enough to make the viewers feel good while delivering them their daily portion of the grotesque realities in which they lived: ethnic cleansing, murder, domestic violence and this war that never ends.
But not everyone reads faces in the same way. In 2003, an Iranian filmmaker saw Aqeela on a street in Kabul and found a brightness in her Hazaragi visage. A brightness that those who hired for news anchors could never see through their racial bias. And so began Aqeela’s journey in cinema. Since then she has appeared in and worked on seven films including At Five In the Afternoon, and the 2003 Golden Globe winner Osama. She has starred in three Afghan soap operas, playing a lead role in The Secrets of this House. She has also tried her hands at documentary filmmaking thanks to Community Supported Film. The Road Above and We Stars are two of her documentary films.
The praises she received at Cannes and several other film festivals do not match the reception she gets on the streets of Kabul every day. The society reminds her to never forget where she is living. On the way to the grocery store or the bakery, people catcall her. Others go the distance and try to be creative with their taunting: they read aloud a line from one of her films or television shows. In government offices, the officials, mostly men, eye her and a belittling smirk flashes across their faces as they look at her papers. What roams in the darkness of their minds, it’s beyond Aqeela’s comprehension, but she is certain of one thing: no clean thought blossoms there.
At a time in a country where any female in cinema is considered a cheap woman if not an outright prostitute, one needs valor, thick skin, and a tremendous threshold for suffering. Aqeela has all three. She nurses the scars of her past, navigates the hardship of being a single parent, of being a female actor in Afghanistan, and still has enough emotional bandwidth left to live the heartaches and pains of other women through her characters on camera.
“My life has always been full of struggles, but I always try to rise to the challenge bravely, heroically,” she says. But her stoicism is wearing thin. Especially after the American soldiers switched the lights off at Bagram Airfield and left in the night.
Now, Aqeela watches the news and her body remembers the fear that rippled through her that evening in the late 90s. The Taliban have taken over 70% of the countryside and twelve of thirty-four provincial capitals and are knocking at the doors of many more. Carnage and extrajudicial killings commence in the newly captured territories. Musicians and actors are among the first to go, particularly if you are an ethnically Hazara woman. That doesn’t worry Aqeela as much as the prospect of her in-laws coming back to power. The latter means she and her family would have to ponder a more dreadful proposition because if revenge is best served cold, this dish has been cooling for twenty long years.
Read Majid’s story: “My Cousin is fighting for the Taliban. I am not.”
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Jamaluddin Aram is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and short story writer from Kabul, Afghanistan. His stories have appeared in Numero Cinq, Blood and Bourbon, The Write Launch, and Cagibi. Aram’s short story “This Hard Easy Life” was a finalist for RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2020. Aram has a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Union College in Schenectady, New York. He lives in Toronto.
Aram was translator and subsequent coordinator of Community Supported Film’s 2010-12 documentary filmmaking training and mentoring program in Afghanistan. The production work culminated in the production of The Fruit of Our Labor – Afghan Perspectives in Film, ten short films by and about Afghans that included The Road Above by Aqeela.