The Word is Freedom
Reza, a world-renowned photographer, created more than haunting photographs in battered Afghanistan. He also created AINA, the Afghan Media and Culture Center, which is helping to bring a free press to a nation long silenced by Taliban zealots.
To Reza, AINA's work is symbolized by what happened one day in a children's center founded by AINA. He asked a boy to "write one word, the word that is most important to you." The boy wrote the word freedom.
"Freedom is an incredible thing," Reza says. "I mean you had to be there to see what freedom brought to these people." The people of Afghanistan, he adds, "didn't have this feeling of what is freedom. Now the face of the people has changed. Even if they're still poor, even if they don't have enough food or housing, so what? They are free."
Reza knows what freedom means, for, like so many victims of Taliban repression, he has been imprisoned. It happened long ago, in his native Iran. His experience is reflected in his decision to be known simply as Reza. He decided not to use his last name professionally because his dissident activities made him a target for authorities in Iran.
"We cannot take Afghanistan to democracy if they don't have an independent and free media," he says, explaining why he founded AINA, which means mirror. "The whole idea of AINA is to bring education--education not only through the magazines or newspapers, but also trying to go further and further and see what are the possibilities, what we can give to them."
One major problem for AINA in the early days: finding journalists. "Some of them were in prison," Reza remembers. "Some were on street corners, selling cigarettes or repairing shoes."
Reza found his lost colleagues and set up a meeting at the building that was to become the Media and Culture Center. "At our first meeting, the great adventure began. Here they were--about 30 percent of them women--looking to do their jobs again."
AINA believes that revival of communications and cultural expression in Afghanistan "will play major roles in the reconstruction of civil society and the successful development of democratic process." Putting this credo to work, AINA helps to publish Zanbel-e-Gham, a satirical monthly magazine published openly for the first time after being underground during the Taliban occupation; Kabul Weekly, an independent magazine; Malalai, the first magazine for women; Seerat, a weekly newsletter for women; Hambastagi, also a weekly; and Aamu, a 300-page quarterly research publication. AINA also supports radio, TV, and film projects created by dozens of independent journalists.
So Laughter Can Rise Again
People in Afghanistan rarely had reason to smile while the rulers of the Taliban prowled the streets, punishing anyone who dared to defy the edicts that stripped Afghans of free expression and other human rights. But people did smile, in secret, as they read smuggled copies of Zanbel-e-Gham, a satirical humor magazine that made fun of those Taliban edicts. Osman Akram, editor of Zanbel-e-Gham, risked his life to publish the magazine on a hidden photocopier and then pass copies to brave readers. Throughout the dark days of Taliban rule he managed to evade the Taliban's religious police, who enforced the ban on movies, music, television, and newspapers.
Zanbel-e-Gham "Wheelbarrow of Sorrow" is one of the dozens of Afghanistan publications now being sold openly.
"We used to laugh only at things permitted by the government," Osman says. "Now, as the media is free and born out of peace, we want to guide this child [the media] in all aspects of life." He points to the wheelbarrow emblem of his magazine and adds, "He who carries the sorrows has to be strong.... We load the zanbel with people's grief, using our pen as a shovel, so laughter can rise again. Or, if you want, we give the sword of laughter to the oppressed so that with one blow, the grief-maker's neck will be split in half like a rhubarb."
Shopkeeper, farmer, engineering school graduate ("It helped me calculate how much sorrow I can carry in my wheelbarrow"), Osman became a radical journalist during the decade of Soviet occupation. Then, during the reign of the Taliban, Osman taught girls and boys in clandestine schools. But that was not enough. He wanted to taunt the hated Taliban.
Osman was 38 years old in 1997 when he and a friend launched Zanbel-e-Gham. Osman had the ideas for the cartoons and satires; his friend drew and added calligraphy. They distributed 30 photocopies to relatives and friends, who then made their own photocopies. The first round of readers returned the originals, which were then circulated among a new group that repeated the process.
Although he was jailed three times, Osman kept on publishing. "Being somebody's slave is worse than being in jail," he says. He persistently defied the Taliban, never feeling any fear until one day, while setting out to photocopy a new issue, he saw a victim of the Taliban religious police hanging from a crane. Horrified, Osman turned back. But the next day he set forth again, and this time he did photocopy Zanbel-e-Gham.
Osman has pledged to take away people's sorrows in his wheelbarrow and dump them on the shoulders of those who he believes cause the sorrows: the people in power. His cartoons do not forgive anyone, whether it is a Taliban tyrant or Afghanistan's democratic post-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai, a frequent target of Zanbel-e-Gham's cartoons.
Kabul Weekly:Back on the Street
On September 9, 2001, two days before al Qaeda terrorists struck America, assassins killed Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud by exploding a bomb hidden in a TV camera. One of Massoud's close associates, Fahim Dashty, was severely wounded by the explosion, which also killed one assassin. The second was shot by Massoud's guards while trying to escape. The wounds have not detered Dashty from putting out the Kabul Weekly, one of the newspapers that AINA has helped to bring back to life in Afghanistan.
Kabul Weekly, banned during the Taliban's five years of oppression, was the first independent newspaper to publish after the liberation of Afghanistan in November 2001. Into the ten pages of the first issue, printed on January 24, 2002, editor Dashty packed articles on politics, the Northern Alliance, opium, "cultural rebirth," and women's rights.
The newspaper publishes its creed: promotion of democracy and defense of human rights, including the right to vote and the right to be educated. Kabul Weekly also promises to revive Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage, which the Taliban ruthlessly suppressed
As Women, We Were Condemned
When the Taliban seized power in 1996, Jamila Mujahed was a well-known journalist in both television and radio. Overnight, like all other Afghan women, she was virtually banned from society. All women were forbidden to work outside the home. Many women who were respected professionals--doctors, professors, lawyers, writers--had to beg to survive.
Then, on November 13, 2001, Kabul was liberated, ending what Jamila Mujahed calls "five years of darkness, fear, tyranny, and annihilation of our physical and intellectual rights." As soon as the city was freed, officials went to her home and escorted her to the studios of Kabul Radio. She was the first Afghan journalist to announce the liberation of Kabul--and of Afghan women.
She became the editor-in-chief of Malalai, the first Afghan magazine published for women and another product of AINA assistance. She got the name of her monthly magazine from Afghanistan's history. Malalai was an Afghan woman who became a symbol of resistance against British invaders at the end of the 19th century. Holding aloft the flag of her nation, Malalai rallied Afghan warriors in a crucial battle.
Like Malalai, Jamila Mujahed rallies warriors of a new century: Afghan women determined to live free lives. "As we were women, we were condemned, we were accused for we were educated and we were blamed for our attempts to develop our society and educate the children of this country. ...But now brightness has come instead of darkness, a bright morning instead of dark nights and knowledge instead of ignorance and at last freedom has replaced captivity."
Other creations of the AINA-stimulated renaissance are Seerat, a newsletter for women created by three women, and Parvaz.
From Street Kids to News Kids
"How are we going to distribute these newspapers?" Reza wondered as he watched over the blooming of seven AINA-aided publications. He found the answer in the streets of Kabul, where thousands of children were wandering around, looking for ways to stay alive.
"They were gathering garbage, begging for food for their families," he remembers. "And I got the idea: paperboys and papergirls."
The first 40 paperkids hit the streets, this time to sell papers--and circulation zoomed 300 percent. The kids found selling newspapers was more profitable than begging. And customers, emerging from the long journalistic drought, liked the idea of buying newspapers again.
Learning by Looking
Almost forgotten in the euphoria of the newspaper revival was a painful fact: At least two-thirds of Afghans are illiterate. The segment of the population unable to read or write may be even as high as 90 percent. No one really knows.
"This is a nation," says Reza, "where many people can recite hours and hours and hours of poetry. And because they know the language, they can recite it without one mistake. You say, "Wonderful, where did you study?" And they say, "Study? I never studied. I'm illiterate." So this is how even if the magazine is read by one person, the whole family will get it."
Still, at the beginning there was a need to get information to as many people as quickly as possible. They had to be told about the dawning of democracy, the calling together of a Loya Jirga (Grand Council).
So, while some AINAworkers started up magazines and newspapers, others turned to the visual arts. Out of their efforts came the Movie Caravan. The caravan team loads a projector, speakers, folding screen, and cables into a trunk or lashes it all on top of a Jeep and takes to the road, traveling to about 200 villages.
The caravan's spectators include tens of thousands of people who have never seen a film or a television show. They are told about their new government. They are shown grim films about ways to detect and avoid the countless land mines that carpet Afghanistan.
A large cloth screen ripples in the desert night, near the cliffs of the two ancient stone Buddhas that the Taliban had destroyed in a desecration condemned by the civilized world. Now, on this night, people laugh at a comedian who comes to them from the days when films were silent. His name is Buster Keaton, and AINA has found him an audience where there has never been an audience before.