Category Archives: Afghanistan

Free the Bikes

In the end, it took a total of 18 hours over 2 days, visiting over 30 offices, gathering signatures, new forms, old forms, stamps, and drinking endless cups of green tea and make idle chitchat to get the myriad of paperwork completed for the Kabul Airport Custom House to release our 53 bikes donated by Liv/giant for the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team.  #freethebikes became a running gag in my jet lagged state of navigating Afghan bureaucracy.  Seeing the final bike loaded onto the truck alongside Coach Sedique, head of the Afghan Cycling Federation and coach of the women’s team was worth every cup of tea.  Time to ride!

 

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Streets of Afghanistan Exhibition Finds Home in Kabul

IMG_8963The Streets of Afghanistan exhibition has a Afghan home in Kabul at the prestigious Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, ACKU.  The center opened in 2013 and houses the Afghan Archives, and its auditorium hosts many cultural events.   It is a fitting temporary home for the exhibition so that it can continue to be seen by Afghans for years to come at the Kabul University campus.

The exhibition was picked up from the home of Sound Central founder, Travis Beard who had been storing it after the final show in the spring as part of the 3rd Sound Central Music Festival.  Immediately the exhibition was put to use in the interior courtyard so that the staff could understand the exhibit and how it could be used in various ways in ACKU’s events.

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Just days later one of the pieces in the exhibition, a landscape by Beth Wald from Badakshan, was used in one of the speaking events they had in the auditorium to give depth and interest to the stage.  Showcasing another way they will be using the exhibition in interactive and unique ways at ACKU.

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Deaf School Finishes Construction and I Breathe Sigh of Relief

Today I witnessed something I feared may never happen, the construction of a school for the deaf in Kabul with ANAD.  Five years ago I first met ANAD, Parween was my incredible link to the fully deaf administration that had founded ANAD and was running a school in a remote area of Kabul under dire circumstances.

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I wrote a short blog about meeting ANAD and the situation for the deaf community in Afghanistan, The Deafening Silence, which I had hoped would inspire those that read it to get involved.

Three years ago I was taken to a run down, dungeon-like building in a remote district of Kabul. This school was run by the deaf, for the deaf children of Kabul.  One of only three small schools in Afghanistan. I was led upstairs to meet Ghaffar, a gentle man with thick glasses who is a modern day Afghan Helen Keller, deaf his entire life, and now slowly losing his sight as well.  He is the heart and soul of the burgeoning deaf community.  The only hearing person in the room besides me and my translator was Parween Azimi, a petite woman, with large brown eyes, in a lavender headscarf who serves as the only liason for ANAD with the hearing world. Parween answered my many questions, and throughout the day, she proved to be much more than a translator between the deaf and the hearing…she is their lifeline. Their only link to the world outside their concrete walls.

As we toured the classrooms, some indoors and some outside in the walled in courtyard, all devoid of any furniture save an occasional blackboard, children’s faces beamed when we walked in. Boys and girls of all ages were split into grades K-6, learning to sign, based on their communication level versus their age. Sitting on the floor with the students, they eagerly took turns teaching me to sign: “hello, how are you, thank you, you’re welcome”. I was given a sign for my name, shown how to ask “Can I take a picture?”, and how to ‘clap’ with the other students. They asked me questions about my life, my country, my daughter. I was given a much deeper taste of the frustration of not being able to communicate that went far beyond my usual limited language skills. Why had I not been exposed to sign language in my own country? How could I be this cut off from an entire segment of population? 

For two years, worked to secure land for ANAD from President Karzai and had a inauguration ceremony at the site.   Soon after we were able to ensure that ANAD wouldn’t lose this land, common in Afghanistan as often its a matter of ‘he who builds first, owns’.  An amazing Afghan man living in Colorado, Rafaat Ludin, offered to build the security wall, knowing we didn’t have the money to build it, but realizing that ANAD wouldn’t be able to keep the land without it.

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The wall was built, a well was dug, and Global Exchange donated hundreds of fruit trees to grow in the courtyard.  At the time, this slice of land was only accessible by a bone jarring drive, which hasn’t changed much in the three years since we secured the land.  What HAS changed is the immense change to the landscape around this desolate piece of land.  What was literally a wasteland, a vast dusty, empty landscape, with our 5 acre piece of land enclosed by a security wall standing alone, is now an explosion of construction.

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This weekend, the students start moving in to the school, built by ISAF.  There is still much to be done, but it does my heart good to see that we were able to facilitate a permanent home for the deaf community and that we can continue to connect those that want to help to ANAD and help them build their capacity, teacher training, and reach their long term educational and outreach goals for the deaf of Afghanistan.  It has been such a pleasure to work in their service in some small way.   We are still raising funds to pay for the wall, something that exceeds Mountain2Mountain’s small annual budget.  Parween hugged me today on the drive to the school, “Shannon without the land, we wouldn’t have a home, without the wall, we would have lost the land.”  The road is long and our goal is to continue to connect them to those that can help them continue forward and build a deaf community for all of Afghanistan.

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Preserving Afghanistan’s History – Afghan Archive

The Afghan archive is housed at Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, ACKU.  The center was opened in the spring of 2013.  It is the only archive of its kind in Afghanistan and serves to collect and preserve all documents and books related to Afghanistan’s modern history, at this moment numbered around 80,000 and growing.

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The bulk of the center’s archive was collected by Nancy and Louis Dupree who started collecting Afghan books and documents while living in Peshawar among Afghan refugees.  The eclectic colletion includes communist propaganda, UN reports, fliers printed by warlords, books, photography, and newspapers.  There are also a number of photography books from the 1960′s and 1970′s that show Afghanistan, and particularly Kabul in a completely different light than what most imagine it was.

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The fascinating part of the story is how Nancy got the collections from Peshawar to Kabul.  Starting in 2006, they began to smuggle around 60,000 documents back to Kabul in plastic bags hidden in trucks fearful that the collection could be destroyed if discovered. A team works to digitize all the documents in the archive for a free open sourced digital archive that anyone in the world with a computer can access.   The enormity of the task means that the team estimates it will take till 2017 to catch up.

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The archive not only preserves books and documents, it also had a separate room that houses a newspaper archive.  I visited with my friend, Jelena Bjelica, a Serbian journalist living in Kabul, who is now working with ACKU.   We were surrounded by piles of bound books of newspapers including Taliban newspapers under the name Shariat, and various mujahedeen newspapers, each faction had its own.  The library manager, Rahim Qaderdan, opened up a book of Shariat papers, noticeable for their lack of photographs.  The sense of history that surrounded me, palpable in the yellow pages stacked to the ceiling.

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The collection first went to the Kabul Library and now is housed in a modern architectural building, ACKU, on the Kabul University Campus.  The center hosts a variety of speakers and presentations in the auditorium.

I was there to deliver a copy of the Streets of Afghanistan book for the archive.  An incredible honor.  I watched the book go to the archivist’s desk to get its identification number and label.   It is now a part of the Afghan archive housed inside the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University a part of Afghanistan’s modern history.

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The book is available for sale – proceeds benefit Mountain2Mountain – at www.streetsofafghanistanbook.com  by Hatherleigh Press.

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Power of Photography: Voices – Mariam Alimi

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I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the talented Streets of Afghanistan  photographers, Mariam Alimi, today in Kabul for lunch.   I met her briefly 5 years ago, in November 2008, when I met all the Afghan photographers in Kabul for the first time at AINA Photo Agency to discuss the inception of the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition.   I delivered her a copy of the book and over pomegranate juice and lunch we talked about the exhibition and the power of voice, the power of photography.   As we talked about her career and how she started as a photographer in 2006, we talked about courage, and activism, and women’s rights, and our cultures.  Mariam said at one point when talking about her start in photographer, “I was not so brave as I am now.”  When I asked her to explain I was surprised to learn that it was intrinsically linked with the key photograph of hers that we used in the exhibition.

One of her first photographs was one she took in Heart, its one that we had in the exhibit and its one of my favorites.

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This man was a poppy farmer near Herat decades ago, before the mujahedeen.  During the civil war and the Taliban times he moved to Iran.  While there he learned about saffron cultivation.  When he returned in 2002, he starting planting saffron thanks to the help of an organization that gave him a few bulbs from the Netherlands.  Each year his crop grew a little more and eventually he started sharing the bulbs with other farmers to cultivate.   When Mariam met him it was to interview him as part of an organization to make a documentary about saffron cultivation.  After they got done filming him, he asked if he could hear what he sounded like and they put the headphones on him and played back his interview.  This photo was taken at the moment he first heard his voice and the look of pure joy hits me every time I see the photo.

But Mariam almost wasn’t there to take the photo.  As a single Afghan woman, she lived at home and had to ask her father’s permission to go with her organization to Herat.  She had never traveled without her family before, and she was scared to ask her father.  She invited her boss, a foreign woman, to come to dinner and meet her family and in the conversations that followed, she asked Mariam’s father for permission to come with her to Herat.  He agreed to allow her to go, and it was the first step of a journey that changed Mariam completely.   She continued to ask permission to travel and now she has traveled all around Afghanistan, and to many countries, including the United States.

When we started talking about how change for women in Afghanistan starts, she gave me a beautiful example that reminded me of my own journey.  “Everyone when they are young thinks, “I want to change the world”.  As we get older, we realize that we should start by changing our country.  But the difficulties make us realize that we should focus on changing our community.  Then we realize that our own families are part of the larger problem so we should look at changing our family.  Finally, with age and wisdom we realize, everything starts with us, as individuals, and that real change must happen from within each one of first. “

Mariam leads by this example.   She is unusual for Afghan women of her age, one of the handful of female photographers in Afghanistan, she walks the streets by herself, meeting strangers, taking photos.  When she speaks with young girls, they often say to her, “I am not as brave as you, I could not do what you do”.  Mariam tells them that it’s not a matter of being brave or not brave.  It’s about taking a small step in the direction you want to go.  Change yourself first, so that others see you for what you really are, and live your life in a way that reflects what you believe, and those around you change in unexpected ways in reaction to you.

You can see more of Mariam’s work on her website and her work in the groundbreaking, Streets of Afghanistan exhibition, in the newly released book available through Hatherleigh Press and Random House.  Streets of Afghanistan book

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Photography, Bikes, Slam Poetry, Graffiti, and ROCK at Sound Central Festival

The finale show for the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition couldn’t have a cooler Kabul location than the 3rd Annual Sound Central Festival.  Bigger and badder than ever, the alternative music festival has grown substantially each year since founder, Travis Beard launched the first ever Central Asia Rock Festival in 2011.

Travis is a longtime friend, advisor to M2M, and frequent road trip companion to some dodgy places as my photographer-for-hire.   He had asked me last fall if we could keep the exhibition in Afghanistan after our series of public exhibitions to set the backdrop and involve more art forms in this years festival.  I couldn’t think of a more fitting finale.  Sound Central Festival has grown from the initial one day rock festival at Babur Gardens, to a alternative music and art festival spanning four days on two stages with acts from around the world.   The festival kicked off with the Women’s Only day – which allowed orphanages and school girls to attend and experience a different sort of concert.  Slam poetry, a fashion show, Afghan rap duo, films, and a killer performance by White City, and Ariana Delwari rounded out the indoor activities, along with various artisans in the lobby.  Outside was the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition throughout the entrance courtyard, grafitti art with Shamsia, and Mountain2Mountain‘s Bike School with members of the women’s national cycling team.

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Once the music kicked off however, we took the three members of the national team inside so they could take part.  The crowd was a sea of white headscarves from the schoolgirl’s uniform, and they cheered and clapped throughout the various acts.  But when Ru Owen, frontman of Kabul expat band, White City took the stage – they went wild.   She welcomed them in Dari and with arms open called out to her Afghan ‘sisters’.  Goosebumps ran down my spine at her wide smile that showed her genuine pleasure to take the stage in front of all these young girls, who for most had never been to any concert, much less one like this – a full blown rock concert with a strong female lead.  Without further ado, Ru, Travis, and Andreas rocked their world and the girls loved every minute.

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The Girls Get Their Bikes

Today, Coach picked up the 5 brand new racing bikes for the girls national team.  Thanks to Liv/giant, the girls have 5 racing bikes to compete on, with another 7 arriving this fall.

After Ky arrived from the States as our ‘bike mechanic’, she immediately got to work on assembling the bikes.  She got a chance to ride briefly with the girls on a training ride on one of the trucking roads out of Kabul, and to sit in on several of the interviews to meet the Coach and the girls and better understand our program and these amazing girls.

Two days later, we invited the girls over to the guesthouse/bike shop to get fitted.    They arrived in typical Afghan fashion for the bike fits.

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Streets Finale Show at Sound Central Festival

The finale show in Afghanistan for the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition will kick off tomorrow at the Sound Central Festival. The festival is in its third year, and is the brainchild of Kabul filmmaker/photojournalist/rockstar Travis Beard.  The festival started as the first Central Asia alternative music festival and each year has grown to include street art, film, and break out sessions outside of the main stage.

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                                        SCF Founder, Travis Beard, gets excited about this year’s line up

The festival kicks off with a women’s only day, inviting upwards of 500 schoolgirls and orphans to attend to listen to music, watch a film by Afghan American singer/songwriter/filmmaker, Ariana Delwari, and learn about contemporary art.  In the courtyard girls can learn to skateboard, bike ride, and experience art.  The goal is to engage young Afghan girls that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to be exposed to art and contemporary music and sport.

Next up is where they begin to really rock – three days of rock, alternative, punk, rap, and everything in-between as Sound Central rocks Kabul on two stages.  This is not for the expat scene, Sound Central is open to the public and about engaging Afghan youth in contemporary and alternative music, while highlighting the music scene in this region and beyond with bands from Afghanistan and its neighbors like District Unknown, Kabul Dreams, Tears of the Sun and many more.

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Home grown Kabul boys, District Unknown, rock Afghanistan regularly

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The Coach and the Beginning of a Journey on Two Wheels

I first met Coach Sediq last year at a petrol station on the north end of Kabul – I was preparing to go on a road ride with the men’s national cycling team.  I was speaking with team member, Ashraf Ghani, who I had met at a local cafe and invited me to ride.  Coach Sediq pulled up unexpectedly with his assistant, Mariam, en route to Mazar-i-Sharif to visit some women cyclists.  We talked about the mens and women’s national teams, my surprise and excitement about meeting them and my desire to help, and what he saw as the future for the National Cycling teams of Afghanistan.

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Two days ago I flew back to Kabul and headed straight from the airport directly to the offices of the cycling federation with 6 brand new bikes and over 350 pounds of cycling clothing that had been donated by individuals, bike shops, and bike companies.  With me… a photographer, a writer, a film crew, and a overqualified ‘bike mechanic’.

He was all smiles when I stepped off the mini bus and he recognized my face, pleased I had returned to lend support.  After explaining what I hoped Mountain2Mountain could do to help grow and develop the cycling teams, I introduced the film crew, Let Media’s Sarah Menzies and Whitney Clapper Connor – who were with me to create a documentary about the women’s cycling team, Afghan Cycles.   When asked if he would support the project and allow us access to himself and his team, he responded – “Bale, bale bale”.  “Yes, yes yes. I thank you for your interest and support and we will support this project and your efforts 1000%.”

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Gear Drive for National Cycling Teams of Afghanistan

Its time for a good old fashioned gear drive.  Cycling gear that is.

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After mountain biking in Afghanistan for the past three years, usually the only bikes I see are simple Pakistani made commuters bikes, ridden around the country on dirt roads and highways by men and boys of all ages.   This is a country that does not allow women to ride bikes, something I have challenged by continuing to mountain bike throughout different areas of the country and starting conversations.  Thus the bike has been a continuing thread throughout the story of Mountain2Mountain, leading up to our newest program launching this summer, Strength in Numbers, which uses the mountain bike as a vehicle for social change with women that have survived gender violence here in the US. Continue reading

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