Tag Archives: Streets of Afghanistan

Looking Back Before Looking Forward – 5 years in Afghanistan

I recently returned from another trip to Afghanistan.  It was an amazing culmination of 5 years of work there – can you believe its already been 5 years, and 15 trips since the first visit in 2008?  Many of you have been with me since the beginning, with our first event in 2007, which was the equivalent of me dipping my big toe into the water before I dove in headfirst.  Others have joined the journey along the way, and I a grateful for every ounce of support you have given.  Some of you have volunteered, others have donated big and small amounts, many have shared links and tweeted and helped spread the word.  Before announcing the big updates and plans for 2014 and beyond, I thought it was time to take a moment to look back at our success, our failures, and our evolution!

The Streets of Afghanistan had its finale show at the Afghan Center at Kabul University – the Afghan Archives in November 2013.  We donated the entire exhibition to ACKU for their permanent collection, which means it will be used for years to come in unique ways for programming and around the Kabul campus.   The ACKU archive, founded by Nancy DuPree to preserve Afghanistan’s modern history, now has a copy of the Streets of Afghanistan book.  This was the very first project that I started in 2008 with meetings with Afghan photographers, it premiered in April 2011 at the Denver Art Museum, and traveled to Afghanistan as a series of street art installations in October 2012.  The book documents the exhibition’s pop up style exhibitions in Afghanistan with photography from Tony Di Zinno who documented the first visit in 2008, bringing the entire project full circle.

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This past visit, I also witnessed the final stages of the new school construction for Afghan National Association for the Deaf. It brought great joy to see the land we had secured three and a half years ago from President Karzai, and the wall that had been built around it thanks to Rafaat Ludin and IHFD, come to life with the first school building completed sponsored by ISAF.   The wall still has a debt owed on its construction, but without Rafaat Ludin’s willingness to build without funding, the land would have been lost.  This project has been our biggest overstretch and in many ways my biggest failure, despite my pride at seeing the school completed.  It was a lesson in staying true to my roots of activism and empowerment, and staying away from the sticks and bricks projects that many original Board members and donors wanted to see Mountain2Mountain which focused on building schools.  Students started classes and the hope is that ANAD can flourish and begin to expand its program despite the difficulties of sustainable funding that continue to limit its ability to expand sign language education throughout Afghanistan and bring language and communication to all Afghans.

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We have created computer labs at girls schools, we have stocked boys schools with supplies and computers, we have created and supported kindergartens in rehab centers and prisons, and we have paid midwives and teachers annual salaries.  I have spent time speaking with women in prison, female members of Parliament, female ministers of government, teachers, students, artists, musicians, and activists, to gain a better understanding of Afghanistan and the potential of the women’s role in its future development.  We have tried to implement rural midwife training and failed to spread that valuable seed, due to political short-sightedness.  Lack of sustainable funding has prevented many long term approaches from succeeding, but it also allowed us to stay agile and evolve organically.

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As the years and my experience evolved, we found our roots and our unique role.  We have supported graffiti art projects which have created a ripple effect with artists like Shamsia who have created workshops for others to learn this style of art and voice.  Shamsia has been invited to several countries to take part in exhibitions, and this past month she and other local artists like Nabila formed a collective that created the first graffiti art festival.  Around Kabul you can see Banksy-esque stencil art, street art styled billboards, and occasional marks of the original graffiti art project by Combat Communications that started it all.

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We have seen our mission of educating and empowering women and girls evolve to focus beyond education and training,  with activism, arts, and sports to look at ways that connect communities, inspire girls, and build on the belief that women are equal.  Its a perfect fit for me as someone that has been able to travel solo through Afghanistan, as a woman, without security or convoys or restrictions, to connect with Afghans in various areas of Afghanistan, from Kabul to Kandahar, from Mazar i sharif to Maimana, from Khost to Sherbengan.  I believe that larger, staffed, and better funded organizations need to focus on building schools, medical facilities, and conduct trainings.  What makes us unique is our individual approach, our ability to do less, and our goal of inspiring voice and activism in unique ways that challenge gender barriers but that are sustainable, and locally led.

The past five years we have seen recognition of these efforts featured in the New York Times, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, Dateline NBC, BBC World, Outside Magazine, and hundreds others across the United States, Italy, Brazil, Germany, France, and Spain media and press outlets.  The full list is on our website under newsroom.   The documentary film made about my motivations as the founder behind Mountain2Mountain, MoveShake, won an award at the Adventure Film Festival.  National Geographic recognized me as an Adventurer of the Year for my work in Afghanistan.  I have spoken at TEDx three times – each one about a different aspect of my vision of M2M’s core work:  The Perception of Victimhood and the Power of Voice, A Two Wheeled Revolution, and the most recent, Art as Activism in the Streets of Afghanistan on the TEDx stage in Italy in conjunction with an invitation to speak at the Italian Parliament.  We are making progress, and we are being heard.

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October 3, 2009, I became the first person to mountain bike in Afghanistan in the Panjshir Valley.  Something I did for many reasons, but first and foremost because it is a country that didn’t allow Afghan women or girls to ride.  I rode to challenge that gender barrier and it led to amazing roadside conversations with random Afghan men about women’s rights, sports, and the work I was doing with Mountain2Mountain.  I rode with boys and men in various parts of the country every visit since that intial ride, but never did I find any women.  The power of the bike as a vehicle for social justice was something that became an unexpected symbol and theme of Mountain2Mountain.  We created a bike team, Team M2M, we created a series of community bike rides as fundraisers, dubbed The Panjshir Tour that launched the same day I attempted to ride across the Panjshir Valley in 2010.  If we couldn’t get girls on bikes, we could use the bike as a tool for fundraising.

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As you know, we found the women that dare to ride last year, and we are now pedaling a revolution with the Afghan National Women’s Bike Team.  Our initial step this year supported the first women cyclists focused on our spring gear drive and distribution, which brought over 7 racing bikes and over 450 pounds of cycling gear for the mens and the women’s cycling teams, and raised awareness internationally of these amazing women.     In a country that has historically not allowed women to ride bikes, we are witnessing the challenge, and the eventual elimination, of this gender barrier.  We are building ongoing support, training, and future coaching and we are now playing a role in spreading the women’s cycling movement beyond Kabul for years to come.   This spring we will be launching the first ever women’s mountain bike team and a companion road bike team in Bamiyan province.  We are supporting the spread of a two wheeled revolution for women with the creation of our Strength in Numbers program.  Believing that one woman can create change, we believe that our real strength is in our numbers and that we could create an army of women that could change the world, and we believe we can do it on two wheels.  We need your help  to continue our work in Afghanistan on behalf of the women that dare to ride – who are breaking long held taboos, and who see the bike as their right.

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I also stepped up as the producer for the production of the Afghan Cycles documentary film, with Let Media and an all female film crew to document the women who dare to ride and tell their inspiring stories.  The film is in production and set to premiere in the fall or winter of 2014/2015.  You can learn more about the production and watch the trailer at www.afghancycles.com  As the film’s non profit partner, all outreach will directed to supporting women who ride through our Strength in Numbers program.

IMG_5557There are several ways to get involved.  The biggest is helping us reach out goal of 100 Bikes by Christmas, which thanks to the support of articles with Matador Network and GOOD Magazine and their planned New Year’s outreach, we’ve extended into the New Year.  41 bikes were purchased as gifts which we will purchase and distribute this spring to women and girls.   $100 = 1 bike that we can donate to the women that are learning to ride in Afghanistan.  You can learn more on our Facebook Campaign or you can donate directly online here:  www.mountain2mountain.org/donation

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You can also purchase a copy of Streets of Afghanistan book for your friends and family – proceeds benefit Mountain2Mountain.

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We are still operating as a one-woman show, no office, no staff, and building our projects and our reputation one trip at a time. It takes a village to create a revolution – and I am grateful for every single donation that comes in, knowing that it is literally the difference between creating change and accepting the status quo.  Those of you that donate have affected the lives of women in Afghanistan in profound ways.  You should be proud, and I am continually humbled and grateful.  If you can make an end of year donation to help us keep our working moving forward, you can donate directly at www.mountain2mountain.org/donation!

Thank you for being with us through the ups and the downs – we can’t wait to pedal a revolution with all of you in the years ahead as we build our strength in numbers!

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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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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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A Space for Art Emerges in Kabul

Afghanistan is not the place you think of for emerging artists and activist culture.  Yet few countries in the world are more ripe for an artistic scene.  Just sit for a few hours over coffee at The Venue, a coffeeshop turned artist refuge, surrounded by  the work of artists like Shamsia and Kabir, and you can literally feel the pulse of an artistic heartbeat.  Just in side the entrance is the artist statement spray painted on the steel doors.  Our table had members of the Afghan metal band, District Unknown, visiting Swiss artists, graffiti artist, Shamsia, and an inspiring ex-pat that is supporting the vision of creating more space for Afghan voice.

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‘Streets of Afghanistan’ Exhibit in Istalif

Yesterday we premiered the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition in the village of Istalif, a remote village in the Shomali Plain north of Kabul. Four years ago, I envisioned a collaborative photography exhibition between Afghan photographers and Western photographers that had deep affection for this country. Instead of a gallery show, I imagined surrounding the viewer in the image to bring the art off the wall, and into the viewers world.  I wanted to see people’s reaction as they interacted with lifesize images and hoped that it would change American perspectives of Afghanistan – that if we saw it as a country with a beautiful spirit and culture that we would be more invested in it from a humanitarian perspective.

Yesterday I saw that vision come full circle as we brought the exhibition TO Afghanistan, among Afghans themselves to surround them with the beauty and spirit of their country and communities.  28 photographs lines the market streets outside of the mosque on the first day of Eid in the village of Istalif and the reaction was nothing short of amazing.

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Sneak Peek at Kabul’s Darlumon Palace

29 life-size photographs made it all the way from Colorado through Kabul airport for a series of public art exhibitions in Afghanistan.  Other than getting our roll of duct tape confiscated in Dubai security – everything arrived intact.

Today, was the sneak peek at Kabul’s historic Darulaman Palace. Stay tuned for what comes next!

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Streets of Afghanistan Photography Exhibit Heads Back to Afghanistan

In the upcoming weeks we are headed with a team to finally bring the Streets of Afghanistan exhibit to Afghanistan, for a groundbreaking exhibition of 40 life-size photographic images that capture the beauty and the soul of this region.

In 2008 we launched the Streets of Afghanistan project, facilitating a collaboration of Afghan and Western photographers to document Afghan life through the rarely seen Afghan lens. The resulting photographs immerse the viewer in the landscapes and faces of Afghanistan, transporting them directly into the culture and mindset of the country’s people. After touring the US, we’re very excited that the exhibit will come full circle and finally be shown in several public exhibits in Kabul, allowing the general Afghan public to interact with art in a way that they rarely have the opportunity to do.

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Streets of Afghanistan Exhibition to the Streets of Kabul

We need your help!  Mountain2Mountain has entered the final phase of our Kickstarter campaign to bring the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition to the streets of Kabul this fall!

Streets of Afghanistan is a cultural, bigger-than-life art exhibition that highlights the beauty and soul of the land and the people of Afghanistan while challenging existing perceptions of the war-torn country.  A ground-breaking collaboration of Afghan and Western photographers through life sized photography.

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