Monthly Archives: October 2013

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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A Lesson in Shifting – Training with Afghan Cycling Team

Photo credit Mariam Alimi (39)

The wind in your face.

Two wheels spinning underneath you.

An open road widening ahead, smooth, empty.

Riding a bike is like no other feeling… the very action symbolizes freedom of movement.

Today, I rode again with the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team, as we continue to support these fabulous young women that dare to ride.  The girls meet weekly under the frenetic whistle blowing of Coach Seddiq to ride their bikes and learn to race.

I was back to check in with the girls, do a little training and coaching, and make plans for future support and racing.

Eleven girls came out to ride.  Only three had I met before, Mariam, Nazifa, and Massouma had all been part of the Afghan Cycles film project we are working on with filmmaker Sarah Menzies of Let Media.  Sadaf and Farzana were with their families and couldn’t make it.  I kissed them each three times on the cheek and gave each a squeeze.  Then I turned to face the rest of the girls assembled.  Four were with the American University, one more is studying German at the Goethe Institute.  Some had ridden bikes since they were young, growing up in Iran, before their families returned to Afghanistan when they were teenagers.

Photo credit Mariam Alimi (37)

Others literally learned to ride a few months ago.

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We unloaded the bikes and lined up, while Coach introduced me, and we split the group into the girls that were comfortable riding and those that were still learning.   I had planned some hill repeat drills on the smooth road that led up to the mountain, to build strength and stamina. We warmed up running long laps at an easy pace, and it was soon apparent that there was something more important than hill repeats.

We headed back to Coach and Najibullah, and sat the girls down for a lesson in shifting.  The irony was not lost on me,  a singlespeed rider that doesn’t use gears on my own bikes teaching Afghan girls to shift.

Photo credit Mariam Alimi (17)

Photo credit Mariam Alimi (20)

Each bike is radically different in where the shifters are located, and which way they work, so I told the girls that each time they ride, they need to work their warm ups as shifting practice.  All the way up and all the way down… this is made more difficult than it should be thanks to the lack of bike maintenance.  I thought my bike maintenance skills are bad, comments from those that know me best, but I don’t have a derailleur.  Chains skipped, one locked in place, and the one I was riding starting making loud clicking noises.  No wonder the girls didn’t shift!

So lesson number two.  BIke maintenance.  I told Coach, if we were going to bring over more bikes they needed to be maintained every week. I would reach out to Pedro’s for oil, etc. but we would need to do some maintenance clinics next visit and perhaps develop a position designated team mechanic that could maintain the mens and women’s team bikes.

We discussed the next steps of supporting the teams, both the men’s and women’s, in terms of equipment, coaching, and funding.  Both teams need funding so that they can accept the invitations from other countries to come race, and even to transport the teams to safe training areas.  There is no racing in Afghanistan, but when offers come to race in Pakistan, India, and the upcoming Asia Games, they need to be able to accept so that their experience is built.  Step by step building a viable team that is interacting with their regional counterparts and gaining experience and showcasing Afghanistan’s progress.  Mountain2Mountain is beyond thrilled to support them and build support throughout Afghanistan for women’s cycling.

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Bamiyan Women’s Bike Team to Launch 2014.

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4 years ago exactly, I rode my mountain bike throughout Panjshir and on the hills that surround Kabul.  It was one part experiment and one part adventure.  In a country that doesn’t allow its women to ride bikes, I wanted to challenge the gender barrier as a foreign woman and test the reactions.  I also wanted to experience a country known mostly for  war, poverty, and oppression on two wheels, surrounded by the beauty of the Panjshir mountains and the kindness of the people I encountered, and share a different view of Afghanistan back home.

It wasn’t until three years later that I found women who rode.  I met Coach Seddiq in late 2012,  the head of the Afghan bicycing federation who was coaching not only the boys but also started a women’s team.  My heart soared and we immediately got to work to support with equipment, gear, and training.  NBC Nightly News covered the story and we collected an enormous amount of gear along with 5 carbon racing bikes from Liv/giant.

This spring, we delivered the gear, and introduced a film crew from Let Media to the team.  Filmmaker Sarah Menzies, came to make a film about the women’s national team, the first women to ride and race.  Afghan Cycles launches in 2014 and it couldn’t be more fitting as the next steps with women’s cycling launch.

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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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