Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Afghanistan: No Interpreters and the Dangers of Ignorance

March 25th, 2021 No comments

As the Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan and here in Britain we hold a Defence Review, have we learned the lessons of our own failures there?

Lockdown has given me plenty of time to reflect and I’ve been thinking recently a great deal about Afghanistan – perhaps prompted by the fact that the Americans may be about to withdraw completely from that country after 20 years of largely unsuccessful occupation since the invasion.

I was in the country for a brief and intense time in 2007 when I was filming for Channel 4 Dispatches and CNN. We saw a country that had been brutalised for decades by the Russian occupation, the ensuing civil war and then the American carpet bombing to ensure that their troops met no resistance. And a country which was becoming restive as the Allies seemed increasingly unable to help them rebuild, or for that matter interested in doing so once they had been distracted by Iraq. Read more…

Shakespeare in Kabul

April 26th, 2012 No comments

Shakespeare in KabulA remarkable new book has just come out about trying to mount a production of Shakespeare in Afghanistan, using a mixed cast, which of course is in itself a radical step.

Even the discussion about which play to select caused endless difficulties. Most of the comedies have “Male-female interactions  that could be problematic in performance”:  the Merchant of Venice raises issues of anti-Semitism; Measure for Measure and the Taming of the Shrew are not funny in a country where many women continue to be treated badly;  Miranda pursues a young man in The Tempest in a way Afghans would find ‘inappropriate’.  Obviously the history plays with their themes of invasion and insurrection could have played well – Richard II being a strong candidate.

But the producers did want to try to introduce a large female cast, so the search was on for the right comedy.

Eventually they settled on Love’s Labours Lost with its courtly conceit of four young men retiring from the world, and four young women disturbing that seclusion.  But even that caused problems. At one point the young men are required to disguise themselves as Russians to woo the women.  The actors categorically refused to dress up as Russians.  Eventually a compromise was reached.  They would disguise themselves as Indians instead.  As I know from my own travels in Afghanistan, because of Bollywood movies the Afghans think of India as the home of romance, so this transposition made sense.

As did these wonderful – and in Kabul, revolutionary – lines from Biron’s speech on the folly of forswearing the company of women:

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:

they sparkle still the right Promethean fire;

they are the books, the arts, the academes,

that show, contain and nourish all the world.


Shakespeare in Kabul (Haus) is by Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar 

Afghan show at the British Museum

March 7th, 2011 No comments

Museums do make life easy.  Four years ago I tried to reach the fabled site of Aï Khanum on the shores of the River Oxus in north-eastern Afghanistan, the Greek city built by the followers of Alexander the Great.  Despite having Ahmad Shah Massoud’s ex-bodyguard with us, we were beaten back just a few miles from the site by the turbulent security situation close to the Tajik border. Even if we had got there, we might not have found much: recent photographs show that the lower half of the city has been comprehensively looted in recent years.


Now the finest pieces excavated from that site are on display rather more accessibly just up the Holborn road.  The British Museum’s superb new exhibition of the treasures of Afghanistan illustrates the extraordinary cross-cultural influences that one might expect from this crossroads of Asia:   an Aphrodite with an Indian bindi mark on her forehead;  another Greek goddess riding a Persian chariot across a silver lunar landscape;  Corinthian capitals beside Indian ivories.



But the exhibition also raises some interesting wider questions.  It has only been made possible by some brave Afghan curators who hid the artefacts while the National Museum of Kabul was looted by mujahedeen in the civil wars.  For the past five years, the treasures of ‘Alexandria on Oxus’ have been homeless, on a permanent roving international exhibition that keeps them in perpetual exile but also has the effect that they are seen by far many more people than if they had remained at home.

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More Afghan thoughts

December 2nd, 2009 No comments

If there is one story that is currently under-reported, it is the proxy war that is being fought in Afghanistan : not the one between America and Al-Qaeda, but the one between India and Pakistan. While Pakistan feels that the Pushtuns are ‘their guys’ against the Indian-backed Tajiks, Uzbeks and other tribes, there will never be a chance of settling the conflict.

One Labour minister I met several years ago at Kabul airport after his tour of inspection was openly wondering how it was that while large packets of aid still went to India, it could still afford to send equally large packets of aid to ‘its men’ in Afghanistan. One can’t help thinking that some judicious diplomacy might restore a sense of perspective. Sending 30,000 more American troops – and 500 more British ones – is only part of the answer.

Afghan thoughts

December 1st, 2009 No comments

[An expanded version of recent article for the Times]

Three years ago I was preparing to go to Afghanistan to make a Despatches Special for C4 with the intrepid Pakistani journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about what conditions for ordinary Afghans were like. We wanted to make it in the winter of 2006-07 because there was talk of a Spring offensive from the Taleban – which indeed came – and came – and has kept coming ever since.

The difference in the country between then and now is striking. 

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