Last month, Britain’s new Defense Minister, Liam Fox, described Afghanistan as a “broken 13th-century country” and indeed this is what we are told frequently, that Afghanistan is scarcely more advanced than a medieval society and its barren, rocky terrain indistinguishable from the lunar surface. But it wasn’t always that way. Not at all. And things were much different for women, too…. not long ago, in fact.
Mohammad Qayoumi, president of California State University, East Bay, writes in Foreign Policy:
But that is not the Afghanistan I remember. I grew up in Kabul in the 1950s and ‘60s. When I was in middle school, I remember that on one visit to a city market, I bought a photobook about the country published by Afghanistan’s planning ministry. Most of the images dated from the 1950s. I had largely forgotten about that book until recently; I left Afghanistan in 1968 on a U.S.-funded scholarship to study at the American University of Beirut, and subsequently worked in the Middle East and now the United States. But recently, I decided to seek out another copy. Stirred by the fact that news portrayals of the country’s history didn’t mesh with my own memories, I wanted to discover the truth. Through a colleague, I received a copy of the book and recognized it as a time capsule of the Afghanistan I had once known—perhaps a little airbrushed by government officials, but a far more realistic picture of my homeland than one often sees today.
A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.
I have since had the images in that book digitized. Remembering Afghanistan’s hopeful past only makes its present misery seem more tragic.
I highly recommend clicking through all 24 pages of this photo essay, Once Upon a TIme in Afghanistan. It’s a fascinating look at a society that was so vibrant and thriving in the 1950s and 1960s, but is now in a hell of a mess. Some of these photographs are likely to stop you in your tracks when you consider the implications of what happened to this culture. HOW could things have gotten this much worse in 40 years?!?! It’s just incredible to contemplate. A cautionary tale of the very worst, most depressing kind.
Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan (Foreign Policy)