Mazar e Sharif: The Bustling Beacon of Beauty

Some 400 kilometers northwest of Kabul is the second largest city and the sprawling urban centre of Afghanistan. They call it Mazar e Sharif. The province is tremendously popular with foreign tourists thanks to its breathtaking landscape, and more importantly, peace and serenity. In all the years of civil war and political unrest, this part of the war-torn country remained unaffected since it existed as an autonomous region until the late 1990s. It borders Uzbekistan and is populated with large number of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. This diversity is reflected in the city’s rich culture, from exquisite food to enchanting music, from quirky markets to fine arts and crafts.

Unlike many other restive provinces of Afghanistan, which are still trapped in ultra-conservative, old-fashioned, orthodox traditions; women in Mazar e Sharif enjoy complete freedom and access to higher education. There is zero tolerance for discrimination. People come across as warm and unpretentious. Quite interestingly, the local provincial government has done a fine job. There is a Women’s Music College too, something unthinkable elsewhere.

Mazar e Sharif remained unaffected in the years of civil war; however, it faced its own problems in the post-Taliban era, after 2001. The warlords and strongmen from Uzbek and Tajik tribes got embroiled in a power struggle and control of natural gas reserves. The situation has limped back to normalcy now but the tensions spark occasionally.

Worse, post 2001, this province made news for war crimes by US led allied forces. After the Taliban were ousted in 2001, fierce military operations swept the country including Mazar e Sharif. A documentary film ‘Massacre at Mazar’ made by an Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran shows the extent of involvement of US soldiers in torture and murder of captured rebels and disappearance of around 3,000 men in Mazar e Sharif province barely a year after Taliban regime was shunted out.

The noise of traffic on the road drowns in the quietude and calm of the park, the chirping and warbling of birds, the cooing of the white doves waddling all around

Mazar e Sharif is home to the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi. The aggressive sport, in which players riding the horseback seek control of a goat’s carcass, is being played here since the 13th century. It is played in open fields on weekends, especially in the winter season until the Afghan New Year (Navroz) that falls on March 21. On Navroz, Mazar e Sharif turns into a virgin bride and is flooded with massive number of visitors. The auspicious occasion coincides with Gul e Surkh festival, named after red tulip flowers, invoking prosperity and productiveness.

However, the main attraction of city, which draws tourists and pilgrims from across the world, especially on the New Year, is Blue Mosque. The mosque is surrounded by the picturesque, lush-green park filled with the intoxicating smell of flowers. The noise of traffic on the road drowns in the quietude and calm of the park, the chirping and warbling of birds, the cooing of the white doves waddling all around. The doves, which are an integral part of the Blue Mosque compound, are looked after by the attendants of the mosque. According to caretakers and gardeners here, the doves are pure white in color because of the sanctity of the mosque, and even the doves with speck of color turn white here.

On Navroz, which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of Afghan New year, all the routes lead to this beautiful shrine; the festivities kick off days before and continue for more than two weeks 

The Blue Mosque, enveloped in thousands of colorful and intricately designed tiles in various exquisite patterns, houses the revered shrine of Hazrat Ali, the cousin of Prophet Mohammad. The shrine was built in the reign of Husain Baiqara. The open hall to the southeast of shrine dates back to Timurid period. The marble gravestone is from the Ghazanavid period. Legend has it that the body of Hazrat Ali was shifted here from its original burial place in Najaf, Iraq.  The deeply revered shrine was demolished by the marauding ruler Genghis Khan and his Mongol army in the 13th century, but it was later rebuilt as a pilgrimage site and a tourist destination.

Today, the shrine has become cynosure of all eyes, and people cutting across sects and tribes in Afghanistan hold it in deep reverence. On Navroz, which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of Afghan New year, all the routes lead to this beautiful shrine. The festivities kick off days before and continue for more than two weeks. Every year, on the day of Navroz, the guards of shrine (pehelwan e roza) hoist a massive flag called ‘Jahanda’ in the compound of the shrine. Thousands of people from across the country witness the ceremony, which has become a part of tradition now. Mela-e Gul-e Surkh, a popular festival of blooming tulips in Mazar e Sharif, starts a week before the New Year.

Well, little wonder why a trip to Afghanistan is incomplete without visiting Mazar e Sharif and Blue Mosque. The beautiful meets bustling here.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/27/mazar-e-sharif-the-bustling-beacon-of-beauty/blog)

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Bamyan ruins tell many fascinating stories

Mark Henry, a boisterous English traveler, came to Afghanistan in the summer of 1976 on a short trip. After taking pleasure in the modest comforts of Kabul city for a few days, he headed north to Bamyan, which was a forlorn and isolated place tucked in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The staunch lover of nature and beauty, he was fascinated by the ancient caves of Buddhist monks, the imposing statues of Buddha – one of which stood 50 meters tall, and the shimmering blue water lakes. He roamed around, clicked pictures, took notes and enjoyed his time.

Mesmerized by the beauty of rugged mountains, crystal clear lakes and awe-inspiring landscape of Bamyan, he made a pact with himself: to return soon for a longer stint. But, some years later, the country descended into chaos and Henry had to shelve his plans.

The all-out war broke out and fierce clashes erupted, mostly in the frontier border provinces. Many foreign ministries began to issue travel advisories to their citizens, singling out Afghanistan as the most dangerous destination for tourists. For the next two decades, it was all chaos and confusion. Tourists stopped coming. Many Afghans fled their homes and became refugees in other countries. Tourism sector was in shambles. The once-beautiful tourist places scared the daylights out of people.

In 2001, the bloody juggernaut was broken, after the fall of Taliban. And, over the years, the situation has been gradually limping back to normalcy, though the war continues with different set of actors and a different stage. Henry, now 68, returned back this year after delaying it for too long. The years of civil war followed by the period of uneasy calm made him wary. But, he rues the fact that the Buddha statue in Bamyan has been reduced to rubble. The good old memories haunt him.

After groping in the dark for years, Afghanistan has bounced back strongly in the last one decade. Tourism sector is again on the boom, despite sporadic incidents of violence and the continuing war between Taliban and the U.S. forces. Like Henry, many foreign tourists are returning to Afghanistan to see and experience the ‘change’.

There are two routes leading to Bamyan from Kabul: through Parwan province, which is 237 km; and through Wardak province, which is 180 km

Last week, I headed to Bamyan, where the giant Buddha statues, surrounded by 3000 caves, once used to be the cynosure of eyes. There are two routes leading to Bamyan from Kabul: through Parwan province, which is 237 km; and through Wardak province, which is 180 km. But, it takes no less than 6 hours to reach Bamyan from Kabul because of the deteriorated roads and poor security.

The spectacular valley, once known for the imposing statues of Buddha, is now known for ruins of those statues. Constructed sometime in the 6th century, they were a target of cultural vandalism over the centuries; and finally in 2001, Taliban rolled in the tanks and destroyed them. Soon after, the Taliban regime was ousted and the valley was declared the world heritage site by UNESCO.

There was a talk of UNESCO rebuilding the statues – both small and big – but the world body last year laid all speculations to rest, announcing that it was not considering their restoration. Now, visitors mostly go there to see the ruins, which are as beautiful as the original statues.

There are other attractions like the historic caves inside with painted frescos that attract lot of visitors. Then there is Shehr e Gholghola, a majestic fort overlooking the town that gives the breathtaking view of the whole area.

The stunning Band e Amir lakes are prime attractions here. The six shimmering blue water lakes separated by dams take your breath away. The lakes quietly sit in the lap of Hindu Kush Mountains, on the west of famous Buddha statues.

The province offers wonderful opportunities for horse riding, trekking, biking and photography. The Koh e Baba Mountains south of the valley offer a lot to adventure seekers and explorers. Towards the east of Bamyan town, the Kakrak valley is one of the three sacred sites in the region for Buddhists. Shehr e Zohak, towards the east of town, is a fortified compound dating back to 15th century, with spectacular view of the Hajigak valley. Ajar Valley is regarded as the one of the best tourist attractions in the province.

Bamyan is known for its rich cultural heritage and civilization that dates back to early first century when it was the center of Kushanas, and later Ghoryads between 10th and 11th century. The Buddha statues were carved during the Kushana period. It is the confluence of east and west, with an archeology that has traces of Persian, Greek, Turkish and Chinese.

The province is mostly mountainous with no forest cover and very little agricultural land. Mineral resources are in abundance but the illegal excavation of coal mines goes unchecked. Hajikak area, bordering Bamyan and Wardak, has rich deposits of iron ore. Pujnab area is known for marble, and some other areas have sulphur deposits. These rich minerals, if exploited well, can immensely contribute to economic development of Bamyan.

The literacy rate is abysmally low and labor is mostly unskilled. Most of the school buildings here were destroyed in the years of war, and according to locals, government has always discriminated against Hazaras, who constitute the majority here.

However, unlike many other restive provinces in Afghanistan, Bamyan is comparatively safe. It is one of those places where you can move freely without being hit by a Taliban missile or an American drone. The Buddha statues are no longer there, but the beautiful ruins tell many fascinating stories.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/07/bamyan-ruins-tell-many-fascinating-stories/blog)

Afghan cinema clambers back from ashes of war

Australian artist and filmmaker, George Gittoes, famous for his documentary film Love City Jalalabad, told me something interesting last week. “It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.” His words sounded incongruous; almost ridiculous. Here was a foreign filmmaker, telling me it’s all hunky dory in Jalalabad, the stronghold of Taliban. I thought he must be nutty as fruitcake to even suggest that. But, after an engaging conversation that lasted for hours, I realized he had a point, a valid point.

George is currently making films in Afghanistan; besides painting, drawing and moving around the globe. He also runs Yellow House, an art and film school in Jalalabad, where he trains young Afghan artists and filmmakers. His work, in his own words, is a ‘war against war’.   The first day he arrived in Jalalabad, one of the video stores was bombed. He booked a hotel and started working on the script. Love City Jalalabad, in his words, is all about ‘fun, joy and love’; while his other venture Miscreants of Taliwood is a relatively dark film about an embattled industry and the hardships. In all these years working in Afghanistan, he tells me, he has never faced any violence or harassment from armed opposition groups.

yellow hse jalalabad

Last week, I also had a chance meeting with Sahil Malikzadah, who runs Aazraksh Film Productions and has acted in many Pashtoo language films. With long curly hair and strong frame, he looks perfect as villain. “Are you not afraid of Taliban. Don’t you think they will trim your hair and chop your head if they catch hold of you,” I asked him. With a mysterious snigger, he leaned down and gave a thoughtful reply. “We have overcome the fear of death, the show must go on.” Sahil has also filed his nomination papers for upcoming Provincial Council elections.

In last one decade, thanks to some gritty and audacious filmmakers, Afghan cinema has clambered back from the ashes of war. Both local and foreign filmmakers have contributed to this ‘change’ after the dark and depressing years under Taliban.   Last year, a film set against the dramatic landscape of contemporary Afghanistan and based on the national sport Buzkashi, created palpable buzz across the world. Shot entirely in Kabul by an alliance of Afghan and foreign filmmakers, Buzkashi Boys feature two best friends, a street urchin and a blacksmith’s son, struggling to realize their dreams.  The film was critically acclaimed and nominated for the Academy Awards.

Like the country, the Afghan film industry also has had a turbulent history. Since the release of Love and Friendship way back in 1951, the industry here has not produced more than 50 films. During the reign of King Zahir Shah, some small documentaries and full-length feature films like The Criminals, Migratory Birds and Escape were produced by Afghan Film, a state-run film company established by King Zahir in 1968. In the early 1970s, many new film studios mushroomed across the country; most notably Shafaq Films, Ariana Films and Nazir Films. The films made by them were screened at many international film festivals and widely acclaimed by both critics and public.

With the Soviet invasion in 1979, the film industry started to crumble in the face of draconian censorship. After communists were thrown out and Taliban steadily gained ground, the industry totally vanished from the scene, as it was considered a blasphemous and unIslamic practice. The film studios were demolished and the movie theaters were reduced to rubble by guerilla fighters of Taliban.

A still from Buzkashi Boys

However, there is always light at the end of tunnel. A new dawn appeared after Taliban was ousted in 2001. Afghan movie industry got a fresh lease of life, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of local filmmakers supported by their western counterparts and the government. Many small-budget films were made in the years that followed, signifying the return to normalcy after groping in the dark for years, first under communists and then under Taliban.

The last one decade has witnessed an explosion of films in Afghanistan, mostly independent short films, but also some full length films made by local and foreign filmmakers. Most of the films made in the post-Taliban era deal with the Afghan society and how it has bounced back from obscurity and embraced change. There are films depicting conflict, women’s rights, tribal cultures, traditional sports etc. In 2004, Roya Sadat, one of the first female filmmakers to emerge after the fall of the Taliban, made a film Three Dots, which gives a sneak peek into the patriarchal society in Afghanistan. A local strongman forces a widowed mother of three to remarry against her will, and the main female lead is forced by men to trade opium across the Iranian border where he ends up getting arrested.

In 2007, Zolykha’s Secret, one of the first feature films from post-Taliban era, played to packed houses at many prestigious film festivals. The film, written and directed by Horace Ahmad Shansab, is a fascinating account of a close-knit family in a rural belt of Afghanistan, trying to survive war and preserve their sanity. The film was screened at many festivals, including San Francisco Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival among others.

In 2008, Alka Sadat, an award-winning filmmaker from Herat province, made a small documentary film Half Value Life, featuring Maria Bashir, the only female prosecutor in the country.  The documentary trails the brave officer as she deals with the hardened criminals, drug smugglers, mafia goons and strives to eliminate the violence against women in Afghanistan. The gripping documentary bagged many awards at international film festivals like Women’s Voices Now Film Festival, Los Angeles (2011), Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival (2011), Almaty International Film Festival (2006), Italy International Trevignano Film Festival (2007), Bahrain Human Rights International Film Festival, Egypt Film Festival (2009) et al.   Siddiq Barmak, a veteran Afghan filmmaker who also served as the Head of Afghan Film Organization from 1992 to 1996, made Opium War in 2009, set in the poppy fields of Afghanistan. He ingeniously uses the elements of satire and surrealism to speak of the wars fought from the beautiful but dangerous poppy fields. The film was Afghanistan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at Oscars. It was screened at many international film festivals, including the Rome Film Festival in 2008, where it ended up winning the prestigious Golden Marc’Aurelio Critics’ Award for Best Film. Barmak’s previous film ‘Osama’ had bagged Golden Globe award in 2004.

A still from Zulykhas Secret

Emaan, a 2010 feature film by Haris Yusufi, created a stir when it became the first Afghan film to be screened in a foreign theatre – Reading Cinema in Australia. The film, about a young and honest cop who upholds law and order, won the 2011 South Asian Film Festival award for Best Film.   The boom of Afghan cinema is reflected by the growing number of film entries at international film festivals. This year, A Man’s Desire for Fifth Wife, became the first film made by an Afghan filmmaker to be screened at International Film Festival of India (IFFI). Directed by Sediq Abedi, the film was shot in northern Faryab and Balkh provinces. It is a compelling story of an Afghan man who wants fifth wife, though he is allowed only four. The film depicts the pervasive culture of misogyny in Afghan society and the violence against women. It also beautifully portrays the traditions and culture of Afghanistan. The film will also be screened at Boston International Film Festival (BIFF) next year.

However, the nagging concerns and apprehensions about the future of Afghan cinema continue to worry filmmakers here. Some veteran filmmakers like Siddiq Barmak, Latif Ahmadi and Ibrahim Arify have raised such concerns time and again. They fear the industry will slip back into chaos and disorder after the withdrawal of international community in 2014. But, they are not willing to retreat or surrender. The resilience is infectious.   Meanwhile, George is optimistic about the future of Afghanistan and Afghan cinema. “At 64 years of age, when I should be retiring near a beach in Australia with my family and children, my greatest desire is to see the Afghan artists and filmmakers achieve their full potential and bring Afghan culture to the world’s attention,” he tells me. Aamen to that, I say!

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2013/12/30/afghan-cinema-stages-strong-comeback/blog)