“There are barriers not just in winning hearts, but letting our own hearts be won”

 Farzana Marie is a poet, author, social worker and former Air Force offer. She heads Civil Vision International (CVI), an organization focused on positively influencing international relationships through connecting, informing, educating and inspiring. She is the author of Hearts for Sale! A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan. 

Ms. Marie served as Air Force Officer in Afghanistan for two years, between 2010 and 2012. Before that, she had worked with Afghan orphanages between 2003 and 2004. Her research focuses on Persian literature, especially Afghan women’s poetry. In conversation with Syed Zafar Mehdi, she speaks about her experience as soldier and social worker, her poetry, and what she thinks of Taliban and Afghan youth. 

Q. You served as volunteer in Afghan orphanages before being deployed as an Air Force officer in Afghanistan. How was the experience as soldier and as social worker?
A. When I first went to Afghanistan in 2003, I was 19 years old. I was probably very naive and trying to ‘change the world’. But I think being with those kids at Allahudin and Tahai Maskan orphanages changed me far more than it changed them. After I was commissioned as an Air Force officer, I volunteered to go back to Afghanistan as soon as I could. I was nervous, though, because I was afraid I would be stuck inside the base doing something meaningless and disconnected from Afghans.

I was very frustrated, especially in the first 6 months, with many paranoid restrictions. My deployment was supposed to end after those 6 months, but I was offered the opportunity to extend it. It was in the second year (under the great leadership of people who understood the importance of engagement) that I was able to participate in more significant work as part of the ISAF Anti-Corruption Task Force called Shafafiyat.

Q. In your book ‘Hearts for Sale; A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan’, laced with intellect and emotion, you urge Americans to come out of their fortified barracks and mingle with Afghans to win their hearts and minds. Why have they failed to do so in all these years?
A. What I saw when I was serving in Afghanistan was that many American men and women in uniform were in fact very eager to spend time outside and connect with Afghans. The policies and regulations that often prevent them from doing so largely stem from a system built on rewards that are not based on actual results or success. The system is based to advance careers, and thus treats deployments as ‘checking a box’ with the goal of coming home safe (with medals, of course).

The other problem is a misconception of safety: the idea that security is derived from high walls and heavily-guarded gates. In my experience, this is incorrect. The best source of security and safety in a place like Afghanistan is an ‘arsenal’ of deep relationships with Afghans. The best ‘weapons’ are language and culture, which are usually far better tools for navigating tense situations than bulletproof glass or the raised muzzle of an M-16.

Actually, you have to fall in love. It has to be real. And the mission you are fighting for, the mission you have left your loved ones behind for has to mean something. The short tour lengths, the high physical and mental walls, the mindless briefings disconnected from the realities of Afghanistan, the lack of understanding of the tremendous potential of Afghanistan’s future and how U.S. partnership can help secure that against the forces seeking to destroy it. These are barriers not just in winning hearts, but letting our own hearts be won.

The best source of security and safety in a place like Afghanistan is an ‘arsenal’ of deep relationships with Afghans; the best ‘weapons’ are language and culture, which are usually far better tools for navigating tense situations than bulletproof glass or the raised muzzle of an M-16

Q. In your book, you tell gripping stories of your engagement team’s 350 plus missions around Afghanistan. Which one was most memorable?
A. I think it was the trip to Panjshir Valley on the 10th anniversary of Ahmed Shah Masoud’s assassination just before 9/11. That day involved memories of so many kinds I love Afghanistan for: stunning natural beauty, hospitality of people, importance of remembering our shared history. A close second was an Iftaar dinner at Governor’s house in Herat with young leaders and friends from civil society in attendance.

Q. Your research primarily focuses on Persian literature, especially Afghan women’s poetry. As a poet yourself, what do you make of it? 
A. I feel very honored and humbled to be studying this. The enormously rich tradition of classical Persian poetry combined with the important and intriguing new material Afghan poets are producing today makes me feel very small and very excited at the same time. Understanding Persian poetry (and hopefully one day Pashto poetry as well) is a lifelong pursuit for me. I think what interests me most about the poetry of contemporary Afghan women is the strong impulse to address socio-political issues, the potential for poetry to be more than just a venue for expression, but actually a process to bring awareness and stir action. I am probably most interested in the unusual or striking images that I find as I read. For instance, in Somaya Ramish’s new book, A Season of Pomegranate Dreams
(Yak Fasl-e Khaab-e Anaar), there is a poem whose first line and central idea is: ‘load poems like guns’.

This gives us a lot to think about in terms of the power of poetry and its potential as means of ‘fighting back’ against forces that would seek to destroy, to oppress, or perhaps most significantly in this case, to silence.

Q. How does poetry wrestle with the conflicts and social issues of our time? As Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail puts it, is poetry not medicine but an X-ray?
A. I think poetry (and art more broadly) can be both part of the diagnosis and the healing. Poetry is a layered language, but it also does a great deal of exposing. It can point to the wounds, identify the broken places which are often ignored or have been hidden beneath the defensive mechanisms of forgetfulness or willful ignorance. Once these places are spoken back into the light, we can begin confronting them more clearly. Poetry is about finding new ways to see, and I think in this sense, it is an important part of confronting the issues of our time, especially in conflict. I think poetry can help us see the way forward in that too.

Q. How do you rate Afghanistan’s new breed of leaders? Do they present hope and optimism?
A. Afghanistan’s young leaders give me such exuberant hope. I have the great privilege to be connected with many visionary young Afghans who I am convinced will shape their country’s future in positive and inspiring ways. These are the leaders who are constantly thinking of helping those in need. These are the leaders who are not afraid to stand up to a corrupt official, who are voting or running for office, who stand in peaceful protest, who plant trees, who make courageous art and music. Through their actions and words, they choose to be a part of creating the future they want to see for Afghanistan.

I have the great privilege to be connected with many visionary young Afghans who I am convinced will shape their country’s future in positive and inspiring ways

Q. In the wake of withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014, do you think Afghan forces will be able to take control of things?
A. I think there will still be a residual force to continue training the Afghan forces beyond 2014, but I think the Afghan police and army have been taking tremendous strides and are capable of rising to meet this challenge. To me, it is not so much about equipment and particular skills. Those things are important, but I think the determining factor in how successful the ANSF is at meeting the challenge of Afghanistan’s enemies is leadership. The Afghan troops are facing a psychological battle, which is intensified by the high number of physical casualties they have been suffering. They need inspiration and they need leaders who have integrity and see rank as an opportunity to serve rather than rule.

Q. What are the major challenges in negotiating with Taliban? Why did Doha talks fail?
A. Negotiations have to begin on some kind of common ground, however small. Usually in peace negotiations, part of that common ground is a desire for peace. Unfortunately, it appears that the sponsors of Taliban in Pakistan do not actually want that. Another foundational element of the necessary common ground in negotiations with the Taliban is acceptance of the Afghan constitution as the law of the land. In the political theater performance in Doha, indications from the raising of the Taliban flag to the ‘Islamic Emirate’ sign made it clear that the Taliban are not yet willing to accept a government other than one of their own making, under their own terms, even if they have to continue to kill Afghan civilians by the hundreds to get it.

I think there will still be a residual force to continue training the Afghan forces beyond 2014, but I think the Afghan police and army have been taking tremendous strides and are capable of rising to meet this challenge

Q. What is the story about your name, which you got as a gift in 2003 and has become a part of your identity now?
A. Farzana was the name my first Afghan friend, Zulekha, gave me. This was in California, before I first went to Afghanistan, and I was trying to learn some Dari. “You need an Afghan name,” she said.”Oh, I would love that! In Kazakhstan they called me Fariza,” I said. “Ok then, you can be Farzana,” she said. And it stuck.

Q. “Light beckons! Come, come to your senses”. These words in your beautiful poem Memento Mori sound ironical, almost mocking at all the entities that have turned Afghanistan into a bedlam. Where do you see Afghanistan ten years down the road? 
A. I think what we see determines what we do, and how hard we work for it. I see Afghanistan in 2024 with strong civil society, independent women, development in industry, access to education and healthcare, thriving art and dying Taliban.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/03/13/these-are-barriers-not-just-in-winning-hearts-but-letting-our-own-hearts-be-won–interview)

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‘Women’s empowerment is not in the status quo mode anymore in Afghanistan’

 Samira Hamidi is the Program and Advocacy Director for Empowerment Center for Women-ECW and former Director of Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), which comprises more than 90 women’s organizations and 5,000 individuals. She is also the recipient of Afghan Presidential Medal.

Q. Did you always want to become a women’s rights defender or it happened by chance?
A.
 I grew up in an educated family. My parents paid equal attention to me and my brothers for our growth, access to education and other opportunities. That helped me become independent and take my own decisions. While working in various organizations, interacting with women, understanding their issues, I decided to engage myself in women’s rights issues and address the challenges women of my country face.

Q. You have extensively worked to advance gender equality in Afghanistan. Has the ground reality changed in terms of women empowerment or is the status quo intact?

A. There have been tremendous changes in the life of women in last 12 years. Women’s access to education, healthcare, employment, political participation and economic engagement are some of the important steps towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. Afghan National Development Strategy and National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan are important tools that have led to empowerment of women. Afghanistan, for the first time, has Elimination of Violence against Women Law that addresses domestic violence as a social issue rather than a domestic one. After 12 years, women’s empowerment is not in the status quo mode.

Q. As the former Director of Afghan Women’s Network in Afghanistan, working with 90 women’s organizations and 5,000 individuals, what challenges did you confront and how was the experience?
A.
 During my tenure with AWN, it was challenging but rewarding to advocate and coordinate at the policy level, demand women’s role at various platforms, their participation as well as their role in decision-making. My overall experience has been enriching. AWN is an institution where women’s empowerment and equality is the vision. While I used my expertise and knowledge in leading the network, I also had the opportunity to learn a lot.

Q. The countdown for April 2014 elections has begun. How do you rate Karzai’s tenure and as an Afghan woman, what are your expectations from his successor?
A.
 I personally respect President Karzai for his courage to step in to lead Afghanistan in 2001 when there was no system in place and the development budget was zero. Most of the development today can be credited to his leadership. However, with time, he has failed to maintain the confidence people showed in him after he got re-elected in 2009. His decision to bring warlords and criminals in government has further dented the trust people had in him.

The new President has to show political will to support people’s aspirations and respect the core values of democracy. He should devise concrete plans to fight corruption, establish robust justice system and strong law enforcement sector. He must also consider inclusion of 30 percent women in the new cabinet as per Afghan Constitution, and appoint male cabinet members based on their past record.

Q. There is a political lobby that wants negotiations and peace parleys with Taliban. Do you think it is a sensible thing to do at this juncture?

A. The current peace process is not moving in the direction as the people of Afghanistan had recommended during the 2010 National Peace Consultative Jirga. The lack of a clear strategy on how the peace process will become inclusive is another issue. Lack of access to information, symbolic presence of women in High Peace Council and Provincial Peace Councils is another grave issue. I am not optimistic about any negotiation if women are not made part of it.

Q. There is a large majority of students who drop out of school. How can government encourage them to pursue higher education and have bigger goals in life?
A.
 More than 60 percent Afghan population are youth and the direction they take is bound to affect the country. Unfortunately the education sector is in shambles. Children still study in tents. The lack of security in some parts of country is another big challenge, forcing students out of school. Government needs to make education its top priority.

Q. Are you hopeful about the future of Afghanistan?
A.
 Despite all the challenges, it is important to admit that we have come a long way. We cannot expect a country that started from scratch to become fully developed in 12 years. All Afghans need to work together to build their country.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/03/10/womens-empowerment-is-not-in-the-status-quo-mode-anymore-in-afghanistan)

‘It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.’

 Australian artist and filmmaker, George Gittoes has set up mobile studios for three decades, creating works in regions of conflict around the world. He has worked in North America, Europe, Middle East, Asia Pacific and Africa, creating works in both traditional and digital mediums, still and moving images, within a matrix of cultural interfaces.

Mr. Gittoes is currently making films in Afghanistan, painting and drawing and continuing to move around the globe. His documentary film Love City Jalalabad was widely acclaimed and screened at many international film festivals. He also runs Yellow House, an art and film school in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In a freewheeling interview with Syed Zafar Mehdi, he talks about his cinema, his love affair with Afghanistan and his dreams for the war-weary country.

Q. You are known for your documentation of the effects of war in films and on canvas – how difficult or easy is your job?

A.     I grew up in Rockdale, Sydney, a neighborhood always favored by new migrants. For a kid born in 1949, this meant I was surrounded by refugees from World War II. A war my own father and uncle had fought in. People took me to their homes and I learnt of all the terrible things they had endured. When I travelled to America in 1968, I saw injustices about race that did not fit with the Hollywood image we had been shown through film, as well as the mass protests against the Vietnam War. I started doing drawings and paintings about the civil rights movement and Vietnam and that is how it all started.

I regard my work as a war against war. I have been at the frontline of conflict in Cambodia, Somalia, Nicaragua, Philippines, Palestine, Southern Lebanon, Western Sahara, Sinai, South Africa, Rwanda, Mozambique, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, East Timor, Bougainville, Tibet and Iraq.

This job has not been as bad as it may seem because people everywhere have been kind and warm to me. The violence is always caused by a minority while the majority suffers. People see me as an advocate and friend, willing to risk my life to tell their story to the world. For example, whenever I arrived in Baghdad during the worst days of the war, the people who ran my apartment would say “everyone else is here trying to destroy our country but you are here to create and show the beauty of our culture”.  It is wonderful to feel so appreciated and loved.

Q. How did you come to make Love City Jalalabad and how did your love affair with Afghanistan start?

A.      My relationship with Afghanistan goes back a long way. Australian Army Engineers set up a demining program in coordination with the UN and I documented their work in the 1990’s. I travelled all over the country spreading mine awareness and made many friends, basically falling in love with the country and the culture.

The work I have done with the Jalalabad film fraternity, however, came about because of the assistance I offered to the Pashtun language Tele Movie industry out of Peshawar. While making my documentary Miscreants of Taliwood, I started funding dramas. This led me to the Dutch NGO Oxfam who providing a small budget to create work for this industry which had been devastated in the war. In a sense, I became a one-man-film-school, teaching the latest techniques in camera, sound and script writing. All the filmmakers were self-taught and had not known the benefits and nuances of formal training.

I believe some of the artists and filmmakers I have met can stand up with the best in the world and will be known for the greatness of their contribution in generations to come

The filmmakers of Jalalabad are linked with those in Peshawar and often use the same editors and equipment. When Amir Shah Talash and Mohammad Shah Majroh heard of what I was doing, they visited me on the sets and persuaded me to come to Jalalabad.

The first day I arrived in Jalalabad, one of the video stores was bombed, graphically demonstrating the difficulties filmmakers were facing there. My reaction was to book the Spingah Hotel and start working with this talented group on script development.

We needed to find a subject that would allow women to play strong and meaningful roles in films, which would appeal to audience for their content and storytelling rather than the usual action – violence shown in the Pakistani films. Films men would want to purchase as DVDs and take home for their wives and daughters to share in the entertainment. We decided that there was nothing more universal or enjoyed by Afghans than a good love story. I was so impressed by the Jalalabad group of artists that I was happy to give all my support to make three feature length dramas. I was joined in Jalalabad by my wife Hellen Rose, who is a famous Australian actress, singer and theatre director. The three films we made were Love City, Talk Show and The Tailor’s Story, all based on true stories we had collected from real people in Jalalabad.

Q.What is the film Love City Jalalabad about, and why did you choose Jalalabad?

A.     In a sense, Jalalabad chose me as I was invited there to help the local film industry as a guest and now I see it as my second home.

The name Love City Jalalabad is confusing because one of the three dramas we made in Pashto language is also called Love City. My documentary is about the process of forming the film group and creating a base for them in what we have named the Yellow House. The film shows the making of the three adult dramas and a children’s film with a first-time Pashtun woman director. The film then follows us taking the actors and films to communities with our Cinema Circus. We screen the films inside a tent to mainly children who have never seen films before. These films appeal because they are made with Afghans about Afghan culture.  The reactions have been joyous and we have proven that those foreigners who say Afghans do not like art, music and film are wrong.

Initially I was not interested in making a documentary as I felt this had all been covered by my film Miscreants of Taliwood about similar work in Pakistan. But, as the cameras rolled, I realized the footage we were getting was much more positive and happier than what we shot in Pakistan. Miscreants of Taliwood is a relatively dark film about an embattled industry and their hardships but Love City Jalalabad is all about fun, joy and love.

Q. Tell us about the Yellow House Jalalabad. What was the idea behind it?

A.     The Yellow House was created to serve multiple purposes as an art and film school in Jalalabad, where there was nothing for young artists and filmmakers to develop their skills.

I have been the sole funder of the Yellow House because I believe so deeply in fostering talent I discovered there. I have done this as a private individual. The aim is to make it self sufficient within a few years with its products, film and artworks, finding markets that can sustain it without outside help.

Q. From the Soviet era to the Taliban regime and post 2001, how do you see the evolution and progress of Afghan Cinema?

A.     I greatly respect the work of Afghan Film in both Kabul and Jalalabad and I admire the courage of the individuals in this organization who have preserved and maintained a film culture through the worst of times.

My vision for Afghan cinema is to see it getting international success and appreciation from global audience. The reason I am continuing to support the Yellow House filmmakers is the talent and dedication all the individuals have shown. Afghanistan has a rich and ancient culture that can be shared with the world through cinema. Some of the artists and filmmakers at the Yellow House are real masterminds. The next step in my plan is to sponsor the most talented in the group to come to Australia where they can study at Film and Art schools and take what they have learnt back to Afghanistan with them.

In all these years I have worked in Afghanistan, I have never faced any threat of violence or harassment by armed opposition groups; I have only seen and experienced friendship and love

Q. Have you faced any threats from armed opposition groups in Afghanistan in all these years?

A.     In all these years I have worked in Afghanistan, I have never faced any threat of violence or harassment by armed opposition groups. I have only seen and experienced friendship and love. When talking about this work outside Afghanistan, in countries like the U.S., people tell me how brave I must be because they think I am risking my life every day. They do not want to believe me when I tell them I have never felt my life or those of our actors and crew to be at risk. Before starting my projects in Jalalabad, I was told by non-Afghans that I would be kidnapped and killed by armed groups within the first week of production and that we would never be able to work outside secure areas. In reality, we have filmed in rural and urban areas without any resistance or harassment. It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.

Q. What is the role of Cinema in promoting Peace and Tolerance in Society. Do you think this applies to a conservative society like Afghanistan?

A.     Cinema is particularly important in Afghanistan for promoting peace and tolerance as it penetrates into homes and can be viewed privately by all members of the family. Our films promote equality and education. This is done in a way that supports tradition and tries not to be confrontational to conservative values. Our scripts are all written collectively and discussed in a group called Jirga. If there is anything anyone feels to be offensive to traditional customs, we either edit it or put it differently.

I do not believe Afghanistan is ready for films which represent American or European lifestyles or morality. Our Yellow House films respect existing culture and reflect our belief. It is more important to bring change slowly than to make people irate with films that are offensive and divisive.

For me, it is the children’s films that are most important and I am very proud of our efforts to train young actors and directors at the Yellow House workshops. These kids are the future and their vision for a better Afghanistan is full of passion and hope.

Q. How do you rate the local artists in Afghanistan? How difficult is it to train and teach them?

A.     Afghanistan has always had a creative spirit that is unique and rich with genius. I believe some of the artists and filmmakers I have met can stand up with the best in the world and will be known for the greatness of their contribution in generations to come.

Q. What has been the role of the Afghan government in promoting art and cinema in Afghanistan?  

A.     Through Afghan Film, in both Kabul and Jalalabad, and the support of the various ministries responsible for the arts and film, I can see the beginning of a renaissance for 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 Yellow House collective of artists and filmmakers in Jalalabad achieve their full potential and bring Afghan culture to the world’s attention. If I can play some part in making this possible, I will be a happy old man.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/12/it-would-be-much-harder-to-film-something-in-the-streets-of-sydney-than-in-jalalabad)