Keeping the art of wooden camera alive


Syed Zafar Mehdi 

A colorful, makeshift tent is pitched on the roadside in Herat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herat). A tall, lanky man lifts the curtains and greets three boys, neatly dressed in traditional Afghan attire. The man is 34-year-old Sibgat Ullah, who has been working as box camera photographer for 10 years, a practice he learned from his father. On a normal day, 20 to 30 customers flock to his roadside studio to get photographs clicked at affordable price.

At a time when professional photographers have become finicky about picture quality, mega pixel resolution and superb optics, paying scrupulous attention to detail; here in Afghanistan, they still do it the old-fashioned way.

Locally known as ‘kamra-e-faoree’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamra-e-faoree), Afghanistan is perhaps the only place in the world where the box camera is still used by photographers. For Sibgat Ullah, it’s a source of livelihood and a legacy of his forefathers. “It is a part of our landscape, our culture, our history,” says the photographer, with glint in his eyes.

The dilapidated studio, in the makeshift tent, was shut for many years because of the ban (http://www.afghanistannewscenter.com/news/2001/march/mar27m2001.html) imposed on photography by Taliban. All the camera studios were closed down, and equipments were either destroyed or kept hidden. In 2003, a few years after Taliban regime was overthrown, Sibgat Ullah took over from his father to keep alive the tradition. “It was not just about business and money, it was about the family tradition,” he says, with a hint of pride.

Locally known as ‘kamra-e-faoree’, Afghanistan is perhaps the only place in the world where the box camera is still used by photographers

These makeshift tents dot the roads in many provinces across Afghanistan, including Heart (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herat), Mazar e Sharif (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazar-i-Sharif) and capital city Kabul. Though these box cameras are in danger of becoming extinct, for hundreds of photographers, it is the only source of their livelihood. “Earlier, we used to have tremendous rush at the studio but now the business has taken a dip. Still, it’s decent enough to survive and sustain,” says Mohammad Raheem Khan, 45-year-old box camera photographer from Mazar e Sharif.

Box camera is a box-shaped wooden camera, which uses no film but can effectively capture and develop an image. It acts both as a camera and a darkroom. The lenses of kamra-e-faoree, which means ‘instant camera’ in local Dari language, are shutter less, working only with natural light. To click the picture, the photographer swiftly moves the cap of lens with one hand to expose the paper to natural light. He then replaces the shutter and pops in his arm to access the camera’s interior, which also acts as darkroom. He develops a paper negative of the image inside the dark box and shoots the negative film to make it positive, ready as a finished image.

The art of karma-e-faoree has passed through generations in Afghanistan, except for some dark years during Taliban rule.

“It is a complicated process for beginners, but we have been doing it for decades so we understand the nitty-gritty of the art. It is effortless and affordable,” says Raheem Khan. The art of karma-e-faoree has passed through generations in Afghanistan, except for some dark years during Taliban rule.

The origins of the box camera are not clear. According to historians, the practice (http://www.afghanboxcamera.com/abcp_about_photographyinafghanistan.htm) of kamra-e-faoree came to Afghanistan from the Indian sub-continent during the reign of King Zahir Shah (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Zahir_Shah). The number of box camera photographers in Kabul rapidly mushroomed in 1950s, which was attributed to the governmental drive to issue national identity cards with photographs, called tazkira (http://moi.gov.af/en/page/5749). In the years that followed, photographs began to be used for school cards, driving licenses, government documents, legal documents etc. But, the use of photographs for national identity cards (tazkira) was instrumental in giving fillip to the industry of box camera photography in Afghanistan. Many new box camera photographers were trained across the country after a nationwide contract was doled out for national identity card photographs. According to veteran photographers here, a civil servant named Afandi bagged the lucrative contract and he played a key role in training box camera photographers in the country in 1950s.

Even though the practice of kamra-e-faoree has become less popular with the advent of new technology, the photographers here believe it is here to stay. “We will keep it alive, because it is about our culture and history,” says Sibgat Ullah, as he greets more customers at his roadside tent.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

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Why world needs to talk about Afghan refugees

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

The tragic death of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi who drowned while trying to reach Europe has brought into focus the disturbing plight of refugees around the world.

An estimated nine million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, most of them taking refuge in neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordon, Lebanon and Iraq.

According to ‘Global Trends Report: World at War’, an annual report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),  worldwide displacement is at the highest level ever recorded.

At least one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum around the world, according to the report.

“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres.

Since early 2011, according to the report, the main reason for displacement of people has been the ongoing war in Syria, which is now the world’s single-largest driver of displacement.

Millions of Afghan refugees are scattered around the world, most of them having fled during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban regime

The report further states that the decades-old instability and conflict in Afghanistan – and other conflict zones – means that “millions of people remain on the move or – as is increasingly common – stranded for years on the edge of society as long-term internally displaced or refugees”.

Syria is the world’s biggest producer of both internally displaced people and refugees, followed by Afghanistan and Somalia.

Millions of Afghan refugees are scattered around the world, most of them having fled during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban regime.

On the World Refugee Day in June, President Ashraf Ghani said more than six million refugees have returned home over the past 15 years, but millions of others still live as refugees in different parts of the world.

Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan, he said, make up about 95 percent of all Afghan refugees scattered across the world. Apart from them, there are more than half a million Afghans living in the Gulf and Arab states.

Many Afghan refugees living in Europe, Australia, Canada, United States and other countries, he said, have recently faced the risk of getting expelled because of lack of documentation.

In Pakistan, Afghan refugees have allegedly suffered ill-treatment, especially following the Peshawar school attack in November last year. Hundreds of Afghan refugees, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have been arrested on flimsy charges and many more have been forcibly evicted.

Last month, during a tripartite meeting of the representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHRC in Kabul, the Afghan government requested Islamabad to allow nearly 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees to extend their stay in Pakistan until the end of 2017.

In Pakistan, Afghan refugees have allegedly suffered ill-treatment, especially following the Peshawar school attack in November last year

The meeting was held to discuss the fate of three million Afghan refugees, which includes 1.5 million unregistered Afghan nationals, currently living in Pakistan. The legal stay of registered Afghans with proof of registration (PoR) cards is scheduled to expire by the end of this year.

Discussions have also taken place between Afghan and Iranian officials to resolve issues related to refugees. During his visit to Tehran in April, President Ghani stressed on the voluntary and phased repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran. He said the repatriation of all Afghan refugees is a long-term goal.

In June this year, the head of UNHRC António Guterres called on the international community to “redouble its engagement” with Afghanistan to help bring an end to the world’s largest protracted refugee situation.

“Robust development initiatives aimed at creating long-term incentives for durable return and conditions conducive for sustainable reintegration in Afghanistan are vital to create pull factors and allow for inclusion, participation and active contribution of returning Afghans, particularly the youth,” he said.

However, with the deteriorating security situation and growing unemployment in Afghanistan, many more Afghans have recently fled the country and many others are in the process of leaving.

Insecurity, poverty and unemployment continue to be major problems in Afghanistan, especially among the burgeoning young population, who constitute almost 63 percent of country’s total population.

According to a survey conducted jointly by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) in February this year, poverty, insecurity and unemployment are forcing youth in Afghanistan to immigrate illegally in search of work.

While the government is making efforts to facilitate repatriation of Afghan refugees scattered across the world, many young and unemployed Afghans are on their way out.

More and more young people are migrating to neighboring countries in search of work.  Many of them return with horror stories about the abuse and violence they suffer.

Insecurity, poverty and unemployment continue to be major problems in Afghanistan, especially among the burgeoning young population

Afghanistan also continues to be a “source, transit and destination country” for men, women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking, according to a recent report by the U.S. government.

The report states that Afghan children are subjected to forced labor in Iran, and Afghan girls are forced into prostitution in Pakistan. The report also blasts the complicity of government officials and security forces in human trafficking in Afghanistan.

Last week, executive committee head of UNHCR Pedro Comissário Afonso visited Kabul and met senior government leaders including President Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

“I came to Afghanistan to show solidarity with the government and people of Afghanistan and to reassure them that the international community remains committed to and invested in their future,” said Mr. Comissário, adding that UNHCR was dedicating a special high-level segment to the Afghan refugee situation in conjunction with this year’s annual executive committee in Geneva.

This event, he said, aims to refocus international attention on the Afghan refugees and their protection and solutions in the region.

 (First published in Afghan Zariza)

What factors contribute to Afghan cricket team’s unpredictability and inconsistency

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Before the qualifying play-off match between Afghanistan and Hong Kong on Tuesday, the odds were heavily in favor of Afghanistan. The boys in blue started as clear favorites to win the match and cruise into semis of the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier 2015.

The stage was perfectly set for Asghar Stanikzai and his boys to make a telling statement. They had suffered a humiliating defeat against Oman and two matches had been washed out. It was a do-or-die situation, a virtual quarter-final.

As the match progressed, it looked amply clear that Afghanistan will romp home victorious. Despite the sluggish batting and slow run rate through middle overs, the team managed to post a competitive total of 161 runs in their stipulated 20 overs.

The explosive wicketkeeper batsman Mohammad Shahzad, who has caught the imagination of all and sundry in this tournament, played his natural game.  He defies logic and makes sheer mockery of coaching manuals. His batting is all about stand-and-deliver.

Nawroz Mangal, the seasoned campaigner who was struggling with his batting form, showed why class is permanent and form is temporary. His quick-fire 55 off 36 helped Afghanistan post a defendable total on the board.

Hong Kong faced a Herculean task of chasing 162 runs to win the match and qualify for the semifinal. It was not easy to score runs against the likes of Shapoor Zadran and Dawlat Zadran.

For most part of the match, Hong Kong were on the backfoot, struggling to keep the scoreboard ticking. Afghanistan dominated, except for some sloppy fielding and dropped catches.

The match went down to the wire. The batting side required 27 off the final two overs and 16 off the last over.  All the pace bowlers had finished their quota. Stanikzai had a difficult decision to make.

Mohammad Nabi, the former skipper and star all-rounder, was handed over the ball. The atmosphere in the ground was electrifying as Afghan fans animatedly cheered for their team.

Saving 16 runs in one over didn’t seem a difficult task, especially for a player of Nabi’s caliber. On the first ball, he claimed a crucial wicket of Chapman, who looked dangerous. Nabi punched the air and celebrated with his teammates.

Hong Kong now required 16 off 5 balls. It was getting increasingly difficult for the batting side.

For most part of the match, Hong Kong were on the backfoot, struggling to keep the scoreboard ticking. Afghanistan dominated, except for some sloppy fielding and dropped catches

But, the match was not yet over. It never is until the last ball is bowled. Babar Hayat scored ten runs off two balls to take his side closer to a historic win.

It finally boiled down to the last ball. Two runs from one ball. The match was evenly poised. It could have gone either way. And, it was not Nabi’s day.

Hong Kong won the match by five wickets and cruised into the semis, while Afghanistan were knocked out of the tournament, in a rather unceremonious manner.

The team that started the tournament with a proverbial bang ended the campaign on a sad note. That is why cricket is a fascinating game and Afghanistan is an unpredictable side.

The blame for the ouster of Afghanistan must partly go to the weather gods and partly to the players for losing the script in the latter part of the tournament.

After three convincing wins against Netherlands, UAE and Scotland, the match against Kenya was abandoned due to rain. The rain gods played the spoilsport and denied Afghanistan one crucial point.

Afghanistan suffered first loss of the tournament against Oman, which was scandalous. But, the team was still perched on top of their group with 7 points and one more match to go.

Much to the disappointment of Afghan players and fans, the weather again played the spoilsport and the match against Canada was abandoned. Another crucial point was wasted.

From the top spot in the group, Afghanistan slipped to the third spot. They had to win the qualifying play-off match against Hong Kong to cruise into semis. It was a must-win game, a do-or-die encounter.

As per the format of the tournament, the sides emerging on top of the two groups would automatically earn qualification for the ICC World Twenty20 2016 to be played in India.

Afghanistan had another chance to qualify for the semi-final and final. The main goal was to break the jinx and deny archrivals Ireland the hat-trick of titles. The mission could not be accomplished.

Ireland has won the title two years on trot, in March 2012 and November 2013, beating Afghanistan on both the occasions. They are again in the running and most likely will face Scotland in the final.

There are several factors that led to the unceremonious ouster of the team and broke millions of hearts.

The poor batting display from some experienced batsmen left a lot to be desired. Nawroz Mangal, except in the match against Hong Kong on Tuesday, struggled to score runs.

In the shortest format of the game, the top-order batsmen must score quick runs, especially in the first power play. With field restrictions on, it is easier for batsmen to play over the infield and contribute to the team’s cause.

While Mohammad Shahzad has been a revelation in this tournament, Mangal’s batting has been lackluster. In most of the matches, he failed to fire at the top. His feet were not moving and his bat was silent.

The poor batting display from some experienced batsmen left a lot to be desired. Nawroz Mangal, except in the match against Hong Kong on Tuesday, struggled to score runs

Javed Ahmadi, one of the most exciting young players, was asked to warm the bench. He played one match against Oman and was dropped again against Hong Kong. It is not clear who was the big boss: the skipper or the coach.

Nabi’s form with the bat has also been uninspiring and Dawlat Zadran’s bowling is a matter of concern. Despite inconsistent performances, they have managed to impress selectors, which is baffling.

Mirwais Ashraf’s role in the team remains unclear. His bowling does not look threatening and he has not been among the runs. It is time to hunt for a genuine bowling all-rounder.

To build a team for future, it is important to take difficult and unpopular decisions. Dropping old warhorses like Mangal and Nabi should be a subject of discussion in the next selection committee meeting.

There is an exciting pool of players at the under-19 level who are ready to set the stage ablaze. Selectors must muster the courage to drop some seniors and introduce some fresh faces. It is time to crack the whip.

The batting order, it can be argued with conviction, is also not in perfect order. An explosive striker like Najibullah Zadran should be promoted up the order and allowed to face maximum deliveries. Most often, he gets to bat in the final five overs and cannot express himself well.

Shafiqullah Shafaq, to invoke Winston Churchill, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He is supposed to be a specialist batsman who can hit the ball really well. And yet he comes in at seven, after Najib and Nabi, for reasons best known to skipper and coach.

 There is an exciting pool of players at the under-19 level who are ready to set the stage ablaze. Selectors must muster the courage to drop some seniors and introduce some fresh faces 

Bowling and fielding needs to improve. At the international level, you cannot err in line and length and leak runs. Also, you cannot afford to drop sitters and make fielding look difficult. Every single run counts and every catch matters at this level.

Also, the head coach must have a say in the team selection. There have been reports recently that Andy Moles was not happy with the selection of team for this tour. It is scandalous, if true. The role of coach is as critical as the role of captain in the team’s success or failure.

There is no doubt that the team has remarkably evolved over the years, despite limited resources and enormous hardships. It has earned them praise and admiration from cricket fans across the globe.

The historic win against Scotland in the ICC World Cup 2015, which was Afghanistan’s maiden World Cup victory, saw jubilant fans across the country pour into the streets.

Cricket fans in Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, Kandahar and Kabul celebrated the historic win by dancing in the streets, chanting slogans, and firing celebratory gunshots in the air.

The last time people in Afghanistan danced in the streets was when the national football team trounced India 2-1 in the finals of South Asian Football Federation Championship (SAFFC) in 2013.

There is nothing that unites people in this country more than cricket and football.  Cricket has brought joy to millions of people in this country who have grown weary of war and violence. It has given them something to cheer about.

So it is important for the cricket board, national selectors, coaching staff and players to ensure that the team scales new peaks and continues to bring laurels to the country.

(http://www.afghanzariza.com/2015/07/22/what-factors-contribute-to-afghan-cricket-teams-unpredictability-and-inconsistency)