Fighting for life

Just back from Copenhagen with this interview of Leena Alam by the Danish journalist Lise Thorsen. Leena is an Afghan phenomenon; actor, director and human rights campaigner in a country where the Taliban terrorise anyone involved in dance, music, theatre and film. Lise was visiting Afghanistan on behalf of the Danish Centre for Culture and Development, which is financing an aid programme with the Danish Embassy in Kabul supporting Afghan freedom of speech. Leena could enjoy an easy life anywhere she chooses. But instead, she risks death threats by refusing to wear the veil, and encouraging Afghan women to rebel against misogynistic oppression. Leena runs acting workshops with Afghan girls for the Danish Forum Theater – DACAPO. She directs documentaries and performs with experimental drama groups that tour around the country.

Lise’s assignment took her back to Afghanistan for first time since the 1970s – before the Russians invaded. In those days to most westerners Afghanistan was a destination on the hippy trail. Afghan coats were bohemian chic in the Kings Road Chelsea, and Afghan Gold was the caviar of cannabis resin. Despite Britain’s commitment to establish democracy in Afghanistan through Operation Enduring Freedom (10th anniversary this year, over 400 service personnel killed, £18 billion spent), most of us know precious little about one of the most fought over countries in the world. Human communities were being formed here 50,000 years ago and sophisticated urban cultures were well established by 3000 BC. This unforgiving territory has been subjugated by the Grec-Bactrians, Kushans, Indo-Sassanids, Kabul Shahi, Saffaruds, Samanids, Ghaznavidfs, Ghurids, Kartis, Timurids, Muhagls, Hotakis and Durranis who used it as a strategic springboard. In the Victorian era, Afghanistan became a buffer zone for the British Empire to prevent Russia invading India (the jewel in the crown), and by the late 1800s much of it was carved up and ceded to the United Kingdom. Land locked by socially entrenched neighbours (Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China) and impeded by reactionary warlords who supply 92% of the world’s opiates, Afghanistan has been trapped in a schism of chaos ever since. The 10-year occupation of the Soviet Union left 600,000 dead and 6 million refugees fled abroad. To counteract Soviet incursions, the USA spent $40 billion recruiting, financing and arming Mujahideen fighters to form Islamic resistance groups and thus begat Al-Qaeda.

When the heart and soul of a country is so brutalised over so many generations is it any wonder that dysfunction and violence become endemic. How do its displaced and disorientated citizens sustain any sense of national identity? History is littered with the wreckage of predatory interventions where alien ideologies were forced on reluctant populations. However, intervention is not just about rolling tanks and ethnic cleansing. We are all complicit interveners in many foreign lands. By exploiting cheap labour, consuming finite resources, funding charities and NGOs, investing in commodities, cherry-picking essential workers and exporting divisive culture we exert sinuous influence. I write this shortly after the savage four-hour assault on the British Council in Kabul whose remit is to help Afghans learn English, acquire governance skills and build relationships with the outside world. 12 Afghan police officers, security guards, street cleaners and a special forces soldier from New Zealand were killed. On the face of it, the Taliban were fighting against British cultural imperialism but the motivation is far more convoluted according to the Guardian journalist Nushin Arbabzadah. In her article ‘Twisting tales behind Afghanistan’s British Council attack’ she reports that atrocities are frequently justified by byzantine claims and counter-claims that defy comprehension in this bewildering theatre of war. No one has any idea what is cause and what is effect. In a culture where corruption, nepotism, tribal loyalty and religious fanaticism influences every twitch of the body politic, where 15 year old suicide bombers are duped into sacrificing themselves for acts carried out by 12th century Crusaders, and where every birth, death, thought and deed is predestined by Allah, common sense doesn’t stand a chance. But such is the glory of human nature, that even when mired in pathological depravity brave people do small things to keep hope alive. Here’s Lise’s article.


Afghanistan’s gentle fury

By Lise Thorsen

Movie star, director and model. Former Miss San Francisco. Leena Alam, 32 years old could have a carefree existence in the USA. Instead she has returned to her native Afghanistan to help her fellow sisters live a better life. She dominates the room the moment she enters and occupies the scene with sweetness and charisma. She is beautiful and she knows it. But she is also down to earth, dressed in a plain traditional Afghan dress without a scarf. Leena is a superstar in Afghanistan. She rebels on behalf of women and never wears a burka. This is an exceptional sight in Afghanistan, where women are obliged cover their heads and faces away from home. “I receive threats and yes, sometimes I am afraid. On one occasion I even had a phone call from a Member of Parliament complaining that I – being a role model – didn’t wear a scarf. But of course that’s precisely why I don’t do it. I have the opportunity of being a role model for young girls, and I want to show them that we need to make our own decisions. The girls here are commodities. They may be given away in marriage as early as nine years old. At first they are the property of their family, and then they become the property of their in-laws.” A recent inquiry by CARE, concluded that Afghanistan is the most problematic country to be a woman. According to a law passed two years ago, a man has the right to rape his wife, and a woman must obtain permission from her husband or father to work or receive education. Nine out of ten women have been exposed to violence in their own home. And it is still common practice that if a man kills another man, the family of the deceased can demand to have the sister of the killer handed over as revenge. Beating, abuse and death are the grim reality for most Afghan women and many are driven to suicide. “How do we move on? It is so hard to cut through. It’s so frustratingly difficult to get someone to listen. Only a small percentage of Afghan women know that birth control exists. So the majority have a lot of children and many mouths to feed in a poor country. That’s if they don’t die in childbirth.” Leena had a somewhat different youth to all this. Her family fled to the USA in 1989 and she grew up as an American teenager. After high school she began a career as a model and was elected Miss San Francisco. Then she developed her acting and directing, but in 2007 she returned to Afghanistan and decided to stay. “Older people are tired after many years of war. They just want food to eat and clothes to wear. They are exhausted. But the young are eager. They want to watch movies, the more colourful and grander the better, and they aspire to the Hollywood-films on Afghanistan’s countless TV channels.” Leena says that the girls in the theatre groups were not used to performing, to exposing themselves and stating opinions, so they had to be nursed. “We showed a great deal of consideration for the girls who participated. But it became a real success for them. They built self-confidence and learned how to express their feelings. I had a lot of hugs along the way. It will take generations before we get equal rights. If it ever happens. I am telling everyone that we must act NOW! Now that we have the whole world’s attention and goodwill. But not many people listen. And even less dare to do something about it.” Leena also experiences the pressures of tradition. She hasn’t married because she hasn’t met the right man. But even her own family – who are otherwise very liberal – have started asking when. “Maybe one day I will marry. But I will never give up my professional life. Never. And I keep telling the girls here, that there is no hurry to find a husband.” We say goodbye and agree to meet again on Facebook. With her long hair flowing in Kabul’s hot and dusty wind, she disappears behind the high wall and barbed-wire protecting her house.


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