Music of Afghanistan

I’ve been unable to read fiction for the past week, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – I just can’t concentrate, or it seems flippant and irrelevant. I have to follow events in the conflict for my work, so turning away isn’t an option. It also feels like we need to bear witness to what is happening, and it feels increasingly that security across the whole world is under threat as a result of Putin’s barbaric recklessness.

On a personal level spending time reading and researching the culture of another country ripped apart by war – over decades – feels more and more like unpalatable misery tourism, but I’ve done a fair amount of research into Afghan musical culture over the past weeks, and it seems irrational not to write it up.

We know that the Taliban is anti-music; it doesn’t fit in with its religious ideology. However, a musical scene in Afghanistan has existed over the years, pre- and post- the first Taliban regime, and has no doubt simply now been forced underground. I listened to an interview on BBC’s Radio 3, Music under Restriction, with Aryana Sayeed, the country’s biggest pop singer, who is now recording in exile in Turkey. She claims that even Talibs listen to her music in their personal lives, albeit clandestinely. Her most streamed track on Spotify is Bache Kabul, which has a distinctly Afghan feel, even while her look is very Western-influenced:

Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music (ANIM) has received a lot of press interest recently, due to its ground-breaking work, and the tragedy of that work being unceremoniously halted last year. It was founded in 2010 by Ahmad Sarmast to create opportunities for young people, especially girls, to play and compose music. His work was – perhaps unsurprisingly -controversial in Afghanistan even before the latest Taliban takeover, and he was seriously injured in a suicide attack in 2014. Members of the ANIM have sought asylum abroad since the return of the Taliban, and its work is currently suspended, although Sarmast hopes that one day it can resume.

A singer mentioned in passing in both of the books that I’ve read recently by Afghan writers is former Prime Minister’s son Ahmad Zahir, the ‘Afghan Elvis’, who remains popular more than 40 years after his death in 1979 – some suspect that the fatal car crash that ended his life on his 33rd birthday was no accident. His most streamed song on Spotify is this, Baz Amadi Aye Jane Man:

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World – extraordinary objects from 2200 BCE to 200 CE

In 2011 a major exhibition came from Afghanistan to the British Museum in London, although I didn’t see it. However, I recently came across the exhibition catalogue in a charity shop, and was stunned by the beautiful photographs in it.

On display, and pictured in the book, were objects from over 2000 years of history, found at four historical sites in Afghanistan, which was a major location along ancient trading routes.

Most fascinating to me were the images of artifacts recovered in 1978 from the ‘Bactrian Hoard’ at Tilya Tepe in northern Afghanistan, where six nomads were found buried alongside their possessions. But war broke out in the same year, and these items were confirmed to have survived the ensuing decades of repeated conflict only in the early 2000s, after the Taliban had been routed. You can get an idea of the opulence and craftmanship of the haul from the picture below, of a gold belt buckle from the 1st century BCE, which was found buried alongside its owner, and which brilliantly depicts a carriage driven by dragons:

Other treasures include a gold ram that may have been used as a head ornament, a wide variety of ornate gold jewellery, pendants fashioned from fossilized shark’s teeth and soles made from thin sheets of gold, and thought to signify high status – an aristocratic way of life meant that your feet rarely touched the ground, living mounted on horseback or seated on carpets.

It is a miracle that these things have survived. I hope that with the return in 2021 of the Taliban regime, which in 1996-2001 led to a draconian interpretation of Islam and the destruction of works of art depicting any living being (and the banning of television), the security of these historical treasures is not threatened. Many remember the destruction of the enormous 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas. For now, at least, the National Museum of Afghanistan is open, and the Taliban pledged in August 2021 to protect it and the cultural heritage it contains.

Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to her Son by Homeira Qaderi (Afghanistan)

Translated by Zaman Stanizai

Oh dear, my month of Afghan culture is nearly over, and I’ve still got quite a lot to write up and have read less than hoped because of work commitments plus half term with the kidlings.

Dancing in the Mosque is a memoir by Homeira Qaderi that was first published in the UK in 2021 by Fourth Estate. Qaderi is a formidable and fiercely intelligent woman, born in war-torn Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, and living for a while as a refugee in Iran.

“Afghanistan is the land of invisible bullets and the land of a death foretold, the land of doomed destinies, and the land of dejected and disgruntled youth, waiting forever for dreams that will never come true. This is how Madar, my mother, Ansari, and Nanah-jan, my grandmother, Firozah, described my homeland to me when I was barely four years old.

Returning to Afghanistan, she spent her teenage years living under the brutal, deeply repressive regime of the Taliban (1996-2001). At the time of writing the book, Taliban rule had long been overturned, although attitudes to women were alarmingly restrictive. Of course now, tragically, the Taliban are back. It seems certain that Qaderi is no longer teaching at universities in Kabul or a senior adviser to the Ministry of Education, as stated in her bio.

However, one thing that is clear from her book is her incredible resilience. She was sexually assaulted repeatedly by men who theoretically represented religious purity. At the age of 13 she began illicitly schooling local girls, and she helped establish an illegal girls’ writing group, although all books but the Qur’an had been banned.

Unexpectedly, she tells movingly of a teenage flirtation with a reluctant Talib. She also writes of the time after her marriage, when she and her husband moved to Iran, where she found the culture liberating (although Iran certainly wouldn’t top my list of countries offering freedoms to women), and where she was able to pursue a post-graduate education, to eventually become a professor of Persian literature.

The book’s title alludes to her greatest trauma: the loss of her infant son Siawash to her husband’s family on the breakdown of their marriage, after they had returned to the culture of conservative Afghanistan – and after her husband expressed his wish to take a second wife. As she writes, “Siawash has taught me that mothering in Afghanistan often amounts to running on the sharp edge of a sword”.

Review of Flee: Oscar-nominated, Danish film

Flee is a 2021 Danish animated documentary feature that focuses on the life experiences of a young, gay Afghan academic named Amin, who has received asylum in Copenhagen. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, I noticed Riz Ahmed (of whom I’m a huge fan) is one of the executive producers.

The movie (sub-titled) has been nominated for the upcoming Oscars in three categories: best international film, best animated feature and best documentary feature. I went to see it at my local cinema, which had literally one showing of the film, as part of its Tuesday night ‘Discovery’ strand. It really deserves to be shown more widely!

The film opens with Amin’s innocent childhood in Afghanistan, blighted by the disappearance of his father by the mujahideen, followed by years of living with his family as illegal immigrants in hostile Russia, and their gruelling and traumatic attempts to find sanctuary in Western Europe. Amin’s experiences were complicated by his homosexuality, coming, as he says, from a culture that did not even have a word for it.

Animation is a useful tool for painting Amin’s subjective experience. I’m no expert on animation techniques, but different artistic styles and colour palates artfully reflect the various elements of his experience, from carefree days in Afghanistan to moments of pure terror as an illegal migrant in a pathologically corrupt Russia. Aesthetically the film is often beautiful to watch (such as a Kabul-set scene that unfolds to A-ha’s 1980s banger Take on Me and evokes elements of that groundbreaking music video), while the reliance on drawn images rather than a camera recording seems to facilitate drilling down and focusing in on intimate elements of Amin’s personal experience. No doubt it is useful for protecting Amin’s identity, too. Mixed in are scenes using archive footage and news reports that bring home the wider context and bitter reality of Amin’s experiences.

It is a moving film, which highlights the discrepancies between complacent Westerners and desperate people who are driven to put themselves in the hands of seemingly psychopathic traffickers. In one scene, Amin and his family have been working frantically with other migrants to keep afloat in a dangerously unseaworthy boat, which they have been bailing out for days. Exhausted, terrified, suddenly they find themselves in the path of a massive cruise liner, and rows of impassive Western tourists gaze down at the depersonalized refugees, drinks in hands. The border guards have been notified, they tell them.

The scene that got a tear rolling down my cheek, though, was when Amin finally comes out as gay, and shortly afterwards finds himself in a technicolour night club. Something about the acceptance that he found – finally at home in the West – after so many years of gnawing anxiety about what must have seemed his impossible and unacceptable sexuality, was intensely moving.

This is an excellent, ultimately optimistic film, and deserves the accolades surely coming its way. Note though, it’s an animation that’s not aimed at kids.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975 … That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past … Looking back now, I realise I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last 26 years”.

I first read The Kite Runner in, I think, 2005. A friend bought a copy for my birthday after the wife of a Greek oligarch she met at a work do on a yacht told her it was the best book she had ever read. I can only conclude the Greek oligarch’s wife wasn’t super into books.

I’m being a bit unfair. Back in 2005 I gave The Kite Runner a four-star rating. I’m more cynical now, more battered by life and more demanding of books. Yet I still gave it three stars on a second reading.

Its structure, a litany of woes based around a war-torn country, in this case Afghanistan, has since become a familiar genre of Western misery lit, which is aimed squarely at tugging at the heartstrings of complacent readers living comfortably insulated from political trauma and violent personal tragedy in highly developed countries.

In 1970s Afghanistan Amir also lives a comfortable life, with his father, his Baba. He is tended to by staff and spends most of his time with his unquestioningly loyal friend Hassan, the son of their faithful retainer. Amir and Hassan’s uneven relationship is described unsparingly, and Amir is well-drawn as the spoilt princeling, desperate for parental approval, who makes a split-second decision that affects his life for ever. The first part of the novel, culminating in a thrilling kite-running tournament, is genuinely gripping and beautifully evocative.

After Amir and his father flee Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, however, it begins to flag. Baba remains a strong and fascinating character to the end, but once Amir is living independently as an adult he feels less credible.

Amir becomes an author (don’t they all!), and lives a pleasant life in America with his perfect, under-drawn wife Soraya (she is just there to be pretty, forgiving and all-round virtuous – the Victorian-era ‘Angel in the House’ type, albeit one who leaves the house to inspiringly teach small children). But Amir is haunted by his past. Finally, he finds himself returning to his homeland, now Taliban-controlled, in a long redemptive episode that piles horror on horror, ties up some loose ends from childhood and feels utterly implausible and horribly emotionally manipulative.

Hosseini was brought up in Afghanistan until conflict broke out in the late 1970s. He and his family received political asylum in the USA in 1980,  when he was in his teens. Perhaps the earlier sections are so well-handled because he was able to use material from his own past to help bring them to life. The latter part, though, I found descended into mawkishness, while the Talib uber-baddy was just too much, with his extravagantly wealthy family, John Lennon-style sunglasses, penchant for mascara-painted little boys, track marks on his arms and psychopathic monologues.

Massoud Hassani – Afghanistani Artist

Marcel Duchamp famously repurposed and reinterpreted a useful, everyday item and declared it a ‘readymade’ piece of art. Fountain was simply a standard urinal, often exhibited on its back, signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’. His work Bottle Rack (1914) was … a bottle rack.

It feels as though, a century later, Afghan designer Massoud Hassani has done the reverse, by devising something intensely useful, that has nevertheless been displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His ‘Mine Kafon’ is a mine detonator, but also a work of beauty.

Sadly, with Afghanistan mired in conflict since the late 1970s, war keeps coming up, even in relation to its art and design. As children, Hassani, his brother and their friends made light, wind-borne racing toys from paper. Living near a scene of recent conflict, these toys sometimes blew onto minefields, and couldn’t be safely retrieved.

Later in life Hassani came up with a solution to this childhood problem, using those early toys as inspiration and making something that looks delicate, like a dandelion, but which has the ability to safely detonate buried landmines. The detonator that Hassani designed comprises a core of moulded plastic, with bamboo stems and plastic feet (https://www.moma.org/collection/works/160434):

Once on a minefield, the object is heavy enough to detonate a mine, but light enough to be carried along by the wind. And if exploded by a land mine it breaks into parts that can be reused and reassembled into a new Mine Kafon.

It is an object that can be made available throughout the world at low cost, that is simple to use and fairly straightforward to make. But the Mine Kafon is the result of an ingenious and elegant design, which combines the aesthetic qualities of sculpture with a life-saving purpose. It’s just sad that such a thing should be so useful.

Film ‘Midnight Traveler’ by Hassan Fazili (Afghanistan)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

I’ve never understood the lack of empathy and dehumanizing torrent of media and political ire directed towards refugees and other migrants. It doesn’t take an impossible leap of imagination to understand how desperate someone would have to be to sell their possessions and hand over all their savings to people-smugglers, putting their life, and the lives of their family in the dubious hands of professional traffickers.

Midnight Traveler, a 2019 film directed by the Afghanistani filmmaker Hassan Fazili, documents his family’s attempt to escape Afghanistan after he is tipped off that his life is in danger. The family’s aim is to reach safety in Western Europe.

Shot entirely on three mobile phones over a period of about three years, we follow the ups and downs of Fazili’s family. They leave Tajikistan (where they’ve stayed for over a year during their unsuccessful efforts to apply for refugee status in various countries), after making the desperate decision to make their way to Turkey and take the perilous refugee route that was well-documented in the European media in 2015-16. From Iran they plan to reach Turkey, then cross to Greece, passing through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, in the hope of finally making it safely to Germany, which famously announced a (domestically controversial) policy of extending an unequivocal welcome to refugees in the mid-2010s.

Often the events of the film are pictured against an evocative soundscape: sometimes discordant, sometimes beautiful and mournful. Although, like the excellent Syrian documentary For Sama, this is an account of real events, Midnight Traveler is also a work of art – a testament to Fazili’s talents.

Amid the harrowing events, there are moments of joy, connection and fun – playing in the snow in Serbia or the older daughter’s exultation at the tidal waters in Turkey – which really shine forth from this film. And although filmed on mobile phones in difficult conditions, the finished film does not feel scrappy or incoherent. Emelie Mahdavian, a US-based documentary maker, produced and wrote the film that emerged, and it went through extensive post-production. The film notably won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Hassan and his mostly cheerful wife Fatima try to remain positive in the most gruelling circumstances, partly for the sake of their two young daughters. Despite nights in the freezing forest and the barest of facilities in the various refugee camps and safe houses in which they end up, the girls and their clothing always look astonishingly clean and well-cared for. But their lives are uncertain, and at best simply on hold. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at times they’re not even ticking off the bottom rung, and the countries they reach on their way to Germany do not exactly welcome them with open arms.

I wonder why people avoid films like this. Is it too much reality? I’m really glad I watched this film. It was beautifully made, fascinating and enlightening, and it should be essential viewing.

January 2022 Cultural Round-Up; Reading Plans for 2022; Additions to the TBR

FILMS

I’ve reviewed Japanese film Drive My Car already, but I also watched a few films during January that I’ve not given the full review treatment:

Don’t Look Up was entertaining, star-studded, often very funny, shocking and ultimately heavy-handed.

Freaky was a bodyshock, body swap teen horror – self-aware, bloody and intermittently funny.

Spiderman: No Way Home and Eternals are films that I only saw because of my children – but I must admit I have got quite into the Marvel Cinematic Universe by virtue of having kids, though I always feel slightly lost.

Parallel Mothers, Almodovar’s latest film, which I watched at the flicks with my pal Bridget, was engrossing and surprising, and Penelope Cruz is such a stunning actor in every way, I love her.

BOOKS NOT ALREADY REVIEWED INDIVIDUALLY

As well as reading and reviewing Japanese books, and a couple of randoms (A Moth to a Flame by Swedish writer Stig Dagerman and Hour of the Star by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector), I also read the following:

The Foundling by Stacey Halls was tightly plotted and very well-performed on Audible. I prefer Audible for these kind of slightly tropey (hmm not a word?) trashy books.

William Palmer’s work of literary biography In Love with Hell traces the lives and dysfunctional relationship with alcohol of 11 writers (eg Martin Amis, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Rhys…). I love writing on addiction (and I am also too fond of wine and use a complicated system of self-regulation to stop myself drinking every night). I think having children is what has saved me from an over-hedonistic lifestyle!

An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley: I read this mercifully short play because my daughter is doing it for GCSE. Its message ain’t subtle, but I guess that wasn’t the point. Can’t imagine ever wanting to watch it performed!

Mrs March by Virginia Feito was an excellent read. Published just last year it was a bit Stepford Wives and a bit Patricia Highsmith. Gripping.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, which seems to have been universally well-reviewed, actually annoyed me quite a bit. I am well-acquainted with mental illness but Martha’s pathological selfishness drove me to distraction – I just couldn’t bear how relentlessly cruel she was to her lovely husband, although I admit it was very funny in places.

LISTENING

Interspersed with my usual playlists, in January I enjoyed listening to the 2021 album Isles by Bicep, which has appeared on quite a few ‘best ofs’ lists for 2021. I also have really enjoyed Prioritise Pleasure by Self Esteem, which, as my 17 year old has pointed out, is “such an embarrassing name”.

READING PROJECTS

After spending the end of 2021 on Turkey and January on Japan (when I reviewed films and books, plus art, TV, food and music), I’m dedicating February to Afghanistan, March to Greece, April to Portugal, May to Hungary and June to Nigeria.

Interspersed with this reading, and random books I pick up on a whim, I’m also trying read a load of classic novels from 1922 throughout the year (maybe even Ulysses, who knows), plus lots of Virginia Woolf (who I love but who I also find really difficult!). Oh, and I’m currently tackling Middlemarch on audiobook.

ADDITIONS TO THE TBR

I’ve just had my 48th birthday and received seven exciting books, plus I splurged at the charity shop after my COVID booster, and basically now have teetering piles of books to read, including library ones and some Japanese ones I didn’t get to.

Five of the exciting birthday books (these from my parents and two more from husband Ant – Autobibliography by Rob Doyle and Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick). Can’t wait to get stuck into these:

Also my Afghanistan pile – I’m re-reading The Kite Runner first, before plunging into the non-fiction:

Teetering randoms, with 1922s standing upright:

And then some library books, eek:

Left over Japan books:

And a few art books to read/re-read and extras:

Japanese Music

I was reliably informed that Japan’s biggest pop act is Hatsune Miku, who sounds like a demented guinea pig singing slightly hysterical tunes at about 190 bpm. Then it turned out that she is not even human. And not a guinea pig. Instead, “she” is a hologram, and started out in 2007 as vocal synthesising software. Now, bizarrely, Hatsune Miku attracts “music lovers” wielding glow sticks to sold-out concerts across Japan.

As usual my slightly leftfield preference is for 1970s psychedelic rock. My husband out of nowhere recommended that I listen to Extremely Bad Man, a laid-back track by Shintaro Sakamoto, who is a Japanese musician, singer, songwriter and producer and former frontman for psychedelic rock band Yura Yura Teikoku before going solo about a decade ago. I love the track, from the 2014 album Let’s Dance Raw, although it also displays some guinea pig/chipmunk-adjacent musical traits (in a good way, this time) alongside twangy strings and excellent drums (sampled I believe).

Next I turned to the group Yellow Magic Orchestra, formed in the late 1970s, for some classic Japanese electronica: these guys were early adopters of snythesizers, drum machines and such, and according to Wikipedia largely anticipated the “‘electropop boom” of the 1980s’. Surely an influence on both Kraftwerk and later Air.

Finally, I rounded off with experimental ambient music by composer and house DJ Susumu Yokota, which lulled me pleasantly to sleep (perhaps it’s my age). Here’s Tanuki off the album Acid Mt Fuji (from 1994).

Japanese TV series Aggretsuko

I’m a bit late writing up my last few posts for Japanuary, as work and so on got in the way – though I’m sure no one is losing sleep over my lack of posts!

I told my fairly underwhelmed family that I needed to watch some Japanese telly during the cultural event that has been Japanuary. “Then watch Aggretsuko” said my 15-year-old, “it’s great”. Anime, I thought. Ugh. It’s for children. But you know what, this series (streaming on Netflix UK in handy 15-minute episodes) is really entertaining, especially if you have ever worked in an office for any length of time. And it’s definitely not aimed at little kids.

Retsuku (meaning “Fierce Child”) is, yes, a cute red panda in a kilt, but she’s also a 25-year-old young woman who is into death metal and who spends her days working in a tedious office environment, with a huge misogynistic pig (literally a pig) as a boss.

The series follows her day-to-day travails as she negotiates office politics, friendships, crushes on unsuitable men and her relationship with her over-protective mother, who is always popping round to hoover Retsuko’s apartment and trying to fix her up with awful prospective husbands. (To be honest, with a daughter about to go off to university, I actually hard relate to this woman as much as I do Retsuko!)

Retsuko, who was dreamed up by the same people who came up with the Hello Kitty brand, is outwardly sweet and placatory, until every now and then she loses her shit and goes into “death metal karaoke mode” (when she’s voiced by an entirely different actor!). You go girl.

The series is funny and cute and relatable, and I’d recommend it to anyone for a bit of light relief after a January that seemed never to end. And I found out that the series is so widely loved that there’s even a whole fan Wiki to take a deep dive into, if that’s your bag!

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