Mondana Bashid

A concert in Manchester; an ice cream parlour in Baghdad; a fun Saturday evening in the heart of London; a busy crossroad, a demonstration and a funeral in Kabul. Tens if not hundreds of people dead or wounded. And all this without considering what happens in Syria, in the rest of Iraq, in Nigeria as it doesn’t make the news any longer.

These are days full of fear and exhaustion. Rejection and suspicion seem to be the easiest solution: closing all the doors; building walls, turning our backs to everyone who’s other than us. It is in fact the worst choice because it means to fall in the trap, to play by the rules of terror, to accept to be blackmailed.

Manchester, Baghdad, Kabul and London are shouting back at the peril of slipping into bigotry.

This morning on a signboard on the London tube it was written: “Anyone can give up, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that’s true strength.” And in the ice cream parlour in Baghdad, they went back to work five days after being hit. And Kabul – where people queued to give blood and appealed to unity and doctors worked with no rest and journalists stayed strong on the frontline to tell their story – reminds us the immense value of humanity.

In Afghanistan, where a courteous culture still gives value to the ritual of exchanging greetings, I learnt one of the most beautiful wishes: Mondana Bashid – may you never be tired.

I don’t thing there is anything better we can wish each other in a time like this when tiredness, fear, exhaustion and helplessness risk to take over.

Mondana Bashid to the citizens of Kabul, to emergency‘s doctors, to my Afghan friends who still believe in the future. Mondana Bashid to each one of us and to all those, no matter where they are in the world, who still have the courage to hope and to make things a little better.

Who cleans the city?

After the IS attack at a demonstration in Kabul on the 23rd of July 2016, I wrote a tribute to those who clean the city afterwords and allow us to move on with dignity. We all thought that it was worst attack since 2001 – until yesterday when Kabul was hit again. The figures of the attack are mind-numbing: 93 killed and more than 450 injured.

Today, sadly, my thoughts go again to those who clean the city.

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The day after is always difficult.

Yesterday’s suicide attack has been the worst in Kabul since 2001–the victims were all civilians, all young: a terrible blast for the already fragile heart of the city.

With the sombering and heavy attitude that characterizes a national day of mourning, the city this morning woke up and went on with its business as usual. Kabul is a strong city, a city that reacts and doesn’t break. Her formidable resilience is one of the first things one discovers and falls in love with upon moving here. Life goes on no matter what, you roll your sleeves and move on–this is a way of looking at the world that is a profound source of inspiration.

This morning I woke up with a thought that I still can’t get out of my head: I keep thinking about those who clean the city, about those who work before day breaks to remove all the traces of a horror such as yesterday’s.

It is well known that Kabul’s strength is in her ability to start afresh every time, but we don’t know anything about those who make it possible, about those who scrub the blood off the asphalt, who collect what remains, who hose away all that has to disappear.

We probably owe them the fact that we can move on, to these silent restorers of normalcy; to those who, in Kabul or Baghdad or Srinagar, have the task of disguising smells, of remodelling the facade of the ordinary, of hiding the traces of traumas that are too difficult even to imagine.

I don’t know who they are, I don’t know their faces and I wonder what they may think – a prayer or a curse–while they clean up surrounded by the night. I thought, however, it was important to write about them – to exorcise that obsessive thought, but also to pay my respects to those who, probably without knowing, allow us to look ahead into the future.

 

A good person

The last few weeks have been quite difficult and emotionally exhausting. I went through a rough patch and ended up being face to face with the tangible risk of becoming the person I don’t want to be: impatient, detached and surrounded by a big, black cloud of bad mood.

However trite it may sound, it proved to be true that you need to be confronted by darkness in order to recognise the light.

The result of the exhaustion of the past days has been in fact that I finally understood that my main objective in life is to be a good person. It may sound naive, but in this historical conjuncture I believe it may turn into a radical political choice: not giving in to fear and suspicion, keeping a curious, open and allowing attitude.

I think such a choice may represent the sole root to cultivate in order to transform our social dimension and contribute in a constructive manner to rethinking the sphere of the collective. This is perhaps the only way to emancipate ourselves from economic and political models that channel us towards a grey and faceless uniformity.

I am thinking about my parents’ decision to retreat to a simple life, I am thinking about my sister’s professional choices based on respect and inclusiveness irrespective of visible and invisible differences.

The investment on integrity, both at the level of the person and that of the practice, is the only way to survive these terrible times and to resist the vulgarity of shoutings, spitted hate and violence.

We were discussing it last night with Sandi Hilal in one of our very special transoceanic conversations. The great challenge for our future is to keep cultivating the courage to leave the doors of our houses open, to keep investing on hospitality and exchange. The difficult step is to realise that this personal choice becomes a civic responsibility, that the way we choose to live our today has immense political repercussions.

The biggest ambition is therefore to be a good person – while regaining the courage not to worry about being out of fashion.

(Dedicated to Sandi Hilal)

In search for words

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Photo by Kevin Frayer / AP

Yesterday Afghanistan has lived through yet another bloody day: three attacks in three cities (Lashkar Gah, Kabul, Kandahar) and tens of casualties. We had barely managed to process the horror of one event that another followed. It has been a difficult time and our thoughts were once again with those whose only fault is to work in the wrong place.

At a personal level, days like these add doubts to the emotional tiredness of being an indirect witness of a war that never seems to end. On days like yesterday it seems more difficult to give myself a convincing answer on why not only is it important but also necessary to work on art and cultural production in a country like Afghanistan in a moment like this. The uneasiness that this hesitation generates is difficult to manage both for myself and for those who are close to me. Silence in these circumstances is never productive neither is indulging in the malaise. The frustration, however, is there and needs an outlet.

Yet, I’ll never cease to be surprised by the fact that answers always come when you least expected them.

I met an old friend, K., who told me a story. Last November I organised a training for 120 artists from various disciplines coming from different corners of Afghanistan. K. took part in the training and since then he has been telling me what a unique opportunity of exchange and encounters it was. I really don’t like flattery so more than once I told him that he was exaggerating and was being so kind only because we are friends.

Sipping his tea, he told me that, without me knowing, one of the artists participating in the seminar was illiterate: a musician who can play wonderfully, but cannot read and write. The participatory and inclusive method that characterised the seminar, as well as the fact that it was conducted in local languages rather than in English as it is generally the case, allowed him to take part in it and draw from it great motivation.

In order not to waste the possible fruits that could come from this achievement, K. told that he made a deal with the musician since for the first time his work could be promoted and supported irrespective of the fact that he cannot read and write.

The deal is this: K. offered to help the musician to fill the form to apply for the grants that my project offers on the condition that he would enrol in an evening school.

The musician, whose name I don’t know, has started attending a literacy class at the beginning of January.

Moments of hope like this one give me strength and are an unexpected gift that provides me with the words to give an answer, however temporary, to my doubts and questions.

On the table – Thoughts about Kashmir

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Two weeks ago I was making dinner: pasta with lamb as in the tradition of the part of Italy I come from and doon chettin, a walnut chutney typical of Kashmir. I wanted on our table the rough but heartwarming flavours of both his mountains and mine.

That evening, after dinner, we got to know that Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human right advocate who has been working for decades to denounce the brutality that his people has been subjected to, had been arrested (with accusations devoid of any legal justification). The day before his arrest, he was disallowed to board on a plane to Geneva where he was meant to speak at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission.

I can’t stop thinking about the flavour of that dinner, about the comfort that comes from the food from home. I also can’t stop thinking about Khurram Parvez’s wife, who does not know when she’ll share a meal with him again, and about all those women in Kashmir who are crying while preparing the favourite dish for their sons who have been killed in the past three months.

After 84 days of crackdown in Kashmir, winds of war blow between India and Pakistan. On both sides, armchair strategists invoke the power of a nuclear attack. Inebriated by nationalistic fascism, they do not consider that the border that separates them is only a fictional line traced on paper and that the possible consequences won’t stop at the frontier to ask for permission to cross.

Newspaper headlines and the occasional international attention, have used this chance to concentrate on the abstract dimension of the conflict sweeping aside what this actually means for the people. Yet again Kashmir is discussed as an expanse of land on either side of a line drawn on a map rather than as a land that belongs to a people who has been fighting for decades for the right to decide for themselves and their future. The abstract geopolitical discussion becomes the excuse to ignore that the armed forces destroyed the yearly apple harvest and burnt the cultivated fields; to look away from the seized ambulances, the night raids and the undiscriminated arrests.

How many more empty places at the dinner table, how many more meals full of absence are going to be needed before we recognise that the right to self-determination is inviolable and sacrosanct? How many more mothers will have to cry for the loss of their sons before we understand that violence and brutality will not eradicate the quest for freedom?

The photo that wasn’t there

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Afghanistan National Museum Motto

Yesterday I went for lunch at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University to see Nancy Dupree. I count the pleasure of her company among the most precious gifts I received from this city. We spent a couple of hours together and we ate an enormous plate of garlic beans and a bowl of sour yogurt.

Nancy is an amazing raconteur and an inexhaustible source of enchanting stories: her intimate knowledge of the country offers, to those who have the privilege to listen, a vertiginous journey across space and time.

Over the years, it never happened to me to spend some time with her and leave without a memorable story to cherish and remember.

Yesterday, when I arrived to her office, she was working on a photo-gallery about the pre-historic tools that are part of the collection of the National Museum. As a cover image for the gallery she wanted to use a photo of the façade of the museum before it was destroyed during the Civil War. She told me she went looking in her extensive photo archive and to her great surprise she could not find any image of that kind. She then went to see the director of the museum to ask him for a copy from their own archives, but he said they did not have any even there. Ever more surprised, she reached out to those who were in town in those years or could have had access to documents of that time. Nothing. It seems that before the Civil War no one considered taking a photo of the façade.

Her story ended there and our conversation moved on, but the thought of the photo that wasn’t there stayed with me.

There are so many moments and details that, there and then, appear entirely unremarkable. There are so many things that we take for granted and let slip away without thinking twice. It is strange to think that these details can then come back unannounced and reveal themselves through their absence in an unexpected future. It is strange to think that they end up becoming witnesses of a past that has left no visual trace.

A cup of salty tea

I don’t understand those who don’t understand that politics comes also from the belly. Beyond the viscerality of a political existence, for me there are always contingent factors that, by chance or by necessity, bring me back to the reasons of what I chose and the values for which I live.

Today the occasion has been a cup of salty tea, typical of Kashmir and of the Himalayan valleys on either side of the contested border between India and Pakistan.

A couple of days ago I was talking about it with one of my colleagues, he comes from Hunza a valley 2500 meters above sea level in the extreme north of Pakistan. We were discussing about regional variations in recipes, habits and tradition of the salty tea. As he knows that I like it a lot, he made it for me for breakfast. What he calls shur chai is a version (with butter and without baking soda) of what I know as noon chai and what for me represents the flavour of Kashmir.

As I was sipping from my cup, with my head in Kabul and my heart in Srinagar, he filled a bowl with bites of old bread, poured tea over it and ate it as a soup, nostalgically thinking of the breakfasts of his childhood.

My cup of shur chai made me face what I have been avoiding for days.

It has been for the past forty-three days that I have felt the need to write about what is happening in Kashmir, but every passing day made finding the words more difficult. I kept procrastinating and my guilt kept growing as I felt that my silence was becoming a form of complicity.  

For the past forty-three days the Valley has been under siege. After the killing of a young rebel commander fighting against Indian rule in the name of self-determination, Kashmir took it to the streets and India responded with an iron fist and unprecedented and unimaginable violence. In forty-three days almost seventy people have been killed and hundreds have been hit, mostly in the eye, by pellet guns. Quite literally, the Indian Army is systematically removing the possibility of looking at the future in a manner that differs from what is envisaged by those in power. Over the past few days, curfew has been extended to both day and night, making it almost impossible even to buy milk. The day before yesterday they prevented the distribution of petrol and an ambulance driver was shot at as he was taking several wounded people to the hospital.

I think of my friends, of those who hold a very special place in my heart, of the mothers whose teenage sons are protesting in the streets. I think about the anger, the fear and the right to decide for themselves.

How can one write about all this? Where are the words to be found? Last night a friend told me that there’s no point in writing in times such as these because there is really nothing left to add. Maybe it is true, there are no words to give measure to such horror and what I am writing is irrelevant, but never like now does silence feel culpable.

At times I wish we’d live in a simpler world where a cup of salty tea could be the trigger to start changing things.

Gulkhana

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It is hot. I sweat slowly.

Deciding to come back to Kabul has been difficult: from afar, the idea of gathering enough strength to face the journey is overwhelming, something that seems beyond actual capability.

But then, it only takes a second: the doors of the plane open and Kabul welcomes you with her typical heatwave, with that sultry air that smells of dust and that, for some obscure reason, makes you feel at home. It only takes a second and the city, with her inexplicable charm, absorbs you and makes you part of her again – seamlessly.

Kabul is always the same, yet this time everything seems different. There is a sense of tiredness that, for the first time in many years, is dramatically tangible. I spent the whole of last week adding names to the long list of those who have left the country. Those who can, leave: exhausted by war and the lack of a horizon. In a country without a present like Afghanistan, this brain-drain is a death sentence for the future.

Yesterday a good friend, one of the most talented young artists in town, wrote me to say that he hopes to come and show me his new drawings soon. He went on updating me about the fact that he was not entirely happy with the progress of his work: for several months he could not draw as he ran out of paper. Luckily, he added, he had gone on a trip to Pakistan with his family and hence could buy more paper and resume drawing. The matter of fact tone with which he wrote stayed with me: there was no resentment. This is how things are here, it is normal not to have paper and not to be able to draw: there’s not much else to add.

It is from this lack of paper that I should probably re-start as well.

My new office is in the greenhouse of one of the most beautiful old buildings in Kabul: it stayed surprisingly intact despite decades of bombs. In Dari, the greenhouse is called gulkhana, the flowers’ house. At this time of the year, its heat is unbearable, but I specifically asked to sit there: I thought it would be a beautiful starting point. My desk is surrounded by windows and flooded with light: it is torrid in this season, but it carries the promise of a gentle warmth during the long winter. I look around and I am happy about the choice I made. It makes sense to be here: it makes sense to be here now. It makes sense, but I wonder how to feed the determination to keep going with what may somehow seem an ungrateful task: to work towards the future with no guarantee of immediate results in the present. The promise and the vision of a broader perspective that goes beyond contingencies is certainly a source of motivation, but finding the root of that motivation in the little everyday steps is another matter. I hope I’ll stay lucid enough to be able to keep reminding it to myself.

The windows of he gulkhana face the garden, which is never barren as it has been designed around the cycle of seasons, around the tireless, round pace of time: simple, unpretentious wisdom that has a lot to teach.

This post was published on The News on the 26th of July 2016.

Who cleans the city?

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Photo EPA

After the terrible attack that shook Kabul, I wrote about those who clean the city.

Auctorly hosted my piece.

The day after is always difficult.

Yesterday’s suicide attack has been the worst in Kabul since 2001–the victims were all civilians, all young: a terrible blast for the already fragile heart of the city.

Read the full article here.

Learning to read

I have been studying Dari for a year now and I finally reached a functional level that allows me to ask to change the dynamo of the generator, check with the plumber that the sewage finally works properly and converse with taxi drivers – mostly about God and religion, conversations that – beyond the language barrier, often leave me with questions that I am not capable to answer.

I have learnt the alphabet since the very beginning, but it has only need a week since I started reading out loud.

It made me feel like a little girl again and Sister Fidalma came to mind – she was the incredibly old nun who gave me reading tuitions when I was in school. When I was little, it took me a very long time before I learnt to read properly. My first oculist got my prescriptions wrong and, despite huge baby-pink specs, I could hardly see anything and the letters on the page would hopelessly blur.

It is funny to think now that my first active relationship with books was one of effort and frustration and it makes me happy to look back and see how much things have changed.

Learning to read as an adult is turning into a funding moment in my personal development. It is a humbling experience where I have to look at myself and my limits without filters or excuses: there is no bluff and there is no hiding. Reading out loud a syllable after the other is embarrassing – I have the impression to blush every time I finish reading a word; making banal mistakes is frustrating, but reaching the end of a sentence – exhausted after barely five words – is a priceless and unforgettable pleasure.

Sayed, my fantastic teacher, has found the right balance with me: he pulls my leg and encourages me at the same time, he helps me laugh at my efforts and not to take myself too seriously.

There is so much that we take as a given, we hardly question our abilities and all those things we believe we are entitled to.

Starting from scratch again is reminding me of the importance of humility, of the satisfaction of small steps, and of the genuine joy of simple achievements.