Woven into a documenta carpet

M: You’re on a carpet in the documenta!

Me: What?

M: Did you know that you’re on a carpet in the documenta?

Me: No. What?!

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Two years back when they told me, I thought this was a joke. An odd one, but a joke. I laughed it away, until I saw the pictures. That was indeed me, and the folks from the circus in Afghanistan with whom I worked. But how did we get there, into an art piece, an uber-dimensional wall-hanging carpet in one of the biggest contemporary art exhibitions in Germany? And how did somebody find and identify me on that?!

The situation must have been quite comical indeed. An old friend of mine, walking with his family through the Kassel documenta, wandering from room to room, tired after seeing one art piece after the next and nearly deciding to go home, when my friend’s sister suddenly screamed out: “That’s A.! That’s her on the carpet!” To say the least, her eye sight and memory must have been really darn good, as we hadn’t seen each other for some time, I wore a headscarf on the picture and even the others had to take a second or third guess before believing that it was me. Baffled, they took pictures of the carpet and sent them to my parents, who skyped me as I was in Kabul at that time.

Imagine, your face woven into a carpet, a piece of art. It’s rather something you’d expect of a king, I guess. At least I didn’t plan for my life to be portrayed in a carpet and hung in an art exhibition. Especially while not knowing that I would be woven and hung…in a way. I felt ambivalent about it, partly because I initially didn’t know where the photo came from and who used it in that way. I called up the others from the circus, and none of them was aware of their involvement in an art project in Germany. Once I saw the picture of the carpet, I remembered. Snow, cold, a group of artists traveling through and visiting the circus, me staying for courtesy for a tea, them asking to take a photo of us in the snow while they were walking out to catch their next appointment. None of us knew where this photo would end up, digitally collaged with other people’s photos in a different setting.

Now, two years later, it is an odd and beautiful reminder of that day that I might have otherwise forgotten. A day when the good-natured dog in the picture still lived, when the snow piled up in one of Kabul’s coldest winters, when I volunteered for the circus on weekends and Shirkhan still worked there, when I stayed for green tea and buiscuits, when I wished to quit my job and do my own projects. A day, woven into a carpet. So in the future, when civilization has broken down, and digital records have crashed in some future internet catastrophe, I will still be found on a carpet, smiling about in Goshka Macuga’s ‘Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that is not'[dOCUMENTA (13), 2012]

Here’s a German article on the documenta with the carpet on: http://www.taz.de/!96101/
Here’s the artist’s website: http://www.outset.org.uk/england/projects/goshka-macuga-of-what-it-is-that-it-is-of-what-is-not-that-is-no/


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We don’t know where we are until we remember

IMG_0876The world turns in circles. Our own little life worlds run in circling movements forward.

Experiences are connected to things we read or hear or get lectured in. The ah-ha moment of seeing something in front of us that we have read about. The understanding that comes with Captain Hindsight. But not only in a way of “If I had known”, but also in “wow, I know now and how special makes that, what has been”.

Sitting in a morning lecture on the influence of Timurid architecture, scribbling notes while glancing views on the power point. Ten people in a room, one talking, me listening. I write down something about octagonal shapes and eight minarets, as I glance at a picture from the corner of my eyes that seems familiar. I see light garlands pendling in the wind.  

I re-adjust my view.

It’s just a domed building. No garlands, no movement on the picture. But I still see it.

Pink, green, yellow, white. No light emanating from them as it was daytime when we visited. IMG_0891The light garlands must have been there for a celebration. And we were there to pass the day. Sa’s turquoise scarf, her observing eyes, our scarce words speaking of the language barrier, our smiles of overcoming it. As we were walking along the excavation site, I tried to make sense of the building, tried to connect it to something. But my total ignorance of Iranian history and Islamic art and architecture back then, showed me a beautiful building. And through the lack of a common language between my hosts and me, and the absence of any guidebook (yes, there are people travelling without guidebooks, which makes it much more interesting to explore!), I was left with admiration alone.

What I didn’t know -and wouldn’t know fIMG_0909or some years- is that I was standing in the former capital of the Mongol Il-Khanid rulers of Persia (Iran), who built this master piece in the 14th century (1302 to 1312 AD). The dome that I tried to get onto a photo -my problems illustrate how huge it was or how inapt I was in photography- would turn out to be one of the largest brick domes in the world, just at the theoretical engineering limit for a brick dome. I couldn’t decipher the inscriptions back then, nor could I understand how the patterns were constructed out of names (Allah, Muhammad and Aliin this picture). IMG_0898For me it was a day-tour to interesting old buildings whose history I didn’t know. I walked away from the others, into one of the buildings. In a niche I come to sit and overlook the area, contemplating how I got here and what this all means.IMG_0902 Nothing made sense back then yet, despite the immediate tales we tell ourselves – we travel, we explore, we learn, we make connections. Stranded in a couchsurfing adventure in a home of an Iranian family, communicating, but rather guessing on the implications of words and phrases, gestures and courtesy, I couldn’t possibly know that four years, – crazy travels including living in Afghanistan and driving a Rickshaw through Iran – later, I would sit in a classroom in the Netherlands and see a picture that explains where I had been in the first days in Iran, back then, when I forgot to note down where I had been and was never able to reconstruct it. Until today.IMG_0894

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I think I might turn a Dr. Seuss fan…reading this over and over again, smiling over the rhythms and beauty of wise knowledge…


Oh the places you’ll go to!
(Dr. Seuss)


Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And then things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.


You’ll be on y our way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

That’s not for you!

Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t
Because, sometimes they won’t.

I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go
though the weather be foul.
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.

On and on you will hike,
And I know you’ll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never foget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)


be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
You’re off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

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Transient Town

Sometimes it takes a while to see.

If you are in the middle of something, you’re focused on the immediate, the things happening, the ever evolving and changing. To see the patterns while unfolding is a difficult one. It needs distance. Timewise or geographically, but mainly inner. For months I didn’t want to write, or rather, it didn’t occur me even to sit down and write. Too many other projects, work, people were surrounding me. And there was a major disappointment in me, which I didn’t want to give space, but which was always present and shaping my perception.

Kabul is not a city to stay. I can just speak about this particular and peculiar place in Afghanistan, as it is here where most of my experience and interaction has centred (another reason for being depressed as of not being able in my current setting to go out and explore beyond the capital). Expats come and go, put the ‘experience’ on their resume, they leave without leaving an institutional memory behind to others. No lessons learned from one generation of expats to the others. Just desperation of not knowing what to do, gets handed over. And if they do come back, the city is just the backdrop for their sheltered bubble-life in which they live. I don’t blame them solely, it is a structural issue of security and insurance companies telling you where you can go and where you can’t, companies giving you a life behind high walls and organizations kicking you out if you don’t follow the strict rules of when to be back –and how to get back- into your compound. There are the exceptions, the freelance journalists, the rare couchsurfers, the people with dual citizenship and the ones that came for idealistically building something else. But they are the rare exception.

And the phenomenon of the transient is not only bound to the expats that describe themselves romantically as the new generation of nomads, it can also be found in the dreams of many Afghans. Most young and middle aged people try to leave the country. And thereby I don’t mean for travel or business, I mean for good. The US offers special immigration visas for Afghan Nationals who have worked for / on behalf of the US Government. All you have to proof is that you’re being persecuted against in your home country and that it would be dangerous for you to stay.

‘But what happens, if everyone leaves?’ My work colleague asked me the other day. ‘Who is left and who will build up a sort of civil society?’

In fact, I rarely encounter people who want to stay in the coming years, if the situation doesn’t improve magically. The passport office that issues the new Afghan passports has long lines in front of it. Some young boys ask Adnan in the shops, whether he knows a way to emigrate to Canada.

Not all and everyone wants to go of course. But the ones who could go (as it is not so easy to get visas, permissions or immigration cards), are being pressured by their families. As Fareed told me:   “I don’t want to leave Afghanistan. I have travelled, that was ok. But I like it here and we should build a better Afghanistan. But because I have worked for the Americans, I have good chances to get a visa and go. Every time I talk with my family it is the topic number one. And if I tell them that I don’t want to leave, they pressure me and tell me, that if I don’t want to leave for myself, then I should consider to leave for my family.”

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Fruehling in Kabul

Die gefaehrlichsten Tage sind wohl die, in denen wir uns in Sicherheit waehnen. Die Tage, an denen die Sonne auf unsere entspannten Gesichter scheint, waehrend wir mit dem Minibus durch die Stadt von A nach B fahren. Die Tage, an denen die Kinder und Frauen im Park zu gelassen scheinen. Die Tage an denen das Handy klingelt und jemand fragt: “Wo bist Du? Ist alles ok?!”

Es ist nichts neues, dass es Angriffe in Kabul und genereller gesagt, in Afghanistan gibt. Nichts neues, dass es Menschen gibt, die mit Raketen auf Regierungsgebaeude schiessen und sich in die Luft sprengen um andere Menschen zu toeten. Und doch gibt es soetwas wie einen intendierten Ueberraschungseffekt, wenn nach einem allzu ruhigen Winter, der als eisige Waffenruhe zu verstehen ist, die Kampfsaison wieder eroeffnet ist.

Doch wie fuehlt sich das an, gerade in solch einer Stadt zu wohnen?”

Wenn ich darueber nachdenke, was es fuer mich oder andere bedeutet, dann kommt mir immer wieder Kafkas Worte in den Kopf:

“Wenn Du vor mir stehst und mich ansiehst, was weißt Du von den Schmerzen, die in mir sind und was weiß ich von den Deinen. Und wenn ich mich vor Dir niederwerfen würde und weinen und erzählen, was wüßtest Du von mir mehr als von der Hölle, wenn Dir jemand erzählt, sie ist heiß und fürchterlich. Schon darum sollten wir Menschen vor einander so ehrfürchtig, so nachdenklich, so liebend stehn wie vor dem Eingang zur Hölle.”

Denn fuer jeden Menschen wuerde solch ein Tag anders sein, je nachdem ob man mitten drin steckt oder nur etwas durch Nachrichten und Anrufe erfaehrt. Was zunaechst einmal auffaellt und immer wichtig ist im Kopf zu behalten: auch bei sieben Angriffen gleichzeitig in einer Stadt, sind es nur bestimmte Bereiche der Stadt, in der gekaempft wird. Andere Stadtteile sind vollkommen ruhig. Der Baecker backt Brot, die Kinder spielen auf der Strasse, das Leben geht weiter. Es kann sein, dass Strassen gesperrt sind und es daher zu Staus kommt. Es ist aber nicht so, dass die gesamte Stadt im Chaos versinkt.

Ein anderer bemerkenswerter wie logischer Faktor: sobald etwas passiert, intensiviert sich die Kommunikation und der Austausch. Anrufe und SMS gehen von einem zum anderen um abzuchecken, ob es allen gut geht. Nachrichten werden weiter gegeben und es wird ge-twittert. Bevor ich nach Kabul kam, hatte ich Twitter als eine moderne narzistische Stoerung abgetan. Eine selbstverliebte Darstellungskunst der neuen Medien um sich selbst und jeden noch so unwichtigen Gedanken in den Mittelpunkt der “Follower”zu stellen. Nachdem ich selbst einmal nichtsahnend irgendwo sass und Anrufe mit zerstueckelten Bruchstueckchen von Informationen reinregneneten, weiss ich schnelle Nachrichtenuebertragungen mehr als genug zu schaetzen. Information kann nicht nur das Leben erleichtern, sondern auch retten, indem man weiss, wohin gehen –und wohin besser nicht.

Und ist es nun Chaos und da wird jetzt gekämpft, geschossen und Raketen wissen nicht wen sie treffen? Nicht wirklich. Es gab ca. 20 Stunden in verschiedenen Teilen der Stadt Angriffe und Gefechte. Aber es waren keine anarchischen Strassengefechte, in denen auf Passanten geschossen wurde. Es waren geplante und zielgerichtete Angriffe auf Einrichtungen, bei denen die meisten Zivilisten oder Angestellten, die dort arbeiteten, in Bunkern abwarteten waehrend die Sicherheitstruppen draussen kaempften. Dabei stehen sich auch zwei Narrative gegenueber (gute zusammenfassende Darstellung gibt es bei Afghanistan Analyst Network). Im Westen: ‘Kabul versinkt im Chaos’und in Afghanistan: ‘die afghanischen Sicherheitstruppen haben so gute Arbeit geleistet wie noch nie zuvor’. (Schliesslich gab es kaum Tote und wenige Verletzte, gemessen an dem Ausmass der Angriffe.)

Diese Banner tauchten seit gestern ueberall im Netz auf. Einige haben es als facebook oder skype Hintergrund in ihren Profilen

Diese Banner tauchten seit gestern ueberall im Netz auf. Einige haben es als facebook oder skype Hintergrund in ihren Profilen

Und die Wahrheit liegt wohl irgendwo dazwischen, daneben und wie immer bei Uebertreibungen, darunter. Unter den Pressenarrativen, in den Geschichten der einzelnen. Von denen, die vorm Fernseher sassen und es verfolgten, waehrend sie Freunde und Angehoerige anriefen. In den Geschichten derjenigen Journalisten, die hinliefen, wo andere lieber weggelaufen waeren. In den Strassenzuegen in denen debattiert wurde, was nun gerade wo passiert und in den stillen Blicken ueber der Stadt, die keine eindeutige Antwort auf alles hat.

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Afghan Tourist Photos (Kabul to Sorubi)

Testing the edge

Close to Sorubi

Streets in between Kabul and Jalalabad

Towards Sorubi

Then we discovered the old russian tank...

...and started taking tourist pictures for our future grandchildren...

Not sure why they said I shouldn't show these to my parents...


The dam reservoir in Sorubi

Down at the reservoir

These little pashtun boys always amaze me. They're more like miniature men.

Our sandal seller in Sorubi

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Nearly Expired

Everyone is talking about global warming. On both ends it gets more extreme: blazing winters and damn hot summers. In a little side-discussion I say resignated to my colleague Marwa:

“That’s what we did to our planet.”

Marwa, Chanom Sadat and me at work

Marwa, Chanom Sadat and me at work

She looks at me, seriously thinking and says then:

“yes, it’s nearly expired, our earth”

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