Category Archives: connections

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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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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Being a woman AND a foreigner in Kabul, Afghanistan

This is one of the frustrating parts of being in Kabul. Being a woman and a foreigner. It feels like being doubly disabled  -no offence meant to physically or mentally challenged people!

Being a foreigner first off means being visible all the time. At least if you are not fitting in the skin colour scheme or if you can’t dive in with dark hair and brown eyes. It means being watched, assessed, critically viewed and even if positively welcomed: you are visible. You cannot just simply roam around in a bazaar and listen to the chit chatter of locals as the small talk might die down if you come along or might take you as  a subject to talk about. This can be a good thing to get in touch with people, but it is on the flipside a security risk that might get you kidnapped or killed (while admitting that Afghans are the ones running in danger to be kidnapped on the street for money as this happens frequently and is a constant threat for them).

Second cross cutting issue: being a woman. While stating from the beginning and being aware of the fact that foreign women don’t bear the weight of expectations, threats and pressure that local women bear or have to endure (which is a WHOLE different category!), it does not go without saying that being a foreigner woman in Afghanistan doesn’t have its challenging sides to it. While foreign men sometimes venture out to buy things at the bazaar or take local taxis –which is not advised by most of the security firms, restrictions and most foreigner’s idea about what to do best here- it is even more difficult as a woman and most of the time it is not easy or even possible to take a walk somewhere or go to buy things (besides the fact that speaking one of the local languages opens many doors and enables you to do so from time to time…). As women are rarer than men in the public realm and more followed with looks, being visibly a foreigner and a woman and walking outside is a triple marker for being exotic and strange. While other women –mainly local as I have not seen another foreigner woman on my walks- share smiles of being in the same club with you, men might slow down in their cars next to you to talk. The annoying fact of being dependent either on other foreign men to accompany you or other locals, who are mostly men as well, because women don’t go out much, is a daily experience.

But being challenged can also mean being given a chance.

being made up with make up by Pashtun women on an engagement ceremony

being made up with make up by Pashtun women on an engagement ceremony

As the Afghan society is to huge parts segregated into a male and a female realm, foreign men are not allowed much contact with the local female population, if any at all. They might never see a traditional kitchen, see the women’s side on a nikah (traditional Islamic wedding) or talk to Afghan women (with exception of higher or educated westernized classes or Hazara women). My partner Adnan who has worked for ten years as a journalist and photographer in Afghanistan has never seen his fixer’s/contact person’s wife. He has travelled with him, his life was saved several times by him, he has lived in his house for extended periods of time but he has never met his wife.

I, on the contrary, am a hybrid in these cases. As a woman I can enter the female part of society, gossip with women about their charming or incapable men, get tons of make up on and taste the food in the kitchens where the house politics are being made. As a foreigner though, I am kind of a third gender. The public spaces are male dominated but as a foreigner I can talk to men in their shops, sit in meetings with afghan men and talk with colleagues about their dreams and plans. I am not accepted as a man but as a foreign woman, I fall under another category which does not fit into the common male/female divide.  I’m somewhere in-between and thus am exposed to parts of both sides: being hampered, challenged and ambiguous.

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Birds paint movement into the sky

“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears and what they think”

(Rumi)

The first days after moving into the new apartment I caught myself standing at the huge windows, looking out onto the mountains and waiting for the birds.

They came frequently, sailing in a huge flock right across the piece of sky visible from our living room windows. They didn’t seem to be merely flying, but to be mounting the rough winds like sailors seizing the stormy waters of the unknown. Keen to dive down towards the streets and sail high aiming for the sun.

My steps lead me higher, onto the flat roof, on which laundry dries when the sun peaks out and on which little groups of chimneys hold their smoky conversations with each other. Towards the evening, they were flying again. The birds, which seemed to circle merely around our apartment block. I watched their path in the sky, their reckless formation flights. And suddenly, they landed. On the roof of the house next door. I walked towards the rim of the roof, wondering, and a young afghan men waved to me. He was the owner of the birds! He was the one to leave them out in the days. The one to feed them and to wait for them once they had enough from their air acrobatics.

He smiled at me and I smiled at the birds. Words unnecessary.

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Voegel malen Bewegung in den Himmel

“Ich moechte Singen wie die Voegel, ohne mich zu Sorgen, wer es hoeren koennte und was jemand darueber daechte.”

(Rumi)

In den ersten Tagen als wir in die neue Wohnung gezogen waren, ertappte ich mich dabei, wie ich immer wieder an den grossen Fenstern stand und raus auf die Berge starrte. Ich wartete auf die Voegel.

Sie kamen regelmaessig und segelten in einem grossen Schwarm durch das Stueck Himmel, das von unseren Wohnzimmerfenstern aus sichtbar war. Sie schienen nicht nur zu fliegen, sondern die Winde anzugehen wie erfahrene Seegler, die sich in die stuermischen Gewaesser schmeissen, im Genuss des Unbekannten. Tief hinabtauchend gen Strasse und aufsteigend der Sonne entgegen.

So zog es mich hoeher, aufs Flachdach, auf dem die Waesche trocknet wenn ein wenig Sonne rauskommt und auf dem sich die Grueppchen von Schornsteinen zueinander neigen im verqualmten Miteinander. Und gen Abend flogen sie wieder, die Voegel, die nur um unseren Block zu kreisen schienen. Ich beobachtete ihre Bahnen, ihre waghalsigen Formationsfluege und ploetzlich liessen sich sich nieder. Auf dem Haus nebenan. Verwundert ging ich bis zum Rand und ein junger afghanischer Mann winkte mir zu. Er hielt die Voegel! Er war derjenige, der ihnen jeden Tag Ausflug gewaehrte, der sie fuetterte und auf sie wartete, wenn sie von ihrer Luftakrobatik genug hatten.

Er laechelte mir zu und ich schickte ein Laecheln zu den Voegeln. Es bedurfte keiner Worte.


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Afghan Adoption

„Believe it or not: I still remember when these trees were just planted in this park!“

 

Habib smiles onto the sunlight filtering branches that waver from the trees which are lining the pathways in the park. He walks slowly, testing the steps cautiously. He has to, cause his knees sometimes bend off and his feet have carried him over sixty years on windy pathways trough his life.

 

„The first time I came to Europe was on a motorbike! I rode with a young british man from Kabul to London where I wanted to stay. Since then I have made this travel so many times…I exported busses to Kabul. I put an annonce into the newspaper, asking who wanted to drive the busses down with me. 20 young people came with me on that track! These were other times, my dear! All these roads were safe, you could travel and it was cheap! Just imagine, I stayed in a hotel in London for 5 pounds, including breakfast! These days you wouldn’t even get a decent breakfast for that anymore!“

His smile encompasses his whole face which reminds more of a gentle Santa Claus than an old Kabuli (inhabitant of Kabul). Maybe some of the years in the Bay Area in the US have had an impact on his appearance. And if not that, then definitely on his accent.

 

„Sweetheart, can you believe it?“ he asks me „all these young boys driving around and around like crazy. It’s a park! It’s for walking! They should stop that!“

 

He points at the young under age afghan boys circling around the parks on motorbikes and scooters after bribing the police so that they keep quiet. He screams at them and tries to stop them to talk with them.

 

„It doesn’t make a difference“, Noor says who walks to my other side. „Even if you talk with one of them, there are a hundred other boys who will do exactly the same. It won’t chane anything!“

 

Noor and Habib have kind of adopted me since I started staying at the guesthouse. They are both original Afghans, though migrated to the States at some point in their lives. Both were drawn back here and met in the guesthouse just like we did some weeks after. Astonished about the fact that they both lived in San Francisco, they started talking more and when I joined in, the three musketeers were complete. Drinking chai sabs (green tea) in the evening after dinner together, enjoying pomegranade seeds en masse, talking about good old times in Kabul and sighing about the state it is now in.

 

„When I came back to Kabul in summer“, Habib remembered „I sat all night on the roof of my empty house. I drank tea or a beer. I watched Kabul by night, sometimes until the sun came out again. Trying to make sense of all that has changed.“

 

And it must have been a lot that changed in the past fourty years since he was young. Not only the wars with different occupiers, the influx of thousands of people from different provinces who are trying to find a better life here and who are filling now with more than 3 Million people a city that was originally designed for one million. „The hill over there used to be all forest.“ Habib says, pointing on the rocky plateau rising up to exhibit the shrapnel-hole-covered Fort that is now a military post . „Boys and girls used to meet there secretly. We went for walks and we had time to talk one another. Good times they were.“

And when he talks I don’t feel that it’s just an old men talking in the dreamy world of the ever-better-past, but that he really wished this city would blossom again like he has seen it before. With sometimes sad eyes but always a twinkle he talks, taking me on my first walks in the city. As I ask him if and how I can walk on my own alone in the streets, he cracks up laughing and grinns: „Not naked!“

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Afghanische Adoption (deutsche Version)

„Ob Du’s mir glaubst oder nicht: Ich erinnere mich noch daran als diese Bäume hier in diesem Park gepflanzt wurden!“

 

Habib lächelt hoch zu den Sonnenlicht einfangenden Ästen, die mit dem Wind zu spielen scheinen. Er geht langsam als wenn er jeden Schritt erst vorsichtig antesten würde. Vielleicht muss er das auch, da ihm seine Knie manchmal den Dienst versagen und seine Füße ihn schon seit über 60 Jahren auf verschlungenen Lebenswegen getragen haben.

 

„Das erste Mal nach Europa kam ich auf einem Motorrad! Ich fuhr mit einem jungen Briten von Kabul nach London. Seitdem habe ich diese Reise viele Male gemacht…ich habe Busse nach Kabul exportiert. Damals war es einfach. Ich schrieb eine Annonce in der Zeitung aus und fragte nach, wer mit mir die Autos nach Afghanistan fahren wollte. Es meldeten sich mehr als zwanzig junge Leute, die dann mitkamen! Das waren andere Zeiten, Liebling! Die Wege waren sicher und man konnte unbeschwehrt reisen. Und es war günstig! Stell Dir nur vor, ich habe in London für 5 Pound pro Nacht gewohnt. Mit Frühstück! Heutzutage würde man dafür noch nicht mal mehr ein vernünftiges Frühstück bekommen!“

 

Sein Lächeln nimmt sein gesamtes Gesicht ein, das mehr an einen sanften Weihnachtsmann erinnert als an einen alten Kabuli (einen Bewohner Kabuls). Vielleicht sind das die Auswirkungen der Jahre an der Westküste der USA . Und wenn nicht, dann haben diese Jahre zumindest Auswirkungen auf seinen Akzent gehabt, der in stark amerikanischem Englisch von den Begebenheiten erzählt

 

„Süße, hättest Du Dir das vorgestellt?“ fragt er mich plötzlich „all diese jungen Männer, die hier wie verrückt geworden Runde um Runde drehen. Und das ist ein Park! Der ist zum Spazierengehen da! Aufhören sollen die!“

 

Er zeigt auf die minderjährigen Afghanen, die mit Motorrädern, Mopeds und Rollern durch den Park heizen nachdem sie die Polizei für ihr kleines Vergnügen geschmiert haben. Er schreit sie an wenn sie vorbeifahren und versucht sie anzuhalten um mit ihnen zu reden.

 

„Das macht doch keinen Unterschied“, sagt Noor, der zu meiner anderen Seite geht. „Selbst wenn Du mit einem redest, der es dann versteht, gibt es wieder hundert andere, die genau das selbe machen werden. Das verändert doch nichts!“

 

Noor und Habib haben mich sowas wie adoptiert seitdem ich ins Gästehaus eingezogen bin. Sie sind beide ursprünglich aus Afghanistan und irgendwann dann in die Staaten emigriert. Beide zog es hierhin zurück. Sie trafen sich im Gästehaus, so wie ich die beiden wenig später treffen sollte. Überrascht darüber, dass sie beide mittlerweile in San Francisco wohnen, fingen sie an mehr miteinander zu reden und als ich noch dazu stieß waren die drei Musketiere komplett. Gemeinsam chai sabs (grünen Tee) nach dem Abendessen trinken, Granatäpfelkerne in rauen Mengen genießen, über die guten alten Zeiten in Kabul reden und über den derzeitigen Zustand seufzen.

 

„Als ich im Sommer zurück nach Kabul kam“ erinnert sich Habib, „saß ich die ganze Nacht auf dem Dach meines leeren Hauses. Ich trank Tee oder ein Bier und schaute Kabul bei Nacht an. Manchmal bis zum Sonnenaufgang. Ich versuchte zu vestehen was und und wie schnell sich alles geändert hat.“

 

Und es muss viel sein, was sich in den letzten 40 Jahren gewandelt hat seitdem er jung war. Nicht nur die Kriege mit den verschiedenen Besatzungsmächten oder der Strom von Tausenden Menschen aus verschiedenen Provinzen, die in der Hauptstadt auf ein besseres Leben hoffen und die nun mit über drei Millionen Menschen eine Stadt füllen, die für eine Millionen gebaut war. „Der Berg da drüben war komplett bewaldet.“ erzählt Habib und zeigt auf das hügelige Plateau auf dem sich das Munitionsdurchlöcherte Fort, das nun ein Militärposten ist, erhebt. „Jungen und Mädchen trafen sich da heimlich. Wir gingen gemeinsam spazieren und hatten Zeit miteinander zu reden. Das waren gute Zeiten.“

 

Wenn Habib redet habe ich nicht nur das Gefühl einem alten Mann zuzuhören, der seiner verschleierten Erinnerung der besseren Vergangenheit nachhängt. In seinen Worten klingt der ehrliche Wunsch mit, dass seine Stadt wieder erblühen könnte wie er sie einst gesehen hat. Er redet mit manchmal traurigem Blick aber immer mit einem Zwinkern im Augenwinkel. Als ich ihn frage, ob und wenn ja, wie ich mich alleine in Kabul in den Straßen bewegen kann, fängt er schallend an zu lachen und sagt grinsend: „nicht nackt!“

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