Sunday, November 13, 2005

When Religion Destroys

In today's online AlJazeera, I read an article about how the story of Afghanistan, in media, film, radio, and recordings; had been saved from the destruction by the Taliban.

This sad scenario replays itself, over and over, time and again. Indeed, when the Spanish conquered The Aztecs and Mayans, they systemactially destroyed thousands of written codexes and manuscripts, and thus destroyed much of the history of the new world.

This is sadly, the situation when a group of people are convinced that they are the spokesmen of God. That they are the ones who's job it is, to be enforcers of their brand of morality...regardless of how strict or ridiculous their rules may be. I've lived through this myself, a member of the Jim Roberts Group. Been through my share of religion and rules based upon myth, ancient traditions, and fear.

We are sadly seeing this still in this world today. The fundamentalist religions who preach intolerance, and violence against those they perceive as being nonbelieving infidels. Read and consider. Selah.

Saving the story of Afghanistan

The black and white images projected into the darkened cinema show an Afghanistan that years of war have destroyed.

There is Kabul as a manicured city, lights strung among the trees along the river. Actresses have beehive hairdos, knee-length skirts and cleavage. Boys and girls march together on a sports field. European hippies lounge in the sun.

The ultra-conservative Taliban wanted these images destroyed, torching thousands of cassettes after locking the doors of the television studios and cinemas and turning off the music when they took control in 1996.

That these glimpses of the past can be shown today in Kabul's famous Ariana cinema, itself destroyed in the four-year civil war that preceded the Taliban's rule, is because of great risks by archive staff.

Hidden tapes

At Afghan Film they hid tapes in the ceiling and a secret room, breaking power circuits to defeat Taliban searches.

At the several-storey Radio and Television of Afghanistan (RTA) building, they split up the collection and squirrelled cassettes into the basement and scores of other rooms, pretending the archive had been looted.

"They worked with a lot of danger for themselves, for their families," says Rahman Panjshiri, RTA head of planning and international relations.

"If the Taliban knew that, for example, these people kept some tapes in the basement, they might have punished them seriously or they might have put them in prison," he says.

The Taliban torched two shipping containers of tapes outside the Afghan Film office, although staff had made sure they were only prints of Hindi and Russian films. RTA surrendered 1500 cassettes of foreign music.

First Afghan film

But 14,500 hours of television footage survived, dating from 1978, as did 45,000 hours of radio starting in the 1940s and more than 100,000 hours of film, including the first Afghan movie, Love and Friendship, made about 60 years ago.

Having emerged through all that, the precious store is under threat again, this time from the humidity and temperature changes that destroy film and tape.

Since 2002 the French National Audio-Visual Institute (INA) has been helping to digitalise the footage, a painstaking process that has covered only about 1200 hours of material - an occasion marked by the showing at the Ariana last month.

The slowness of the project, with the radio archives only due to be started on in 2006, worries Panjshiri.

"We want to expedite the process because our archives are now in a very bad condition. Within the next 10 years nothing will be left in the archive to digitalise," he says.

"If we lose these things, it means that we will have lost our culture, our heritage, everything."

History on film

The footage includes pictures of some of the ruinous events from which Afghanistan is only just recovering.

There are the first Red troops to enter Kabul after the 1979 Soviet invasion; the first interview with Babrak Karmal, who arrived in Kabul on a Russian tank and became president in 1979; the daily skirmishes of the war between anti-Soviet mujahidin (1992-1996) that killed 50,000 people in the capital alone.

"Afghanistan is destroyed, Kabul is destroyed, we have these shots," says the head of Afghan Film, Latif Ahmadi. "The wounded people in hospital, bombing in Kabul ... most of the film is in this time, the war time."

There are also images of the treasures of Afghanistan's rich culture that the Taliban destroyed: the 2000-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas, ancient artefacts that had been in the museum, videos of deceased singers who are still popular today but whose recordings were supposed to have vanished forever.

Afghan Film also has rare footage of president Najibullah and his brother who were dragged from a United Nations compound and strung up in the streets of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996.
Rare footage

"We have pictures, only two minutes. It was very, very dangerous because the Taliban did not allow anybody to take pictures," Ahmadi says.

The rarest footage is from the Taliban period, because the government banned television, video and music as sinful.

"They turned Kabul into a very big grave. The silence at that time was like the silence of a graveyard," says the RTA's Panjshiri in his office still flecked by shrapnel from the civil war.
During the war, "it was a very bad situation but the people could say something, we could criticise everybody ... but during the Taliban, if you wanted to criticise for example [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, maybe they would cut out your tongue".

Panjshiri and Ahmadi went into exile, returning after the Taliban were removed in a US-led campaign in late 2001.

For them, the restoration of the archives is a source of pride, with plans for film festivals, documentaries and DVDs once the footage has been digitalised.

"This archive is very important for the story of the country," says Ahmadi.

"When I tell somebody that before the 24, 25 years' war in Afghanistan we had a culture, we had a high civilisation, the girls wore mini-skirts, nobody can guess that. But if we show some films from that time, they will be very excited," he says.


Anonymous said...

A quick thought- Do the rules at the Taliban camp and community, the forbidden use of civilization's communication tools, the separation, the limiting regulations and statutes, the unilateral decrees- do they in some way ignite thoughts and memoried of your own days in a religious camp?

Marc said...

The answser is Yes. The only book that was generally approved was the King James version of the Bible. Other books were frowned upon, and indeed, even other versions of the bible. No Television, no music other than the music we made for art. no pictures...because we believed they were forbidden as graven images. so no photos or film. I remember being rebuked by an elder for singing along with a song on the public address system in a thrift store. I'd catch glimpses of the outside world...when we hitchiked, that was when I'd hear radio or music. When someone was gracious to offer us a place to stay at their home, I'd catch a glimpse of television.

I'm reminded of those times by the words of a song by Dar Williams...titled "What Do You Hear In These Sounds?" One verse describes that time:

"And I wake up and I ask myself what state I'm in
And I say well I'm lucky, 'cause I am like East Berlin
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they'd know that I was scared
They'd would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me, and..."

And I see the similarities. I've lived through it. I remember clandestinely going to the libraries at universities and reading for hours. Searching religious history and finding out the true origins of my Christianity, and of the Bible. And being amazed at the lies that I was believing. Lies taught out of the ignorance of my teacher...just like the Taliban. Teaching religion based on folk tales and hearsay and incomplete knowledge of the world and even of their own history.

OC Sacker said...

Astute comparison. Absolute conviction in one's own extreme doctrine is universal.

Great blog. I found you researching the Jim Roberts Group, The Brothers. How long were you with them?

Marc said...

I was in the group for about 3 years, back in the early 70's.