Feature on Lina Abirafeh’s Photography Exhibition

Telling images
Ravaged and hurt, the country was all over the news. And just as suddenly Afghanistan was forgotten or so feel many Afghans, says Lina Abirafeh, who has been working to empower the women in the country. She discusses Afghan trials, tribulations and a few jubilations vis-à-vis ‘Zenda- Alive,’ an exhibition of powerful photographs shot across the country, currently, on at Artspace, Dubai. Rajeev Nair has the details

The Afghan women knew, and whispered among themselves all along, that the Kabul River will flow again. And it did; first as a gentle rivulet before it sprung to life once again after running arid for several years. That the rebirth of the river also timed a change of guard at the country’s helm of affairs, the women believe, couldn’t have been coincidental.
Lina Abirafeh studies the photograph of the Kabul River, one among many at the Afghanistan photo exhibition currently on at Artspace, the contemporary art gallery at the ninth level of Fairmont Dubai. She can narrate little stories of virtually every photograph – not from the photographer’s context – but from her own takes, her own experiences picked up by living with (and for) Afghan women.
She has been working to empower them, first by setting up the office for Women for Women International; then joining the London School of Economics’ Development Studies Institute and researching the effects of gender-focused international aid on women in post-conflict Afghanistan. Subsequently, she has made several trips to the country with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the International Women’s Forum (IWF), and others.
For now, she has shifted base to Dubai, pursuing her doctorate with the London School of Economics, and also serving as visiting scholar at the Institute of Urban and Regional Planning and Design at the American University of Sharjah.
The Lebanese-Palestinian attributes her interest in Afghanistan to “serendipity.” As a young idealist at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), under the stewardship of Paul Wolfowitz, she had joined the Washington DC-based International Human Rights Law Group’s Women’s Rights Advocacy Project, after winning a United Nations Association Fellowship.
Afghanistan was hitting headlines under the Taliban rule, and Abirafeh had more than an academic interest in the country. She has since then been involved in international development work, an extension of her studies in International Relations, and worked in Bangladesh and Morocco, all the while looking out for an opportunity to work in Afghanistan. Over the years, she served with World Bank, represented NGOs and CSOs, and eventually, checked into Afghanistan in 2002, to open the office of Women for Women International.
She was the only “foreigner” working in an all-Afghan office, the one that she painstakingly built up. “The organisation sends only one foreigner to establish its presence in the country. During the stay, the foreign director must set up the office, hire and train staff, establish and implement programmes, form partnerships, find funding, and handle every aspect of the work for at least one year,” says Abirafeh. She worked with poor women focusing on building vocational skills, microfinance, literacy – indeed, a “holistic programme to support the vulnerable.” In one year, the office had 65 staff supporting over 3,000 people.
Abirafeh learnt that Afghans were worried that the world at large would once again abandon them. Post-Taliban, the news agencies had shifted focus elsewhere, more so to Iraq, and suddenly, whatever good news was happening in the country was no news for the rest of the world, the people felt. Not enough attention was going into their rebuilding process, and the current exhibition at Artspace, is another reminder to the world of Afghanistan, Abirafeh says.
She recalls that working to empower women wasn’t easy. There were years of stereotypical notions to be overcome. She observes that some of them – the burqa, for example – has simply been passed over to the West as an obsession. “That is not the issue,” says Abirafeh. “The burqa, or any act of veiling, must not be confused with, or made to stand for, lack of women’s agency. More important indicators exist ‘behind the burqa,’ so to speak. It is more important to address the psychological burqa, and its progeny – the fear burqa and the poverty burqa,” she observes in a report on Afghan women today.
The Afghan women weren’t enabled enough to take on public roles, and for Abirafeh and her team, there was a lot of groundwork to be done. Illiteracy was an issue. A whole generation of women had missed schooling and women empowerment had to include education as a priority. Empowering women did not mean simply switching them to any vocation. Though traditional embroidery and tailoring were good starting points, but today, these avenues have been inundated. Abirafeh feels the women must also be channelised into non-traditional sectors.
That she wasn’t exactly “Western” brought out mixed reactions, says Abirafeh. The men didn’t know how to react to her. Was she one among them or was she Western? The women took her for “a local” and that was what really mattered.
Abirafeh related her Afghan experiences to a large turn-out of the Dubai public who had attended the opening of the Afghan photo-exhibition at Artspace, which features many telling images from the trauma that the nation had been through as well as a people rebuilding life – from the scratch.
The exhibition houses the iconic images of Steve McCurry, the American photographer, whose photograph of Sharbat Gula, the ‘unidentified Afghan refugee girl,’ is described as the “most recognizable photograph in the world.” Zenda –Alive chronicles the two faces of the same girl, who McCurry re-discovered during his journey in 2002. When he located Gula after almost two decades, he said: “Her skin is weathered; there are wrinkles now, but she is as striking as she was all those years ago.”
But Gula, today, stands for the cause of refugees all over the world, says McCurry. “She represents inspiration, dignity, and perseverance – she has become a world symbol.
Rediscovering Gula is his most memorable moment in covering Afghanistan. “We were able to make her life better. She and her family and friends were able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and her girls are receiving an education, something she desperately wanted. Inspired by her, we also founded an organisation entitled Imagine Asia, and have raised $1 million to build schools for girls in Afghanistan,” says McCurry.
A place of pride has also been reserved for the works of photographer Zalmai Ahad, who escaped his homeland, Afghanistan, from a war in 1980. The exhibition portrays Afghanistan through the eyes of this “Swiss photographer, of Afghan origin, who had never stopped following the events of the country of his origin.” Ahad’s works are represented at various private and public collections including the Musee de L’Elysee, the Historic Museum of Nyon and the Foundation for Contemporary Photography in Switzerland.
“Little of the Afghan reality has been publicised, as the world has turned away from this horrific situation. Despite UN reports of severe malnourishment and inhumane sanitation conditions, the suffering of my people continues in almost-silence,” he has observed in an interview.
The third photographer at the show is Harriet Logan, one of Britain’s “most audacious photographers,” who visited Afghanistan in 1997 and 2001, and chronicles the changes in Afghanistan – through women – under two different socio-political circumstances. John Simpson of BBC says of Logan’s works: “She is a deeply honest reporter, and gives us the women’s opinions as they are. With her clear vision and reporting, Harriet Logan shows us bittersweet freedom as perfectly as she shows us life under the Taliban.”
Zenda-Alive also features the jewellery collection by Afghan-Turkish designer Nulufer Tarzi Kuran and textile from Tarsian and Blinkey, a workshop in Kabul.

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