The Null Device
Foreign Policy magazine has some photographs from Afghanistan in the 1950s. The photographs, from a book published by Afghanistan's planning ministry, show a modern country, or a country aspiring to modernity, along European/American lines, with universities and hospitals, buses and radio stations; women in Western attire (some wearing headscarves) work in offices and factories, and teenagers hang around in record shops checking out the latest beat combos. This world, of course, was annihilated by the decades of conflict and brutal fundamentalism that began with the Soviet invasion. It's all the more heartbreaking to think that such a world existed and to compare it to what's happening there now, and to know that there was a time in living memory when Afghanistan wasn't a hellhole of war and brutality.
A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.
Some captions in the book are difficult to read today: "Afghanistan's racial diversity has little meaning except to an ethnologist. Ask any Afghan to identify a neighbor and he calls him only a brother." "Skilled workers like these press operators are building new standards for themselves and their country." "Hundreds of Afghan youngsters take active part in Scout programs." But it is important to know that disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable. I want to show Afghanistan's youth of today how their parents and grandparents really lived.