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Photojournalist Joël Van Houdt Captures Afghan Experiences Abroad

By Nasra Osman

Kuja Meri? is a Dari phrase which can be translated as, “Where are you going?” The phrase has been adopted as the title of the independent, Dutch, photojournalist Joël Van Houdt’s project on the Afghan diaspora. Van Houdt, who lived in Afghanistan, documents key parts of the journeys of Afghans going from their home to a number of other countries around the globe. While news coverage sensationalized refugee arrivals on the borders of European countries, very little imagery has been shown from less dramatic sojourns, which are often, in Van Houdt’s words, “less visual places.”

The project serves as a means for educating the world, at large, on the struggles of ordinary citizens of Afghanistan as they encounter new environments. At the same time, Van Houdt designed the project with an Afghan audience in mind.  He addressed Afghans directly by establishing an exhibit in the center of Kabul, featuring large scale photos he took during his time spent with Afghans migrating to new countries between 2013-2017 wexarts.org/talks-more/joel-van-houdt [1]. The images on the wall (as in Image 1, below) depict challenges and many times the hostilities Afghans experience while abroad, in addition to more mundane activities of daily life.

Image of exhibit of Kabul Afghanistan

Image 1. Afghanistan, Kabul, October, November 2017
Kuja Meri exhibition in central Kabul.
Photo: Joel van Houdt, All Rights Reserved

 

Van Houdt stands out to me amongst other journalists because he invested so much of himself in the immigrants and refugees his work was meant to speak to. He immersed himself in the same journey that they were taking by actually joining them, even riding in boats with them as they traveled across the world, and then continuing to document their stories after they arrived in their destination countries.

Afghan Migrants

Afghans are choosing to leave in large numbers with complex ramifications for Afghanistan’s citizens’ struggle. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 80,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe in the first half of 2015. https://iwpr.net/global-voices/new-wave-emigration-from-afghanistan [2]. With the country’s worsening security situation and rising rates of unemployment, many were driven away. Considering the thousands of young people looking for opportunities, Europe became idealized as the place to seek a better life. The means some took to get there was illegal and often  risky; but their decision was entirely rational considering the cost of staying in Afghanistan.  The logic of their decision is sound for their individual lives; but, unfortunately, the implications for the country, as a whole, put that decision in question.

The decision to immigrate to another country is particularly problematic in light of Afghanistan’s economic need for young people. According to the head of the Department for Refugees and Repatriation in Parwan province, 150,000 Afghans applied for asylum in 44 countries in 2015, most of whom were young adults https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/afghanistan-displacement-challenges-country-move [3]. The country’s opportunity it stunted to further develop, with the initial Afghan workforce leaving for Europe. If younger people are leaving, who will be left to restore the foundations of their country?

 

Stages Afghan Migrants Go Through

Image of man's back, lash marks from Iranian police.

Image 2. Afghanistan, Nimruz, September 4, 2012
An Afghan recently deported from Iran, displaying marks he claims he received from being whipped by Iranian border guards. Outside the main mosque in Zaranj.
Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved.

Among the photos taken by Van Houdt, it’s easy to observe the difficult conditions the refugees lived through in en route and the obstacles they had to face once in a new country. Typically, immigration takes place because there is hope that the new country will provide a better life. But it is never as easy as it sounds. The steps required to reach their desired destination is a long and arduous process that can potentially take years.

For Afghan refugees, their first obstacle is getting across their own border. The police catch many people. The photos show evidence of the beatings, torture, imprisonment, and even death of some of the Afghan migrants (right). Image 2 depicts a man deported from Iran after being whipped by Iranian border guards. Iran, the country on Afghanistan’s Western frontier, isn’t the only country Afghanistan borders, with Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan surrounding the country.

Another route out of the country is to the southeast and goes overland to Indonesia, and then by boat Image 3.  The immensely long journey over land and spanning several countries is followed by an ocean journey that often lasts for days. During the time Van Houdt was documenting this route the final destination was usually Australia.  Since Australia’s migration legislation in 2013, however, it has become less common.

Image 3. Indian Ocean Morning, the second day of a three day boat journey from Indonesia to Australia. On the deck of a 30-foot long boat carrying asylum seekers. Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved

Image of people sleeping in the cold.

Image 4. Serbia, Belgrade, December 28, 2016
Afghan men sleep in an unheated warehouse in sub-zero temperatures behind the central train station of the Serbian capital Belgrade. Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved.

Even after the aforementioned trials crossing the border, there are yet more travails waiting to confront those who flee Afghanistan. Assuming they make it by land or boat to their destination, it will then be a matter of finding a new life. The discrimination they face for not speaking the language or looking the same as everyone else makes it very difficult to make their new country home. It’s likely not a problem immigrants initially consider because the problems back in their home country are much more severe in comparison. The hardship of overcoming the language, culture, housing, work, and transportation barrier is one that takes time. Image 4 (left) shows Afghan men after arriving in Serbia sleeping in an unheated warehouse where the temperatures can reach below zero degrees Celsius.

Personal Experience

The experiences depicted in Van Houdt’s Kuja Meri photos are ones I know only too well. My family and I migrated to America in 2010 and the journey was full of travails. We left Sudan because the conditions came to be unlivable for us. Due to the living prices increasing and an unstable economy that often experienced currency inflation, finding a job got harder and harder, even for those with an education. Women’s experience of this was doubly harsh because of the inequities between men and women in Sudan. Thus, for us, it was an obvious choice to migrate, considering my sisters and I are five girls.

The decision to migrate was indeed clear to us for the aforementioned factors. Yet my parents feared they might be making the wrong choice. The final decision to leave one’s home country comes at the end of a long deliberation between impossible choices. The resolve then continues but only under continued uncertainty. What outcomes might we face? What would be our circumstances once we moved to a new country with a completely different environment than what we were used to?

My parents were especially concerned that if we moved from Sudan we would forget about our Sudanese traditions, culture, religion, and our native tongue, Arabic. My mother holds our Sudanese culture dearly to her heart. As she says, it’s our identity and has shaped who we are.

Once my parents decided to move from their beloved country, their resolve had to be strong. The paperwork alone took several years. The logistics of actually submitting the paperwork was in itself a difficult task, let alone obtaining all the necessary approvals. We had to travel to Egypt to complete the process of completing them. Then, it took over a year to hear back. The waiting process was nerve-racking. At times, it got to a point where my parents lost hope.

With the relief of finally receiving the approval to move to America, my parents had to also face the reality that they would be leaving their families behind.  They they wanted their children to have a better and brighter future but it didn’t lessen the feeling of loss they experienced with that.

The struggles and sacrifices of our story remain a part of me and make me proud of my family.  The experience we shared brought my sisters and I to where we are today and who we are as Americans. The pictures taken by Mr. Van Houdt reflect hardships similar to the ones we faced as we attempted to settle into our new lives.

I am so grateful I have a strong family and loving parents.  The roof over our heads and the food on our table are symbolic to me of my father’s hard work and sacrifices. I am so thankful to him and the jobs he worked, sometimes two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet. I know I have a unique perspective because of my story and I am thankful for it despite the hardships I experienced along the way.  The people in these pictures also have stories that go far beyond what we can see.

 

Image of people in food line.

Image 5. Serbia, Belgrade, December 23, 2016
An Afghan man feeds pigeons while Afghans and Pakistanis line up for food handouts near the train station in Belgrade. Volunteers bring a meal once a day at 1pm. The refugees and migrants stay in sub-zero temperatures in derelict warehouses behind the central train and bus station in the Serbian capital Belgrade. Many have been stuck here for months while trying to cross the closed borders with Hungary or Croatia. There are not enough government facilities but many also prefer not to apply for asylum in Serbia and try to continue their journey to Northern Europe.
Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://wexarts.org/talks-more/joel-van-houdt

[2] https://iwpr.net/global-voices/new-wave-emigration-from-afghanistan

[3] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/afghanistan-displacement-challenges-country-move

 

Images

[4] http://joelvanhoudt.com/kujameri

[5] https://joelvanhoudt.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Kuja-Meri/G0000yUf6QdA5ZdA/I0000Sov7QIV39Ec

Performing Culture

We are now in the second week of our project, On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan, including the premiere performances of two new plays on Monday.  This project contributes to the question of “how to communicate about culture” and works primarily through the means of theatre and storytelling.  Thus, one could say we are “performing culture” because we are communicating a cultural context which is unfamiliar to much of the audience. We have made every effort to maintain authenticity and to reach audiences members coming from a number of backgrounds, spanning from little or no knowledge of Afghanistan to experts and insiders.

One of our goals for the project is to demonstrate to a wide audience, both academic and non-academic, the immense importance of learning from (not about) cultures. Sahar Speaks plays provide an intimate but respectful – even mundane –  look at Afghan experience. Their words and actions have the ability successfully form dialogues with diverse audiences, even those without much knowledge of Afghanistan. Yet, they delight and touch those with extensive lived experience in the country or with its diaspora communities. Hardly an exoticizing approach. At one point in “Parwana,” the characters confront the audience and criticize the colonizing Western gaze by refering to the famous portrait of Sharbat Gula.  The problems are quite universal but set in the particulars of Kabul.  One of the ways we achieve this is by working with Afghan authors and creators, as well as researchers and reporters who have spent time in the field.

We based these performances on the actual life experiences of Afghans reported by Afghan women of Sahar Speaks.  The image below is of Zari and Parwana, Protagonists of Alia Bano’s “Parwana: They Bear All the Pain” performed for the first time this past Monday at the Wexner Center for the Arts. “Parwana” was directed by Ji Rye Lee.  “Dust Allergy,” written by Nushin Arbabzadah, and directed by Rina Hajari, was also performed for the first time. Both plays were commissioned and supervised by Lesley Ferris, director of on the Front Lines.

 

Image of Zari and Parwana, Protagonists of Alia Bano's "Parwana: They Bear All the Pain" performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University on Oct. 7 2019

Zari and Parwana, Protagonists of Alia Bano’s “Parwana: They Bear All the Pain” performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University on Oct. 7 2019

I learned from the teachers in my dissertation study that in learning about culture through its own creativity, truth becomes more accessible. The plays are how we use this approach in On the Front Lines.  But we don’t stop there, of course. As scholars and educators, we are also exploring Afghan history, the history of Afghan theatre, the use of theatre for cultural awareness education, perspectives on Afghanistan from journalists and photojournalists, film makers, and perhaps more.  These disciplinary lenses underly the events which have taken place and will take place in the coming month.  We will be dedicating future posts to the researchers, artists, and scholars, who have contributed to this project and the ways in which cultural knowledge can be both shared and scrutinized.

Dust Allergy, New Play by Nushin Arbabzadah

Playwright and internationally recognized scholar of Afghanistan, Nushin Arbabzadah, explores the experience of living abroad and then returning home in her new play about Afghan/U.S. cultural crossings, Dust Allergy, to premiere at OSU on Oct. 7th. She was inspired by a the stories Afghan women journalists of Sahar Speaks, a project to promote their careers internationally and bring their much-needed perspectives into the mainstream.  In a recent interview with Arts and Sciences, Arbabzadah shared that when she “listened to the stories of Afghan women who returned (to Afghanistan) after spending more than a decade in the West” she realized how much her own experiences abroad had changed her.

Please join us on October 7th as “Dust Allergy” is staged for the first time.  It is a tender story of compassion, even pulling one’s heartstrings with the sub-plot of a three legged puppy. Many issues are raised, such as child poverty, women’s rights, and imperialism. Nineteen-year-old Arzo, the protagonist, recently returned from the U.S. and is living again with her mother in their family home in Kabul. Arzo’s experiences in the U.S. cause her to observe facets of Afghan culture from the perspective of outsider. We learn about these observations via a conversation with her mother about their current living situation and her need to find paid work.

Arzo’s reason for traveling to the U.S. was to learn English with the goal of obtaining work in Kabul paid in U.S. Dollars. The economic disparities related to language and culture reveal a colonizer/colonized relationship between the two countries, and the complicated situation that creates for Afghans – needing to cross cultural boundaries in order to obtain financial and physical security. The one-act play unfolds by way of the conversation between mother and daughter and is rich with metaphor, symbolism, and many direct and indirect references to Afghan cultural traditions. This is an excellent story to “unpack” with regard to the challenges of navigating cultural difference, the meaning of cultural relativism, and the phenomenon of reverse culture shock. Arzo’s personal drama of re-entry into Afghan culture also reveals many layers of the evolving Afghan story with regard to class, gender, modernity, and globalization.

Arbabzadah’s aforementioned work is a part of Sahar Speaks, two plays commissioned by Palindrome Productions of London and adapted for the stage from stories by Afghan women, these two one-act plays–Parwana: They Bear All the Pain by Alia Bano and Dust Allergy by Nushin Arbabzadah–offer a rare and revealing look into Afghan women’s lives. On October 3rd Arbabzadah will deliver a lecture on the history of Afghan theatre, which in her words, “may go to sleep but never dies in Afghanistan.”

Image of girls on Afghan street.

Image of girls on Afghan street. Kabul street Jan 2014 by Michael Foley via Flickr CC2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelfoleyphotography/12053283655

These performances are part of On the Front Lines, a series of events centered on Afghanistan, organized by Lesley Ferris, Art and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Theatre and sponsored by a Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme Creation Grant. Co-sponsored by The Department of History, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, the Middle East Studies Center, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Service and the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Institute at the University Library.

 

 

 

 

Opening Day Events on October 7th

Mark your calendar! October 7th 2019 is the official start of the On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan project. Join us for the opening events (details below)! These include two one-act plays based on stories written by Afghan women and adapted for the stage, images of Kabul presented by photojournalist, Joël van Houdt, and authentic Afghan culture, as we watch, socialize, and discuss. Complete information on the guest artists and scholars can be found on this page. We are also hosting top scholars in the field of theatre to discuss topics relevant to Afghan history and culture, including the history of Afghan theatre, theatrical practices that the military uses for simulating field operations in Afghanistan, and “the Great Game.

The aforementioned plays were commissioned as part of a larger project to bring Afghan women’s voices to the public more prominently through storytelling and theatre. The project, On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan, is directed by Lesley Ferris, Art and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Ohio State University. Palindrome Productions produced several of the plays in London prior to this project. The first three plays, are based on stories written for the Huffington Post by Afghan women journalists who completed training through Sahar Speaks.  Now Ohio State University is home to this project which will engage and build an intellectual community around the issues brought up in the plays.

 

On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan, Opening Events, October 7, 2019

 

4:30 p.m.
Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan
Film/Video Theater
Wexner Center for the Arts

Playwrights Nushin Arbabzadah and Alia Bano adapted these works for the stage, giving a rare and revealing look into Afghan women’s lives. Following the performances, the playwrights, with invited guests, join the post-performance discussion with Lesley Ferris, Art and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Ohio State University and other invited guests. Since 2016 Dr. Ferris, as Artistic Director of Palindrome Productions (London), commissioned and produced the first four plays for  Sahar Speaks. This event is free but we ask that you obtain a ticket through the Wexner Center.

5:45 p.m.
Chai Khana Social Hour
Wexner Center for the Arts Lower Lobby

Afghan afternoon tea and refreshments.

7:00 p.m.
Joël van Houdt: “Kuja Meri?” (Where are you going?): Afghan Refugees Across the Globe
Film/Video Theater
Wexner Center for the Arts

Dutch photographer Joël van Houdt’s discusses his gripping exhibit documenting the journeys of Afghan refugees around the world following the despair resulting from the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. This event is free but we ask that you obtain a ticket through the Wexner Center.

 

Supported by a Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme Grant

Presented by the Department of Theatre and the Middle East Studies Center with support from the Department of History, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (NELC), the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the Middle East and Islamic Studies Service and Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute at the University Library.

Image of Panjir Valley, Afghanistan. Photo by Tom McClimans.

Panjir Valley, Afghanistan. Photo by Tom McClimans. All rights reserved.