Seddiq Barmak: “I couldn’t speak up, I couldn’t breathe”

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Seddiq Barmak fell in love with the world of cinema when he saw his first film, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, at Kabul theatre at a tender 5 years of age. In the 35 years which intervened between Barmak’s first excursion to the cinema and his critically acclaimed first feature film, ‘Osama’, Barmak endured a 12-year separation from his father, who was forced to flee when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, fought with the anti-Soviet Mujahideen under Ahmed Shah Massoud, and finally fled Afghanistan on foot with his own young family after the Taliban took control in 1996. His film, ‘Osama’, was the first movie filmed in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. Barmak continues to direct and produce films, and is the director of Afghan Children Education Movement, an association which trains actors and directors for the newly emerging cinema industry in Afghanistan.

Photo : Zia Fani / Matthieu Hackière

Can you share with us some memories of instances when your rights have been violated and how they have influenced your life?

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, I unwillingly accepted a scholarship from the Soviets to attend film school in Moscow because I knew it was the only way I would be able to learn the art of making movies. When I returned to Afghanistan after my studies, the Soviet-backed Communist regime had taken over everything. In addition to the psychological pressures that resulted from the complicated political environment, we were living under heavy censorship and oppression. I tried to make two short films but the government banned them both.

However, the Taliban rule was the worst era of suppression and repression. I was forced to leave my homeland for many different reasons, including my love of the cinema. I couldn’t speak up, I couldn’t breathe.

What are the important achievements in Afghanistan since the time of the Taliban?

Apparently, we have many great achievements to celebrate. We have a constitution, we have elections, we have some kind of democracy, and the list goes on. But think for a moment about the cost of those achievements, and how they have been won. Were they demanded by the people of Afghanistan? Has everybody accepted them? Are all these notions of democracy really part of our culture now? Do our people consciously participate in elections? Do they have sufficient understanding of the political system of democracy and how it functions in Afghanistan?

These achievements have been won by foreign boots. As soon as those troops leave, can we really expect that our next leader will be anyone other than another Abdur Rahman Khan? [Emir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, known as the ‘Iron Amir’, who led the Afghan government after the second Anglo-Afghan war]

What gives you hope for the future?

We have a young, educated generation, full of potential. They are dynamic, engaged, and active. But they are like pillars without a ceiling. It is not clear to me who or what could consolidate them, organise them, mobilize their potential. Nonetheless, the emergence of this generation is promising.

What do you fear most today?

My great fear is that there is no sense of moderation in Afghanistan yet; we are constantly caught between two extremes. We are, at once, the most and the least extreme nation in the world. Our social and political conditions are so unstable at this point in time that if the Western military troops were to leave the country, I am sure we would see our president become a dictator of the highest degree.

What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan?

All our challenges originate from misplaced interpretations of tradition, religion, and modernity. For the last century, our politicians have been unable to form proper relations with the society they represent, because they do not understand their own society. This historical process has brought us to where we are now. A nation that has always been kept in the darkness of poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance is drawn to religious fundamentalism. Meanwhile, our politicians benefit from the vicious cycle of war and violence, growing their own power and wealth on the backs of their people’s suffering. Our ignorance has prompted our intransigence and our intransigence has created our violence.

Is it possible that girls could once again be banned from schools and women excluded from social participation, as occurred under Taliban rule?

The Afghan people are wary of politics and political dealings. They are disgusted by the Taliban, by extremism and violence. But they are also suffering from lethargy. One explanation for this could be that the media has projected so much terror and violence to the public that people are simply overwhelmed and tired of everything, particularly of war. I fear that this lethargy could allow the Taliban to take power again and people would be too weak and tired to resist. Unfortunately, our people’s historical memory is weak and fallible; this is a real danger for us.

Which factors are blocking women’s full participation in society?

The improper use and interpretation of religion has had a devastating impact on our society. Even non-religious customs that pre-date Islam persist in a harmful way. Take the idea of ‘honour’ for instance. You can fully comprehend the extent of violence and breakdown in our society when you see that someone is prepared to kill simply because their daughter fell in love.

What do the women of Afghanistan want?

The most fundamental demand of women is a re-examination and re-definition of religious decrees and teachings. Women are trying to find their identity and status within religion. We have to combat the fundamentalist and misogynist interpretations of religion that persist.

Women also want to cleanse the political power structure, to move towards a representative system rather than groups and leaders who think only of how their own circle can benefit. These are the people currently in control of political power in Afghanistan, and they are one of the biggest factors contributing to the persistence of patriarchy.

"Unveiling Afghanistan, the Unheard Voices of Progress" is a campaign by Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA and FIDH, which explores views held by Afghan civil society actors. Over 50 days, 50 influential social, political, and cultural actors hope to spark conversation and debate about building a society that is inclusive of women’s and human rights in Afghanistan.

Follow "Unveiling Afghanistan, the Unheard Voices of Progress" on the Huffington Post

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