Shadow City

Source: Taran N. Khan, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (London: Chatto & Windus, 2019), pp. 133-134

Text: We watched a film shot in 1974 that recorded the celebrations for Daoud Khan’s newly established republic. It showed parades in Kabul, massive crowds on the street, people marching through Pashtunistan Square. They shouted slogans I couldn’t hear, as their voices were buried behind the narrator talking about the joy of the people at this new government. The car carrying Daoud Khan raced down broad boulevards. We saw Khan standing on a podium, waving to the crowds. Then he was among the people, shaking hands, being patted on the back.

A striking montage of men on the street reading newspapers followed. The headline, bold black print on the page, was enlarged to cover the screen. ‘Jamhooriyat‘, it said. Republic. The calligraphy of the text seemed to snake through the streets of Kabul.

The next newsreel was shot in 1979. Only five years later, but a different era. It marked the first anniversary of the Saur Revolution, which had replaced Daoud Khan’s republic with a Communist government. Daoud Khan himself was dead, killed in the coup. The central figure in the celebrations was Nur Mohammad Taraki, who headed the government. By October that year, he would be dead too, assassinated on the orders of his former associate, Hafizullah Amin. And in just over three months, Amin would also be killed, and the Soviet army would enter Afghanistan.

This bloody chronology was on my mind as I watched Taraki cheer and wave from his raised podium, as the parade filed past him. The film was in colour, and the screen was filled with red — the podium draped in red cloth, red sheets folded over the military floats that trundled past. Red armbands and uniforms and headscarves and flags. I watched the tanks roll out, the soldiers saluting the smiling man at the podium. Groups of women marched by, wearing uniforms and carrying guns. People crossed the camera, arms raised in salute, shouting slogans energetically. They all looked at the camera, addressing it — addressing me — with their eyes and bodies. They continued marching until, overwhelmed by the weight of history, I looked away. It was like watching a train wreck, a collision that I was powerless to stop. The weight of knowledge rested heavily around those images.

Who were they made for, these films that celebrated the turn of events occurring so rapidly one after the other? For the public, to convince the Afghan people of the virtue of the revolutions? Or for history, for a viewer like me, who sifted through their slogans and triumph in a dark hall long after they had ceased to matter? What did it mean to watch them now, to read their messages years after they lost relevance, or could _ only offer a different truth to a different era? Like the thick lines in the brochures I had seen at Rais’s bookstore, they mapped a terrain of erasures, the particular ways of forgetting that defines remembering in Kabul.

Soon after the film was shot, the USSR rolled its tanks across the border. The war that began then is, in many ways, still unfolding.

On the screen, floats with missiles and aircraft continued to move past the camera, like a ghostly rehearsal. Military officers from different nations were seen in the audience. On the podium, Taraki waved a red flag. An emaciated dove sat next to him, a red ribbon gleaming around its throat.

Comments: Taran N. Khan is an Indian journalist and non-fiction writer, who has spent several years living and working in Kabul. This passage from her travel book Shadow City escribes a 2013 visit to the archive at the state film body Afghan Film in Kabul. She was shown a selection of newsreels and documentaries, from the 1960s onwards, in a viewing room. Mohammed Dauoud Khan was President of Afghanistan from 1973 to 1978, when he was assassinated. The Communist coup that followed led to Nur Muhammad Taraki becoming president. He was murdered on October 1979. The man who order his death, Hafizullah Amin, became his successor but was in turn killed by the Soviet Union at the end of 1979, which led to the Soviet intervention and the Soviet-Aghan War. Some of the film archive was destroyed by order of the Taliban in 2001, but much survived thanks to the actions of the archivists who hid many native films (with some Taliban collusion).

Boys in Zinc

Source: ‘A captain, artillery officer’, quoted in Svetlana Alexievich (trans. Andrew Bromfield), Boys in Zinc (Penguin Books, 2017 [orig. pub. Цинковые мальчики, 1989]), pp. 106-107

Text: Sacks of human meat in the morgue – it comes as a shock! Six months later we’re watching a movie and tracer shells start hitting the screen. We carry on watching the movie. We’re playing volley-ball and shelling starts. We look to see where the shells are coming from, and carry on playing … They used to bring us films about war, about Lenin or about an unfaithful wife: he went away, and now she’s with someone else. But everyone wanted comedies. They never brought us any comedies. I could have picked up my automatic and emptied it into the screen. The screen was three or four sheets sewn together under the open sky and the audience sat on the sand.

Comments: Svetlana Alexievich (1948 – ) is a Belarusian non-fiction writer and journalist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Her books are developed out of eyewitness statements of events in recent Russian/Soviet history. Boys in Zinc documents the experience of Soviet soldiers and their families during the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union 1979-1989.