Filming the Many Afghanistans

January 17, 2013

As Afghanistan evolved from a monarchy to a repeatedly reshaped and often occupied republic, the nation’s independence day, Jeshn, took on a variety of forms. Artist Mariam Ghani tracks the holiday’s intricate history through the archives of the country’s national film institute.

Like an Eagle (1967), the first Afghan feature film shot entirely in Afghanistan, takes as its subject the jeshn—the country’s annual national celebration, analogous to an “independence day” like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. Establishing what would come to be the house style for Afghan Films, the national film institute, Like an Eagle wraps a fictional story around a core of documentary footage. The story is about a little girl from a village near Paghman who runs away from home to see the jeshn celebrations in Kabul. In the film’s central scene, her expressions of childlike wonder are intercut with footage from the actual jeshn of 1966, in which a large audience, including the king and royal family, are seen watching men dance the Attan and schoolgirls twirl flags.

Like An Eagle, 1967, directed by Fayz Muhammad Kheirzada.

The Afghan jeshn would continue to be a major reference point for Afghan films, as it would for Afghan society itself, right up to the present day. Significantly, the jeshn is anchored neither to a single historical event, nor to a fixed date on the calendar. Instead, it has been a shifting set of commemorations that reflect the continually changing identity of the twentieth-century Afghan nation-state.

From 1919 to 1973, the jeshn celebrated the anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Britain. The day chosen for the celebration, however, was neither the day when the border skirmishes of the Third Anglo-Afghan War ended, nor the day when the Treaty of Rawalpindi—the result of a unique diplomatic negotiation between an Afghan Hindu and an Indian Muslim—was signed, thereby securing Afghanistan’s right to manage its own foreign relations for the first time. Instead, the jeshn was observed on the first day of the month of Sonbola (in the hejrah-e shamsi Islamic calendar), which usually corresponds to the end of August, when the season changes and the weather is likely to be perfect for staging an outdoor celebration.

Footage of the Sawr Revolution’s First Anniversary, 1979.

During the reign of King Amanullah (1919-29), jeshn was celebrated at Paghman, the resort town in the mountains just outside Kabul. The holiday provided an opportunity for Queen Soraya and her progressive sisters to try out new fashions, including daring experiments with the veil, on the general public. When the Musahiban dynasty replaced Amanullah, former general and new king Nadir Shah moved the primary jeshn celebration to the military parade grounds in Kabul, and extended it into a three-day festival. From this time on, the jeshn was dedicated equally to displaying the state’s military might and to playing sports, on the field and in the Ghazi Stadium built by Amanullah. Wrestling, buzkashi and cricket dominated the jeshns of the 1930s; by the 1960s, soccer, basketball and volleyball drew the largest crowds, reflecting a shift from British to American influence.

Like an Eagle seems to be the first attempt to capture the jeshn on film. But the Afghan Films archive also contains a newsreel from 1970, which records the most noteworthy jeshn of the “decade of democracy,” the period from 1963-1973 when King Zahir Shah took control of the government back from his autocratic cousin, General and Prime Minister Daoud, and liberalized both state and society. For this particular jeshn, a miniature world’s fair was set up, with tents designated as different national “pavilions” and displays from the various Afghan trade associations. In the newsreel, Prince Ahmad Shah, the heir-apparent, visits the fair, praises the various exhibits, and then pauses before a rug woven with the image of his father, King Zahir. There were also international delegations of performers, including scantily clad Soviet acrobats who performed gymnastic displays at the national theater, known as Kabul Nandare.

Daoud had been sidelined throughout this decade because his support for “Pashtunistan”—a united front of Pashtuns across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan—had alienated Pakistan so much that Afghanistan’s trade routes to the Indian Ocean were cut off. Pointedly, Daoud only appeared in public at the Pashtunistan festivals traditionally held, during those Pashtun-dominated years, on the third day of jeshn celebrations. He was not idle, however, but was actively rebuilding his networks in the army and forging a new alliance with the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (the PDPA, or Afghan Communists).

In 1973, while Zahir was in Italy, Daoud staged a bloodless coup d’état and ended the monarchy of which he was once a part. Daoud’s new republic celebrated its jeshn on a new day: the anniversary of his coup on the 26th of Saratan, 1352 (July 17, 1973).

A 1974 newsreel documenting the first jeshn of Daoud’s republic begins with a performance at Kabul Nandare by artists from Soviet and non-aligned countries (note the looks of frozen disapproval on the faces of the audience, during the Russian “folk” dance). A traditional spear-throwing race at the parade grounds is followed by wrestling and football matches (the latter between teams from the USSR and Iran) at the Ghazi Stadium, where Daoud’s emergence from beneath a gigantic painted image of his own face prompts, according to the newsreel narrator, the “continuous applause and emotional fervor of thousands of patriots.”

After the match ends in a draw and the city grows dark, stadium spectators crowd around the leader’s stand, cheering. Fireworks are released from the field, river and palace to the skies. Daoud walks through the crowd as people press on him from every side, straining to lay their hands on him. The notable effort to promote a cult of the leader, which in some ways survives in Afghanistan to the present day, marks the only truly important difference between the jeshns of Daoud’s republic and those of the monarchy it replaced.

Within four years, however, Daoud would be dead, assassinated along with his family by the Communists, who took power in a bloody revolution in 1978. From 1979-1991, the jeshn would celebrate the anniversary of the PDPA coup, the seventh of Sawr (April 27).

Two separate films were commissioned from Afghan Films on the occasion of the 1979 jeshn: one documenting preparations for the first anniversary, the other recording the celebration itself. Both films were shot in color, which necessitated processing outside the country (usually in Uzbekistan). The color film captured the Party’s symbolic use of red flags, sashes and banners—only the first of several sophisticated image-making techniques employed by the PDPA around its jeshn. Another is the Party’s use of white pigeons, seen towards the beginning of the jeshn film in an expertly staged shot where they appear to cluster freely around a group of female students, and then again towards the end, where a single white pigeon, with a red tie around its throat, adorns the podium from which party leader Noor Mohammed Taraki addresses the crowd.

Taraki’s speech and the film’s narration play on the multiple meanings of the word khalq (“the people”), which is embedded in the names of both the PDPA and the party faction to which Taraki belonged. By the time of this first PDPA jeshn, the Khalq faction had already ousted the rival Parcham (“flag”) faction and exiled its leaders. The Attan, a dance traditionally performed at jeshns as a reminder of the Pashtun heritage of the rulers, is repositioned as a celebration of the Party by slight shifts in the colors of the costume and the patterns of the dance. The film’s editors give equal time to women and men while depicting military and civilian parades, and are also careful to include close-ups and cutaways of spectators that represent all the different groups inhabiting and invested in Afghanistan, notably a Hindu army officer and Russian diplomats. Most importantly, the film establishes a picture of the collective spirit of the Sawr Revolution through its ground-level shots of the jubilant marchers from regional party delegations, waving what the narrator calls “a wild row of red flags” and chanting their “respect, regards, hurrah, applause, revolutionary chorus and excitement mixed with happiness and screams.”

In contrast to the apparently unrestrained enthusiasm of the first PDPA-era jeshn, the jeshn held on the second anniversary of the Sawr coup, following the Soviet invasion in late 1978 and the subsequent installation of the exiled Parcham leaders as Soviet proxies, is altogether more sober. The film of the 1979 jeshn shows that it has become once again an almost purely military affair. The narrator remarks, so dryly that you suspect him of some hidden sarcasm, that “different units of the brave Armed Forces of Afghanistan, these defenders of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, with their ironclad discipline, and with the powerful strong steps, marched past, and paid tribute to Babrak Karmal and other government and party officials, proving their invincible power once more.”

The images, back to black and white, are edited to show the army’s troops as goose-stepping aliens who march through Kabul while the populace looks on in silence that may signify disbelief, fear, or resignation. In fact, watching this film without subtitles, it is easy to imagine that this is not the Afghan army, but the Soviet one—not that much distinction between the two existed then, since Soviet officers were placed as “trainers” in almost every branch and battalion of the Afghan military. Notably, the fighter jets that fly overhead are described as doves (and “protectors of peace”), but no actual doves, or white pigeons, are in evidence.

The date of the jeshn was shifted again in 1992, when a coalition of mujahidin parties created the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The “mujahidin republic” celebrated its jeshn on the 8th of Sawr, the day when the government of Najibullah (the last Communist president) fell. The Afghan Films footage from this period mostly consists of unedited newsreel rushes, for which the corresponding sync sound recordings have been lost. Two films with different labels might document jeshns of the mujahidin republic. One is labeled “Hizb Harakat anniversary” and depicts a parade by members of that mujahidin party, including both a militia and a soccer team, through the city center. The other is labeled “New Years” and shows President Rabbani and members of his cabinet holding court at the stadium, distributing packages to the waiting crowds. There is a parachutist, a parade of sorts, and even a ragged improvised Attan. But there is a marked difference between these maybe-jeshns and the jeshns of years past: Women and girls are present only as spectators, and they all wear the veil, a phenomenon not seen since the jeshn of 1959, when Daoud’s family appeared unveiled and quietly signaled the end of purdah.

Footage of President Rabbani labeled “New Years” in Afghan Film Archive, circa 1992-1995.

In 1996, the Taliban entered Kabul. Their arrival marked both the end of the mujahidin republic and the end of Afghan Films. The Taliban bonfires of books and films consumed some of the archive’s film prints, but its negatives were preserved. If the Taliban state celebrated any jeshn of its own devising—which is doubtful, considering that New Year’s celebrations were banned—there is no evidence on film. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan Films was revived, and Afghanistan reinstalled its king (albeit as a purely ceremonial “father of the republic”). The nation also reinstated the monarchy’s jeshn, reverting back to the same occasion and to nearly the same day celebrated during Zahir’s era, which Amanullah originally intended to mark Afghanistan’s independence from foreign control (an irony that has not gone unnoticed, particularly with British troops in the country for the first time since 1919). The mujahidin jeshn, the eighth of Sawr, has also been preserved as “Victory Day,” enshrined alongside “Independence Day” in Article 18 of the 2004 constitution.

The first jeshn celebrated in the new millennium, the informally organized jeshn of 2002, included a march of men and women disabled during the preceding decades of war. No footage of this jeshn has surfaced online, but witnesses report an emotional scene. The jeshns celebrated between 2003 and 2007, meanwhile, were documented by international news crews and broadcast around the world; some Afghans posted clips of these events to YouTube, before their access to the service was blocked this fall.

Footage of “Afghanistan Celebrates Independence Day” broadcasted by Ebru News, 2007.

Since 2007, however, neither jeshn has been publicly celebrated, apparently because security concerns preclude large gatherings of people before the politicians meant to represent them. One day, perhaps some time after the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014, it may again be possible to commemorate Afghan independence with a military parade that feels like a purely formal display. We can only hope that when that moment arrives, people will feel like celebrating.

This feature is a collaboration with The New York Review of Books and can be found on their NYRblog. This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by Art Asia Pacific.