Ariana was produced in 2003, two years after the invasion. But I wasn’t introduced to the film until 2015, a year following the withdrawal of American troops. Interestingly, the film doesn’t concern itself with the Americans, at least not explicitly, but rather leaves the viewer in a more ambiguous position – as conqueror, voyeur, tourist – with no real vantage point from which to understand the country, except by it’s refusal to allow the understanding to happen at all. The unconquered valley keeps up with its own mythology by resisting these filmmakers, whose direct representation of the area would have undoubtedly replicated some kind of control: Hugonnier implies that to impose her outsider’s view of the landscape would be to emulate a colonial mentality. In Ariana, the failed attempt to film the valley becomes the primary argument of the piece, even if it takes a while for the crew to accept their failure. ‘We still felt the need to get to a high viewpoint,’ Hugonnier says. So the crew climb to the top of Television Hill in Kabul, which overlooks the city. In the landscape there are traces of history; the winding paths they took. Here, the artist comes to realise that their panoramic shot gives a false sense of control over a chaotic and fragmented world. Afghanistan is a world where ‘utopias are only a legacy.’
During my travels I learned about one of these failed utopias, a place called Little America. It’s a disturbing part of the world: suburbs, built in tribal lands during the Cold War, designed to imitate 1960s America. What makes Little America a lesson in history is not only the literal ruins of foreign involvement, but also the precise location of these ventures among the Pashtun tribes of Helmand province. The Pashtuns are an ancient tribe with no definitive origin. Lowell Thomas, an explorer who arrived to Kabul in 1924, wrote in his diaries: ‘you could find no men more worthy of the title, ‘desperado’ than the Pashtuns who live among these jagged, saw-tooth mountains of the Afghan frontier.’
The word ‘frontier’ acts as a convenient excuse for outsiders to develop and ‘civilize’ a country, but a look at the history of Pashtun culture tells a different story. They are a people who, like the landscape that shaped them, have resisted outside influence. To start with, their tradition is preserved in language. There is no written text: the culture is carried by voice. Khushāl Khān Khattak, a Pashtun scholar, wrote: ‘Our Pashto mother tongue embodies the essence of importing the knowledge of our culture, one of the many cultures of this world, to each other, to the younger generation, and to the outside world. However modern knowledge is not being transmitted through it because the language has not been provided with the necessary means of transmission and self perpetuation.’ Khattak lamented this fact: ‘Nobody lifted her veil. Pashto is still a virgin.’
It’s no surprise that Afghanistan is often called a ‘graveyard of empires.’ The landscape has become a black hole of foreign intervention. So much of the country’s history is enacted in Hugonnier’s attempts to access the valley: the idealism, the failure, the denial, the inevitable retreat. It foreshadows the larger dramas to come – a country trapped in endless cycles of violence and intervention. When Hugonnier arrived to the country in 2003, Afghans were hopeful. U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams had just arrived in the city of Kunduz, and the Taliban were retreating. In September this year, after months of fighting, the Taliban captured the city. It was their first major victory since the American withdrawal. At the time of writing, decomposing bodies litter the streets of Kunduz, and the Afghan government forces have yet to drive the Taliban from the city.
Like Hugonnier’s valley, or the Pashtuns of Lowell Thomas’ mind, I wondered if I was interested in the female-only checkpoints because of their sense of purity. Outside the central police station, I met Layla. She wore a black hijab with fake diamond studs that zigzagged like lightning bolts – she only wore her police uniform if she was raiding the homes of prostitutes with an AK-47. Layla had worked ten years at the shack. ’Just doing it for the children,’ she said. She has six kids. Her husband died, a victim of a suicide attack at the Kabul Airport. ‘If we are five minutes late we are absent, but we are still here.’ Never a day off. At noon she got a thirty-minute break for lunch and prayers. She had been working at the woman’s checkpoint for so long she had pain in her arms from all the searching. ‘I would rather be cleaning hotel rooms,’ she said.