This piece was written in response To:


by Marine Hugonnier

This film was screened on White Screen in full throughout October 2015. A clip of the work is available to view on the FILM AND VIDEO UMBRELLA website here.

Film courtesy the artist and Film and Video Umbrella


They wanted me to go behind the curtain. It was cigarette-burned and made of red velvet. The man with the gun pushed it aside and nodded. I held the sour fabric. Behind the curtain there was a very old lady in a chair. The man with a gun closed the curtain. The old lady started moving her hands like a person kneading bread. In the wall was a small hole where a man looked out over us. I could only see his head floating there in the dark, his mouth open wide with laughter. A few more men with guns gathered. One of them came into the room and opened my suitcase and dug through my clothes. The old lady pulled an electric converter and held it above her head. ‘Boom,’ she said. She thought she found a bomb, perhaps. But the guards knew better. This was the first hour of my arrival. I didn’t even know we were at a hotel.


It was a regular procedure in Kabul. Men are searched for explosives and weapons in public but women are not. Women are patted down by other women in small, dark rooms. It’s our own space – a rare thing in Afghanistan – though you could say the men put us there. Things go on in these rooms that the men don’t know about. One woman hid the shaft of a gun inside her vagina. Another woman pulled it out and laughed.


I ended up at the hotel by accident after being driven around the city for several hours. But my difficulties really began with a kind of Western paranoia, one that leads to more trouble than it avoids. I had covered myself too thoroughly in a hijab before stepping off the plane at the Kabul airport, thinking it was the wise thing to do, and my pickup – another American journalist – walked right by me. I was in Afghanistan on assignment to write about what progress, if any, the Americans had made to improve the lives of women. (In the early years of the war, the Bush Administration used the issue of women’s rights as a justification of fighting.) The sun was falling and my phone was unable to get a signal, even though the man at the Verizon store told me it would work.

A British man, who had been on my flight, walked over to me. He asked what I was doing and I told him my situation. ‘These men,’ he said, ‘this place.’ He pointed to a group of Afghan men nearby, just hanging out. ‘Get lost in Kabul your third time, your second time, okay,’ the British man said. ‘But your first time? It’s a problem.’ He worked for a cellphone company and was in Kabul for a few days on business. He told me I had two choices: stay here and hope my friend shows up, or go with him. I pushed some buttons on my phone to try to make it work. I didn’t want to go with the British man. ‘Okay,’ I said.


We drove out of the airport and merged into traffic. He knocked on the double-paned glass and smiled. ‘Armoured vehicle,’ he said. ‘Bullet proof.’


‘Have you been outside of Kabul?’ I said.


‘If you leave Kabul,’ he said. ‘You’re never coming back.’


It became apparent that he hadn’t seen much of this country outside his hotel room. He abandoned me with his drivers, who spoke no English and couldn’t find my guesthouse. Three hours later, they dropped me off at the security checkpoint outside a hotel surrounded by high walls. I was searched and shuffled into the bright lights of the lobby.


This was in the winter of 2013. I had flown from New York to Kabul and it was my first trip to Afghanistan. It was December, the last month before the official end of the American-led invasion, scheduled for 2014, and all the journalists and ex-pats were leaving. In my first week, I attended three going away parties and said hello and goodbye in the same evening. The Afghans, too, wanted out. Long queues formed on the dirt road outside the passport office. Everyone seemed confused by my arrival: ‘Why are you here?’ To be honest, I’m more interested in endings than I am beginnings. Afghanistan, however, seemed on the verge of chaos and it was a strongly held belief among the locals that on New Year’s Eve – an appropriate marker of doomsday – the country would revert to a prior version of itself.




Ariana, by the French artist Marine Hugonnier, tells the story of a film crew that sets out to visit the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan. Described in classic Persian poetry as a ‘paradise garden’, it is a remote and beautiful area where ‘mountains have no name’. Despite its Edenic qualities, the valley has been of pivotal strategic importance during the country’s many conflicts, particularly in the Soviet invasion of 1979-1989 and the civil war of 1996-2001. The film crew, however, are unable to access the valley; Hugonnier’s film becomes a meditation on how the landscape of this country has embodied its often violent history.

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.

Sometimes they put drugs inside jam or a gun in the centre of a vanilla cake. Menstruation, they said, is useful for smuggling drugs.


To start the process, pat the shoulders. Squeeze the biceps, trace the curve of torso, pause at the armpits and the thighs. Finish with the breasts. ‘If you really want to help Afghanistan,’ Layla told me, ‘tell America we need X-ray machines to do our work.’


I started hearing things about women like Layla getting overly intimate in the checkpoints; wanting to hug you, or even touch you inappropriately. It was true. Once in the checkpoint, asking questions, they rarely wanted me to leave. Usually a male guard peered inside and barked at me in Dari before I knew my time was up. On a very cold day at a checkpoint outside a shopping mall in Kabul, I found two police ladies hunched over a heater. They didn’t check me. They simply grabbed my hand and held it to the heater and they waited until it was as warm as their own. This was only time in Afghanistan I really felt I crossed some sort of border from the insularity of one world into the other. The daily touching had become a kind of solace.






is the author of the nonfiction book Demon Camp which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her essays have appeared in Harper's, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire and elsewhere.


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