Altered Spaces: Taliban Portraits
In 2001, while following the Northern Alliance into the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak spotted some fascinating pictures in passport photographers’ windows.
Afghani men in robes and turbans with coal-black eyeliner were posed to look like silent film stars or held flowers and guns against the seeming backdrop of their choice, a Swiss village complete with chalet. To Dworzak the images were ironic, even surreal, given the strict guidelines of Taliban dogma.
What also made the photos so compelling was the fact that the Taliban supposedly didn’t allow any depiction of living beings. In fact, since 1996 they banned most photography altogether. The Taliban even went so far as to alter advertisements or signs that showed human and animal heads. In museums, the Taliban chopped off the heads of statues in strict adherence to their tenets. Also banned by the Taliban was any form of homosexuality. So not only were these photos against the Taliban doctrines of representation, Dworzak found them to project a homosexual bent when that too was forbidden.
A Westerner can easily jump to conclusions given the content of these images. Afghani men display affection for one another openly, and are often seen touching. Afghani men also wear kohl eyeliner that is decorative, but also protects the eyes from sun and dust. In Kandahar the men wear what appear to be colorful women’s sandals, which openly display flesh in a way that is considered sexual. Dworzak claims that in Kandahar, Taliban soldiers would tickle the palms of his hands (among other areas of his body) and furtively caress him in crowds.
Although the Taliban bans homosexuality, according to Dworzak, this specific part of Afghanistan was so openly homosexual that when Taliban leader Mullah Omar took over he made a point of killing pederasts and homosexuals. A common saying at the time was, “when a crow flies over Kandahar, he only flaps one wing. With the other wing he covers his tail.” Omar was reported to have killed a warlord who was keeping young boys as concubines. That was the reputed start to the Taliban movement. (See Historical background below.)
Newsweek reporters interviewed Taliban members in 2009 to get their side of the jihad story. “It’s not easy being in the Taliban,” they said. “It’s like wearing a jacket of fire. You have to leave your family and live with the knowledge that you can be killed at any time. The Americans can capture you and put you in dog cages in Bagram and Guantánamo. You can’t expect any quick medical treatment if you’re wounded. You don’t have any money. Yet when I tell new recruits what they are facing they still freely put on this jacket of fire. All this builds my confidence that we will never lose this war.” (Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, Newsweek, Oct. 5, 2009)
Radical Muslims do not see the beneficial aspects of Western democracy, yet the tenets that they subscribe to are often excessively harsh. One list of Taliban prohibitions included: pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, and equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, and pictures. As Mullah Omar’s former body guard was quoted as saying: “basically any form of pleasure was outlawed and if we found people doing any of these things we would beat them…until the room ran with their blood or their spines snapped.”
Who could put up with this kind of treatment for long? What these images show is that at least one of the Taliban’s sacred tenets is flagrantly ignored. While the Taliban needed passports or some sort of identification to roam freely in Pakistan and wherever else the fighting took them, these more elaborate photos staged with guns and backdrops are different. These were taken clandestinely in the back rooms of photo studios that were once outlawed by the Taliban until the leaders saw the necessity of identification.
In a way, these men are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. They are soldiers martyred to their cause and are proud to do so. Holding a flower in one hand and a gun in the other might have been common political parlance in 1960s America, but here it is almost apolitical, a way of showing your best side. To me the irony is not that the images flout the Taliban’s sacred tenets, but that these men who are taught to be killers do not look so threatening while holding flowers against a Swiss backdrop. The equivalent in a Westerner’s eyes might be if a Clint Eastwood character were to replace his duster with a pink bathrobe and his squint with a wide-eyed smile.
A curious sideline to this story is Dworzak’s depiction on the last page of the book.He is not wearing a turban, yet is bearded and strikes a pose similar to that of the Taliban men in the photos he collected. In the background is the yellow circle outlined in red (of religious significance—a halo perhaps? symbolizing the earth? or the place where martyrs go?) seen in a few of the Taliban photos. Is this some kind of joke or playful tribute? Did he switch sides in this conflict? Or, is he presenting us with a satirical message that states something like, “you think these images are surreal, what about this?”
Author’s Note: Kandahar is the capitol of the traditional Pashtun region in southern Afghanistan. Dworzak was there in 2001. Although the Taliban is still a major influence in Afghanistan, the U.S.-sponsored Northern Alliance forced the Taliban out of Kandahar in late 2001.
But, how did this patriarchal, macho yet “feminine-looking,” and anti-modern culture arise? My research brought me to Mahmood Mamdani a Muslim scholar who teaches political science and anthropology at Columbia University. In his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mamdani outlines the rise of various terrorist groups.
Mamdani goes to great lengths to show that from 1979 until Communism ultimately collapsed in 1989, the U.S. supported various Afghani warlords to oust the Soviets. To gain enough recruits, the U.S. had Pakistan put the word out to radicals such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban throughout the Muslim world that this fight was in their best interest. The U.S. then supported training facilities that taught bomb-making techniques and many other forms of extreme violence. An unintended consequence of ousting the Soviets was the unification of what until then had been a dispersed and ineffective groups of radicals.
When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, radical Islamic groups had grown stronger politically and militarily. At the time the Taliban was still relatively weak, but its members were able to capitalize on the mayhem that followed the Soviet withdrawal. By bringing more stability to the area, they ended up controlling much of Afghanistan.
So, why has the Taliban turned against the West? Hard-core Islam is seen by Mamdani as resistant to an enforced secular modernity. This type of militant Islam equates modernity with secularism, secularism with Westernization, and Westernization with subjugation. No longer tolerant of colonial goals, the Taliban and others like them seek to spread the influence of Islam, which is not only a religion but a political ideology that addresses all aspects of society—theology, ethics, politics, law, economy, justice, and foreign policy.
There is no doubt U.S. policies have exacerbated, perhaps even caused, the current situation. What amounts to a clash of cultures has led to an undermining of law and basic civility on both sides. According to Mamdani, the U.S. and its Western allies hide behind a cloak of exceptionalism and Christian dogma. Radical Muslims like the Taliban combine revenge against “infidel” wrongs with a fundamentalist reading of Islam to further their goals. Ultimately, men with bombs attached to their chests willing to blow themselves to smithereens in the name of Allah will not sit at the bargaining table with U.S. personnel who target civilians and submit detainees to water torture, among other abuses.
Dale Cotton is a freelance photographer who specializes in the built environment. He photographs everything from manhole covers to street signs to the buildings of Frank Gehry. Dale has also worked as an editor, producer, and art director/designer in the book publishing industry in Seattle, New York, Boston, and Princeton.
ARTICLES BY DALE COTTON
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Altered Spaces – Art & Architecture: Shake Your Money Maker
Altered Spaces: Taliban Portraits
Altered Spaces – Sex, Art, Culture, and Princeton Modern Architecture: Inside Photographer Dale Cotton’s New Book
Lost and Found: Michelle Reader’s Portrayal of Over-Consumption