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Nur. The hidden light of Afghanistan

Monika Bulaj | Afghanistan

Kabul, city of Babur, the Mughal emperor who conquered it without bloodshed, who loved it so much to dress it with a garden of roses, who built here his own grave, a bare stone under the sky,  washed  by rains. Kabul, shelter and grave, end of the line for  fleeing people, hung to the sky with kite strings, with no exit.

When speaking to Afghans, I discovered that war is a multimillion dollar self-fuelling machine that just to keep working goes as far as paying in a roundabout way bribes to its own enemies.

I re-discovered the world that Europeans loved, that same world that after ten years of military presence, we have given up to know.

The tolerant Islam’s cradle.

A desperate country where women are crushed by tribalism and opium is the only medicine of the poor, but where a foreign woman may be welcomed in a mosque and where the stranger’s enchantment is considered as a blessing.

Yet, in this country there is irony, and people laugh even in their darkest moments, have affection and show respect to the eldest, are conscious that their only chance for a future life is in schools and in their children, the men of tomorrow.

In the bright garden of Afghanistan I have followed by instinct its paths, and found centers of hope in the most un-hoped for places, at the darkest bottom of desperation.

There is a story that must be told before the world forgets about Afghanistan. 
In Afghanistan, a country that was to be saved from itself, despite the millions of dollars in aid and the presence of military personnel, over half of the population depends on food aid for their very survival and the condition of women is still among the worst in the world. Nearly all foreign troops have left Afghanistan, leaving everything as before. In addition, the military situation has deteriorated, the attacks are the order of the day, with its budget of civilian casualties that increase. 
Many afghan families push their sons to escape to Europe, "so that at least one survives". Afghan boys flee from the violence, from Talebans, from the bombs that continue to rain down on their villages. Those who have worked as a translator or a cook with western Ngo, today are considered by Talibans the traitors. Even Afghan soldiers or policemen are escaping. They Afghan young migrants work like slaves in Pakistan, die of the cold in the mountains of Kurdistan, they suffocate inside trucks being ferried to the EU or Great Britain, they suffer at the hands of smugglers in Istanbul, they drown in the Mediterranean among luxury yachts. They are imprisoned or detained in Iran, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, UK. According to the UNHCR, a quarter of the entire world refugee population escapes from Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is also a country of literally millions of internal refugees, people forced to live in others’ homes, under whatever roof they can find over their head, or in refugee camps. 
This is the landscape after 13 years of war that we leave behind us.

But Afghanistan does not mean just war, although we have been fighting this war for 13 years already, on thousand-year-old silk roads, destroying delicate balances and feeding monsters.
The media feeds us a steady diet of cliches and stereotypes. Holding up images for us to see and trying to control, manipulate and frighten us. The clichés anesthetize us, push into inertia, consumerism, indifference, and mostly take away the desire to see for yourself how things really are - to leave, to break free from judgment and fear. The effect is to distance through polarity.
My work seeks, simply, to eliminate the polarity. I believe the photography’s task can be to raise a small barrier against the darkness that infects and spreads.
I made a four-year solo journey through the Afghans’ land. Sharing food, sleep, efforts, hunger, cold, whispers, laugh, and fear. Travelling by bus, taxi, horses, trucks, on the back of a yak, even. From the Iranian to the Chinese border, on the Wakhan snows, armed only with a Leica and a notebook. I tell the stories of the civilian population in the shadow of chronic war, I tell of the spirituality of Islam, and nomads, the last of the lasts. 
I walked streets in deserted and forgotten places in search of the God of the fugitives and the humiliated, those standing against intolerance and standing for doctrines of the unique thought, even though they themselves would never frame it anything even close to that.
There is another, hidden world here, ignored by the media: that of the Sufi, despised by the Taliban; that of the various nomadic tribes and other religious minorities, whose sacred places have long been seen as a powerful threat to the dominance of Taliban Wahabite ideology.
I’m trying to bring to the fore also the condition of women: their struggles with depression and suicide, with the impositions of morality, their aspirations, their sexuality.

To tell what life is about in those lands, to tear the curtains created by the media, means to discard those very stereotypes that cause the war.
Any terrorism is eagerly fed by schemes, rejoices whenever it comes into the limelight. Should we wipe it away, ignore. But our excuses to wage war would disappear as well. And this would be extremely uncomfortable for the big game that overwhelms us.
This exhibition about Afghanistan
often includes multimedia works, with sounds recorded during her research field, words written on walls, and with photos, of course. I have displayed my images on building walls, as “urban art” in open spaces in the cities and in a variety of spaces and configurations. 
Sometimes the photography is not more enough. I travels across Europe with her lectures, such as TED Global 2011, News Xchange 2012, and conferences and seminars in universities, schools and prisons, as well. I collaborates on radio projects, as well, both in Poland and in Italy, and with TV, for Repubblica TV and for RAI TV Educational. 
This research about Afghanistan has been awarded prizes and fellowships, including a the Bruce Chatwin special award for Photography “Absolute Eyes”; The Aftermath Project Grant Winner; TED Fellowship, the Lucchetta Hrovatin Grant; Non-Violence Award. The book "Nur. The hidden light of Afghanistan", published in Italy by Mondadori Electa, was chosen by TIME as one of the best books of the 2013. This work was presented during the my talk at TED Global in Edinburgh.
In Italy, the exhibition NUR was exhibited in places such as Doge's Palace in Venice, Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, Salone degli Incanti in Trieste, and in Paris at the invitation of La Quatrieme Image Photo Fair.
I gave personally guided tours of the exhibitions held in Italy, where I am based when I am not traveling. Every time, there were several hundred people in attendance. I had the feeling the visitors came out of a kind of human necessity: the need to understand. From that need, was born the Documentary Theatre: "performing reportage" in Polish, Italian, French or English (depending on the audience), and directed by Daria Anfelli.



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