The question arises as to whether such a representation is possible, even decent in such tragic circumstances. It happens to Oriane Zerah to be accused of unjustified sentimentality, even propaganda for the Taliban. What right do we have to show characters who laugh in full Terror, Afghan version?
It is true that the images that the press overturns us (well, no longer, the motif has gone out of fashion) have as their theme misery and misfortune, houses in ruins, toddlers with gripping eyes next to mothers obscured from top to bottom toe, children begging on the dusty street, toothless old men, which of course corresponds to reality: yes, we are starving in Afghanistan, yes, we are selling young girls to pay debts, yes, the education of girls is forbidden and the people are threatened with genocide.
But none of this is new. This situation did not arise suddenly after the withdrawal of US and allied forces almost a year ago, on 15 August 2021. However, the billions invested in Afghanistan have not fundamentally changed the lives of the majority of the rural population, for whom the emergence of the Taliban has not changed a lot. In times of scarcity, only the level of misery varies because misery has persisted for centuries..
Those, and especially those who have really benefited from the Western presence in Kabul, are one urbanized minority and especially newly urbanized, who discovered the possibilities of education and openness to the possibilities of modernity and modern professions in health, art, journalism, and advanced technology. These young people are currently suffering the most, especially young women who did not have the means to flee the country and now live in monasteries. The fate of the boys is not enviable for all that their education reduced to Koranic studies with unemployment in prospect. We know we feel sorry for them, but little is being done to change their fate.
Oriane Zerah, photographer, author and great traveler, has lived in Afghanistan for eleven years and is very familiar with the complexities of Afghan society. She has often made reports for international NGOs.
For a personal work that she has been doing for two and a half years now, she has chosen to document a special aspect of everyday life, the Afghans’ relationship to flowers. At home, we know flowers especially in the form of a bouquet, rarely bought for himself or some green plant referred to a corner of a crowded apartment. In Afghanistan, flowers are a part of everyday life, especially for men who do not just offer them, but carry them, coquettishly behind their ears, adorn their pakols (traditional woolen bar) with them, and even their weapons. The many checkpoints that the Taliban have set up along the way are often adorned with flowers; the soldiers guarding them are happy with the compliments and happy that Oriane Zerah is taking their picture.
In the regional culture, including in Irangardens are everywhere, symbolically reproduced in carpet decorations and in countless poems. Rose petals accompany the festivities, they are consumed when dried and rose water is distilled – especially since their cultivation is easy and does not require special care, unlike poppy. This work, in the fields, in the garden and in the greenhouses, is a man’s task, especially among the Pashtuns in the southern part of the country. In Khost, they always wear them sewn in their pakol. Two brothers, known as the “Flower Brothers”, built a flower garden for the local villagers. They are seen here, posing proudly in their heavily painted home, from fuchsia pink to marigold yellow.
This is why the men met on the street, at home, on the road, did not refuse when the young photographer offered to immortalize them with the bouquet she gave them. On the contrary, they rejoice this brief reversal of the situation, which ultimately does not call into question their virility, even in this brutally patriarchal society;. It is the whole complexity of the local issue of gender that Oriane Zerah has staged here, in addition to the deep humanity that has enabled this people to survive despite the worst. Take happiness where it is, albeit just for a heyday, take advantage of a spark of love, like this old couple bursting out laughing as they look each other in the eyes, with a bouquet in their hands. For in Afghanistan, not everything suffers, just as not all men are violent Taliban. Beauty, like love, can exist, fleetingly and secretly, regardless of political circumstances.
The current authorities in Kabul, who are very wary of their image given by the media, have regularly demanded to see Oriane Zerah’s work. They did not express any opposition, on the contrary, it seems that they are quite happy that we can present an image that they consider positive.
Does the approval of the Taliban authorities mean that Oriane will also support their government, even if it means advertising themselves on the rails? from a gallery known for its feminist commitment ? Far from it, these worthy images demonstrate one everyday robustness that crosses time.
One may wonder what was the real effect many (but not all) bland reports from uninformed photographers reproducing miserable stereotypes of a world devoid of Western comfort. Compassion can be softened for a moment, but does not make you act. Thus, the leaders of Kabul are invited to international meetings in luxury hotels and depart on business class flights without any conclusion.
In an extreme situation, recognition of the dignity of the other, admiration is much more powerful engines of action as they invite identification with the victims. And the magnificent images of Oriane Zerah meet precisely this challenge and can only force our respect for this battered population.
Oriane Zerah, Afghanistan: roses under the thorns, Espace des femmes, 35 rue Jacob 75006 Paris, until 27 July 2022, Tuesday to Saturday at 14-18.