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TRAVEL JOURNALS   |   ScaredSacred

Saturday, February 28, 2004

At the edge of a Jerusalem intersection choked in noisy traffic, a group of women dressed in black stands in silence. A simple black sign in the shape of a hand reads, 'Stop the Occupation'. They don't talk during their hour of silence, but one of them hands me a small piece of paper, which explains why they are standing there.

They want peace. They want an end to the bloodshed that has been claiming the lives of their children for far too long. They have been on the corner every Friday since 1988.

Since that time the Women in Black movement has spread throughout the world, and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. First the concept went to Italy, then it spread to Serbia, where it became a profound example of inter-ethnic co-operation. In Germany Women in Black have protested against neo-nazism, racism against migrant workers, and nuclear arms.. In India they hold vigils that call for an end to the ill treatment of women by religious fundamentalists. They dress in mourning for the victims of violence. Unlike most demonstrations, they chant no slogans, make no speeches. Their story is told through the simplicity of silence.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Tel-Aviv is another world, far from the heavy religiosity of Jerusalem, far from the suffocating enclosures of the West Bank. But it takes an F-16 fighter jet, leaving from a base in Tel-Aviv, only 15 seconds to reach its target in the Occupied Territories. Still, here people can fool themselves, for a moment, a day or two if they avoid the papers, that the war is far away. For someone who has a lost a child in the conflict, that illusion will never again be maintained.

Robi Damelin's son was a peace activist, a leader of the student movement, a teacher, and a philosopher. He was shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper during his obligatory army service, standing guard at a checkpoint. In his back pocket was a book on Ethics and Philosophy, the subject for a class he was to teach that night.

"He died for what?" Robi speaks in low voice, her eyes glistening, "For what? Doing something he didn't believe in. I wish I could say he was defending his country, I wish I could say he died for Israel, but that would be a lie. He died for nothing".

For the year after her son died, Robi tried running. She ran to India, she ran to Italy, she tried to disappear inside her job, to put on a mask.

"None of that worked. Entertainment, banalities, everyday life - I have no interest in that now. I have no time for chit chat, for small talk. No-one could understand what I have experienced. I don't think there is anything worse than losing a child. Nothing".

A year ago she discovered the Bereaved Families Circle, an organization of Palestinian and Israeli parents how have lost children in the conflict. Finally she found people who could understand how she felt, and who had not chosen to transform their tragedy into anger. Instead, they were seeking healing, closure, and end to the cycle of violence through reconciliation.

"I was tested once, really tested, by a Palestinian, who said he knew how to find the man who killed my son-he knew where he lived, he could have him taken care of, if I wanted. But I didn't-I let it go, because I know that that man wasn't killing my son, my David. He was killing a target, something he saw as an abstracted symbol of Israeli oppression. Just like we kill them in the abstract, not seeing their humanity. We have chosen to forgive, to stop this cycle of killing. And if we can do it, we who have lost our own children, then why can't the rest of this country?"

She gets up to find a book by Michael Henderson, called "Forgiveness-Breaking the Chain of Hate".

"Listen to this, it's really wonderful:


1. Forgiving someone who did us wrong does not mean that we tolerate the wrong he did.

2. Forgiving does not mean that we want to forget what happened.

3. Forgiveness does not mean that we excuse the person who did it.

4. Forgiving does not mean that we take the edge off the evil of what is done to us.

5. Forgiving does not surrender our right to justice.

6. Forgiving doesn't let whoever hurt us once, hurt us again."

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Dry land, desert scrub. Empty lands. Seemingly unchanged since the days of the prophets. Until you start passing the young soldiers, machine guns casually slung over their shoulders, hitchhiking, fingers pointed down to the ground at a diagonal. Israeli youth must perform two years of military service, whether they like it or not. They seem like kids, dressed up in some costume the adults have made them try on, doing their best to play the part. But it is not a game. These kids are on the front lines. This war is real.

We are lost. Wandering through the labyrinth of the old city, in the Arab quarter, through arches and tunnels of stone, houses built atop houses for millennia, a rabbits den. A plastic flag with the word 'peace' flutters forlornly from a rusted metal grating. Below it a door opens, and a grey haired woman dress in black appears. I hold up my camera.
"Can I take a photo, of peace?"
She nods. "End the war." And disappears inside. A few moments later the door opens again, and this time one child after another emerges. I wonder what kind of Jerusalem they will inherit.


A taxi arrives in front of our hotel, the YMCA Three Arches, just outside the old city in Jerusalem. Our driver is a Palestinian Arab. "You can call me Steven", he says, laughing. "So how do you like our country, so far?"
"We've only been here a few hours!"
"But we have heard all about your country-every week, for the last ten years, we always hear about it in the news!" Guillermo says.
"Yes, very small country, but very big headache for the world! You know, there are many people, Israeli's even, who know that things are wrong. But it is like a tree here, a small seedling was planted a long time ago, and watered, and has grown up into a big tree, and the roots are very very deep-it will not easily change."

We pull off towards a sign that reads, "Ramallah". The occupied territories.

"Have you met Samer before?"
"No, only talked to him on the phone".
"He will be easy to spot-a very tall man, with lots of hair. Too much hair, actually!" he laughs.

"He was going to meet us in Jerusalem, but these days he can't leave-can't pass through the checkpoint".

Samer is a staff cameraman with the CBC bureau for the Occupied Territories, a working professional, but despite that, or perhaps because of that, his movements are controlled, restricted, denied.

"The story of our lives in occupied territories. Me, I am lucky-I live in East Jerusalem, I am an Arab-Israeli, I have Israeli citizen card, with all the same rights as an Israeli, supposedly. Supposedly!" His laughter has a bitter edge.

The traffic slows, then stops completely.

"This is the first checkpoint. Look at this traffic-it's like this most of the time. Some people, they will spend two hours waiting to get through-two hours! Maybe twice a day, if they have to bring their children to school, or for work, or if their fields are on the other side. Hours for what-humiliation, that's all. Just for humiliation. Look, I can't make it through here. I'm going to go along the side, let you out, and you will walk through yourselves".

He backs his taxi out through the traffic snarl, leaning on the horn, shouting at those who block his way, with all the skill of Niamotallh, our driver in Afghanistan. He drops us at in the middle of the traffic.

"Samer is paying, don't worry. I'll be back to collect you in a few hours. Getting in to the occupied territories is no problem. It's getting out when they start asking the questions. Samer will be on the other side-look for him, this crazy hippie with the long hair!""

Suddenly we're on our own. We hadn't expected this. We shoulder our gear, and thread through the mess of unmoving traffic. A tin roof covered walkway is crowded with pedestrians. We join the cue. An ambulance howls in the distance. My cell phone rings. I can hear the same siren on the phone.
"Yes-I'm here, near that ambulance-you hear it? Head for that, I'll find you!"

We approach the checkpoint. A bored young woman, with dark black hair, army khakis, submachine slung over her shoulder, glances briefly at my passport, and waves me through. The ambulance has finally made it through the traffic, and is stopped by an soldier, who clambers around inside, searching for bombs under the sheets of an injured human being. People have died en route to the hospital by the delays caused by the checkpoints or the wall.

We step through the checkpoint and are greeted by a tall Palestinian with a bald head. The long haired hippie...

He leads us to a shiny new silver Mercedes, and maneuvers his way out into the traffic.

"So we finally meet! What's the plan guys-a drink, a coffee, a tour of Ramallah?"

Just outside the checkpoint we find a billboard, protesting Israel's wall. Samer stops the car to let us take a picture.

"Actually, that is not exactly an altruistic sign-it's put up by the largest cell phone company here in Palestine".

Things are rarely what they seem.

"How about we go to Arafat's compound? Nobody leaves here without a visit to the compound!"

We climb a hill through a busy urban centre, and come to the crumbling ruins of Arafat's compound.

"It was a big game, the way they destroyed this place, in three stages, with missiles, and artillery shells. They could have just brought it down all at once, but they wanted to stretch it out, like a cat playing with a mouse. I filmed it all, of course. This is my job. In some ways, war photographers are not so different from suicide bombers, who I despise, by the way. But we war photographers, have the same focus-we see the target, and we hold it, keep it in our sites until we have it. Even the artillery might be flying, maybe I'm taking a big chance, but I won't stop filming. But what for? Two seconds on the evening news, and I'm risking my life? I don't know. After awhile, it's all the same-it's war. The same old story. Nothing below the surface. This is why I'm working more and more in documentaries. Then we have a chance, the chance to say something more. That's why I will always take a documentary project. That's why I want to work with you guys."

He takes us to a café, a funky place with high ceilings, a screen for nightly film screenings, classy enough for downtown Paris.

"You expect to find such a place in the occupied territories?' Samer says, as he lights up another Marlboro. Talk turns to politics.

"The PLO, in my point of view, they only are making people scared of us. They make the world scared of us, instead of really understanding our situation. Suicide bombers, a big mistake, only make the world see us as fanatics. In my point of view, what would be most effective action, would be ten thousand people, maybe mostly women, old people, children, all with white flags, walking to that checkpoint. Crossing that checkpoint. Then you tell me, would the Israel army have the courage to shoot them? No I don't think so. I don't think so!"

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

In every country I visit for ScaredSacred I conduct an on-the-street interview, asking people a simple question-what are their fears for the future? As time goes on, the question has shifted, and now I ask-what are your hopes for the future? In most countries, this interview is conducted in front of a multi-national fast food chain, such as a MacDonald's. In Kabul, there is no such thing, so we set up in front of a bakery, where long flat loaves of Afghani bread are drawn from a deep well of fire, and tossed onto a long sloping floor to cool. As usual, it is no problem getting people to talk, and we're soon surrounded by a crowd.

We wish to get a woman to speak, but it proves to be very difficult. Saboor is reluctant to try-it's breaking deeply held codes of his culture. I am adamant-we are not going to have on-the-street interviews of men only.

"Then we must wait until we see a woman with a husband-then we can ask him".

However, whenever a woman does appear on the street with a husband, Saboor's reluctance makes him too slow to act, and they dissappear before we can ask. Finally he deigns to ask a beggar woman in a burka, but she declines. We try again a few days later, with similar frustration. This time, Karim is also with us.
"You won't know if they are literate or not-many of them will be totally illiterate", he says.
I heard that same line amidst the Bishnoi of India-the men didn't think the women would have anything intelligent to say. I insisted, and the interviews with the Bishnoi women, the original tree-huggers who sacrificed their lives to protect their sacred Khejeri trees, were powerful and moving.

"Karim, I have interviewed many, many illiterate people-they often have much more wisdom than the university educated scholar! Look, I know it's hard for you guys-I can see that, but it's really important for me that we have an interview on the street with a woman!"

We find a man with his wife, who agrees in principle, but apologizes: there are just too many people on the street here, it would be a spectacle. No, his wife will not speak. As we're talking Guillermo has struck up a conversation with an older, unveiled woman standing in a shop. She agrees to do the interview. A crowd quickly gathers, amazed to see a woman talking to a video camera. Her hopes for the future are simple: for her country, peace. For the world, that the world should not suffer like her country has suffered, and for herself, that her family to re-united, to return home from the refugee camps in Iran, and exile in Canada.

I sit down to breakfast the next morning with Carolyn McCool, who is with UniFem, the U.N.'s department for the advancement of women.
"The situation for women here in Afghanistan is, statistically, the worst in the world, if you use the various indicators-literacy, mobility, death by childbirth, etc. It's the worst. Change is going to come very, very slowly. It's going to take a generation. The young girls today are the ones who will have to make the changes, have to become educated, and stand up for their rights, know what their rights are!"

Our final shoot of the day takes us to the literacy courses of RAWA, the Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association, where young girls have been educated throughout the last decade, despite the worst days of fundamentalist opression. Here, amongst the sparkling eyes of these young girls, one sees the emergence of the possibility of hope for Afghanistan.

The forces of destruction continue-rockets are still fired into Kabul, suicide bombings happen two or three times a week, and around the country, aid workers are ambushed and killed. This week four people who were out de-mining the country near Kandahar were shot to death. Cruel reward for helping to heal a shattered land.

Another group working on setting up a hospital were attacked by a lone gunman. He killed their helicopter pilot and left them wounded before fleeing. Some of these attacks are from the Taliban, but often that analysis is too simple. There is a complex cross-current of anger here, and a lot of guns. Word has it that the Taliban are planning a massive campaign this spring, in time for the upcoming elections-the first elections the country will have known.

But recovery and reconstruction continues, and inshallah, the next generation will grow up without the fear of brutal opression, without the danger of land-mines exploding in their playgrounds, without having to see the world through the narrow mesh window of the Burka.

We gather outside the Kabul airport to say goodbye - Karim, Guillermo, myself, Saboor and Niamatollah. It's been a deeply rewarding time, the images and sounds and experiences we've encountered have astounded us every day, and it's thanks in no small part to the hard work of our Afghani team.

Monday, February 23, 2004

In the crazed epicenter of Kabul on the edge of a traffic circle where the dust clouds swirl and the traffic cops shout commands through loudspeakers (careful what you do this life-you might come back as an Afghani traffic cop) and the cars lean on their horns and shout and cut each other off and swear and the bicycles weave and the legless beggars suddenly appear from nowhere with their cry of Baksheesh', and the steel blue ghosts of women in their burkas silently thread their way through to the shops where they engage in one of their few pastimes-shopping-and a man with a broom tries to sweep the dust with all the energy of Sisyphus...

you will find the shops that sell pens and papers and maps of the world in Arabic script, creaking printing presses and groaning photocopiers and a shop called 'Boo'. The K and the S are missing; the full title is Shah Mohammed Books. We step inside, to find Shah Mohammed himself, sitting on a carpet sipping green tea. He greets us warmly.

I have heard that he knows the Sufi's, and am hoping he might help me to find the bird musician. Like everyone else, he has not heard of this man. I'm not disappointed, because by now I have learned that the destination is not the point; the journey itself is the thing. Shah Mohammed launches into his story, and doesn't stop talking for the next hour.

"When the Taliban banned music, I made this poster in protest. On it is some lines from the Koran, that celebrate the virtues of music. We put this poster up around the city. The Taliban, of course, were angry, and they broke into my shop, and ripped many books from my shelves-any book they considered non-Islamic. Books with pictures on the cover, even small etchings, they took. Then they went out into the middle of that traffic circle, they piled them up, and burned them. They burned my books! I was out of the country, in Peshewar, Pakistan, so they arrested my brother, and kept him in jail for a month, they beat him, scared him out of his wits. Everyone said to me, "don't go back. They'll kill you". But I wouldn't let those cowards scare me - I came back, I gave baksheesh to the right people, and re-opened my shop. I put in a secret back room - it looked like a bookshelf, but it was really a door. Inside was my real shop-shelves filled with all the books those petty thieves had banned. And my post cards!"
He holds up a post card of a woman in a burka with a caged bird on her head, that reads, "Greetings From Afghanistan".
"This caged bird symbolizes our women - they are caged inside the burka. They are caged inside their homes!" He holds up another, of three burka clad women shopping for Nikes. "This is their only entertainment-shopping".

We talk of the Sufi's.
"Sufism was once a radical path, it questioned all dogma. It transcended all dogma. But it has become tainted. The mullahs use it to control the people. Afghanistan was the birthplace of Rumi, the greatest Sufi saint, the greatest poet. But it has lost it's relevance. Today they are so focused on devotion, so focused on the heavens, that they have lost sight of the earth. You will be hard pressed to find a true sufi in Kabul!"

But we have most certainly found one in Sarwar Jan. His definition of a Sufi very much contradicts Shah Mohammeds criticism. Sarwar Jan's feet is placed firmly on the earth, the earth that gives all, that protected his lute for all those years!

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Banned by the Taliban...

women working and driving





the internet

stuffed toys

kite flying


photographs of people and animals

musical instruments

Another day at the home of our luminous Sufi friend , Sarwar Jan. When I first asked him if he was indeed a Sufi, he laughed,'yes of course'. I said I could tell, immediately, from the warmth of his embrace. He laughed again. I asked him what it is that defines a Sufi. "A Sufi is someone who always gives. A Sufi is like the land-the land always gives. It has given us everything, even that camera of yours...the food we eat, the clothes we wear...always giving, giving..."

We film him re-enacting the story of burying his Rabab, his lute, to avoid persecution from the Taliban. Five years later, after the Taliban fell, he returned from exile, and was able to dig up his Rabab. He puts on a brilliant performance, shaking the dirt of off his rabab, hands raised to the sky, praising Allah for keeping it safe, then playing the first few chords, after years of silence.

He tells us another Sufi proverb-that all human beings are like one body, and if any part of it is sick, even the smallest toe, then we cannot be content.

Banned by the Taliban...


Up in the ruins above Shor Bazaar, where many of the musicians of Kabul used to live, until their houses were bombed, is a warren of Sufi shrines, some dug deep into the ground under ancient graveyards. A prayer crackles through a loudspeaker. The sound of chanting grows as we pass through a narrow door, into a courtyard where a massive cauldron of tea boils over an open fire. We leave our shoes at the bottom of the stairs, and ascend, into a room packed full of ecstatic Sufi's, chanting Allah Hu! and swaying back and forth, as the ecstacy of the Zikhr, the joy and agony of devotion, builds...

Friday, February 20, 2004

We've been staying at the Gandamok Lodge, a sprawling old mansion that used to be rented by none other than Osama Bin Laden. It was his Kabul home, and the place where his fourth wife lived. The landlord is less than happy with Osama-he split town without paying the his back rent, some $500. What's worse is that he left the place a wreck.

Dinner is a fancy affair-folded napkins, overly polite waiters, three course meals prepared by an excellent chef. Many of the patrons work for the U.N.HCR, for Amensty international, aid organizations. But others are what Guillermo refers to as 'Zoplilotes'-vultures. They are the people that come to feed on the carcasses of war, moving into the openings, the fat reconstruction contracts, the opportunity get the goods, the oil, the natural resources, that were inaccesible when the bombs were raining. We mutter back and forth to each other in Spanish, a secret code language which enables us to gossip directly in front of the offending parties.

The greying men next to us talk loudly in upper class British accents.

"I had a lovely meal today courtesty of the World Bank".
"They always do put on a good spread. Any luck with the contracts?"
"It is looking promising. Of course, the sporadic bombings are slowing down the re-opening of the orchards, but we're confident things will soon be under-control!"

Thursday, February 19, 2004

This morning just after sun rise we drove through the Kabul haze to the stadium.
Yesterday I had asked Neelab, the woman from the Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association, my 'sacred moment' question: thinking back over her years in RAWA, could she think of a single sacred moment, a moment of hope, a positive story...

"For me, what was most exciting was the day RAWA managed to smuggle a camera into the Kabul stadium, during the Taliban time, to film the execution of an innocent woman. We managed to get the footage out of the country, and it was shown all over the world, proving that what we were saying was true. For me, that we could accomplish such a thing under these conditions, gave me hope".

Every Friday, during the reign of the Taliban, this stadium was an atrocity exhibition. The bleachers were filled with specators, watching and cheering as people were stoned to death, or had their hands or legs roughly amputated, for crimes as minor as stealing a loaf of bread.

The stadium proved to be a very different place this morning. Next to a huge billboard of todays Afghan hero, Massoud, was a billboard that reads, "when all the ethnicities are treated equally, then we will have peace in Afghanistan".
As we filmed, a legless man in a wheelchair appeared, and began circling the stadium.

A dozen more appeared, and it seemed to be a race. We learned that these are members of the newly formed Afghan Para-Olympics team. They had begun practicing only ten days earlier. They are all victims of war, people who have lost limbs through the deadly explosions of cluster bombs, land mines, or artillery fire. We were invited inside to watch the team continue training.

They welcomed us in, and we spent the morning filming them. We interviewed the head coach, who himself lost a leg in the war. He has financed the team entirely out of his own pockets. They could use more money, so if anyone is interested in donating, send an e-mail to They want to send a delegation to the Para-Olympics in Athens this fall. The coach said at first people were reluctant to join up. Many were lost in despair, unable to muster an interest in anything. So he bribed them-offered them a small honorarium to try it out. Now the team has grown to 13 members, and from the laughter and enthusiasm we witnessed, it's clear that bribes are no longer needed.

As we were about to leave, a woman reporter appeared from a local radio station, to interview the coach. This would have been unthinkable during the Taliban era-a woman without a burka, working at a career job, what's worse, for the media. Change is coming.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

"Britain and the US said war on Afghanistan would liberate women. We are still waiting". -Mariam Rawi in Kabul

Today we met with RAWA, the Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association. I first met RAWA back in 2000, when the Taliban were in full force, in Peshewar, in Pakistan, near the Afghan border. We had to arrange a clandestine meeting via e-mail, and I was taking a big chance; the Pakistan secret police had beaten and deported a journalist for meeting with RAWA not long before I arrived. Four years later, and the situation has changed a great deal, but RAWA is still underground. The situation for women is still very bad, and the woman I interviewed had to cover her face, despite her abhorence of the Burqa.

"In truth, the situation of women in Afghanistan remains appalling. Though girls and women in Kabul, and some other cities, are free to go to school and have jobs, this is not the case in most parts of the country. In the western province of Herat, the warlord Ismail Khan imposes Taliban-like decrees. Many women have no access to education and are banned from working in foreign NGOs or UN offices, and there are hardly any women in government offices. Women cannot take a taxi or walk unless accompanied by a close male relative. If seen with men who are not close relatives, women can be arrested by the "special police" and forced to undergo a hospital examination to see if they have recently had sexual intercourse. Because of this continued oppression, every month a large number of girls commit suicide - many more than under the Taliban".

"Even in Kabul, where thousands of foreign troops are present, Afghan women do not feel safe, and many continue to wear the burka for protection. In some areas where girls' education does exist, parents are afraid to allow their daughters to take advantage of it following the burning down of several girls' schools".

But she has high hopes, that the day will come when there will be an Afghanistan free from fundamentalist rule, when the secular democracy that RAWA has been fighting for since the Russian invasion will be a reality.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Monday, February 16, 2004

I pick my way through the narrow muddy, snow crusted back alleyways of Kabul to the bird bazaar. The air is alive with the desperate song of a thousand caged birds.

I stop into the tiny stalls, and tell each shopkeeper of my quest:

"I am looking for a man, a singer, a Sufi, once known as a great musician. But because of the fundamentalists, he was banned from performing, or even listening to music. But he couldn't live without music, and descended into sadness, until one day he discovered a way out: they had said nothing about owning birds. He began to gather song birds, selecting them not for their plumage, but for their melodies. His house became filled, once again,with song".

The replies are consistent: "never heard of the guy".

They don't know of my bird man, but welcome me into their shops for tea, and to listen to the songs of their birds. They suggest I try the music bazaar-they are more likely to know of this man. This bird bazaar was also victim of the Taliban's austere brand of Islam-ironically, from a caged birds perspective, it meant freedom.

I know Why The Caged Bird Sings

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange suns rays and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

Sunday, February 15, 2004

As the sun dips down into the horizon we decide it's time to begin filming the darkness that is the underbelly of this place. So far we keep running into light. Doesn't take long, of course, to find the wounds of war. One entire neighbourhood, once a wealthy suburb, has been almost completely destroyed by the fighting. Block after block of desolation, crumbling ruins, grey skeletons. Aftermath. Tanks rumbling past. Dust. Children drawing water from a broken pipe. Land mine victims amidst the traffic, begging. A police station barely standing underneath a pile of rubble.

A gutted cinema, staircase spiralling up, fragments of celluloid, broken dreams.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Towards the edge of the city we find the shop of Youseff Kadiri, a maker of Afghani lutes, known as Rabab's. He is an old man with grey thinning hair, who immediately welcomes us into his tiny adobe stall, where he is carving a block of wood with an adze. It will become an elegant spiral. Hanging on the wall are his creations, finely crafted lutes with elaborate mother of pearl inlay.

We sit down on a little wooden bench and he turns on a kerosene heater and places an old brass tea pot on top of it.

"I love to have guests", he explains, as he prepares our tea.

I tell him I am looking for a man...I heard of his story during my visit to the Afghan refugee camps in Peshewar. He was a Sufi musician, but because of the rise of fundamentalism, he was banned from playing, and even listening to his beloved music. And so he collected song birds, he filled his house with the music of birds".

Youseff scratches his beard for a moment.

"No, I have never heard of such a man. Only, more recently, there was a musician, who got married. His mother-in-law came to his house, and told him that music was for lower people-not for the husband of her daughter. And so he destroyed all his instruments. And filled his house with birds."

So the bird alternative to music is seen as a logical course of action in this country. My first attempt to find my bird man is, as I expected, unsucessful. But there is another story that perhaps he can help us with: we are looking for Sarwar Jan, a musician who was forced to flee Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban. We explain that we have heard, through our friend from Canada, Martin Duckworth, that Sarwar Jan was forced to bury his beloved Rabab because for of the Taliban, who had banned all instruments. Youseff is not sure how to find this man-there were many who buried their instruments. He himself buried his harmonium.

He takes us across the street, to the lute shop of his brother, who is listening to blaring hindi music on a tiny transistor radio. Next to the tiny shop, under a covered canopy, half a dozen men hammer sheets of tin into elegant boxes with mallets, His brother does remember Sanwar Jan, but cannot find his phone number. More people are summoned, and soon the tiny shop is crowded. One young man, sharply dressed in black western clothes, pulls out his cell phone, and starts beeping away-moments later, the son of Sanwar Jan is on the line. Saboor takes the phone, and soon enough we have an adress in hand and are weaving through the traffic towards the other side of town.

In front of a cd shop we pick up a young man with a stylish mop of hair and funky red tinted sunglasses. The son. He directs through a maze of narrow dirt streets lined with high adobe walls. We follow him through a low metal door inthe adobe, into a courtyard, where we remove our shoes. We step into a small low ceiling room, and there is Sarwar Jan, dressed in the traditional Kafta, long grey shirt and pants, a vest, and a fur hat. His beard is long and grey, his face crinkled and creased, and his eyes are twinkling. He grins, and to my surprise, he throws his arms around me like I'm a long lost brother.

Friday, February 13, 2004

The first day of shooting. The sky is blue. The mountains gleam white. Early morning, we leave the guesthouse, pulling out into the crazed medley of mad cars. The traffic in Kabul is a much more likely source of death or dismemberment than car bombings or incoming artillery fire. It is the highest cause of fatality and accidents amongst U.N. workers. Everyone wants to be first- it's a constant game of chicken. Our driver is skilled but drives in the same fearless manner that keeps us on the edges of our seats. On some street corners traffic cops try to sort order out of the chaos, at times stepping in front of cars that come to a screeching stop mere inches from them.

We pull out onto Flower Street, the street of the flower sellers, in full operation even this early, busy taping flowers onto cars that will be driven in wedding processions. We stop and ask if we can film, and they smilingly agree. Afghanis love tohave their picture taken. The bride-to-be surveys the operations from inside the flower shop, from inside the steel blue head to toe burqa, vision obscured by a woven mesh. In the early days of the collapse of the Taliban many women abandoned the Burqa, but the backlash was strong, and most have retreated behind the veil. The Taliban are lurking, and extreme fundamentalists are still to be found throughout the government. Of course, there are those who will always wear a burqa, given the choice; it has become a deeply rooted cultural artifact. Repression of women may be a cultural tradition, but there are fundamental human rights that can never be forgiven in the name of cultural sensitivity.

The flower sellers leave us each with a small boquet of daffodils. We pull out into the crazed Kabul traffic with a warm glow-this is a good portent for our first moments of shooting here.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The plane lands, taxing past the carcasses of Afghan airline planes that were destroyed by American bombs a few years ago. The air is sunny. Snow fell a ew days ago,a dn the surrounding hills and mountains are starkly etched and stunning. kabul is high up in the mountains, one of the most beautiful settings of any city. Before the 23 years of war it was a kind of shangri-la. Today as we drive into town, Karim and Saboor, two afghani journalists who will be working with us on the shoot, tell us of the latest bombing-just a few hours before., on the outskirts of Kabul.
"Are things getting worse?"
"No, not really-they're just not getting better-consistently bad. There have been five or six bombings in Afghanistan this week already"

The week before I left, two Canadians were killed in Kabul by a suicide bomber.

The flower sellers are out in full force on flower street, the rug sellers hawk their wares on chicken street, and the money changers stand on the corners with vast wads of Afghani cash.

We alls top for fresh carrot juice from a fruit juice stand and then I stop off in an internet cafe to write my blog...

and now I'm going to try and get my first nights sleep...

more tommorrow...

My old friend Guillermo has joined me in London. He was my D.O.P. on 'In The Company of Fear', my film about nonviolent resistance to the war in Colombia, and recorded sound for us on CultureJam. It's our third project together. Guillermo the key elements of a good doc maker-an insatiable sense of wonder, endless enthusiasm, and a deep love of humanity. He also has experience in war zones-he's been filming in them for thirty years, and grew up in a combat zone-el salvador, where he cut his teeth making documentaries about the guerilla movement. When we go out for dinner with my friend TIm in New York, we discover that Tim went to El Salvador because of a film he saw in the eighties call 'Decision to Win' about the FMLN communities in El Salvador. Turns out that was Guillermos film.


AN eight hour flight brings to Islamabad. It's six in the morning here, it's midnight or so in London, and who knows what time it is in Vancouver. I'm losing track of the days, my body doesn't know whats going on...and we discover that we aren't allowed inside the terminal in pakistan until a few hours before our flight, so we huddle outside a restaurant, taking turns sleeping and watching.


The Pakistan International Air (PIA, known as Please Call Allah), sits on the run way. The customary saftey instructions is proceeded by a sweet, mournful prayer.

The plane is packed with pilgrims returning from Mecca, from the Haj, the annual pilgrimage, clutching plastic bottles of holy water.

There's only one woman on the whole plane.

We fly over the Kyhber pass. Below stunning snow covered mountains rise.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

A stressful morning at the Pakistani High sign of the fax from Pakistan, everyone asleep still in Canada (time difference)...the visa office is in a big canvas tent. The officer says-go to the meida office, if your back in ten minutes, we can get your visa done in time for your flight this afternoon...

at the press office, they are very polite-but there is nothing they can do. I'm about to give up, the ten minutes has turned to two hours, looks bad...when the fax rolls in...they rush me through the system, the visa is approved...and now I'm at the airport, about to hop on the plane to Pakistan, overnight, then onwards, to Afghanistan. Should arrive in Kabul at 1 p.m. tommorrow...Inshallah...hoping we can land-they jsut got a foot of snow in Kabul yesterday...

Monday, February 09, 2004

We got the okay, (not guarantee, but they feel 'positive' that I should be able to get my visa in London). so in a few hours I'll be on a plane to London...if all goes well, we'll get my visa from the Paksitan embassy in London.
Up Up and Away...

News has just come through-the Pakistan High Commission in Paris issued a visa to Guillermo, my co-camera, who's meeting me in London. We called our Pakistani embassy here in Canada, and they laughed at the news and just said mysteriously: call back in an hour.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Tommorrow I'm supposed to be leaving for Afghanistan. Last week we discovered our transit Visa application to Pakistan was rejected, which has thrown our elaborate travel plans into chaos. The Pakistan government is not happy with journalists these days, due to the recent incident of the two French reporters sneaking off to the mountains on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan to cover a controversial story about Taliban members sneaking into Pakistan.

So...tommorrow morning I will either find a last minute way of re-routing the tickets, or we cancel them all and figure out a new way to get into the country...

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