View from a Grain of Sand

January 24, 2007

The road to Kabul is littered with the carcasses of war – Soviet army tanks left rusting in the arid landscape, overturned buses without wheels that will never complete their journeys and the gaping wounds of bullet-ridden buildings. This is the scenery of modern Afghanistan.

It is a country that has seen constant battle over the last three decades; first by way of a proxy war between Cold War superpowers, then civil war among ethnic groups which led to the rise of the Taliban and most recently the scars from the dominance of NATO. “I can’t believe what has happened to Afghanistan,” says Wajia, a widowed Afghani refugee who fled her country almost a decade ago.

It is 2003 and this is Wajia’s first time back in the capital in 25 years. The city that used to have parks filled with trees and blooming flowers is now a dusty vision in brown. As she drives around Kabul with her son and a work colleague, who is covered up in a burkha, she appears at times almost despondent.

Wajia has come back to Kabul on a fact- finding trip sponsored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Wearing a black veil with an intricate lace-like design she rests her chin on her palm. “I thought I should feel safer in my country, but I don’t,” she says.

Wajia is one of three women that writer and director Meena Nanji  follows in her riveting documentary “View from a Grain of Sand.” These women are only three voices in a choir of modern Afghani discontent. Begun in 2000, Nanji’s documentary starts with riveting images of Afghan women in a camp on the Pakistani/Afghan border. The faces of these women – revealed on camera as they take off their burkhas – tell the story of loss, struggle and survival.

Bibi Gul, a charming elderly Afghan woman with few teeth and a pink veil, says there is little to make her go back to her country. “There isn’t so much as snake’s poison there,” she says laughing. But for Shapiray, a teacher with dark syrupy eyes, Afghanistan still holds out hope and a possible future for her family. Having fled the Taliban less than two years earlier, Shapiray and her family live in a dusty mud hut.

It is her husband who actually is one of the highlights of the film,  arguing with his wife that religion should be democratic and tolerant. “And if Islam is the only religion, and it is not tolerant, then it is not right?” he says. Shapiray looks away. You get the feeling this is a discussion the couple have had before.

The third woman is Roeena, an unmarried doctor who travels from Peshawar every day to work in the camps. Having studied medicine in Kabul – she points out that she used to sit next to men in class – she fled to Pakistan during the civil war. “Walking to school, it was like a dream to me,” she says, reminiscing over her school days.

Throughout the documentary, Nanji uses archival footage to tell the history of Afghan women from the 1960s until the present. There are scenes of hip urban women walking down the streets of 1970s Afghanistan – a land where, since 1964, women had the right to vote. Underage marriage was banned and there were no laws on how women should dress. There were even campaigns to get women into the workforce – Nanji includes a fabulous television ad campaign aimed at recruiting female bus drivers. She then sweeps in with the political history of Afghanistan and its implications for women.

Nanji goes back to Afghanistan several times after 9/11 to check how her three subjects are coping. Both Roeena and Wajia have decided to stay in Pakistan even after modernizing president, Hamid Karzai,  comes to power. But Shapiray and her family go back to their home outside Kabul. It is bombed out. In her words: “There is no one left, not even a fly.”

And yet though they are without electricity and running water they have hope of building up not just their home but their country as well. Her husband has a job in local government and she is teaching local children. The beauty of this documentary – aside from a marvellous use of archival footage and its vibrant cinematography – is that Nanji does not preach about the future of this ravaged land. She lets the women tell their tales and through them we get a glimpse of the complicated, beautiful and tragic patchwork that is Afghanistan.