Saturday, January 29, 2011

Another Side Of Afghanistan... Softer, In An Opiated, Gay Kind Of Way


I wish I had more friends who read completely different things than I do. My friend Danny follows the strangest subjects and sends me stuff no one else has ever even heard of. I mean... I really do want to do another post-- and will, I promise-- on how corrupt David Rivera (R-FL) is but... Bran Symondson is someone I bet you never heard of. And you should.

Bran served in the British Army in Afghanistan. "Who didn't?" you ask. Well, he's a photographer, and he went back to Afghanistan after his term was up, so he could take pictures of the Afghan National Police. You know, the organization our governments say they're pumping so much money into ($6 billion a year, year after year after year), with the idea that when they're ready to take over the fight against the two dozen al-Qeada members left in the country, we can stand down.

Building up Afghanistan’s security forces has been fraught with setbacks, including a staggering attrition rate and poor training. Press reports suggest that the Afghan National Civil Order Police’s (ANCOP) attrition rate has been as high as 82 percent, and is currently somewhere above 50 percent. The Force’s operational capability suffers obviously as a result. As of February, only one of Afghanistan’s more than 360 districts has been deemed completely capable of conducting operations independently. Only 14 other districts received readiness ratings of 85 percent or higher.

Bran's work is on display at Idea Generation Gallery at 11 Chance Street in London (very close to the best raw vegan place I found on my trip there last month, SAF in Shoreditch) from today until February 20. The show is called The Best View Of Heaven Is From Hell, and the photos "shine a light on the idiosyncrasies of a culture almost entirely alien to the western paradigm-- one with its roots very much in opium, religion and open homosexuality." Dazed Digital, a photography magazine, talked to Bran "about the largely hidden world he captured in the candid eye of his lens upon his return." While there he had been "almost warmed," he said, to the ANP, "this kind of tribe within a tribe... There was an intimacy about the way they groomed each other that was very effeminate, despite the fact they lived in a very harsh environment." The "vast cultural differences" he observed made him want to return to Afghanistan to take photographs.
Dazed Digital: What did you hope to convey in the pictures you took when you returned?

Bran Symondson:
I really just wanted to convey the softer side of a war zone. I mean, to most people Afghanistan conjures images of troops jumping out of helicopters, but it is a very beautiful country and there is an underside to the conflict that no one here ever sees. I mean, you can really understand why there was a hippie trail through the country in the 1960s: fields of flowering poppies, pomegranate trees, snow-capped mountains... It’s stunning, and when you are there it takes your breath away.

Dazed Digital: Do you think this softer side comes from the fact that opium use is so prevalent?

Bran Symondson:
Yeah, I think so. They are all stoned and there is no getting away from that. When I was actually serving, it would sometimes be hard to put a patrol together because lots of them were wasted on hash or opium. It’s changing slowly, though. Maybe in a few generations they could become a police force as we understand it, but our concept of policing and their concept of policing are completely different. What people don’t realise is that bribery out there is a completely open thing. We are a bit arrogant to think that we don’t live around bribery and that everything here is above the law, because it’s basically bullshit-- you only have to scratch below the surface to see how the government, banks and corporations work; it’s all backhanders. And yet, we go over there, and because the bribery is obvious, we claim it’s outrageous.

Dazed Digital: Why do you think homosexuality and the subjugation of women are so prevalent in the Afghani culture?

Bran Symondson:
I think the men find solace in each other because of the lack of women. I mean, men there don’t even socialise with women. It’s very bizarre. Most of the women are actually kept in compounds. I think the oldest girl I saw who wasn’t in a burka was probably about twelve years old. Women used to secretly ask us for pens and stuff, but if they were caught with them they would get a serious beating. There are two sides to that though, and there is a photograph in the exhibition that deals with it called Rude To A Woman. It shows a policeman with his feet chained up and another policeman holding the chains. The reason I am showing that image is that it really epitomises the segregation between men and women.

Dazed Digital: In what sense?

Bran Symondson:
Well, the guy in chains was at a roadblock and a woman turned up on the back of a motorbike in a burka. He wanted to pat her down, knowing the Taliban use women as mules to carry weapons. Because his colleagues felt he had been rude to her they put him in chains for a week. In a way, I think it’s a bit like having a beautiful pet bird you so much that you keep it in a cage. Women are like that out there. People forget that this behaviour is only a few decades old though. Afghanistan was a very cosmopolitan country in the 1900s. At the end of the day, what we have now this is just one man in hiding who is the leader a bunch of guys who are afraid of women. They hide behind the mask of religion, but that’s what it all really comes down to.

I was in Afghanistan twice, late in the '60s and early in the '70s, for over six months. I was living on the ground-- not one night in a hotel-- often with families. I never met an Afghan man who wasn't zonked on hash and/or opium. Not just stoned, zonked. Not in Kabul, not in the countryside. And as for women, my best friend got married while I was there, living in his family's compound. I was the guest of honor at the wedding. I never even saw the wife, not before, not that night and not in the months afterward when we lived in the same house. Not even in a burqa.

UPDATE: Suicide Bomber Takes Out Deputy Governor Of Kandahar

Abdul Latif Ashna won't be coming to for the exhibition in Shoreditch this month. The Deputy Governor of Kandahar province was assassinated today by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle. "The loss of a great deputy governor like this is a setback. What we've seen is consistently Afghan government leaders emerge and the people continue to rally in an effort to establish security in this province," said US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who was visiting Kandahar at the time.



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