More than thirty years ago, an Afghan girl was captured on camera by National Geographic’s Steve McCurry. Her piercing green eyes, standing out against a young, weather-beaten face became representative of Afghanistan – an occupied country of singular beauty against the backdrop of war and suffering.
(The original picture can be found here.)
Afghanistan was different, when I was a child.
“Even the donkeys in Kabul are beautiful,” I often heard while growing up in India. Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, was a regular topic of conversation at home, with my father having spent some years as a research scholar there in the late 1970s, shortly before the Soviet invasion.
The discussion those days usually spun around life in the dry, mountainous country, of almonds and raisins that were imported from Afghanistan and sold in the wholesale markets of Karol Bagh in Delhi, and the horrific stories of “buzkashi,” a hunting game in which rival horse riders would fight to pin a dead goat on a goal.
As a child, Kabul for me was synonymous with Rabindranath Tagore’s story “Kabuliwallah,” a seller who would roam around the streets in Bengal and lament about his lost nation to a little girl.
Today, a song from the filmed version of the story, reminiscent of the Afghan fruit-seller’s melancholy, is for me a leitmotiv that runs through the country’s ravaged narrative.
Afghanistan. That day when Steve McCurry captured the frightened girl’s eyes in his camera lens, he captured the angst of a whole nation and turned the 12-year-old into a picture of mythological proportions.
Mythology, to paraphrase the French critic Roland Barthes, is not just a fictitious narration from the past, but stories that we create out of our own experiences, images that we modify, as creators and propagators of cultures and opinions, into objects that rarely have anything to do with their real existence. The actual subject of the picture drifts into oblivion, as the artist’s image takes precedence, takes on a life of its own and becomes a symbol of a whole country’s tragedy.
Perhaps that is what happened to the girl, whose name, it was later revealed, is Sharbat Gula. Sharbat – as I know it, means sweet, scented water, often made from rose petals with a hint of the flower’s fragrance, served from a tall glass jug full of the cool liquid, flavored with lemon or sweetened even more with spoonfuls of sugar.
I wonder who had given the girl her name, and whether Steve McCurry knew what her name meant when he took her picture at the refugee camp in Peshawar, more than three decades ago.
It is clear her picture – that made her world-famous – did little for her own life. Her picture became a myth, while she herself sank into oblivion, was wedded to a baker, had three daughters, was on the run -again from the Taliban, and tried to fake her identity to give her fugitive life as an illegal refugee in Pakistan some semblance of legality.
Today, she is again in the news because of her faked identity and her subsequent arrest in Pakistan. At some level, it is heartening that her picture has come to her rescue and garnered sympathy for the lives of so many people living “illegal” lives after fleeing their country. At another level, it is saddening that many others, migrants crossing over the Mediterranean and little boys like Aylan Kurdi become the focus of the media glare, while little can be done to improve their lot.
I admit, it is people like us, in the media, who create mythologies like these, make stories out of people’s lives and that, mostly out of a very strong conviction that a face, the experience of an individual will move our readers, listeners or viewers.
But then, in a world where everything is documented and nothing is forgotten, do I want to be captured in an image that shows me as fearful and fleeing from death? And most of all, would I like to be immortalized that way?
Sharbat Gula, regardless of how her life has changed, the joys and sorrows she has experienced, is immortalized as the girl with fear in her big green eyes.
I wonder how she feels about that.