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August 20, 2008

A Sight of the Taliban - Seamus Murphy's photographs reveal more about the evil of the Taliban than a thousand newspaper editorials, argues Christie Davies: A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan - Photographs by Seamus Murphy at Asia House, London

Posted by Christie Davies

A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan - Photographs by Seamus Murphy
Asia House
63 New Cavendish Street, London, W1G 7LP
1st July - 13th September 2008
Monday - Friday 9am to 7pm

A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan
by Seamus Murphy
London: Saqi, 2007
Hardback, 40

Seamus Murphy's photographs provide an accurate and striking revelation of how evil the Taliban are. His visits to Afghanistan have spanned the time from 1994 to the present day. It is all summed up in his photograph Talib threatens stall holders [in Kabul's Shor Bazaar] with a whip as prayer time approaches. The Muslim fanatic's ugly profile and snapping whip are caught black against a bright sky, the very picture of religious tyranny. Pray or be flogged.

But no doubt the Taliban can argue with good reason that their concept of god deserves such forced abasement. The God with whom Abraham argued and from whom he gained concessions would be incomprehensible to the Taliban, as would the loving Saviour of the Christians, fully human and fully divine.

That fool Rowan Williams, Cantuar of the unkempt prophet's beard, has recently declared that Muslims find the Trinity puzzling and even offensive. Can he not see that the very idea of an inhuman god is, and should be, not merely offensive but repellent to his flock? Unlike Islam, Christianity is a religion of peace; but it is not a religion of appeasement...

The Archbishop's job is to defend the faith, not any old faith, whatever Big Ears of Windsor may argue. It is time these two dreadful Taffies minded their duty in this respect. The entire moral superiority of Christianity lies in the undergoing by one of God's three persons of the full experience of suffering and death of a human being. Who would want to trust and obey a mere tyrannical abstraction? Only a slave...

We can further see the grotesquely intolerant behaviour of the Taliban in Murphy's photograph of citizens of Kabul hiding on the roofs of their houses in September 1996, while the Taliban roam the streets enforcing Sharia Law. We can see it in the wounded Afghan limping in the foreground past the cliff which held an ancient, peerless (I saw it), giant statue of Buddha before the Taliban wantonly blew it up. At one time this entire region, including much of Pakistan and in India Kashmir was strongly Buddhist.

In outer Kashmir towards little Tibet there is a frontier between the Moslems and the Buddhists that was long ago determined by the point of failure of the supply lines of an invading Muslim army advancing into the ancestral lands of the Buddhists. That was as far as the army and the religion of the sword could reach.

On one side of the line there are Buddhist villages where many women but relatively few children are to be seen. On the other there are Muslim villages where the women hide in their hovels and the children that they have been forced to bear tumble over one another in the poverty that their increasing numbers have created. The Buddhists are angry because the desperately poor Muslims show their usual total lack of respect for other religions by tramping tourists through the Buddhist sacred places for a few rupees. The Buddhists are not wealthy but at least they understand the lessons of Malthus.

In fairness Murphy does make the point that most Afghans find the intolerance of the Taliban intolerable and abhor their fanaticism and extremism, much as we look back with horror on Savonarola or Torquemada, Friar Miroslav Filipović or Monsignor Josef Tiso, or indeed Meir David Kahane. We get a quite different picture of the Afghan Muslims from his Sufi Ceremony, October 2004, with its sense of spiritual departure from the world of violence outside.

Likewise we can appreciate the quiet piety of Ahmad Shah Masoud depicted in several photographs. Masoud had played a key role in driving out the Soviet socialist invader and in overthrowing the local communist rulers in 1992. He became a member of the new Afghan government but soon the Taliban started their bitter and ruthless civil war and drove him out. There have now been 25 years of war in Afghanistan and there are two million war widows. Masoud was murdered by two suicide bomber posing as Arab journalists in 2001. Many of Murphy's photographs are taken from the front line of that civil war, showing watchers of and defenders against the Taliban.

Here too from a later date are the gallant American troops of the 82nd Airborne division looking for caches of arms and the infiltrating Taliban. The frontier grave is far away. Yet it is more than sed miles, sed pro patria; they are fighting against evil. The civil war in Afghanistan began long before the Americans arrived and took far more lives than they ever will.

The West's crime is that it ignored Afghanistan after the Soviets had been driven out and pretended that the tyranny of the Taliban was not happening. It was only Osama bin Laden's planning of violence from his Taliban base that provoked the NATO intervention and here in the exhibition is a photograph of Osama on television in November 2001 before the fall of Kabul. To it is attached the comment:

Ironically the message of his survival is delivered by a medium outlawed by the Taliban.
Even before the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were veiled and lived in seclusion; they were sexual property to be safeguarded like a gold bar in a safe deposit box in the bank. Yet previous governments had tried slowly to abolish the veil and the seclusion. When I was in Kabul thirty or so years ago, I was struck by the beauty of the many unveiled female faces.

By contrast, in Peshawar on the Pakistan side of the frontier, heavy clothing enveloped the women entirely and even their eyes could not be seen; they themselves could only look out at the world from between the tiny square holes in the grill that concealed their eyes. Two of the Western women with me left me behind and went to the house of some of these women to try on their garments. They reported back of the hot and uncomfortable prison cell of clothes that they had experienced. They told me that the Muslim women had laughed and laughed at their appearance. They knew that such clothes were mere custom, albeit one in which they themselves were trapped.

I had forgotten this incident until I saw Murphy's photograph Mother and Daughter returning from the fields, November 2004. The bare headed, bare faced daughter too young to be covered up is carrying a ewe and reveals a pretty face to the camera. The mother stands in her gaol of cloth. Kemal Ataturk had a point. Perhaps even Hewlett Johnson, the Red Dean of Canterbury, may have done when he praised Lenin's tearing off of veils in Russian Central Asia. But I doubt the sense of any Canterbury appeaser.

The saddest picture, though, is that of Isaac Levi one of the Last Two Jews in Kabul, November 2001. The two men live in the same apartment but due to a feud have refused to speak to each other for several years. No doubt this could be the subject of a good Jewish joke but I was too moved by his loneliness even to think of such a thing.

The exhibition and the book alike are truly excellent in their black and white photography, which well reveal the technical skill and the artistic sense of the man who took them.

In his youth Christie Davies was once a visiting scholar at a number of Indian universities and has visited Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian state of Kashmir.


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What a vile attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury who is only seeking a 1970s style detente with the Muslims. Since their views are more rigid and bigoted than his, it is clearly he,the Archbishop who must make all the concessions.All negotiations with those who are more fanatical and authoritarian must follow this route. Also he can see that Muslim numbers in the UK are growing fast through immigration and the high birth-rate of those whose women are illiterate and oppressed. This is their strength whereas his flock is dwindling due to the more secular ones dropping out and the firm ones going over to Rome. The weak must of necessity concede to the strong and the Muslims will soon be the larger religion in Britain.

Posted by: James at August 24, 2008 09:53 PM
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