Art in Afghanistan
George Gittoes reflects on a dangerous, revelatory journey
NOVEMBER 3, 2014
I’m on a flight from Dubai back to Jalalabad to continue shooting our new documentary, Snow Monkey. When we got to the plane door with all our cameras and other equipment the hostess stopped us, saying our carry-on luggage was all too big and overweight. Hellen (Rose) laid on the charm and we were bumped up to business class. All our anxieties about the film and the dangers ahead went out the window as we settled into the flight with a couple of glasses of champagne. The first time we got drunk together and realised we were in love, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell was playing in the background. Taking Hellen to Afghanistan is all a lot more fun than heading out alone. I looked down on the rugged landscape of treeless mountains and I’ve fallen into a kind of reverie.
If I trace back to what got me started on this road, it was Sufism. On the cover of my Year 10 art diary I made a detailed watercolour of a mosque with its dome and minarets, inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan with all of its 19th-century romanticism.
I convinced my art teacher to let the first level students study Islamic art as our major for the Higher School Certificate. To get a deeper insight, I went to the State Library and found books on the great Sufi poets like Rumi and Attar. I was a budding poet and these sages fasttracked me into the mystical contemplation of divine contradiction.
Sufism accepts that the great mysteries of life and the universe are beyond comprehension and celebrates this with mind-flipping verses that somehow make the unknowable familiar. This was the opposite of formal religion. As the Sufi explains in my film The Miscreants of Taliwood: “It is not in the book (meaning the Bible or the Koran), but is the journey that we all must take to find in the end that the treasure is the journey itself.” This is why the fundamentalist Islam hates Sufis.
The ocean pours through the jar, and you might say it swims inside the fish! This mystery gives peace to your longing And makes the road home, home. (Rumi — Mathnawi)
By the time I came to open the Yellow House with Martin Sharp in Potts Point, it was 1969 and I painted the walls of my puppet theatre all over with designs like a mosque. When it was finished, the audience present were offered transport to another state of consciousness with swirling, whirling dervish dances.
All of this was self-taught stuff from books. I had never met a real Sufi dervish, let alone a guide or master, but with my psychedelic room and performances I had no need of LSD — the Sufi verses and the dancing got me “there”. Although it was the Sufis who brought Islam to Afghanistan, the Taliban has erased Sufism from contemporary life.
At the original Yellow House, we agreed with John and Yoko — it was better to make art than war. But taking our vision to Saigon was an unrealisable dream.
The Afghan Artists of the Jalalabad Yellow House, which opened in 2011, have grown up knowing nothing other than war. They have never heard of Vincent van Gogh or Andy Warhol. But, our psychedelic Hoojrah has even worked on the Taliban. When we have cautiously invited them in for tea and sweet biscuits, they have said they felt at peace and they gave us their blessings and assured protection.
NOVEMBER 27, 2014, JALALABAD
Irfan is one of the ice-cream boys who has become central to our documentary. His father is a drug addict and without Irfan’s earnings the family would starve. This morning Irfan came and asked me to help find his father who has been missing for three days. I knew this meant walking the “needle park” — not a safe place, even for a brave kid like Irfan.
At one point I turned to catch a guy about to slash my back with a box cutter. We started to get surrounded by small mobs eyeing off my camera and coveted wallet.
We stopped at Jannat Gul’s cafe and as I sipped the sweet milky gypsy tea, I began to hear harmonium music and singing. In theory, former Taliban restrictions on art and music have been banished since the American occupation, but the park is lawless and any nut case who wants to impose radical purity can do what they like. No one risks performing music or dance unless well hidden and protected by high walls.
I wandered over to where a group of about 20 men were sitting cross legged and taking snapshots and recordings with their mobile phones of a little old harpsichordist. A real Sufi! Toothless, with a white beard and a face and hands that could make him a hundred years old. He was a magical creature and gestured to Irfan to come and sit beside him.
Immediately he began singing an improvised song about a boy looking for his lost father. The Old Sufi kept singing and comforting Irfan as best he could, but I began to see a tear trickling down from his left eye and I sensed the clairvoyance of the song. Irfan’s father was gone.
Jannat told me the Sufi lived with Kuchi nomads who had hidden and protected him through the worst of times — that the Sufi felt like a songbird kept in a covered cage and decided to come to the park to take flight regardless of the risk.
NOVEMBER 29, 2014
The Sufi made his first visit to the Yellow House a couple of hours before a pair of curious journalists arrived to do a story. I told him to relax and called to Hellen.
When they started singing together they created a strange harmony with two notes merging to make a third — it was auditory magic. The Sufi commented: “We have brought God down to earth.” I have rarely seen Hellen so happy.
Amir Shah took him back to his home. He said, “I have to go and cook for my wife and son — both need me to cook for them.” Hellen gave him a saucepan full of cooked food, still warm from the Yellow House kitchen.
Being in the garden with the Old Sufi, named Saeed Mohammad, left both Hellen and I in a state of purest ecstasy. Old Sufi is the final component we needed to make the Yellow House complete — he has squared the circle. Having to host the two journalists could not have been worse timing. Ecstasy (the state, not the drug) has become a “no go” subject. Our visitors, one Australian and one Swede, had already made jokes about the psychedelic-looking Hoojrah.
As I brought cups of tea to the journalists and their tape recorder was switched on, my urge was to talk about this joy, but knew it would be put down as “old hippie stuff” — purple prose.
Our Yellow House is an attempt to reignite the passion for love and not war felt in the late 1960s and early 70s. To express these hopes is now seen as naive and ridiculous.
The word ecstasy was once one of the most beautiful words in the English language and described the states which much revered mystics and saints attained. Now it is a word for a party drug. Those who model our perceptions have been able to make people frightened to talk about ecstasy or their attempt to find their road in a spiritual journey.
How much of this is to do with the materialism of rational modern science and how much to do with making people seek joy from owning consumer items is hard to say.
The ecstasy of mystics is free and therefore not something that can be sold. Ecstasy is also a
form of liberation. If someone can gain ecstasy by singing like the Old Sufi, then they don’t need much more to exist than the basics, as they have found fulfilment.
NOVEMBER 30, 2014
We have been filming a group of boys I call the Ghostbusters, because they sell magic to get rid of bad luck, evil spirits and ghosts. They put special seeds into recycled tin cans which smoke on top of smouldering coals. They only know parts of traditional shamanistic chants to go with their smoke.
DECEMBER 2, 2014
Today I met the Ghostbusters outside the Kuchi camp. They had their smoking cans and were excited about meeting the Old Sufi shaman, who started teaching the boys the correct chants and their meanings, so I immediately persuaded them to come back to the Yellow House where they could get something to eat and not have a large audience. The boys have chants they recite when smoking away bad spirits, but no one has ever taught them the words. It starts: “Span bala ban ... Smoke banish evil — the evil eye can be blocked.”
They wanted to get it right and the old Sufi loved having a class of keen little boys.
Hellen and Neha Ali Khan joined in towards the end.
One of the journalists commented: “Do you realise you have two liberated women here, one using a camera and one without a headscarf, and a Sufi teaching children — this is everything the people of this city oppose. Aren’t you frightened?”
He is right. The Yellow House Jalalabad challenges everything here. If we survive, the city will have passed an important tolerance test and have left the dark past behind. I bought a cooked chicken for the Old Sufi to take back to his wife and son. Apparently the wife has dementia and the son is disabled in some way.
The hardest thing to understand and accept about mystical states is that they are always transitory. The Sufi does not have to carry his moments of union with God into the tent while he spoons food into the mouths of his loved ones. While we are still alive, very human worries will always flood in to drown the deepest discoveries of our souls.
That is what it is to be human. Everyone who goes on a path to find truth the Sufi way thinks that at the point where true wisdom and knowledge are achieved this will be stable and firm and irrevocable. The great moments — the ecstatic epiphanies — are unsustainable if the choice is to continue to live in the family of mankind. All we can do as artists is help others to get there and then say “we never promised you a rose garden”.
The Old Sufi can reach the highest peaks of union with the Unknowable and then has to return to a tent where there is no running water or electricity and serve the very physical needs of his old wife and disabled son. The small amounts of money people donate, after being transported by his ecstatic singing, will pay for his food. He wears rags and his turban was a dirty white cloth wrapped around a cheap white scull cap. I got him a sparkling jewelled cap and a new green silk turban to surround it. It looked great and he was delighted, but the poverty of the original suited him better.
DECEMBER 7, 2014
It is my birthday and I have decided to give myself the pleasure of sharing the day with my friend, the Old Sufi.
I have had him sitting for a couple of portraits — a profile and a full face. While we were chatting, he told me about the dark times he has escaped, when most of his Sufi friends had their instruments smashed and many were beheaded. He said their bodies were thrown into the river, but not before the money they had earned was inserted into their anuses — a final indignity.
I asked him how he got his talent and he explained that one night an angel came down to him while he was sleeping and gave him a bowl. He drank from it and in the morning when he woke the bowl was gone, but he had his voice. He believes his songs have a divine source and he is only a vehicle.
DECEMBER 13, 2014
It is beautiful watching the Old Sufi teach the Kuchi boys, but our backyard is not very attractive for filming. The countryside is green and beautiful as it is harvest season, with rows of cauliflowers and spinach and super green rice.
We went to an area where we had filmed many times before. The Sufi’s music was transcendent in this late afternoon light and we all felt very happy.
I thought the crowd that had formed were just curious onlookers, but they were more like a lynch mob made hostile by the presence of the Old Sufi and his music in their fields. As I got the Old Sufi to our car and turned to open the car door, a heavy club hit me between the shoulder blades. I went unconscious. I turned to see a boy throw a large stone like a chunk of quartz at the Sufi. Fortunately, it missed, but smaller rocks were hitting him.
I yelled at the crowd, momentarily stunning them, and got the old man into the vehicle.
OCTOBER 2, 2015
(We have been back in Jalalabad for 6 weeks to do pick-up shots; we travelled back to Australia for several months to edit Snow Monkey.)
It has been a tough and frustrating morning. We risked our lives waiting in front of the Kabul bank to interview a survivor of the carnage created when a suicide bomber on a motorbike detonated himself there, killing 120 people. Our cameras captured the blood, bone and body parts of the dead and dying — the worst carnage imaginable. The violent climax to our otherwise positive film. An event like this cannot be left unexplained. I needed to get survivors to talk about who did it, but our interviewee did not turn up, leaving us exposed to this place of death for hours.
I was feeling restless and totally wired, so I suggested we go to the park to try to interview Shazia Yaqoob, the 11-year-old girlfriend of Steel, the young gangster who is a key character in our film.
When we got to Jannat’s cafe, neither Steel, Shazia nor any of the gang were there as arranged. Waqar (Alam, my assistant and the principal cinematographer on Snow Monkey) turned to me and said, “You are not lucky today.” I agreed.
As I sketched the cafe owner Jannat, there was a strangely dressed woman who kept hovering outside the cafe, her eyes focused on mine. It made me feel uncomfortable, so I asked Waqar if the woman was a prostitute. He said “No, she is a Kuchi (gypsy).”
Women are not allowed into the cafe, but only into restaurants where there are cubicles where they can be hidden away behind partitions or curtains — to eat or drink in private with family members. She nervously edged her way over to speak to Jannat. As she gestured towards the ground a chill went through me. I knew she had come to tell me the Old Sufi was dead.
She would not say how he had died except that he had died in Kabul. Two other Kuchi women then emerged from where they had been hiding in the trees and she was gone.
There is a one-eyed actor (who plays) villains, Haji Zameer, and his story was that three men from a branch of ISIS (Islamic State) found the Old Sufi singing in the park and cut out his tongue after slitting his throat. Haji is not a reliable source, so I thought this must be untrue.
I wrote one of his verses into my diary: Death takes us beyond what we can imagine, Into the mystery of ‘we are all returning’ Don’t fear death. Spill your jug in the river! Your attributes disappear but the essence moves on. Your shame and fear are like wool blankets covering coldness. Throw them off and run naked into the joy of death.
It is appropriate that this day has been walled in with frustration, because this is the dark day of the news of my friend the Old Sufi’s death.
The phone in my pocket vibrated — a call from Shazia saying she was happy to come to the Yellow House to be filmed.
On the way we passed a butcher who had fully skinned a bullock, but had not quartered it — so it sat on its knees like some strange pink and white Damien Hirst on a piece of sack on the side of the road, as grotesquely beautiful in death as any living animal.
Shazia had been lucky. She had been outside the bank trying to sell phone cards when she got the urge to go and buy some verses of the Holy Koran. She sells these verses to the pious when they exit from mosque prayers. She had just purchased the verses when she heard the first blast. Whenever she goes near the site of the blast, her hands begin to shake with fear … it is not just the possibility of another ISIS attack, but she believes the ghosts and spirits of the dead have not left.
I told her the sad news about the Old Sufi and she smiled and said his songs play around in her head and are part of what is helping her to overcome this fear.
OCTOBER 4, 2015
We head back to Australia in four days and I have a lot of unfinished canvases of the Old Sufi. They need more work and this will give me time to process the loss. Too few people know about these Sufi killings, which are also occurring in Pakistan and Yemen. Their most ancient shrines are being destroyed in Saudi Arabia.
The people have been calling me Bubba for years — a term they also used for the Old Sufi. For many I am now the Old Sufi of Jalalabad — totally unqualified for the role, but I am going to have to embrace it.
ClockwiseC from left, theth Old Sufi Saeed MohammadM as depictedd in the personalp diary of artistar George Gittoes; Steel,St the main characterch in documentaryd Snow Monkey, M AK-47; the holding Jalalabadan A Y YellowYe House group (George( G Gittoes, bottomb left)