Art in Afghanistan

Ge­orge Gittoes re­flects on a dan­ger­ous, rev­e­la­tory jour­ney

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ge­orge Gittoes is an artist and win­ner of the 2015 Syd­ney Peace Prize. His film Snow Mon­key will show this week at Syd­ney at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, with screen­ings and talks on Thurs­day, Fri­day, Satur­day, Novem­ber 19 and 20. The artist will de­liv

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.


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)

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