Pia’s upcoming exhibition at Dubai’s Alliance Française, Eyes Wide Open – An Afghan Journey, aims to reflect the changes she has seen in her two latest visits to Afghanistan.
One was in 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban, when the country was beginning to find its feet following 20 years of heavy war.
Hope and optimism were high, Pia recalls, but the realities of five years of Taliban rule ending abruptly after a lengthy civil war meant the place was disorderly and chaotic. She become inaccessible, often due to construction; some places were destroyed, and one thing that was very noticeable was the number of houses being built around the edge of the city, on the mountains that surround Kabul. It was here that I noticed a great sense of poverty.”
According to a source at Kabul Municipality, many of the mud-brick dwellings popping up on the edge of mountains around the city are illegal and dangerous. But many Kabulis choose to live in these places because they offer a cheaper alternative to living in the city.
Life in these precarious places is particularly hard, especially when the winter months start to kick in. Few of them are connected to the electric grid. Also, people often risk their lives coming down and going up the treacherous paths on the snow-covered mountains to get water or other daily essentials.
Through her images, Pia is hoping to express how Afghanistan is progressing. Given that almost all the news that comes out of the country is militarily related, it offers a unique human insight into Afghan society. After all, it was the warmth of the people that made Pia fall in love with the nation in the first place.
In 2002, she says Afghanistan felt a safer place. Pia recalls walking alone in many parts of central Kabul, especially Shar-e-Naw (or New City), which remains the bustling city centre, equipped with a famous titular park, restaurants, and fashion boutiques.
“I remember being on Chicken Street in Shar-e-Naw and being approached by a group of 15 young men. They spoke to me about the aspirations they had for their newly freed country, and their role in it. One offered me his scarf – a traditional Afghan one. I was very touched and gave him my scarf in return.”
Any such interaction and socialisation in Afghanistan nowadays would be ill-advised,