x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Fight for flight

While the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they outlawed many of life's simplest pleasures. A look back at photographs shot by James Reeve three years after the regime's fall, images that capture a premature optimism for a country that remains mired in turmoil

Under the Taliban sport was severely curtailed, with frequent bans on football and restrictions on cheering at matches that allowed only chants of
Under the Taliban sport was severely curtailed, with frequent bans on football and restrictions on cheering at matches that allowed only chants of "Allah akbar". Photo: James Reeve

While the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they outlawed many of life's simplest pleasures. Clint McLean looks back at photographs shot by James Reeve three years after the regime's fall, images that capture a premature optimism for a country that remains mired in turmoil.

Kite-flying draws images in our minds of blue skies and sunshine. It suggests joy, a carefree spirit and the innocence of youth. It invokes visions of children running across fields, squealing in delight. Yet in 1996 when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, kite-flying was outlawed after they deemed it "un-Islamic".

Flying kites is a national pastime in Afghanistan and one that in many ways mirrors the country's politics. In recent times at least, when things were good, the kites would soar. When the Taliban restricted freedoms and certain rights, the kites lay dormant. But more than that, even the method of kite-flying, or gudiparan bazi, seems to embody Afghan history.

Kite fighting is the popular sport of cutting your opponent's line with yours - each coated in finely ground glass and adhesive - while the kites fly in fierce battles. For a country that has endured centuries of fighting, it is no surprise that even play is a form of combat.

The Taliban imposed the most strict form of Sharia the world had seen after helping to force a Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and single-handedly driving out Ahmad Shah Massoud's army from Kabul in September 1996. Under Taliban rule, women suffered most, but everyone had to surrender freedoms they'd taken for granted. In addition to kite-flying, dancing and singing were banned, along with weather forecasting, bird-keeping and playing many sports. Men could be punished for shaving, and women had to abide by draconian laws directed specifically at them. The burqa became mandatory, they could no longer work outside the home and they could leave their home only with a chaperone who had to be a close male relative. Girls were barred from attending school after the age of eight. Punishments for disobedience by either sex were severe - from beatings to the cutting off of fingers, hands or even heads.

Coalition forces overthrew the Taliban in late 2001, and it was expected that the streets would be safer, that girls would be able to go back to school, that music and dance would return, that the future would be better.

In 2004, the photographer James Reeve went to Afghanistan to shoot a story on the new freedoms its people were supposedly now able to enjoy. His work felt celebratory and optimistic, documenting the rebirth of a nation. Schools were again open to both sexes, pigeon-keeping was allowed, female ankles could be shown - and kites could fly again.

But the optimism for the great nationwide change that was expected after the fall of the Taliban was unfortunately premature. Even as Reeve was photographing a woman taking driving lessons, an outdoor concert and a classroom of female pupils, there were people being punished by the resurgent Taliban in areas they dominated all over the country.

Reeve writes in his project statement: "Recent suspected gas and acid attacks on girls' schools and the continued presence of western military forces are a stark reminder that Afghanistan still has a long way to go before it can be called a free society."

Last year, the president and CEO of Care International, Dr Helene Gayle, said: "Education-related violence is an alarming trend in Afghanistan, with girls at particular risk of attacks and other scare tactics aimed at keeping them out of school. In fact, in 2008 alone, 670 education-related attacks including murder and arson occurred, causing hundreds of schools to close and parents to keep their children home."

We continue to read pieces such as last summer's Time magazine cover story that told the tale of Bibi Aisha, whose nose and ears the Taliban cut off as punishment for leaving her husband, whom she said beat her and forced her to lead a life that was little more than slavery. This happened nine years after the Taliban were ousted from Kabul.

The images in Reeve's series reflect a belief at that time that things in Afghanistan would get better. And in some ways they have. More girls are going to school, cinemas have reopened and gudiparan bazi is common again. But there is still a long way to go.

Nearly a decade after the Taliban lost power, many Afghans still live in fear and risk reprisals for enjoying some of life's simplest pleasures. The photos Reeve took with hope and optimism in 2004 now provide a sombre look back at a country that remains a human-rights battleground.

 

These images are from James Reeve's series Banned. To see the entire collection, go to www.jamesreeve.com