by Shannon Galpin
At eighteen Shannon Galpin became a victim of gender violence. Unwilling to be labeled a victim, she became a fighter for women’s rights by forming the non-profit organization Mountain2Mountain in 2006. Since then, Shannon has dedicated her life to creating voice and value with women in conflict zones, and for the past four years, she has focused her work in Afghanistan. Shannon shares with us her perspective of Afghanistan as a foreign woman, and her unique experiences breaking gender barriers in Afghanistan while challenging stereotypes back home.
Throughout the muted neutral shades of Afghanistan, bluebirds float along the streets. They move through the crowds unnoticed despite their piercing bluebird color. Unnoticed but impossible to miss. They are the burqa clad ghosts of Kabul. It seems amazing that these women wear a garment meant to make them invisible in such a vibrant shade that so obviously contrasts the bland environment. You see them on buses and in cars. They are dotted throughout the markets. Their delicate shoes peeking out from underneath aptly navigating the muddy streets. You see them by the side of the road, their burqas faded and torn often begging with their children, faceless with hands outstretched for food or money. It’s the stereotypical view of Afghanistan, the mantle of women’s oppression and a symbol of an entire country’s oppression that threatens to blanket the global community’s vision of the region, leaving nothing but a tiny piece of net to squint through.
But there is so much more to Afghanistan than a burqa. More than forty years of ongoing conflict. More than the Taliban. More than a continued all-out assault on women’s rights. More than poverty. That is all part of the fabric that weaves itself into any story about Afghanistan and its people. But its not ALL there is. There is jaw dropping beauty. There is adventure. There is activism. There is a strength under the burqa that blinds not just the wearer, but the observer as well to the humanity underneath. This is a real country, with real people, with a real youth movement, and a real women’s rights movement, and a burgeoning rock music scene, and much much more…. And to see only the burqa is to ignore the life that pulses beneath the thin layer of fabric.
I broke the rules. But as Katherine Hepburn once put it, “if you obey all the rules, you’ll miss all the fun”….and seeing Kabul from the back of a bike is a rule meant to be broken.
The obvious challenge is riding the motorbike with a headscarf. A challenge to stay put when walking down the street, a near impossibility on the back of a motorbike. I can’t hold onto the bike with just one hand on these streets and hope to stay on. Gutted out and worthy of a 4×4 or a full suspension mountain bike, there are serious obstacles to be had and that’s not counting the traffic. In a car, you see the chaos. On a motorbike, you feel it. Taste it. So I pull the side of my headscarf towards my face and hold a bit of the fabric between my teeth to keep it in place. There are very few, if any, actual traffic rules in this country. There are two streetlights in the entire city. The rest are roundabouts and intersections that have a general sense of rules, but if you need to go left and the roundabout traffic flows to the right, you just weave between oncoming traffic to make the shortcut. One way streets? No such thing – often we’ve been the only vehicle going against 3 lanes of car traffic plus a biker or two. Lanes are non-existent, the road’s width has a varying number of lanes at a given time, from two lanes to four or five on the same stretch depending on the time of day. Bikers and pedestrians cross at will, and at their own risk. On a motorbike, you abide by all the non-rules of the road, times ten, plus you have access to the sidewalks.
We climb a steep, dirt road up one of the many hills within the center of Kabul, this one is ‘TV Hill’, nicknamed for the hundreds of antennae that cover its top. The city spreads out below us, and the overpowering smell of diesel, dust and rotting garbage begins to fade. Typically lights would dot Kabul in the dusky light, but tonight rolling blackouts have darkened swaths of the city. A brief stop near the top to take in the view allows a few of the small children chasing us to catch up. One little boy doesn’t respond when I offer a few words in Dari, but his dirty face lights up with a big, shy, smile. He hangs around like a little sparrow, scrutinizing us while Travis points out larger landmarks like the US Embassy, the airport, the Presidential Palace. I finally get my head wrapped around the lay of the land that has been eluding me this entire visit, my internal map having not yet connected the dots. Travis indicates another large hill directly across from us and says that’s stop number two.
Fifteen bone-jarring minutes later, we arrive at the infamous Olympic diving pool, built during the Soviet era but never used for its intended purpose. The pool is a solemn concrete rectangular hole in high dives. During the 90’s, it was a site of Taliban executions, the accused pushed from the top high dive into the empty pool below. Those that survived were deemed innocent. Most, not surprisingly, were found guilty. Rusted ladders, missing most of their rungs, still cling to the sides of the towers. Looking up the ladders, an eerie flash of men and women being forced to climb the steep metal rungs to meet their judgment appeared in my mind. I shivered, feeling a chill down the back of my neck. Now Afghans use it for dog fighting and impromptu football games. We stand underneath the shadow of the high dives watching a group playing football below us. Voices ricochet around the inside of the concrete pool along with the soccer ball. A full moon rising behind us illuminates the men, while the dusty air adds a strange softness to the scene.
My driver, Habibe enthusiastically agreed to drive me to Mazar I Sharif. The one condition being that his 70-year-old father- in- law come along as ‘protection’. Mahmahdoud aka “John”, looks to weigh in at about 100 pounds, and like many his age, he is missing several teeth, and his eyesight is poor. I’m not sure who’s protecting whom on this road trip, but having a respected elder in the car is never a bad thing. It will take us nine hours to get to Mazar, assuming that Salang Pass is not snowed in. I become a little apprehensive when Habibe asks me for the first time to please pull my scarf further forward, entirely covering my hair and creating a hooded shadow to hide my fair features behind. The signal that this road trip is not like the family road trips out to the Grand Canyon. There will be no roadside picnics and corny photo ops. My main concern is not bandits or the Taliban, it’s the car. We are traveling in the same car that broke down three times in one day last week, and while Habibe assures me its travel worthy, I have my doubts.
We leave Kabul to see snow covered mountains on the left, smaller rolling hills to the right lead us out onto the Shomali Plain. We pass a jeep whose inside is filled beyond capacity with Afghan men, hanging on the back are three more, and as we pass I notice one more sitting on the hood like some sort of comical hood ornament. On our left, the river is raging and we follow the river for the next forty kilometers as we climb the switchbacks leading to Salang Pass. These mountains are part of the Hindu Kush and this road is a major trucking route. Heavily bejeweled trucks clog the roadways in both directions. These trucks are most typically red or green with an elaborately detailed painting covering every possible surface, often including the wheel rims.
As the landscape turns completely white with snow, we follow these trucks into a series of tunnels that aim to protect the narrow roadway from avalanches and heavy snowfall. They are all unlit, but many have natural light coming through at regular intervals, all but the last, and longest. Its like entering a deep cavern, the walls and road are wet and large craters hopscotch across the road creating yet another obstacle to safe driving in addition to the complete darkness. Many Afghan cars have very dim lights, many motorbikes have none – so often you don’t see another car until you are right on top of it. Majority rules here much like on the streets of Kabul – whichever team has the most cars spread out across the width of the tunnel wins.
We emerge unscathed on the other side to some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen. As we descend the switchbacks, cars of burqa’d women and Afghan men stop for impromptu picnics. The snow recedes above us and the mountains that surround us are covered in lush grass and wildflowers. The river continues to rage along beside us on the left and the landscape is dotted with sheepherders, lavender flowers and red poppies, and the occasional horse. The game trails that crisscross this area scream for lengthy trail running and mountain biking – I wonder to myself how badly landmines this area is and for the first time I wonder if I could perhaps arrange a little excursion in future visits with my mountain bike.
Crossing through the gates that mark the entrance to Panjshir province, I break into a wide smile and look behind me to where my orange Niner is crammed into the back of the Landcruiser. In one of the few countries where women are not allowed to ride bikes, I’m planning to do just that – in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. The Panjshir valley.
We pull over by the river, and I assemble my bike quickly before a crowd materializes and start riding. 10 minutes down the smooth paved road, I pass by the imposing hulks of three Soviet tanks, reminders of how far back this region has endured conflict.
A little further along, I ride through to a village that screams, “You’re not in Kansas anymore”. The road narrows to one dirt lane, and market stalls press in tight together, many out of old shipping containers.
A cow is getting butchered on the street in front of the butcher shop, and several curious kids gather around me to watch what I am doing. My blonde hair is visible under my headscarf and I ask them their names and ages while I drink some water. Coca-cola stands, fresh fruit, several more butcher shops, and clothing shops all have their wares simply hanging by strings and ropes off the low roofs of the shacks.
I smile as I get on my bike and pedal over a bridge, precariously perched above the river, in awe of the scene unfolding around me. I see several graves periodically dotting the landscape, their green flags blowing in the breeze. Slowly the landscape adds some color as trees with golden yellow leaves appears in great clusters along the sides of the mountain across the river. We’ve caught the last few days of autumn in Panjshar before the winter comes in. The colored foliage is a welcome sight and makes me realize how little color I’ve seen lately.
Here’s the situation report in Kandahar today….not quite the same as the surf report I wish I was hearing while the seminal tune by the Mama’s and the Papa’s runs unwanted through my head as I drive into Kandahar City. While the dusty, desert landscape in no way inspires thoughts of beach vacations, the sunshine and warmer temperatures make Kandahar feel positively tropical after the freezing rains that have dominated the last two weeks in Kabul.
Men in earth colored shalwar kameez, large shawls, and turbans whizz by on their motorcycles – looking like something out of a Mad Max movie with the wind billowing their shawls dramatically against a desert landscape. Very few women are seen until we get closer to the outskirts of the city. Once we get closer, the women are wearing burqas of all different colors. Sage green, pale green, and a light brown outnumber the traditional bluebird. Even their blue is a slightly darker, less vibrant hue. The muted tones are gorgeous but certainly add to the heavy feel of the active city.
As we drive, my fixer, Mohammad quickly moves past the formal niceties of, “How is Kandahar?” “Kandahar is very good, thank you” to the realities. “The burqa is a necessity for you, not just for culture, but for kidnapping. The Taliban is not the biggest danger for you, kidnapping is.” The surf report is not.
After four years of working in Afghanistan on a variety of projects that work with women and girls, I’m taking a major step to remove the burqa from Afghanistan. I want to show the West the heartbreak and the beauty of Afghanistan through the voice of the camera.
So I’ve created a collaboration of Western and Afghan photographers that use their lens to voice the humanity of this often misunderstood country. Then I’ve found a way to show them larger than life, so that the viewer is encompassed by the image, unable to turn away from the gaze of self-immolation victim, mesmerized by the rolling green hills of the northern provinces, and filled with joy as a young girl swinging high above the heads of the men below.
The exhibition immerses the viewer in the busy streets of Kabul and the roads of rural Afghanistan through life-size photography, video projection, live music, kites, and people. By connecting communities and different cultures through art, Streets of Afghanistan yearns to combat apathy and break stereotypes by showcasing an area of the world that most will never see. By using the voice of the camera, we have allowed the voices and stories of the Afghan community to be heard, unedited, in the United States.
This October, we’ll be presenting them on the streets of Kabul as a public street art exhibition open to share with the Afghans themselves, and give back to a people from which so much has been taken and used to fulfill a particular narrative. The power of public art ignites conversation and inspires communities. Removing the constraints of the burqa to allow all the rush of fresh air to the senses, and a full 360 degree perspective to emerge.