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Picture This Afghanistan: Historic Prints Recall Better Days

A digitization project reveals Afghanistan’s heyday, when education was equal, women were freer and the country was on the cusp of progress.

Few Afghans would recognize their country in Osman Hamdard’s photographs. They show women at a political demonstration in Kabul, chatting freely with men in a public square. In the foreground, one woman holds up a placard while others mill around behind her, several dressed in skirts. In 1970, when the picture was taken, this scene was normal, but today these women would be breaking Afghan law for failing to observe strict dress codes and appearing in public without a male escort.

“This is something the current generation has no idea of, they have never seen it,” says Hamdard, who is digitizing thousands of historic photographs to preserve this vanishing past for generations to come. Another image from 1976 is even more at odds with contemporary Afghanistan. In the faded, sepia-hued print, two women handle heavy machinery at a Kabul factory, one driving a truck, the other moving a large piece of equipment into place. “It’s eerie and depressing to see that 50 years ago we had this and now we are a hundred years back,” Hamdard adds.


Education of Women in the Past

The images he is digitizing, which show Afghanistan between 1940 and the 1990s, are part of a vast collection left to the Afghanistan Centre in Kabul University (ACKU) by Nancy Dupree, an American archivist who championed the country’s culture and heritage for more than half a century. “It was one of the wishes outlined in her will to digitize the images and make them available to everyone,” says Hamdard, quality control officer at ACKU, which holds around 12000 images left by Nancy and her late husband, Louis Dupree. 

Many of the pictures capture the country during its 1960s heyday when Nancy first traveled to Afghanistan as a young woman. Some date back even further – to the early 1900s and the period when Afghanistan gained its independence in 1919. These show a country in transition as Afghanistan went from royal rule to republic before undergoing a massive modernization drive during the 1960s when, for a brief period, it was known as “the Paris of Central Asia.” This was a golden era, when the streets were clean, and new houses were being built as foreign investment flooded in, funding development programs across the country.

Standards of living rose rapidly as unemployment fell and education became available to all, with women studying alongside men at school and university. Afghanistan was still a poor country, but it was making progress, and the mood was optimistic as tourists came from all over the world to admire the beautiful gardens, historic architecture and snow-capped mountains towering over Kabul. “The pictures of this era depict a very different Afghanistan to the one we know today… by preserving them, we are showcasing this different vision of Afghanistan to the next and future generations,” says Hamdard.

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Women in the Present

An Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders will enable ACKU to digitize 1000 prints from Dupree’s collection. Hamdard worries about preserving the rare slides in Afghanistan’s humid environment and is keen to progress as rapidly as possible with the digitization project. 

“We must never forget that not all progress is positive. The last 50 years in Afghanistan have seen a society regress into terror, authoritarianism, and blind theocracy. Osman Hamdard’s work is dangerous to the current regime for this very reason, it is a testament to a time when Afghans were free. The Taliban know that these memories will eventually be the foundation for Afghanistan’s brighter future.” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.

It’s labor-intensive work and can require thorough research. Luckily, Nancy Dupree was a thorough record-keeper, numbering the prints in turn and then jotting down descriptions in her notebook, chronicling each image’s time, place and subject matter. Catalogs donated by other sources, which number around 7,000 prints, can be harder to pin down. ACKU has to piece together the story behind each image so they can pass it on to current and future generations. “Some of the pictures are easy and come with notes on the back, but others have no information at all, and it takes a lot of time,” Hamdard says. 

Up to 200 people visit ACKU each day to access the papers, books, photographs and other resources stored in its archives, while over 7,000 users log in to access its historical photograph collections online. In total, ACKU houses more than 190,000 documents and Hamdard is determined to put as much as possible online for students, researchers and other interested parties to access worldwide. “History is a pathway to the future and we want to publish the rich history of Afghanistan and make it available to everyone,” he says.

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The photographs are an essential part of this project. Alongside the images of everyday life are snapshots of historic sites, including the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001. There are black-and-white pictures of royal rulers, including Khairya, the daughter of Mahmud Tarzi, who set the trend in wedding dresses with her European-style bridal gown worn at her wedding in 1909. A later picture in color shows a seamstress fitting a female customer in the 1960s, both women sporting fashionable hairstyles and well-cut coats. 

For most Afghans, these pictures represent a bygone Afghanistan that stands in sharp contrast to the country today, where decades of war have plunged it into a state of perpetual crisis. Over a year into Afghanistan’s second era of Taliban rule, these scenes feel like an impossible dream, a mockery of what the country has become. But that just makes it more important to show people an alternative vision of Afghanistan, Hamdard says, reminding them how much can change, not only in the past but in the present too.

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