Art Exhibit Sees Afghanistan Occupation in a New Light

By Eric Garneau

student drawing

One of the Afghan students' drawings

A native of Afghanistan, educator Dr. Zaher Wahab has dedicated his life to both improving the conditions in his homeland and creating responsible global citizens abroad. When he's not working as a professor of education at Portland's Lewis & Clark University, he's spending time in Kabul, helping to rebuild an educational infrastructure ravaged by over three decades of war. It was in Kabul, through e-mail, that's Education Insider spoke with Dr. Wahab about his latest contribution to the global human experience, a traveling art exhibit entitled 'Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan.' As part of the exhibit, Dr. Wahab donated dozens of pictures drawn by Afghan school children after they were prompted simply to express their thoughts and feelings about their homeland. The pictures all depict horrific scenes of war, strife and violence and have helped to open some eyes to the ongoing human cost of military occupation in Afghanistan. How did you first become involved with the 'Windows and Mirrors' exhibit?

Zaher Wahab: It was by accident. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) invited me to participate in the June 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. I took the Afghan students' drawings with me to use in my workshop. The audience found them powerful, and the AFSC asked me if they could use them. I said yes. When you asked Afghan students to draw their impressions of their country, were you surprised at the subject matter and tone the resulting pictures took? Do you think the results would be typical of any class of Afghan students?

ZW: I was and was not surprised at what the youngsters drew. I expected them to draw youngsters playing soccer, flying kites, playing cricket, flying pigeons, climbing mountains and other fun things they do. As I reflected on my experiences, spending at least a semester here annually since 2002 rebuilding higher education in the ravaged country and hearing children's stories, I realized that this was the work of children (and grandchildren!) of 33 years of nonstop war, death, destruction, violence, brutality and trauma.

I took part in the burial of a man a few weeks ago here in Kabul and there were about 20 children, ranging from about five to 16 years, witnessing the entire process. The children included beggars, water-sellers, onlookers and even gravediggers. Meanwhile, we could hear and see U.S. attack helicopters, bombers and the ubiquitous big spying balloon not very far away. You hear stories about children collecting body parts after some carnage to present to survivors in exchange for tips. And you hear stories of poor children actually digging and selling human bones, which are mixed with fertilizers in Pakistan. Afghanistan also has about seven million landmines that kill or maim someone (mostly children) every day. And the country has the largest percentage of orphans and amputees in the world. There are child beggars, child workers and child prostitutes everywhere. UNICEF says that Afghanistan is the worst country in the world for children and women. For the last 33 years, this country has not experienced normal life. Most are traumatized, since everyone has experienced or witnessed violence, death and destruction, such as the recent 20-hour assault on the U.S. embassy and ISAF headquarters in Kabul. Friends who live in the vicinity told me how frightened they all were as they watched the drama live and on TV for 20 hours, paralyzing the area. Are there any particular pictures you got from the students that stand out in your mind? If so, which ones?

ZW: Since I am writing this from Kabul, all those drawings are much more vivid in my mind, psyche and soul. I see and hear the awesome U.S./NATO occupying power on land and in the air daily terrorizing people. I see men, women and children missing limbs or otherwise disfigured. I see beggars on every block and every few yards. I see heavily armed Afghan and foreign security forces stopping, searching, bullying, humiliating, roughing up or taking away innocent people daily. I see half-destroyed scarred structures with bullet holes. I interact with terrified, anxious and insecure people daily. I see and hear people yearning, praying and screaming for normal life. I am not surrounded by pictures of a war-torn country but actually live/work/survive in the midst of it all. There is a brutal occupation and resistance underway. Why do you feel an exhibit like 'Windows and Mirrors' is so important? What do you hope its effects will be on the people who view it?

ZW: As they say, 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' Think of the famous picture of the Vietnamese girl who was napalmed by U.S. forces running naked on a road, or of the towers in New York City collapsing on 9-11, or of a million people in Tahrir square in Cairo, or of the New York City police macing a peaceful demonstrator at the Wall Street Occupation. Pictures make the phenomenon real, multidimensional, visceral, powerful, moving, whole, urgent and rather effortless for viewers. Indications are that Americans find the 'Windows and Mirrors' exhibit very moving and effective, transcending the sanitized, corporative, embedded reporting by the detached, isolated and amoral/immoral American reporters. How has the response to 'Windows and Mirrors' been so far? Do you see it having a positive impact?

ZW: The project has been very effective throughout the U.S., receiving excellent reception by the public and covered widely by the mainstream press. I showed the pictures to one of my Lewis and Clark students and she wept. A colleague showed them to her class and many became teary-eyed. Some peace activists want to bring the exhibit to Portland. I think the murals by American artists are gut-wrenching. They move me. Yes, I believe it makes people pause, think and make connections to what their government is doing around the world: spending on immoral, illegal, unnecessary, ineffective, counterproductive and neocolonial wars and the third worldization of America. The exhibit exposes vividly the military-industrial-congressional-terrorist-intelligence complex and President Obama, whom Cornel West called 'the black mascot on white Wall Street.' There are countless Americans who have resisted the lies, the brainwashing, the lobotomizing, the ethical cleansing, the consumerist, capitalist, imperialist manipulation and have maintained their humanity and are able to sympathize and empathize with others. This exhibit helps rekindle and activate what it means to be human, an ethical and responsible citizen. It's a big question, but what would you like to see done to start the rebuilding effort in Afghanistan, and how do you think education can help?

ZW: The U.S. alone has spent about half a trillion dollars since it launched the so-called 'Operation Enduring Freedom' in October 2001, and it's currently spending ten billion a month on death and destruction in Afghanistan. Altogether there are some 150,000 troops here from 43 countries, costing vast amounts of money and lives. It is estimated that the international community spends just three cents on development for every dollar it spends on the occupation/war. The U.S.-installed and funded Afghan government spends just $70 per year per student, while the U.S. spends one million dollars to keep an American soldier in Afghanistan for the same year. That tells us something about American priorities and proportionality.

As you know, one in six Americans and one in four American children live in poverty. So, no wonder most Afghans don't have safe drinking water, adequate food, electricity, healthcare, roads or literacy skills. Kabul itself lacks all of them, and even traffic lights or a sewage system. Most of the so-called development/reconstruction/humanitarian assistance funds end up in foreign banks and the donor countries, spent on and/or simply stolen by the expat and Afghan 'development community/industry.' The Afghan nation is paying dearly for the brutal, criminal and inhumane schemes of the predatory Afghan ruling body and its chief patron, the U.S. ruling class.

I strongly believe that true, critical, transformative, empowering and humanistic education is the answer to most problems from Kabul to Portland. I don't know how to implement such pedagogy on a wider scale, but I know some people who are trying very hard. Here in Afghanistan, this is what must be done: a cease-fire. Confidence-building measures. A rapid gradual withdrawal of foreign forces. Their replacement by an international peace-keeping force. A 20-30 year development plan. Investing in education, agriculture, healthcare, transportation, communication and mining. Accelerated peace and reconciliation efforts led by Afghans. A new constitution and a new form of government. Sharing power and wealth throughout the country. War crimes tribunals for Afghan and foreign war criminals. Establishing security, law, order and justice. Dealing with the drug industry. Non-interference by foreigners. Ensuring Afghanistan's sovereignty, neutrality and territorial integrity. All this to be paid for as war reparation by Russia, the U.S. and the 44 or so other countries with troops here waging a 10-year war on one of the poorest and least-developed countries on Earth, but with a proud, resilient and fiercely independent people. Finally, what information would you like readers of our site to come away with? What part can they play in bettering the world?

ZW: America can be a great country, and Americans can be a great people. Right now neither is true. Whether by luck, design or accident, as a peasant boy, who and where I am now owes much to the American taxpayers and American education. And I have known some great Americans. But I also owe it to America to tell the truth. Americans must confront some facts, some inconvenient truths. The country is built on genocide, ethnocide, invasion, occupation, annexation, slavery of all kinds, theft, exploitation, old and new colonialism and imperialism, militarism, pillage, plunder and machinations. One must be blind not to see the injustices, the moral-ethical bankruptcy, oppression, exploitation, degradation, pain, suffering, deprivation, abuse of power, racism, sexism, classism, elitism, xenophobia, the quasi-police state, the plutocracy, criminality in high places, the lawlessness, the lies, the manipulation by the ruling class, the narcissism, the indifference, the alienation, the fragmentation, collapse of the primary institutions, the cultural decay, the mindlessness, the triviality, the consumerism, the cynicism, the hucksterism, the social Darwinism and the rampant individualism in America. And I want, beg and urge Americans to confront their Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, exceptionalism, arrogance and self-righteousness.

How is it that six of the world's population consumes about 40% of the Earth's resources? Have we/you earned it? Do you/we deserve it? What is so special about us? Why do we spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined? Why do we keep more than 700 military bases throughout the world? What are you/we doing in Kunar, Sirte, etc.? Only morons could buy into the so-called 'war on terrorism,' 'the right war,' 'our national interest,' 'protecting Americans,' 'building other nations,' 'our allies,' 'liberating Afghan women,' 'they envy us,' 'they hate us for our way of life,' 'God's chosen people,' and such. Wake up, America. Reclaim, restore and reactivate your intelligence, decency, humanity, dignity and morality. The empire is no more. Can't you see?! You/we better try to have a country worth living in and being proud of. Live justly, modestly, ethically, responsibly, thoughtfully, humbly, freely, respectably, honorably, connectedly and humanely. That is all.

Human rights are clearly a passion for Dr. Wahab; look at what Stanford graduate student Cecilia Mo is doing to promote those same rights around the globe.

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