by Josh Strawn
Afghanistan may yet see a post-liberation cultural rebirth, but judging by recent events the Afghan Renaissance won’t be hitting the mainstream any time soon.
Just a week ago, the Information and Culture Ministry of Afghanistan announced a ban on the the film version of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, ensuring that the film’s message won’t legally reach the audience for whom its message might have the most positive impact. The head of state-run Afghan Film, Latif Ahmadi, told reporters that The Kite Runner‘s frank portrayal of issues such as tribal feuding and rape would be simply “unacceptable for some people.”
Film doesn’t have raw revolutionary power in itself, but individual films can become catalysts for developing new national consciousnesses in countries undergoing transition. The releases of ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ in 1967 certainly contributed to the national debate about race relations in the U.S. and played a role in sculpting new understandings of what it meant to be an American.
For better or for worse, in our technological and entertainment-driven world, there is something about an issue landing at the center of the media stage that gives people a sense of its time having come. What’s most depressing about the ban isn’t that the film won’t be seen–bootlegs will be readily available.
What’s sad is that the Afghan government is foreclosing on the possibility of allowing its people to sense that the moment has arrived for turning a gaze inward and confronting their own demons.
None of this is to say that The Kite Runner is pure education or perfectly balanced commentary. Read on a literal level, the controversial scene where a Pashtun boy rapes a Hazara boy may address certain attitudes of one group toward another–in this case, well-to-do, socially powerful Pashtuns, many of whom have traditionally looked down upon the Hazara as no better than slaves. On the flip side, however, the Taliban was a Pashtun nationalist movement and many Pashtuns now must live with discrimination as other Afghans unfairly associate their ethnicity with the crimes of that regime (most of the Taliban may have been Pashtun, but most Pashtuns were not Taliban supporters). Read on a symbolic level, however, the scene in question represents the historical dilemma of Afghan vicitms, their Afghan (as well as foreign) victimizers, and a burden of guilt with which many diaspora Afghans identify–feelings of remorse at having been able to walk away from the awful fate that has befallen so many of their countrymen and women.
Not only is freedom of expression important to Afghans as they emerge from decades of totalitarian rule and civil war–it is in American interests for this kind of repression to end. Extremism thrives on a simplistic critique–that all social ills are the fault of outsiders. But while outside intervention has most certainly played a role in the tumultuous history of countries like Afghanistan, no country is without its own internal and domestic issues. The all-too-prevalent scapegoating of the West as the source of all evil will necessarily come to a halt as self-awareness increases.
Josh Strawn is a writer and musician living in New York. His band is Blacklist.