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Nelofer Pazira: Afghan heroine

Nelofer PaziraWhen Afghan refugee, Nelofer Pazira, asked Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to help her return to Kabul to rescue a childhood friend, she didn't expect to star in his next movie, and he didn't expect that movie, Kandahar, to become an international hit. Now, Nelofer is being hailed as a voice for Afghan women. She spoke to Karen Thomas.

Nelofer Pazira places the sugar cube between her teeth, and takes a dainty sip of strong, black tea. This tiny gesture - more even than Nelofer's huge green eyes, long chestnut hair and traditionally embroidered red Baluchi dress - evokes the mountain spirit of central Asia.

Born in Afghanistan, exiled for eleven years in Canada, Nelofer is a daughter of Kabul to her core. Exile has brought her opportunities that most Afghan women could barely dream about in recent years, but Nelofer has stayed true to Afghanistan, even during its darkest days.

In 1996, she tried to return to Kabul to rescue Dyana, a childhood girlfriend driven to despair under Taliban rule. Stuck in Iran, she asked Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf whether he could help.

Makhmalbaf had written and directed The Cyclist, a film about Afghan refugees, in 1988. Unfortunately, he had filmed in Pakistan and had never even met an Afghan woman.

In 1998, Makhmalbaf called Nelofer in Canada inviting her to help his new film about the plight of Afghanistan. Arriving in Tehran, expecting to work as his translator, Nelofer found that Makhmalbaf had based Kandahar on her mission and wanted her to star in the film. This is her story:

In real life
“I grew up in Kabul, living in Afghanistan until I was sixteen and had a close childhood friend, Dyana. We lived in the same neighbourhood and went to school together. Dyana was very calm, not like me with my impatient nature. I was talkative and outspoken, and she was very quiet. We really had totally opposite personalities, and people often wondered how we got on so well, being so different.

“But Dyana and I had so many things in common. We disliked the communist government, and were very independent. We didn't want to marry immediately after leaving school; we wanted to go to university. We loved poetry, going for long walks and talking. We didn't like the cultural expectations of women in Afghanistan - having some huge extravaganza of a wedding. We weren't going to be like that.

“The communist government wanted to transform a traditional society overnight into a socialist community. They didn't pay attention to the wishes of the people. They would put a husband in prison and force the wife to attend classes - that's not how you change a culture.

"They forced girls from the high schools and universities to appear on national television, creating an outcry in this conservative society: the conservatives argued that women's education led to sexual anarchy. Many families left, because they didn't want their daughters exhibited on state television, or their wives or daughters forced to go to school.

“Even liberal families began to stop their children going to school, because the education system became a communist education system. The communists forced education in a way that pushed people towards extremism. The natural process of change stopped and everything became radical and extreme.

Haunting memories
"I have very early memories of the communists taking my father to question him, or to imprison him. By the mid-Eighties, state television was feeding propaganda, announcing that ‘our brave soldiers have destroyed the last of the forces of extremism'. Every night, that announcement was repeated: we wondered when ‘the last' would end.

“It became clear that things were out of control, when Mujahideen rockets started hitting Kabul every night. I left Kabul in 1989, and they took over the city in 1992. But before that, they started bombing the city every night, around 11pm, like clockwork. The first few nights, we'd run and cry, but then we got used to it.

“My family had discussed whether to leave for a long time. The last straw was when my brother turned 13. The government conscripted men aged 16 to 40, giving six months' training before sending them to the front. Then, the government had too few men to fight, so it started training school kids.

“One day, my brother came home from school in military clothes. He wasn't attending classes any more; he was going through military training. The minute my father saw my brother, he said; ‘that's it'. We decided to leave. Sometimes, it's just a question of fate. Dyana was one of five girls, with just one brother aged just two. So they didn't decide to go.

“Outside the family, Dyana was the only person who knew. We lived in a state of fear where brothers didn't trust brothers - that's how much communism had damaged a society that was so innocent before. We met in the afternoon, the day before our departure. Dyana couldn't stay at our house too late - we didn't want the neighbours to become suspicious.

“I told Dyana not to cry, to say nothing to anyone, until my note arrived to say that we had crossed the border safely. We couldn't take anything with us, so I gave Dyana my diary to look after until we returned. I memorised her address, and we said goodbye.

“Because our departure was supposed to be temporary, we didn't take it seriously. I never thought that, ten years on, I would not be back. We expected to stay in Pakistan until the trouble was over, and then go back. We left everything in our house; curtains, family photographs - even my parents' wedding photographs. We even left food in the fridge.

News from home
“The minute we reached Pakistan, I wrote to Dyana. After that, we exchanged messages regularly. After a year, we emigrated to Canada. I don't remember my first impressions of Canada half as clearly as I remember describing those impressions in my letters to Dyana.

“In 1992, the Mujahideen took power. While we were growing up, Dyana and I had idolised the Mujahideen. We truly believed that they were freedom fighters. They opposed the government, and so did we. I realised that they weren't the best people when we arrived in Pakistan but I never told Dyana, in case the message was intercepted.

“When they took over Kabul, Dyana became upset by the Mujahideen's refusal to help people. They started burning libraries - one was our favourite and Dyana wrote to say it was destroyed. She finished her economics degree and - dressing modestly in a headscarf - found work in a bank.

“But the days became darker and darker. In 1996, Dyana wrote about the Taliban taking control. Now, she had to stay at home, but she believed things would change. She even called them an army of peace - people hoped that the Taliban might finally disarm the warlords.

“But things didn't change. Dyana could now only venture outside accompanied by a man. She wrote that she didn't want to go out any more - where could she go? What could she do? Her letters became full of nostalgia about the past, about how we had been able at least to walk to school.

Miserable existence
“There was a period when she read every single thing she had, including my letters. Then she totally lost interest in everything. The last letter reached me in 1998. Dyana wrote that the walls of the house were eating her alive. She said that I should live a good, fulfilled life for both of us. She said her life was no longer worth living, and planned to kill herself.

“I really felt desperate. So I went to Iran, hoping to travel across the border from there to Kabul. I met people who wanted to help, but at the border they couldn't go any further. I went to Tehran to explore other options, and called on the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

“I hoped he might have contacts who could help me. Unfortunately, I was the first Afghani woman he had ever met. We talked how Afghanistan was ignored by the rest of the world. Makhmalbaf was really interested. I said that if he was really curious, he should pick up his camera and come with me. Unfortunately, he said it wasn't possible.

“I returned to Canada feeling huge disappointment. Several months later, family friends said that Dyana was alive and well. She had moved to another city that wasn't under Taliban control at the time. So I felt happier. Two years later, Makhmalbaf called me and said that he wanted to make this film.

Reel life
“When I returned to Iran he said ‘your story is going to be the story behind this film, and I want you to play the lead!' I'd never acted before and was very hesitant but then I thought, ‘If there's one little thing I can do to explain to Dyana how sorry I was that I couldn't go to help her, then this could be it.'

“We arrived in the Iranian border village of Niatak during a dust storm. Makhmalbaf had to obtain permission to film from seven different governments inside and outside Iran. Niatak was unfit for human habitation - no electricity, no clean water and no sewerage system. The refugees suffered from malnutrition and malaria, tuberculosis and bronchitis were rife.

“One day, we found a group of women and children hiding in the desert bordering the village. The Taliban had massacred their men. A teenage girl collapsed and we rushed her to hospital, to find that she was on the verge of starvation. Instead of filming, we went to the market to buy food for the families.

“When we returned, the Iranian authorities had moved them to be deported to Afghanistan to face their tormentors again. All our good intentions, technical expertise and Japanese cameras were helpless in the face of these complexities. Our early optimism turned to exhaustion, guilt and anger over the world's indifference to this human misery.

“The west encouraged the war against the Russians - gave people guns and created the militias. Now they talk about Afghanistan as if it was the most horrible place on the planet. It's easy, if you demonise a place, to bomb it. They have taken the humanity away from Afghanistan. You just see images of bearded men, of women who are completely covered.

“Afghanistan didn't have many educated people, but it had an educated intellectual class. Society had begun to develop - there were schools for girls, universities. All of that is forgotten and ignored now. Because of war, it is not an ideal society in terms of equality - but people did live in peace. They did not run around killing each other.

“Now, Afghanistan is ‘the country that produces terrorism'. Nobody has tried to show the real stories of real people. Many of the refugees had fled when the Russians bombed their villages and wanted to return home, but worried about being robbed by bandits, or that their daughters would be raped, or about the buried landmines. So they were forced to stay.

“Obviously, Niatak was quite hard for me emotionally but I know that at the end of filming, I would go back to my family in Canada. And life is safe, and I have access to things. The refugees didn't. They would still have to live without electricity and without drinking water, and would continue to live in misery in the dust.

“Back in the West, I've done TV shows where the host shows pictures of covered women, of refugee kids, and says, ‘look at these poor, miserable people. We, the civilised people, must bring civilisation to Afghanistan. We must fight to get rid of this ridiculous government'.

“On one show, I started to scream. I said: ‘Stop it - stop talking like that. Where were you and your civilisation, when my friend became depressed - when people began to die 20 years ago in the war you supported? Where was your civilisation when women were raped and tortured, when children were kept from school, when libraries were burned down?' They try to manipulate everything to justify the war.

“The last news of Dyana came more than a year ago. Family friends said she had moved to Mazar-e-Sharif. But since then, it's been the scene of fighting and massacres. I feel that she is still there; if she had left, she would have found a way to contact me. It hangs over me - especially now, talking about her all the time, to promote the film...”
Courtesy: Arabian Woman

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