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18 April 2014, Friday
 
 
Today's Zaman
 
 
 
 

‘Three Women of Herat’

15 June 2008, Sunday /MARION JAMES
Imagine sitting in front of the television hearing one of your favorite Turkish pop musicians, such as Sezen Aksu or Tarkan or Sertab Erener, singing, but not being able to see the performance because the television station can only broadcast the song and show a vase of flowers on the screen.
That was the case in the Afghanistan of the 1980s. At that time, Afghanistan had only registered on the world stage in connection with the boycotts and protests staged as part of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow -- events that we recall now in the light of potential protests at the China Olympics over Tibet.

Now, we often think of faceless, voiceless shadows and a music-less society when we think of Afghanistan. One of the memories I have of the TV coverage of the fall of the Taliban regime was people playing music on their truck radios and dancing in the streets for the first time.

The law titled "To prevent music" included the following provisions: In shops, hotels, vehicles and rickshaws cassettes and music are prohibited. ... If any music cassette is found in a shop, the shopkeeper should be imprisoned and the shop locked. If five people stand guarantor, the shop should be opened and the criminal released later. If a cassette is found in a vehicle, the vehicle and the driver will be imprisoned. If five people stand guarantor, the vehicle will be released and the criminal released later.

But music censorship in Afghanistan did not begin with the Taliban. I was shocked when a friend of mine who conducted research on Turkic language-speaking Afghans during the 1980s in Pakistan and Turkey told me that during the 14 years of communist rule in Afghanistan, music was heavily controlled by the Ministry for Information and Culture. As she reminisced about her time there, she described how eerie it was while in the refugee camps in Pakistan, where all music was prohibited in order to maintain a continual state of mourning: The Taliban rulers in the camps banned music.

How is it that the arts such as simple musical instruments or poetry can be so threatening to governments?

Whether it is the rubab, a common lute instrument in Afghanistan and India that has a double-chambered body carved from mulberry wood and has three main strings and a plectrum made from ivory bone or wood, or it is the Turkish bağlama, another type of long-necked lute, these instruments and more are symbols of cultural, political and religious importance, moving the hearts of the hearers.

Some form of the lute has influenced civilizations, due to cultural crossbreeding, for centuries across Central Asia and the Ottoman Empire as far as the eastern Mediterranean. It's common for a form of art to have political and religious identities.

The Great Silk Road, which some of us may have dreamed of traveling, flourished centuries ago as the commercial route between East and West. It was not just a single road, but consisted of a network of routes, connecting the West to the East. The route not only served for transporting silk, but all kinds of goods were exchanged between the big empires, including the intercultural exchange of ideas, attitudes and music. Tolerance was absolutely necessary and one of the most important values.

"Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan" by Veronica Doubleday portrays ordinary life before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Doubleday and her husband set up home in the heart of Herat to study Central Asian music, and she rapidly became embraced by three women who accepted her into their daily lives and family rituals.

The Afghanistan that my friend witnessed in the 1980s, or the country we see on current TV reports, is very different from the one that Doubleday and her husband, John Baily, knew. They enjoyed Afghanistan during a period when citizens could have music and dance at wedding parties. The local people were great music lovers and enjoyed a rich musical life. Bailey says, "Music was an integral part of many rites of passage, such as celebrations of birth, circumcision [male only], and most important of all, marriage."

Although John and Veronica's fieldwork complement one another's work, they conducted it separately due to the strict segregation of social and musical activities between males and females. Daily, she made field notes about what she had done and seen as she formed friendships with the three young mothers who shared their lives and daily existence as well as their customs and music.

In this moving story about cross-cultural friendship, we come to know her three friends: Mariam, Mother of Nebi, and Shirin. We also share in their most personal moments including the birth and deaths of their children, their marriages and celebrations, healings, rituals and religious festivities.

Doubleday became actively involved in music research, learning to play the daireh (frame drum) which women use to support their voices. Working with women musicians and making recordings of their singing and drumming, she learned numerous songs. Her main musical teachers were her neighbor and amateur enthusiast Madar-e Zahir and the locally famous professional singer Zainab Herawi.

Doubleday says: "Unlike the journalists who report so negatively about Afghan women today, I was speaking Persian with these women, and interacting without translators or mediators of any kind. I gained particularly close access to women by being able to perform their music -- singing and playing the type of drum they use."

While governments were afraid of the power of music, Doubleday learned to harness this power of music to enable her to reach out to the local women. When the time came for leave-taking because of the Soviet invasion in 1979 the author remembers some of her best moments, such as the times that Mother of Nebi was lost in the moment of dancing or singing, or telling magical, awesome stories that had a circle of listeners wide-eyed and spell-bound.

Then the time for goodbyes came. She recalls the dear friends jumping up when they saw her and letting out a wail of panic and grief: "I had no tears, although my stomach lurched sickeningly. ... I tried to comfort her, and then left her sitting in a crumpled heap, her eyes streaming with tears."

The country Doubleday had come to love changed irreparably and for some years she lost all contact with these friends. Incredibly, during a recent follow-up visit to Herat she met many of them again.

This remarkable story is a poignant record of life in an Afghanistan that no longer exists. Nancy Hatch Dupree, in the Central Asian Survey, congratulated the author, saying: "Three Women of Herat makes a genuine contribution to the field of Afghan studies. It is an intimate, personal account. It will be incumbent on all those involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan to pay close attention to 'Three Women of Heart'."

"Three Women of Herat" by Veronica Doubleday, published by Tauris Parke, ISBN: 978-184511026-0, 10.99 GBP in paperback

 
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