G: You said earlier that they often bring up poetry and music as emblematic of what it is to be Pashtun. That is striking to me, because I think if you asked the typical American what it means to be American, or even the typical European in regards to their country, they would not say it's their poetry and music. Even though we all do care a lot about poetry and music, we don't think of them as defining our national identities.
B: Yes, that is true. I think there is a reason for that. As I told you earlier, the Pashtun live under a code of conduct. It's called the Pashtunwali. This code of conduct is basically their entire education. This system of education is based on the nature of their ethnic groups, their laws and the things they can do and cannot do, and should do and should not do. It is not written, it is 100% oral. When you come to Afghanistan you will notice there is nothing permanent. The only things that are permanent (and probably the most beautiful buildings I have seen) are the mosques. These are the oldest buildings and the only ones not built out of mud. The rest of the buildings are basically built with material you can find on the land, and the people do not have any written history except the Koran. So I think this is one reason why the Taliban had an easy way to control people, because of the influence of something that does exist in front of the people.
G: The Koran and the mosques.
B: … which are extremely beautiful and serene. Their traditional poetry and music are also highly prominent. The only thing you can hear is music that is a reflection of their ethnic roots. The instruments they use, the poems that come from their well-known poets… that they repeat from generation to generation, these things last over the centuries. So these are the only things they have to represent their culture: the poems and music... and Islam. And I believe these came into conflict when the Taliban chose one over the other.
G: Did you ever meet anyone who wrote their own original poetry?
B: No, but I did meet musicians who played music for me, who were creating their own music with traditional instruments, for example, the Rubab. It's a beautiful instrument used among the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I met this musician in Pakistan who had fled the Taliban in Afghanistan. The music he plays is part of Sufism. Sufism is transmitted through poetry and music, but in different forms in different countries. So in Pakistan and Afghanistan it is very often expressed through this Rubab. The musicians and poets were put by the Taliban in the same category as intellectuals… they were very much killed and chased away.
Youtube video of unknown musician performing on the Rubab
G: Was there much curiosity among the people you met about you and your story?
B: [Laughs.] No. The Pashtun are a very proud people. Sometime I get the feeling they don't need anybody else. I was often the subject of curiosity by the young ones. I was a foreign presence… though they did not ask me many questions about America. But they always were eager to show me the way of the Pashtun.
G: In terms of...?
B: Like when they saw me with my European trousers, they right away wanted me to change into the local garment, called Shawar Kamis. More than once I was taken to town to buy cloth and then to go to the tailor. And I was not allowed to pay for it, because that would be taken as an insult. So, two or three times I was given a Shawar Kamis by young people. They consider it prettier, and trousers not so good.
G: So they kind of thought you looked like an idiot in the trousers?
B: Yes, they thought I looked like an idiot for sure! And when they see you in a Shawar Kamis they really begin to respect you because you are taking a step toward their culture. And that is strongly felt.
G: When you've shown your work in the US and Canada, have you received any surprising reactions?
B: Yeah, I have. With my touring show, called "Forced Destiny," I organized a series of lectures, and at one lecture in Seattle, two Afghan men came to the show. At the end of the slide show, I turned the lights on and asked the crowd if there were any questions. These two men raise their hands and they say I should be ashamed of myself because I showed images that they thought were negative of Afghanistan in my portraits of the Pashtuns. When you look at these portraits in their entirety, you would see nothing negative. In fact, as I talked about the portraits to the crowd, I described the subjects as being extremely proud people. For example, one was of an Afghani man who was homeless. However, he was so proud and self-possessed that you would never guess that about him. The two men were offended because I showed pictures of children doing work, as mechanics, or transporting war materials.
G: You were showing pictures of everyday life, of the real lives of people in Afghanistan, and perhaps these men wanted to see only the more glorious images?
B: That's right. They wanted me to show pictures of Chinese restaurants, symbols of progress and modernization. And yes, there were some rare instances of foreign restaurants in Kabul, though mostly to serve the needs of foreigners. But that is not the real life; most of them were temporary and would go away when the foreign people left.
G: One more question: You began by telling me you spent some time researching Peru, and then Pakistan, before your first trip. How did you do your research?
B: Reading a lot of travel books and other books that anybody could easily find. And I spoke a lot with my travel agent who was Pakistani. And when I came back from my first trip there, he was very impressed with what I had done. I told him then that I wanted to go to Afghanistan. At the time you were not allowed into Afghanistan unless you were invited. He knew a lot people on a very high level, including someone who was working for his own NGO that was based in Kabul. And this is a man who I never met in person. But whenever I came into a conflict, this man saved me. When I couldn't get my visa into Afghan, I emailed my Travel Agent, and he contacted his friend who phoned me and got me a government-based letter saying I was invited into Afghanistan.
G: So the travel agent was a really good travel agent. [Laughs.]
B: Yeah, well, the point is you have to do a lot of work, laying groundwork and establishing relationships. You cannot do anything all by yourself. Especially in documentary photography, you must collaborate.