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Saira Shah: Straddling the East/West Divide

The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah (Alfred A. Knopf).

The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah (Alfred A. Knopf).

When you wrote The Storyteller's Daughter, Afghanistan was at the center of global political events. To what extent, if any, did you intend your writing to participate in the production of knowledge about Afghanistan at this time? Did the political context in which you were writing your book shape what you wrote at all?

Yes, the political context certainly influenced the things I wrote. There was quite a passionate plea, more towards the end of the book, on behalf of Afghanistan. Already I was beginning to think that history is going around again with people saying, "We will never forget about Afghanistan, it is the most important place in the world." But then you could almost literally see people forgetting.

One of the other things about Afghanistan is that it is extremely complex and difficult and nuanced. You cannot simply go in, sort out the place and go out again. Also of course, the West's cultural values are so different from Afghan cultural values. At what point do you bash in Western cultural values? And at what point does that come back and bite you?

So it is not just a matter of forgetting, it is a matter of just getting tired. I was really afraid of that happening and I am still. I am afraid it is already happening. I am still angry about that: both superpowers systematically trashed the country, and just walked away. They never thought there would be any blowback whatsoever. You cannot do that, because human suffering has a way of spiraling out of control, not only on a political or religious level, but simply on a human level. I really do passionately believe that human beings must care about each other for their own sakes. As Saadi reminds us: "We are all limbs from one body." This was definitely something that the book tried to get across.

I should say too that post-9/11, I did not want to write a journalistic account of Afghanistan. I did not want to do facts and figures. I wanted to write a book that people who would otherwise never read a book about Afghanistan would pick up and be able to enjoy and get things out on the level of a story. But that would also inform them - though not necessarily in a factual way - about the spirit of the place, or just give them something of the quality of the myth that I grew up with, because that myth certainly helped me fall in love with this place that I had never seen. I would like people in the West to feel the same. There has been so much written about Afghanistan and how terrible it is, how they are all killing each other, and the Taliban are awful and oppress women and so on. I would love people to see a little bit of what I love about Afghanistan too. So this was another aspect of the book.

I also thought that there had been enough political books written about the war, and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. I did not want to do it that way.

Would it be accurate to say that your documentary, Beneath the Veil, deliberately portrayed particularly sensational and, in a sense, apolitical images of Taliban violence in order to bring world attention to the suffering of the Afghan people?

What I would say is that Beneath the Veil was very much a product of its time. In the context in which we made this documentary, there was basically a complete lack of interest in Afghanistan. Nobody wanted to know about the Taliban. We went without a brief for the documentary except to find out what the Taliban were doing. I had read up loads before I went and I was still absolutely appalled by what I saw. During the course of the shoot, we started off with the three little girls whose mother had been a victim of Taliban atrocities. Towards the end, I went undercover. We actually filmed it in a slightly different order than how it appears in the documentary. So it was absolutely genuine, from the heart, the things we reported and the things we saw. The scene, for instance, with the little girls whose mother had been killed: after witnessing that I really felt it is the duty of a human being to bloody well pay attention if another human being is in that kind of state. We all really felt that.

It was a really great team though: there were three of us and it was a really long shoot: Cassian Harrison, James Miller, and myself. By the end of the filming, we were - all three of us - absolutely furious: we were furious with the Taliban and what they were doing, we were also furious with the West for not paying any attention to a situation that they had actually helped to create.

So Beneath the Veil was a cry. We made the strongest film we could possibly make to try and get attention. Having said that, there was journalistic rigor; we did not make anything up. Everything we put in was true. The passion you see in the film came from just the frustration of seeing this kind of suffering and knowing that people did not care about it.

You have suggested that if the events of September 11th, 2001, had preceded the making of your documentary Beneath the Veil, you would have made a number of changes. What kinds of things did you have in mind?

We started filming in 2000 and ended in 2001. It was extraordinary that we made this documentary just months before Afghanistan was to become the center of world attention. It was broadcast first in July 2001.

The main thing we would have changed, had we known what was to happen, concerned the Northern Alliance. We would have added more about the Northern Alliance.

At the time, especially in the opposition-held North, we were in this tiny little pocket, and as the Taliban had moved up north, they had displaced people from all the other ethnic groups. All these groups had been pushed into a corner and were then slammed up against the Tajik border. We went and saw the Northern Alliance in their trenches and they were listless and completely useless. I thought to myself then that it was just a matter of time, not very much time at that, that the Taliban were going to take this last pocket and when they do, there are tens of thousands of people that they are going to slaughter. And there is nowhere else for these people to go.

Had I known that the Northern Alliance would ever come back and be a proper fighting force, we would have put in a lot more caveats about the Northern Alliance. I think again this is the problem of Afghanistan: just because one side is terrible does not mean at all that the other side is good or heroic. But that is just the default, probably human mechanism: you want there to be heroes and villains. In Afghanistan, it does not work that way.

We would also have put in a lot more history. That, in any case, is the weakest part of Beneath the Veil and again it is because we wanted to make a film that would really strike people. History became very important again after 9/11. Part of me was really hoping that they would not show Beneath the Veil after 9/11, but of course it was shown again and again on a loop here in the US. I wish I had been able to re-cut it or do something with it, but that was not possible.

I do think that Beneath the Veil was a strong enough piece of journalism so it bore up at the time. I did a lot of interviews then as well and I made these points because I also feel they needed to be made in the new context in which the documentary was being aired.

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