No place like home

‘Kandahar’ star Nelofer Pazira will be in Dublin soon to share her experiences in Afghanistan


In her memoir A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan, writer and director Nelofer Pazira recounts her shock the first time someone took her aside to berate her about her choice of clothing.

She was a teenager: it was the spring of 1989, 10 years into the war with Russia, and shortly before she would leave her country with her family for good.

“‘Do you always dress like this?’ asks Uncle Assad, after examining me from head to toe. I’m wearing a red dress that falls just below my knees, with full sleeves. I don’t understand why he’s asking such a ridiculous question.”

It was a chilling portent of the change that was about to descend on her country. Weeks later, her brother would come home in a military uniform, and Pazira’s father would finally agree the time had come for the family to leave Afghanistan.

By the time she returned, more than a decade later, the country was a very different one from the home she had left: it was a nightmarish place in which women were shrouded in burqas, food and water were scarce, and everyone lived in fear. Kandahar, she writes in the book, which was published in 2005, was by then “a city of extremes, a place of men and guns, expensive cars and starving children”.

Revisiting her old school in Kabul, she writes: “It is surreal. A crowd of burqas walking in and out of a place that for me was a symbol of modernity . . . I have come home to a place that is no longer home, to a city that is no longer mine.”

Pazira is the daughter of liberal parents, who loved parties and the cinema, and put a huge emphasis on education. The Afghanistan of her childhood was a beautiful country on the cusp of great, positive change.

“It was certainly a place of peace. When my parents got married and built their dream house, they thought of everything except war,” she says over the phone from Canada, where she now lives.

“Afghanistan was going through a period of transformation. Education was becoming more important. There was very little separation between ethnic groups. The government did not interfere in people’s dress codes or their lives.

“My argument has been that had that course of progression not been interrupted by war, and by the postwar occupation by the Taliban, the country would have been in a different place.”

All the same, for most of her childhood, Pazira lived in relative freedom. Her teenage years were spent in the company of her friend Dyana, with whom she shared a love of poetry.

As the war progressed, the situation became more fraught. At 11, Pazira recalls standing in the streets and throwing stones at passing Russian tanks. In 1989, when her brother was forced to join the military, the family finally fled, first to Pakistan and later to Canada.

But by 1998, Pazira was anxious to return. She had stayed in touch with Dyana, and her friend’s letters were becoming more bleak and hopeless. “She became very depressed during the period of the Taliban. She was talking about suicide. I was very worried about her, so I decided to go back to help her.”

I suggest that it must have taken enormous courage for Pazira to go back, but she brushes this off. “In part, the need to go back was guilt. I was living comfortably, I was following my dream of an education – had she been given that opportunity, she’d have done that same thing. So how could I have been indifferent?”

In the event, she didn’t succeed in finding Dyana. She managed to cross the border briefly, but had to leave almost immediately. The Taliban were hanging men in the square, and her driver was too afraid to take her any further. She retreated to Iran, where she met a film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and told him her story.

Back in Canada, where she was completing her Masters thesis, she got a phone call from Makhmalbaf. He wanted to make a film about her journey, and needed her help. She dropped everything and returned to Iran. “When I got there, he told me: ‘You’re going to have to play yourself in this.’ I said no. I’d never seen myself as an actress.”

Eventually she was persuaded, on the basis that making the film would get her back into Afghanistan and closer to Dyana. The result was Kandahar, the remarkable 2001 film that had European audiences queuing around the block; even George W Bush said that he intended to see it.

Publicity for the film took Pazira around the world, but all that time, she hoped to hear from Dyana. “I kept hoping that she would see it, that someone would tell her. I did interviews with international press, talking about my childhood and saying I was hoping she was alive.”

It was only when she again returned in July 2002 to make the documentary Return to Kandahar that she discovered Dyana had taken her own life shortly after her last letter to Pazira in 1998. “I was very upset and I was angry at her, wondering why she didn’t hang on, but you cannot judge. I didn’t live those days in the country so I cannot speak for someone in that situation.”

Pazira set up a foundation in Dyana’s memory, a charity providing skills, training and education for women in Afghanistan.

How is life for women in Afghanistan now, I ask her. In recent weeks, the parliament blocked the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, instated by presidential decree in 2009, which would have criminalised child marriage and domestic violence, and stipulated that rape victims would not have to face charges for adultery.

First step
Pazira says laws themselves can’t result in an immediate improvement in the lives of women, but they are a necessary first step. “Two years ago I did a lot of research work on women’s prisons, and 90 per cent of the women in prison are there because they ran away from home, because they ran away from domestic violence.”

She becomes impatient with simplistic, black and white western approaches to Afghanistan and the Middle East – attitudes she encountered regularly on the publicity tour for Kandahar.

She is also wary of the West’s desire to make heroes out of people such as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot last year by the Taliban on her way to school. “When you make someone a hero like that, you also make them a target – they become a symbol of western influence, and they become delegitimised in their own country.”

Pazira is working on a number of film projects, and her first work of fiction. She is a huge admirer of Seamus Heaney, whose poetry “speaks to” her, and she has a strong connection with Ireland and Irish people. “What I’ve come to admire about Ireland is its resilience, the way it has survived so much. Ireland has a rich and bloody history, and I’m slowly learning about it. It’s something I identify with.”

Nelofer Pazira will be appearing at the Dalkey Book Festival on June 15th.