The Religion Network
Photographer Bill Wright's trip to Kabul, Afghanistan
This spring (2006), I received an unexpected email from the United States Embassy in Kabul,
Afghanistan. The Public Affairs Officer there, J.B. Leedy, wanted to know if I was planning a trip
to the area in the near future. She continued by saying that the embassy could not invite anyone
to Afghanistan as it was still in a war zone, but that should I be interested incoming anyway, she
wondered if I would volunteer to teach some Afghan “street working children” digital photography.
The possibility of visiting a country that had always been on my list of interesting places to visit
and the chance to do a public service photography project made the decision an easy one. I
contacted ASCHIANA, the Afghan organization that wanted to execute the program and with the
help of an Australian volunteer, we devised a program that would give the students a working
knowledge of digital photography. [check the website: www.aschiana.com]
In late July I packed my bags with 13 digital point and shoot cameras and other supplies donated
by friends in Abilene and across the country. I boarded an American Eagle flight to Dallas,
beginning a series of connected flights for the long 26 hour trip to Kabul. I knew that Kabul was
relatively safe at the moment and while friends and relatives urged me not to go, the opportunity
to visit this incredible country with their ancient tribal customs and provide a service to the
children, was irresistible.
Sunday, the day of my arrival, an improvised explosive device [IED] exploded near the U.S.
Embassy and several that did not explode were discovered on the road leading in from the
airport. I was beginning to think my friends had given me good advice. Fortunately, it was the last
disturbance to take place during my week-long visit.
The ASCHIANA organization maintains 7 campuses around the Kabul area and works with 3000
students who formerly sold gum and washed auto windshields on the streets of Kabul. Preparing
for my arrival, the organization established a small digital lab for the class with the help of the U.S.
Embassy who donated the necessary computers and digital printers.
13 students were waiting for me the morning after my arrival, eager and ready to learn. The ability
to shoot digital pictures and process them in the ASCHIANA lab would open opportunities to
increase their earning power by photographing weddings and other events for pay. Their ages
ranged from 12 to 26---the three oldest were in college. Already the students had received copies
of the National Geographic Society’s newest book on digital photography through the assistance
of Sue McKeon, the new director of Abilene’s National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature.
The week passed quickly. The warm temperatures of west Texas had certainly prepared me for
the hot Afghanistan climate but only my hotel had air conditioning. I slept well at night. The
students were quick to learn and by the end of the week, had amassed over a thousand
photographs that ranged upward from basic to excellent as the days progressed. While the
students certainly profited from the project, I was the real winner. I came away inspired by the
contact with the students, our embassy staff, the other volunteers working in Kabul such as
Abilene’s hospital administrator, Rick DeFoore. I was awed by the task ahead for the country.
The student photographs will become part of a traveling exhibition scheduled to open at Texas
Tech University sometime next year and then travel to venues across America.
To begin with, Kabul is a long way from Abilene, Texas. After changing planes three times and
traveling for the better part of three days, I felt like a certified “road warrior”.
On the last travel day with no sleep and a bit of nervousness, I found the aisle seat on Arab Air
flight G90283 to Kabul from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates global hot spot. My seat mate, a
Pashtun from the south of Afghanistan and the ancestral home of the Taliban, immediately began
silent prayer after we squeezed into the tourist class Airbus seats. That was understandable
considering he didn’t know how to adjust his seat belt.
I had another reason to be worried. Inflight, the attendant offered a sharma bun for $4.00 US, and
having had scant fare the preceeding days, I jumped at the chance. The man seated across the
aisle who worked for the UN World Food Project bought one also. In my haste to satisfy my hunger
I had eaten the entire thing when I realized that the food man took one bite of his and folded the rest
up. “A diet?”, I enquired. "No, tasted bad,” the expert on food said.
As we began our approach into Kabul, a moderate dust storm was blowing and the plane was being
buffeted from gusts coming from all directions. I leaned across the Pastun and caught a glimpse of
the dark-crested Afghan desert mountains stenciled on a light tan desert background as the plane
came in with one wing dipped and in a slight crab to windward. Before the plane skidded and lurched
to moderate taxi speed, I found myself checking out the emergency exits.
In retrospect, it was a very skillful crosswind landing and I watched the panorama of ancient and
modern aircraft parked on the ramp as we taxied by. There was a heavy preponderance of
helicopters with tarps over windshields and rotor hubs to protect from the wind. The buildings
seemed ancient adobe with metal sheeting in places. It was not inspiring compared with the ultra
modern terminal I had experienced in Dubai.
We deplaned and passed through customs after filling out an entry card and were passed to the
luggage area. The ancient conveyor belt was heavy laden with all sorts of packages wrapped in
plastic and tied with ropes, bags of every vintage and description. Much more colorful than the
nowadays “all alike” roller bag I see at domestic airports. Everyone had a make your own! The
creaking and lurching of the belt suddenly stopped and everyone groaned. A ten minute delay while
some repair was being made or the electricity restored.
I had a tap on my shoulder. “Are you Bill Wright?” the bouncy Australian young lady asked. Looking
around I was immediately captivated by an infectious smile and responded with a grateful “yes!” I
was not looking forward to searching out my contact in the swarm of passengers.
Sarah was the contact person for Aschiana, the NGO [non-governmental organization] that I had
volunteered to work with. Beside her was Faideen, my driver/interpreter for the week. He was a
youngish-looking and trim local man who had been recommended by the U.S, Embassy as a
dependable and knowledgeable “fixer” who would be able to cart me around to the places I wanted
It turned out that Faideen was a good choice. Earlier that morning as he picked Sarah up and
started to the airport the alarms went off and the road to the airport and several major traffic circles
were sealed off because of a bomb threat. Faideen skillfully re-routed the van using back roads and
delivered himself and Sarah right on time. A live bomb was later found in a trash can along the route
and not in the U.S. Embassy as a circulating rumor suggested.
We loaded the bags and headed toward my hotel, stopping only to offload the cameras and other
equipment at the Aschiana headquarters where embassy staff had already delivered the needed
computers and a HP printer.
I met several of the future students and some of the Aschiana staff and we continued to the Serena
Hotel where I had reservations.
It was heavily fortified. The entrance to the hotel led through a car trap where security personnel
raised and lowered steel beams to prohibit either entry or escape while they moved a tilted mirror
around the bottom of the car inspecting for bombs or prohibited items.
We passed the test and were passed into an interior motor court and unloaded. The reception was
routine with the exception that I was taken immediately to the cashier for payment in advance for the
room. Only cash accepted. Exchange was 1 to 49. The room was excellent and the shower head
worked beautifully as soon as the door to the room was closed.
Sarah made plans for dinner at the hotel that evening. Her husband, Mark Johnston would be a bit
late but would join us in time for ordering. Mark was a policy consultant with an independent
contractor dealing with the Afghan drug problem. Australian natives, Mark and Sarah re-invented
themselves several years before and moved from the commercial sector to the public service sector.
Mark spent two years at Harvard’s Kennedy School and was awarded a Ph.D. in Economics and
Public Policy. Their current “permanent” home was in Bangkok but they saw little of that with their
journeys from one assignment to another. The next would take them to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. What
J.B. Leedy, the assistant Public Affairs officer at the U.S, Embassy would also join us. She was the
person who had initially contacted me about the coming to Kabul. Her invitation had been carefully
stated. She said that under present regulations, it was not possible to invite persons to Afghanistan
because of the perceived security risks but should I decide to come on my own, she would like for
me to be involved with Aschiana to teach digital photography to “street working” kids.
I soon found that the “J” in J.B, stood for Jean and that she was a woman. When she appeared that
night she turned out to be a young and attractive person who was enthusiastic about her job but
frustrated by the fact that all of the personnel at the embassy were prohibited from circulating freely
in town which made the cultural affairs component of her responsibility much more difficult. J.B.’s
husband, a military officer, was back at the Pentagon in Washington where he was assigned. As a
Department of State employee, J.B. had the option of one year of solo duty in Afghanistan without
her husband or two years solo at another more friendly and enjoyable location. She chose the one
I met Sarah and J.B. in the lobby at 7 pm and we went to the hotel restaurant to wait for Mark. There
were no cocktails before dinner as Afghanistan is a Moslem country so J.B. and I enjoyed a diet
coke and Sarah chose a local melon drink. I thought I might try the melon drink but she advised me
against it to ensure I would continue to be “fit” for the remainder of the week and not cut down by
“the Taliban’s Revenge”.
Mark arrived a short while later and pulled up a chair next to me. He had the typical Aussie’s friendly
and engaging personality, and I appreciated his candid and informed remarks regarding
We had a delightful dinner of Australian lamb in the hotel restaurant and I, as promised, passed on
the beautiful desert.
It was a good first day in Afghanistan.
What a day.
Not able to sleep but two or three hours during the night made me ready to get up early and get
started. I went to the lobby about 6:00 am to get an ethernet cable to connect with the internet
and stayed for a short breakfast.
Faideen, my driver and interpreter, was scheduled to meet me at 7:45 am for the trip to ASCHIANA.
I wanted to get the computers set up and ready for action after lunch. I downloaded over 200 emails,
many of which were from friends wishing me the best of luck on the journey.
This was to be the big day---getting the cameras and making the first photographs.I was worried
about being able to communicate adequately and hold the students interest. I need not have worried.
Faideen was right on time and I had my first real experience of driving in Kabul traffic. Cairo was a
snap compared to Afghan drivers. Our trip to the school was mercifully short but in the space of only
a few miles I thought I would be involved in at least a dozen collisions and witness numerous
impalements of bicycle riders and pedestrians. It was a cacophony of color and motion---horns
blaring---scowls passed between vehicles and seemingly non-existent rules of the road. No traffic
lights were working since the end of the war.
Faideen was nonchalant. He carried on an easy conversation inquiring about my family and the
state of the world. He was born in Afghanistan, but he left for Pakistan when the Taliban took over.
After the war he returned and hoped that they would never come back. We discussed the problems
faced by his country and he said they were surrounded by enemies. Chief among them Iran whom
he said infiltrated fighters constantly and who, it was commonly known, was responsible for the
destabilization of Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan and other Moslem countries. He was also worried about
Pakistan because he felt that only the capital, like Afghanistan, was secured, with radicals controlling
the countryside in spite of the army’s efforts.
We arrived whole at the school and shortly Sarah arrived. One small problem. The room containing
the computers and cameras was locked and no one could immediately locate the key. The efficient
problem-solving Sarah went to work immediately and rousted the office manager from his sick bed
[so he said] and the key was dispatched. Remarkable compliance for the demands from a non-staff
The class began filtering in at 9:00 am, the appointed time, but some were late. When they arrived,
Sarah laid down the law. No more late showups. No certificate of completion if everyone is not here
and accounted for. No one whimpered that I could hear.
We started with introductions and soon transitioned to explaining the functions of the new cameras. I
was worried because the age of participants ranged from 12 to one university student who was 26. It
was not a problem, it was an advantage as the older students assumed some responsibility for the
We broke for lunch that I declined. The school served all the students a healthy lunch of rice and
vegetables. There was a lot of chatter about the cameras and the pictures they had already taken
around the campus.
After lunch, the students went out shooting and came back to download into the computers. They
were instructed in making folders and protecting their files.
Talk about excitement! Seeing their computer images on the big screen made them giddy. Even the
older ones. We printed some of them off on plain paper and taped them to the wall. Proud didn’t
nearly cover it.
By the time 4:30 pm rolled around, I was also giddy. Fatigue had overpowered enthusiasm and I
was ready to get back to the room and get cool. [Of course, the school did not have air
conditioning.] Faideen did a wonderful job assisting in the computer work and explaining how it all
went together. Later he told me the day was a great success.
Back at the hotel, I slumped down in the room’s only stuffed chair and sucked down a liter of water.
It had been another good day.
Today confirmed that I am a slow learner.
It has taken three days to understand that
my room, 284, is not on the second floor.
The lobby area is floor zero which I
understand. When press 2 on the
elevator I get off at the floor where all
of the rooms begin with “3”. So the 2nd
floor is really the first floor. I think I have
it down now. I get on the elevator and
press “1” for the floor containing my room, 284. Live and learn, if slowly.
I woke up this morning thinking about the news item in the morning paper: Taliban attacking
Afghanistan schools. To date over 200 schools have been burned or abandoned because of
Taliban actions to discourage the education of Afghanistan’s young people. Their theory is that an
uneducated person is more likely to join their ranks than a person who has attended school and
knows more about the world. Of course, it is a good but immoral strategy. I can almost assure you
that the young women in our class would go down struggling if they were sent home to bake bread
and be the third wife of some ancient tribal leader.
Another disturbing bit of news is that the Karzai administration is considering re-establishing the
religious police. This would be a giant step backward in the modernization of the country. I am not
sure this has been reported in the world press but local news organizations carried the story which
I will try and send in detail later. I mentioned the concern to Faideen but he felt that is was not as big
a deal as some of the foreign press might think. All Muslem countries have the religious police he
said but their actions were exaggerated under Taliban rule. “I don’t think we will ever see that again,”
he told me. Faideen, of course, is a devout Muslim and leaves the class periodically for his prayers.
He is gone for about 20 minutes and then is back.
There were rapid local actions taken with regard to the bomb blast near the U.S. Embassy last
Sunday. Several have been taken into custody and calm prevails. Life goes on as usual for these
Life for my students has been exciting. Their enthusiasm for learning elevates my own spirits and
confirms that there is much good in the world in spite of all the disasters that we hear about daily.
These young folks---I can’t call them kids because they grow up quickly here---are intent on
learning. Yesterday two came to the class uninvited and demanded to remain. I agreed and they
dove into the work immediately. The tragic underlying reality is that progress requires both
education and opportunity. The latter is dramatically lacking here in Afghanistan. The internet will
give these young folks more of an opportunity that they have had before. Unfortunately,
ASCHIANA’s internet connection has been shut down for lack of money. That will change in time.
And, impatient me, I have to realize that progress occurs one step at a time.
When installing the equipment donated by the U.S. Department of State, I realized how much we
take for granted. Each computer was accompanied with a special power supply to ensure the
computer would not shut off immediately if the generator for the building should quit. Power shuts
off at night. Interruptions are frequent. Energy drives our civilization and without it we would all be
subsistence farmers with only the sun to provide our life.
I noticed the power strip we were using was being held together with a unburned match jammed into
the on/off button. Potentially dangerous. I requested three new ones so as not to put too much load
on one. Fortunately, the grant provided enough money for re-chargeable batteries for the cameras.
They were going through AA batteries at a ferocious clip.
Today we had classroom in the morning where I explained the best I could about the differences
between dpi and ppi, jpg and tif, kilobytes and megabytes and many other terms that they would
encounter. We went through the menu of options for the operation of their cameras and talked
about histograms and exposure.
We had a portrait shooting session where we talked about the light and how important it was to
focus on the eyes. I set up and took pictures of the students and they posed and took turns being
the model. Before I knew it, time for lunch. Sarah and I had an engagement with J.B. the Public
Affairs Officer at the embassy along with her financial person at a traditional Afghan restaurant
named Safi. It was a long way from the school which game me a chance to see more of Kabul. We
were accompanied from the school by the Director, Eng, M. Yosef, and of course, driven by Faideen.
As we entered, Sarah was excited to see the well-known lady, Nancy Dupree, who had written the
definitive guidebook for Afghanistan. Her husband, Louis Dupree, a distinguished scholar, wrote
“Afghanistan”, a book that should be on every library shelf for anyone interested in the country. In
his book, he observed that Afghanistan is actually a nation of poets because poetry, essentially a
spoken language, enables illiterate men and women to express themselves. Nancy looked to be well
over 80 years of age but sparky and interesting to visit with. I photographed her with the Director
Yosef who was her great fan.
The meal was exceptional. They tried to stuff me with every traditional dish but I was careful,
especially as Sarah had been forced to make an emergency stop enroute. My favorite was the
vegetable soup with cilantro and pureed vegetables and the awshak, a lentils and gdana concoction
with a yogurt sauce.
Driving back to the school we stopped
for a few shots along the way and
found the students eagerly awaiting
their assignment which was to find and
photograph the beautiful in Afghanistan.
It will be interesting to see what they
come up with.
We wondered why the lights didn’t
come on when we plugged in the
battery chargers. We fussed around
trying various plugs, taking out and
putting in the batteries, changing
chargers, and then realized the power
was out. The computer had been running
on battery back up. We left for the night
with the hope that in the morning we would have fully charged power for the cameras.
Another lesson about life in Afghanistan.
I woke up to bad news this morning. There was
another bomb blast on the outskirts of Kabul
about 30 minutes ago and two were killed and
a taxi demolished. Four other persons injured.
This occurred on a road heavily traveled by the
U.S. Military as they travel between one of their
near-by bases and downtown Kabul. It will be
interesting to see what the reaction is when I head
for the school. J.B, Leedy, the Public Affairs Officer,
at the embassy wanted to come by this morning early
to meet some of the students but this latest incident
will probably restrict her to the embassy campus.
I am certainly grateful for the tight security here at the
Serena Hotel and my experienced “fixer”, Faideen.
At any rate, the day goes on. Everyone will be looking
over their shoulder, which is good. We will visit AINA,
a program founded by a National Geographic
Photographer, Reza Deghati, who assisted my friend,
Sue, in securing the books for the students here.
Before breakfast, I walked for a while in the garden of the hotel. The rose garden was in bloom and the
doves were flying about. What a strange contrast with the events of violence that are occurring in the
country. It was very peaceful and the sounds of the city coming to life were much the same as I would
expect to find in any American city. Of course the similarity ended as soon as I exited the secured
gates of the hotel.
Faideen delivered me to the school and we began to gear up for the trip to Reza’s party that turned
out to be a party celebrating his 54th year.
Before we left, Jean Leedy, our State Department contact came by the school to see what was going
on and to take some pictures of the children working at the computers they had funded. She would
continue on to Aina and meet us there. She couldn’t ride with us because she had to ride in the
Department’s armored Land Cruiser that stood out like the red nose on a clown’s face. It is hard to
know what is the best approach. I am comfortable riding with Faideen in a nondescript van, one of a
thousand of like design, scuttling about the streets of Kabul.
The organization Reza founded, AINA,
is a school dedicated to developing
photojournalists and design specialists
and his photographs are hung about the
patio. After the French clowns entertained
the assembled guests including 150 or so
children including ours from the school,
he took our group on a personal tour and
explained each photograph, pointing out
the features that made it exceptional.
While I could not understand the language,
by his gestures, I could tell that he was
reinforcing many of the lessons I had
already communicated to the kids.
A lot of pixels were stimulated during
We returned to the school with Faideen’s van stuffed full of wiggling kids. It reminded me of popcorn in
a heated can! Our van was certainly a heated can. Sweat was pouring over me even though the top
panel was also open. It was about 102 in Kabul and of course there is no air conditioning except at the
hotel. The kids didn’t mind.They were laughing and teasing each other and popping about like crazy.
I wondered what would happen if Faideen made a driving error. No seatbelts, of course, and
aggressive driver as Alice considers me to be, I was no match for Faideen. My abs will be in good
shape on my return because I do the tightening exercise every time he pulls if front of a oncoming bus
or speeding motorbike. I wouldn’t want to compete with him with a computer game. His reaction time is
measured in milliseconds.
I continued doing the formal portraits of the kids for the calendar project and designed the mats and
presentation for the school. The plan is to sell the calendars with the children’s photographs to State
Department workers as they go home for rotation and this posting will have about an 80 percent
turnover by the end of August. A real problem of continuity. Most people take about 6 months to settle
into their jobs and by the time they are in tune with the local situation it is time for them to leave. Of
course, they are professionals and trained to operate with these kinds of restrictions. More on my
thoughts re: our State Dept. later.
We worked hard all afternoon, photographing and teaching computer skills of file management,
downloading and viewing images. I started reviewing various student’s work and using the crop tool on
photoshop elements, showed how they could tighten their images. In a way, it was like using the
“double L” cut outs that could be placed over a print to demonstrate different compositional
A BBC reporter came by to see the project at 5 pm and several of the students were able to continue
working with their images beyond the normal closing time. They had discovered “filters” in photoshop
and were laughing as they prepared bizarre treatments of the photos they had taken earlier in the
day---pushing the saturation and contrast to extreme limits, adding blur and noise, and using other
techniques. It was learning by exploration and kids who weren’t afraid to make a mistake could really
By 6 pm I was back in my hotel room with the cold water of the shower running over me. I will admit to
being a little tired as I had not had much sleep the night before getting up early to organize the student
pictures I had downloaded into my laptop computer. Just after getting dressed, Sarah called from the
lobby and she was ready to take me to the Embassy for a dinner in Jean’s apartment.
It was a nice evening. We entered the compound where all the State Dept employees who were not
“nationals” lived under tight security. Contract security guards, loaded with weapons, checked and
secured our passports, assigned us to an escort officer which happened to be Tim who was to dine
with us that evening, and issued each of us a visitor's badge to hang around our neck.
Jean had a small but very nice balcony off of her tiny dining/livingroom/kitchen and we sat there talking
about business. The party consisted of Tim, who had just arrived on station from Lithuania, another
lady who worked for State and was in town for a conference from Jalablad, Sarah’s husband, Mark,
Jean and myself as “guest” of honor. I had an Australian beer, the first alcohol since leaving Abilene. It
was cold and really good.
I was ready for bed when we walked down the guarded street to meet Faideen and the van.
I slept soundly.
Fardeen was about fifteen minutes late today.
He was very apologetic. The traffic clotted all the
roads into a slow moving viscous stream and all
you could do was go with the flow, he said. This
day my plan was to interview all of the students
about their home and family and other issues
that might come to mind during the discussion.
While the students downloaded their files from
the previous day’s shooting, I scouted the
building with Sarah to find a quiet corner that
could be used for the interviews. I planned to
use Fardeen to translate my questions and the
answers so that there would be less chance for
misunderstanding. We finally settled on the big
gallery room and brought in three chairs to pull
to the small table in one corner of the room.
The system worked pretty well. My little Sony digital recorder picked up the voices pretty good and
Fardeen’s voice was strong and clear. I knew the spelling and unfamiliarity with the names would be a
problem for my assistant, Kimberly, when she began to transcribe the files in Abilene, but we would
just have to do the best we could.
I developed a short format for the questions beginning with the date and time and the name of the
respondent. Then I began asking questions about the family --- how many children, what the parents
did, where they lived--- etc. I found that the students had many similarities.
They all came from large families and all had at least one parent living with them. Often that parent
was not able to work. Many were disabled from gunshot wounds or illness. One from mental illness.
Income from other family members was all the kept them afloat. Most of my students were in school
now that they had been “rescued” by ASCHIANA and were progressing through the system. When
asked about their vocational plans, most wanted to be doctors or other higher income professionals,
one dreamed of being a pilot for an airline, and of course, all wanted photography to be a part of their
life. Public service --- helping others --- seemed important to each of them.
Since one of my hoped-for personal outcomes from the trip was to learn more about what was actually
happening in Afghanistan, I always threw in a couple of questions about the war and its impact on their
lives. Their answers were reasonably uniform. Life was more settled under the Taliban. That they liked.
There was less uncertainity. Life was stable. That was the end of the plusses. The Taliban’s harsh
religious hand made life for those with knowledge of the outside world, difficult to understand.
However, most of the students were very young during the times of the Taliban so they remembered
little of what it was really like.
The oldest student, now attending Kabul University, grew up in a village near the Iranian border.
During the war with Russia, his family moved to Iran and stayed there till it was over. They moved back
to their old village where the brothers all had small businesses and the father was a farmer. [I didn’t
ask what he raised…] Mohammed announced after graduating from public school there that he wanted
to go to college but his father said he didn’t need that and wanted him to begin work. He left for Kabul
anyway and supported himself on the street while attending the university.
Mohammed says that his family has accepted his decision now and that he receives a small amount of
money from them for assistance. When he returns to the village to visit, he has to grow a full beard
because the Taliban have re-occupied the territory.
My final question was to ask the students to tell me what they would like to say to America.
They all were pleased that I had come a long way to work with them and wanted to express their
appreciation for the many donors that had made the acquisition of the digital cameras for ASCHIANA
possible. Most of them were aware of and grateful for the aid and support America had provided their
country and wanted to say thank you on behalf of their country. Finally, as they got up to leave, their
eyes met mine and they said, “don’t leave us.” They dreaded the instability that they knew would
follow until their government grew strong enough to protect the people.
It was a sobering thought to know that one of these days we WILL be leaving Afghanistan.
I was thinking about these issues as I undressed for bed. In just a few short minutes later, my thoughts
turned to pain relief. It had been a hot, tiring, but focused day. I showered, and sat down a bit too hard
on the firm mattress and immediately I felt a shooting pain in my back, hip and leg. My old tennis injury
had come back with a vengeance. It didn’t take a physical exam to tell me something was seriously
wrong. I tried every position to relieve the burning, throbbing leg and back. Nothing worked although
standing seemed to be the best position so I was up and down the rest of the night and taking as much
Advil as I thought my stomach could stand. It seemed the morning and the chance to get some
stronger medicine, would never come.
While I was tossing and turning, another thought burst into my consciousness. How was I going to get
home on Sunday. It was obvious to me that I could not tolerate the pain of squeezing my 6’3”frame into
the tiny coach seats for over 23 hours of flying plus the waiting time between flights.
Sarah and Faideen arrived on schedule to pick me up and deliver
me to the Kabul hospital for some help with my back. The pain had
not diminished but was being controlled somewhat by the Advil I for-
tunately had in my kit. I took the back seat of the van so that I could
stretch out my legs and we started off through the heavy traffic of the
The hospital was located some distance from the hotel so I had a
chance to see more of the city as we traveled along. I opened the
window and shot a few pictures of the roadside vendors as we stopped
periodically for traffic.
The main streets in Kabul are paved but much of the city is not. There is a persistent dusty
atmosphere that casts every view in a light tan wash. Everyone seems to have a dry mouth. Business
is being done everywhere. The Afghans are a nation of merchants from a view from the back of the
van. Much of their goods are displayed on the sidewalk which results in a profusion of color where the
goods are fabrics and plastic, Auto parts and equipment of various types cast a more somber values
of black and gray.
The traffic cleared somewhat as we neared the hospital and we pulled up in front of the security gate.
I was dismayed at the large crowd of perhaps 300 or more people waiting to enter.
There was a lot of pushing and shoving and Fardeen parked the car and while I waited, he walked to
the gate and talked with the guard. Soon I saw him wave and Sarah and I made our way through the
crowd and slipped inside. As I turned to see the gate close behind me, I saw it slammed on the arm of
a man desperately trying to enter. I don’t think I made any friends among the crowd.
As we walked to the main building, Sarah whispered, “ I hate the class system that gives us the ability
to move ahead of all these people.” I felt bad about it also but with my back hurting, I felt that maybe is
was a legitimate triage that allowed me to go ahead. At least I didn’t feel guilty enough to go back to
the end of the line.
I quickly made my mind up that I would not trade my comfortable bed at the Serena Hotel for anything
the hospital had to offer. The pain couldn’t be bad enough to lay my head down in this primitive facility.
People were laying on the floor, I couldn’t determine if there was any air conditioning and there was a
discouraging smell of sickness in the air.
I positioned myself at the end of a line before the entrance window while Fardeen disappeared down
the hall. Soon he returned and guided me down a corridor and up a flight of stairs to the treatment
rooms. Dr. Green appeared and greeted me and said that he would see that I was seen immediately. I
was taken to a treatment room that was remarkable clean and organized and soon another doctor
arrived who was a volunteer from the mid-western U.S. An osteopath by training and a member of a
evangelical Christian congregation in his home town. He told me that he volunteered each year in this
hospital. He had my deepest respect for attempting to bring modern medicine to the people of Kabul.
As I lay on the table he poked my back and told me he thought that the problem would eventually go
away with anti-inflamatory drugs and he said that they had recently received some back braces that he
also thought would help. He gently gave my back a crack or two and went to get the brace. The door
was open to the examining room and I could see and hear the traffic outside in the hall. People were
coming and going and all seemed to be in order --- a contradictory place in all the outside chaos.
Soon, he returned with the brace and gave me some stronger pain medication that I could use on the
airplane if things got too bad. I was grateful and walked out to meet Sarah and Fardeen. We paid our
bill of $80 and left. The crowd had cleared at the gate, whether they were all admitted or not, I do not
know but I wished them luck as I left.
I continued taking photographs through the window of the van on my way back to the hotel and hoped
the trip tomorrow would be easy. I was already feeling more confident about the trip home.
FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT
THE AFGHANISTAN PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT
by Bill Wright
Day One: Sunday, July 23, 2006
Day Two: Monday, July 24, 2006
I had packed everything the night before so I was anxiously waiting for Fardeen and Sarah to pick me
up and take me to the airport for my trip home via Dubai. I was glad for a day layover there in case the
three hour trip was too much for my miserable back. I was also looking forward to staying in the net
Twin Towers of Dubai, a swanky 4 star hotel that was part of the modern Arab world.
We arrived at the airport a couple of hours before flight time and parked in the lot designated. No
curbside check-in at the Kabul international airport! Fortunately, there were porters available to carry
luggage and off we went with me hobbling behind the Afghan track star and hoping my tip would offset
the value of the luggage if he disappeared into the distance. The track star was waiting as I arrived at
security and eagerly accepted my $5.00 tip, putting my bag on the conveyor belt and hurrying off for
I said good by to my friends, Sarah Johnston and Fardeen Hussami who had been so supportive of my
work with the students and assisted me the last day at the hospital. They were terrific. I turned from the
last minute hugs and entered the magic arch knowing it wouldn’t buzz because I had unloaded every
conceivable metal source of concern.
Nevertheless, I was patted down anyway. Shoes were not removed as in the U.S, but the bags, carry-
on and checked were opened and examined thoroughly. At the last inspection, I opened my shaving kit
to the inspectors request and he promptly confiscated my backpacking shaving mirror. It was a curious
but minor loss. I passed on to the waiting room where I went through an identical examination and
passport check, finally ending up in a waiting room with a couple of dozen Afghans.
It was a contrast between the modern and the ancient. The plain white plastered walls of the room
were devoid of decoration of any kind. No pictures, no instructions, and the single sign was “Internet”
with an arrow pointing down the hall. I thought it metaphorical. The entire city was a curious mix of the
new and the old. The people and the buildings. I stayed in a modern hotel with beautiful gardens and
outside the gate, adobe and ancient buildings and people with ancient customs.
Looking around, I found a seat opposite two Afghan men with long black beards wearing white. In fact,
the entire room was filled with men wearing white or a light pastel dress like top that reached below the
knees with a pair of white leggings underneath that came to the tops of the shoes. Most had “haj” caps
on their heads and black or tan vests that were unbuttoned. The only other person wearing a “gimmie
cap” in the entire room was an ex-marine contractor on his way for R&R. The Afghan men all struck
identical postures: one leg folded under the other which was extended to the floor or hiked to the
The atmosphere was thick with smoke and hot and humid. There was a long line at the counter where
water could be purchased. The floor was dirty but the seats were good with lumbar support for my
back which soon stopped hurting.
A few women with their children began to filter in. They were uniformly dressed in black with the veil
covering their mouth and lower nose. All that showed were the eyes which were heavily decorated.
They held their heads cast down and looked no one in the eye. A few Anglos began to enter and sat
together in a group. The western women quickly placed their ear buds in place and hooked in the
ipods, insulating themselves from everyone.
There was a buzz of conversation in the room. As I observed the men across from me I was startled to
see the red stain on both their hands. I knew it was from Friday’s religious celebration but it looked as
if they had just dressed a sheep. Perhaps the color fooled the flies also because they were buzzing
The flight to Sharja went quickly. Perhaps it was the medication because I slept most of the way which
was unusual. We arrived in mid-afternoon and after more passport checks and x-rays, I quickly caught
a cab to Dubai which was about 30 minutes away. The hotel was beautiful and I checked in quickly and
continued my nap till time for dinner. I treated myself to a very fine martini in the 51st floor bar and
planned the next day’s activities as the sun sank toward the horizon with the ubiquitous sandy tan sky.
The bar was modern and efficient and staffed by a tall, athletic black man with a shaved head and a
commanding presence. Very polished. The waitress who came to my table was young and attractive.
She had signed on with the hotel for a two year contract and came from Uzbekistan. It was her chance
to see the world. The only flaw was the improbable use of photographs of the hotel on the walls which
were hung over other wall decorations and the dirty windows that were the result of yesterdays
The bar began to fill up with young attractive men and women, well dressed with expensive clothes
worn casually. The men were tie-less and had their shirt tails hanging out. The women had everything
hanging out. Not too appropriate for a Moslem country.
I thought of the enormous gulf that separated the tribal culture of Afghanistan from the modern Arab
world of Dubai. It was bigger than the Gulf of Arabia that I had flown over that day and I wondered if it
would last as long.
Day Three: Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Kabul Shopping Mall
Day Four: Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Reza signs autographs for the kids
Day Five: Thursday, July 27, 2006
I wish I could begin by saying I woke up but I
didn’t because I never went to sleep! All night
I tried to get comfortable enough to drift off
but never did. It was just a slow mental tugging
of my watch’s hour hand to get me closer to day-
light when I could get a little pain relief.
By 8 am I couldn’t wait longer and called for the
hotel doc. Soon there was a knock at the door
and the floor manager walked in with a first aid
kit. We broke out an ice pak and they got in
touch with the doc’s office and it wasn’t long
before he called back and suggested their
equivalent of Advil. I was already on that
program but decided
to give it a chance to work. Come to think of
it --- what choice did I have?
Sarah called and I told her of my problem and immediately she and her husband, Mark, came to check
on me. I told her that I would have to cancel the last day of the class which wasn’t too bad as most of
what the students would be doing was filing their work and making prints for a sale the next day. Sarah
is a fine photographer and would have no problem showing them how to print.
After she left for class, things began to get marginally better due to the increased dosage of the Advil
that the doc suggested I take. I thought it best to make a call to my friend Rick Defoore with whom I had
planned to have dinner that night. Early in the episode, I had remembered his offer should I need
assistance while in Kabul.
Rick was a hospital administrator working as a consultant to CURE in Kabul. “Call if I can be of
assistance while you are in Kabul”, was what he said. I had called on arrival and we had planned the
dinner for this evening.
I called his office number and told him of my predicament and he immediately offered to get me in to
see one of the staff docs. He called back shortly and said that a Dr. Green would see me the next
morning at 9:00. I knew that I would have to improve beyond my present state if I were to catch the
flight on Sunday so seeing a real doc was reassurance that I would get better, or at least I felt I would.
These issues settled, I finally was able to drift off to sleep and this is about all of consequence that
happened on this day.
Day Six: Friday, July 28, 2006
Day Seven: Saturday, July 29, 2006
Photographer Bill Wright
Day Eight, Sunday, July 30, 2006
After breakfast in the room, I dressed and began to
explore the hotel. It was vast with convention rooms,
spas, exercise gyms---the works. I scheduled a massage
for the afternoon hoping it would be beneficial for my
back. Alice would like a small present, I knew, so my first
stop would be the famous gold souk that contained
hundreds of shops. Most of the goods were similar:
elaborate gold necklaces, earrings, rings and bracelets
[called bangles]. All were made from 22 caret gold. Each
store posted the price of gold by weight and the items
were sold based on weight.
The gold souk was famous. Alice and I had visited there 25 years before and little had changed. I
enjoyed walking down the interior aisles and looking in the windows. The place was a hive of activity.
Many Europeans and Arabs from Saudi Arabia, other states of the U.A.E. and Asia came there to shop
for gold and diamonds. Many of the diamond cutters from Brussels and other European centers have
moved to Dubai and it was now one of the main centers of the world for fine jewelry.
I saw an unusual bracelet in a window that I thought Alice might like so I went in and made the purchase.
Unlike Afghanistan, credit cards were accepted and the business style was definitely western.
My flight to Zurich left from Sharja so I returned the next morning in time for a 1:50 am depature. I was
able to sleep for most of the 7 hour journey to Zurich and after about a four hour wait, I boarded
American Airlines with business class seating for the 11 hour flight to Dallas. It gave me ample time to
meditate on the experiences of the week.
I recognize that my contacts with Afghan and Dubai people were limited and the time of contact only a
week, but certain things emerged.
First the children:
They were uniformly courteous and attentive and as the week progressed, more and more comfortable
with my presence. They laughed and teased as easily as American kids but seemed more focused on the
work and less on other things. They were “after it!”. When I conducted my one on one interviews, I found
they had vary similar backgrounds: large families, one or both parent s missing or ill, and dependent on
work to help support the family. They were artistic, liked Americans but were scared of our military and
the news reports of so many Afghan deaths in our pursuit of the Taliban.
They were appreciative of American support of their country but had no idea where the money went but
everyone thought it was mostly lost due to local corruption in the political system. The last thing they told
me was, “Don’t leave us!”
Terribly backward by first world standards. The country has been devastated by repeated wars for the
last 25 years. Electricity spasmodic, streets unpaved, infrastructure degraded. The country survives,
however, because the people are survivors. They have met adversity and have managed to wrestle it to
the ground. The people I met were very friendly to westerners, or at least, to me. The teachers in the
school, the shop keepers, the staff in restaurants --- all were uniformly polite and happy to serve me or
help me in some way.
Politically, they all are tainted by the Arab press in their hatred for Israel and our support for Israel. They
view Israel as the invader who has wrestled the land from the legitimate owners and it is one of the bases
for the current radical hatred of things western.
Headlines in the Dubai newspaper shouted “Nasrallah: US pushing for Lebanon war to rage”
In the body of the paper, they wondered why we couldn’t understand why they [Arabs] hated us.
“[Karen Hughes] was to improve the image of the United States in the Arab world and win the hearts and
minds of Arabs, lost for some time because of Washington’s blind support of Israel and its bloody
invasion of Iraq. With the outrageous policy Washington is now espousing, in the Israeli war on Lebanon,
Hughes’ job is indeed mission impossible.”
Other negatives are our culture and religion although our culture is pervasive in Arab countries.
Everywhere are western tee shirts and music, MP-3 players and internet cafes. They have absorbed our
technology and hate us for it. Not as individuals, but as a blanket condemnation of the west. This hatred
is created and nurtured by the Mullahs who preach constantly of a return to the basic life as structured
by the Koran.
In Dubai and other more westernized Arab countries they are happy to do business with us but this
attitude lies under the surface everywhere.
Strangely, the ethics of Islam do not seem to play out everywhere in the culture. Corruption is rampant
and just as in Christian societies, there are bad people.
Finally, the trip was very worthwhile in my view. I remember the starfish story where the man on the beach
said, “… it made a difference to that one!” If my visit made a difference to even one of the kids or one of
the persons I came in contact with while there, it would make it successful. If even one of them related to
me as an American Christian who cared enough to come at my own expense to help them and if that
person remembers that we aren’t all demons, it would be enough. I hope to keep in touch with the kids
and ASCHIANA and follow their progress. I am now working on an exhibition of the children’s photography
to show in the United States.
Day Nine, Monday, July 31, 2006
Bill Wright is a Texas photographer with five photographic books
to his credit. He has work in public and private collections including the
British Library in London; the National Museum of American Art in
Washington; the Smithsonian Institute in Washington; and the Harry
Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.
See Bill's fine art photography at: www.wrightworld.com
Bill Wright is a Texas
photographer with five
photographic books to
his credit. He has work
in public and private
the British Library in
London; the National
Museum of American
Art in Washington; the
in Washington; and the
Center, University of
Texas, Austin. He
recently made a trip to
Afghanistan to teach
some children there
the fundamentals of
photography, and kept
a journal of his
See Bill's fine art