Thursday, December 15, 2011

TED: Monika Bulaj: The hidden light of Afghanistan

Monika Bulaj: The hidden light of Afghanistan

My travels to Afghanistan began many, many years ago on the eastern border of my country, my homeland, Poland. I was walking through the forests of my grandmother's tales. A land where every field hides a grave, where millions of people have been deported or killed in the 20th century.

Behind the destruction, I found a soul of places. I met humble people. I heard their prayer and ate their bread. Then I have been walking East for 20 years -- from Eastern Europe to Central Asia -- through the Caucasus Mountains, Middle East, North Africa, Russia. And I ever met more humble people. And I shared their bread and their prayer. This is why I went to Afghanistan.

One day, I crossed the bridge over the Oxus River. I was alone on foot. And the Afghan soldier was so surprised to see me that he forgot to stamp my passport. But he gave me a cup of tea. And I understood that his surprise was my protection.

So I have been walking and traveling, by horses, by yak, by truck, by hitchhiking, from Iran's border to the bottom, to the edge of the Wakhan Corridor. And in this way I could find noor, the hidden light of Afghanistan. My only weapon was my notebook and my Leica. I heard prayers of the Sufi -- humble Muslims, hated by the Taliban. Hidden river, interconnected with the mysticism from Gibraltar to India. The mosque where the respectful foreigner is showered with blessings and with tears, and welcomed as a gift.

What do we know about the country and the people that we pretend to protect, about the villages where the only one medicine to kill the pain and to stop the hunger is opium? These are opium-addicted people on the roofs of Kabul 10 years after the beginning of our war. These are the nomad girls who became prostitutes for Afghan businessmen.

What do we know about the women 10 years after the war? Clothed in this nylon bag, made in China, with the name of burqa. I saw one day, the largest school in Afghanistan, a girls' school. 13,000 girls studying here in the rooms underground, full of scorpions. And their love [for studying] was so big that I cried.

What do we know about the death threats by the Taliban nailed on the doors of the people who dare to send their daughters to school as in Balkh? The region is not secure, but full of the Taliban, and they did it.

My aim is to give a voice to the silent people, to show the hidden lights behind the curtain of the great game, the small worlds ignored by the media and the prophets of a global conflict.



Word List:

  • tale = story, usually fiction
  • grave = place in the ground where a body is buried, often in a cemetery
  • to deport = to officially force someone to leave a country
  • to hitchhike = to travel by asking for free rides in vehicles of unknown people
  • Leica = a brand of camera
  • to shower = to give a large number of things or a large amount of something to someone
Monika Bulaj’s stunning, painting-like photographs blur religious and cultural divisions, exploding stereotypes. She is a TED Fellow.

Monika Bulaj is a photographer and writer who explores -- in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe -- the dim areas of monotheism, where the sacred can transcend borders: Bonfires, dances, cults of the dead, possession rites. She describes outskirts and deserts, frontiers and megalopolis. And the world of the last ones: nomads, farmers, immigrants, outcasts, untouchables and impure.

Her photos and reportaging have been published by GEO, National Geographic (Italy), La Repubblica, periodicals by Gruppo Espresso and Rcs, Courrier International, Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), Internazionale, Freundin, Teatr (Poland) and other international magazines.
She has displayed more than 50 personal exibitions in Italy, Germany, Ungheria, Bulgaria, Egypt.

Her books include Libya felix, a travel into Sufism and the world of the Tuaregh; Figli di Noè, on minorities and faiths in Azerbaijian; Rebecca e la pioggia, on the nomadic tribe of the Dinka of South Sudan; Gerusalemme perduta with Paolo Rumiz, the special correspondent of La Repubblica, on the pellegrinage in the research of the Eastern Christians; Genti di Dio, viaggio nell'Altra Europa, a synthesis of 20 years of research in East Europe and Israel, and her latest book, Bozy ludzie.

She has screenwritten documentaries, among which is the movie Romani Rat (2002) by M. Orlandi, on the Holocaust of the Roms, with the contribution of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. She's the director, photography director, and screenwriter of the documentary Figli di Noè, about the villages of Caucasus on the border between Dagestan and Azerbaigian.