Swans Commentary » swans.com April 23, 2012  



A Lance For Humanity


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Torsello, Gabriele: Afghanistan CameraOscura 2011, KASH GT, Alessano, Italy, ISBN 978-88-906173-0-0, 180 color photos, 320 pages, €35. (An English language version of the Italian edition is in preparation.)


(Swans - April 23, 2012)   There's something wrong in calling Gabriele Torsello a freelance. He had to dub himself one in Kashmir and in Afghanistan to explain to the authorities why he was there. But it's impossible to imagine him wielding any kind of arm, even a blunted mediaeval spear. He is so obviously a man of peace that he stands out as such even on his native ground in the heel Italy, which is known for preferring a good sleep to anything so sweaty as violence.

Gabriele -- he's someone who lends himself to first names, no introduction needed -- also stands out by his appearance in this region of tame, small towns, olive groves, and dry, red earth edged by the sea. Underneath he's a solid, Southern Italian of medium height in his forties. A closer look reveals nerve-free body language. The persona on top, in scholar's spectacles, sports an untrimmed beard of the bushy sort worthy of an imam or, with appropriate headgear, an Orthodox Jew. Both are scarce items in these parts. Clothes may not make the man, but they can go some way toward a remake. Dress was part of Gabriele's project.

Afghanistan CameraOscura tells in words of Gabriele's quest in 2001 to enter that country and how he finally managed to cross the border in 2005. Quest may not be the best word for his being kidnapped and held as a hostage in 2006. But though it sounds pretentious and evokes a smile and the idea of windmills under assault, quest is nevertheless the right word for Gabriele's intentions. At one point he tells us he is engaged in a one-man Jihad for the liberty of the press. He believes passionately in photo journalism, not as a political weapon or as blood and guts porn or as a well-paid career, but as a record of what everyday life is like. His pictures of Afghans aren't clever, cute, or even tragic. They are not primarily beautiful. They simply say that this is how most people live there just now.

Gabriele had been in Kashmir and in 2003 published The Heart of Kashmir (Kash GT, ISBN-10:0954224507, 192 pages, with photos). He lived with ordinary folk to see what life was like caught between the long, cruel Indian occupation and Pakistan's thrusting ambition. It was at Srinegar he became a Muslim. Reading the Koran he was surprised to find the values he had always prized contained in a religion. When asked if similar values weren't found at home, Gabriele, now also Abudur Rahaman or Kash Gabriele, answered, "Yes." However, he explained, religion in Europe was a Sunday-only affair. Among his new Kashmiri friends it was "a constant presence that conditioned every hour of the day, making God truly omnipresent." For Gabriele it was their religion that made "Kashmir and Kashmiris so special and unique."

In 2001 the Taliban governed Afghanistan. Gabriele, determined to photograph Afghan life, left Kashmir, and took a bus through Pakistan to Peshawar, the frontier town facing Afghanistan. There he began a patient struggle at the Taliban embassy to acquire a visa. He met with refusals of every sort, often contradictory. Weeks passed. He became a fixture around the embassy and hung out with the staff. Finally, maybe to get rid of him, he was given the necessary papers. He immediately booked a seat in a taxi for Kabul. The trip stopped short of the border. Officials told him he would have to go back.

George W. Bush, making a statement after 9/11, had begun to bomb Afghanistan. The Taliban, who refused to hand over their guest, Osama bin Laden, were also routinely executing journalists as spies. The taxi was going on, but Gabriele stood beside it at the roadblock, undecided.

A Mercedes drew up with a sign in the window marked "Press." Out popped an Americanized Afghan named Aziz Hadari who worked for Reuters. Then comes a snatch of humor. Hadari said: "Your threads are fantastic! White shalwar-kameez, tight black jacket, long beard and hair. You look like a real Afghan, a Talib Al-ll." Gabriele had to refuse to have his picture taken by the Reuters man. Hadari insisted that being stopped at the road block was easily overcome by a bribe. Gabriele should come along with him to Kabul. But the Italian, with his usual good sense on the rim of a volcano, said no thanks. Hadari and the three other journalists in his car were killed before they reached Kabul. As for Gabriele, all dressed up for Afghanistan, he wouldn't enter the country till 2005.

The Taliban had been driven from power by then. The U.S. had set up the Hamid Karsai government at the end of 2004 and unleashed more dogs of war. Third Millennium killer technology, in coalition with bullied partners, ravaged a country of poor farmers and herdsmen. It was time to flee the place, not to play the tourist, and no wonder everyone, friend and foe, suspected Gabriele of naiveté or some dastardly contrivance. Had they seen the pictures he took, which fill this book, they might have changed their minds.

Free enterprise came to Kabul with the Karzai puppet regime. Everything was up for sale. Profit was there for the grabbing. International entrepreneurs had moved in with their own security contractors. Anyone with a sales pitch could get over the border. Gabriele flew to Islamabad and repeated his trek to Peshawar. This time he crossed the border easily and found a taxi for Kabul. His view of the city in 2005 is worth quoting (p. 81):

Kabul is densely crowded in daytime. There are little markets everywhere that sell everything. Masses of people fill the passageways and vehicles of every description clog the roads. Beggars are so numerous they become invisible to the eye of the passersby. They are like the city's ruins, like the walls full of bullet holes, like the rusted tank carcasses, like the skeleton buildings ready to fall. Beggars are present as part of the normal cityscape, a regular sight offering nothing new. One tries to ignore them because they are part of the suffering and violence that has bestrode Afghanistan for the last thirty years. The beggars aren't refused and alms are given, but the desire for change is so frenetic that the problems of survivors are easily overlooked. The priority given to the country's reconstruction is so strong that "ordinary" people who need help are placed at the bottom of an imaginary waiting list. A building riddled by missiles will be knocked down and rebuilt in armed concrete and blue glass. But a poor neighborhood handmade of mud and straw will be left to rot. Whole families will still live there without running water or electricity. Medical help follows the same pattern.

Many of Gabriele's Kabul photos are of a little girl he met with her mother in the street. Struck by child's fragile beauty marred by a fearsome growth on one side of her face, the photographer offered to help the family. The incident was typical of his modus operandi. Though familiar with the international aid agencies, Gabriele's point of departure was always the individual and his personal connection. In this case he led the family through the whole medical process while at the same time documenting it with his camera. The photos are not clinical nor celebratory. They aren't mementos. They don't solicit pathos. What they do is state lucidly a predicament. Esthetics are secondary. Primary is the mother's face when help comes or the father's emotion as he holds the child while taking his place in a long line at a ramshackle hospital.

Without articulating the question, Gabriele makes us ask it: Are the lives of "their" children -- these "others" -- worth the life of one of ours? How not to ask in March 2012 in Kandahar when an American soldier kills seventeen villagers in their homes, nine of them children, and the event is immediately obscured by Washington gobbledygook? How not to ask in 2008-9 in Gaza when the Israeli incursion "Cast Lead" cost the lives of five hundred children, all "others"?

Gabriele isn't a man of cities. His native Salento on Italy's margins taught him that truly to understand a country he had to travel to its far corners. He did this by bus or taxi always dressed as an Afghan and not only photographing people but talking to them. To explore rural Afghanistan was to go backward in time. There were no cement buildings and transport reverted to carts pulled by animals. In Badakshan he found the world's highest rate of mothers dying after giving birth. As in Kabul he traced the emotions evoked by this sad fact in the faces of people who lived through it. Again he showed in all their insufficiency the medical facilities available. Once more his tone was not polemical but simply that of a witness. This proved true even when he photographed ISAF personnel, members of the International Security Assistance Force, i.e., NATO's armed forces occupying Afghanistan. The camera points out wordlessly the anomaly of their presence among the scrawny camels and the dirt poor. Their twenty-first century body language and their military juggernaut, yet again, forces us to ask a question. By what right and in whose interest are they lounging there in their glass bubble in the sand?

Moving eastward Gabriele visited Khost province meant by geology to be part of the tribal zones of Pakistan. He photographed a dozen men and boys stripped to the waist and training with one boxing glove between them. Their unsmiling eyes look at us and what's behind us as if the camera has brought them to some ultimate showdown with destiny.

After touching down at Kabul Gabriele boards a taxi for the five hundred kilometers to Kandahar on an asphalt road. It stops four times for prayers. In this key city of the south, Gabriele takes a hotel room and wanders the streets. He's stopped by the police and brought to their headquarters with all his baggage. The police chief tells him he will be sleeping in the adjoining governor's residence henceforth. A kind of honorary prisoner, he dines with the police officials who smile soberly for his camera.

His time at Lashkar-Gah, farther west in a dip that cuts into Pakistan, is more adventurous. His understated account contains his credo and dazzles by its calm. p.223:

My first forty-eight hours at Lashkar-Gah, whose exact translation is "City of the Warrior," were nerve-racking since I risked being shot. This was because the soldiers thought I looked like a Taliban mullah or an Arab mujahideen. I should point out that fear and suspicion came mainly from the photographic gear I carried about my person. Memory was still fresh of the Lion of the Panjur's assassination. Amhed Shah Massoud, a national hero, died during a simulated TV interview when two terrorists disguised as journalists filled a videocamera with explosives. I was also under suspicion because I didn't wear Western clothes and unlike many Western journalists had no translator, guide or armed escort.

It's worth pointing out that suicide attacks were unknown in Afghanistan until Massoud's death. The American-led NATO occupation of Afghanistan may not have brought democracy or peace, but it managed to provoke kamikaze warfare in a country where it had no precedent.

Though Gabriele had almost got himself shot for his Muslim attire and lavish hair and beard, he saw his manner of travel as the right one:

This way of travel, alone and in direct contact with the population, allowed me to know and photograph the local people's everyday existence. It let me enter situations and places I could not have experienced if I had presented myself as a typical Westerner. By adopting the dress, culture and habits of a place, the traveller can get past the first ideological hurdle, which is diversity. He can make possible a meeting of human beings, irrespective of culture and civilization.

Here Gabriele touches the eternal problem of the travel writer and the anthropologist. How deep and genuine can his identification ever be with the "other"? Can it be total? Gabriele's optimism on the subject, overflowing with goodwill, will seem an oversimplification to some who have wrestled with the difficulty. He has, for instance, adopted the religion of the people he seeks to know. But for all his generous empathy and efforts of sympathetic imitation will he ever know what it feels like for a Muslim villager to step into a mosque? Gabriele seems more convincing in the following when he speaks of lessening, not eliminating, "diversity and prejudice."

To live in direct contact with the people of a remote village that has never seen anything of the West, even on TV, lets us grasp and analyze their viewpoint on matters that interest everyone in the world, whatever his degree of economic, social and cultural development. To translate this into photography and narrative, one must immerse oneself in what is being documented and attempt to neutralize or at least reduce the diversity and prejudice that the translation comports.

If we can forget for a moment the murderous times in which Gabriele is moving, we can't help chuckle at his resemblance to one of Queen Victoria's eccentric travelers. The Governor of Helmand told him: "You look like a terrorist. You dress like an Afghan, have a long beard and arrive in Lashkar-Gah without authorization. We have to arrest you." But the Italian, now Abudur Rahaman or Kash Gabriele, was not taken aback. He gave the Governor a lesson in native dress, p.215:

I replied very calmly that I considered my attire, the classic ample shirt and pantaloons, the salwar-kameez, a sign of respect toward Afghan culture. Moreover, it's a comfortable and practical ensemble widely used among Afghans and by Muslims in other countries. It's more comfortable to sit on the ground in a pair of wide pantaloons than in a pair of tight jeans, and in the villages seats are unknown. As for my beard, in addition to its esthetic value, it protects my face from the heat of the sun and the bites of mosquitoes.

During Gabriele's three weeks in Lashkar-Gah he made friends at the hospital run by the international charity called "Emergency." He also looked over the poorly-endowed public school and a madrassa. Since the first was opposed by some of the locals as a foreign intrusion, he's surprised to find one of its teachers also active in the Koranic school. The man's explanation puts supposedly obscurantist madrassa instruction in a different light. The children not only learnt the Koran, said the teacher, but their social role, how to live together, respecting each other, and also to value coexistence in harmony with what is around them.

Moving on to Musa Quala in Taliban country, Gabriele's vulnerability increased. All sides in the conflict saw him as an enemy. Photographing the ruins left by the NATO bombing of the Taliban town made him look like a government spy. Moreover, the Karzai regime had issued a directive on June 12, 2006, that, in a word, prohibited any reporting that didn't favor it. Gabriele, who prized press freedom above everything, was as shocked by this document as by anything that he had experienced in Afghanistan so far. But there was more to come.

Since there was no place to lodge near Musa Quala, Gabriele had simply knocked on a door at random and managed to have himself invited in to stay. After several days the householder, suddenly struck with fear, insisted Gabriele was in great danger and must leave immediately. He did so, returning to Laskar-Gah by taxi. There he was able to send off his photos of the NATO bombings, which were important as he was the only journalist to see the destruction.

On October 12, 2006, he set out again, this time boarding a bus for Kandahar. In route it was stopped by armed men and Gabriele alone was removed. He had been kidnapped. In Afghanistan CameraOscura Gabriele gives a singular account of his incarceration. It stays scrupulously within his lived experience at the time. For days he's trundled around the countryside blindfolded and spends his nights chained up in sheepfolds. His captors are sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. If his living conditions are harsh, theirs are hardly better. What torments him is not knowing who they are or what they want. They impress him more as bandits than Taliban. Something makes him think they may be Afghan police moonlighting.

The Italian government obtained his release on November 3 by, rumor has it, paying two million dollars. A Taliban spokesman said the abductors were common criminals and when caught would be treated as such. Gabriele has not rushed to judgment about who was behind his kidnapping. Several years' pondering leads him to believe it was someone in the structure of the international aid system, a false friend. But he's not vindictive. He's curious to solve a moral enigma more than to bring anyone to justice. ANSA, Italy's wire service, reported that church bells rang across southern Puglia as word spread of his release. We can imagine him arriving home and regaining his habitual calm. But it's hard to imagine him not wearing his pantaloons and salwar-kameez with a prayer cap on his head.


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Published April 23, 2012