As we arrived at Kabul’s Eesteqlal High School’s camera-monitored metal doors, where Institute Francois (the French cultural institute) was located, Nabila Horakhsh rang the buzzer and preceded to provide her name and the purpose of her visit to the man answering the speaker.
“I’m from Berang Arts. I’ve booked a meeting room for our art seminar at Institute Francois at 2pm,” she said.
The iron door on Ebn-e-Sina Road, disproportionately small in comparison to the roughly three-meter high concrete wall reinforced by a two-meter high metal fence, a common sight in Kabul, was opened by a large man. He continued with his questions and apparently not convinced, closed the door.
The man returned to the door several more times, asking more questions, relaying the information to someone inside, before eventually allowing access onto the premises, quickly shutting the door behind us.
“Stand here. One by one please,” he said, pointing to a spot near the door. There were more checks to be carried out.
Each person had to provide a photo ID, which had previously been emailed to the institute’s authorities for background checks, then photographed, followed by an airport style body and bag check with metal detectors, scanners and an inspector. Finally, the all-clear was given and another set of metal doors opened to a courtyard, and we headed to the institute for our seminar.
“After the suicide attack here (French Institute), everything changed. Now access to the space is very difficult, what the Taliban did really affected us,” says Horakhsh, explaining that before the 2014 attack, they were regular visitors and event holders at the institute.
The 30-year-old is a contemporary artist and co-founder of Berang Arts, an organisation that works to develop contemporary arts in Afghanistan. “Berang literally means colourless… to be pure of any immorality and badness. A symbolic word that matches our work which is contemporary and symbolic,” she says.
She fell into the world of arts in 2008 when she decided to take part in one of the first art classes organised for women, whilst completing her graduate course in Farsi Literature at Kabul University.
It changed her life, and by 2011, she went on to take a leadership role in Berang Arts, which she had established with other artists in 2009, and has since been working tirelessly to pave the way for contemporary artists and women.
My first meeting with Horakhsh in Afghanistan took place at her parent’s home near Gharjistan University, half an hour later than scheduled since the driver struggled to locate the address. Apparently somewhat of a common occurrence as the streets are rarely named, leaving landmarks to be used for directions.
The home, where Horakhsh lived until she was married in 2016, has survived through Mujahideen and Taliban’s reign.
We sit in one of the sitting-rooms, a rectangle-shaped space with a big window that faces a large courtyard at the back. Watercolour paintings hang on the walls, her father’s paintings she says, who paints in his spare time.
Petite and soft-spoken, Horakhsh apologises for the lack of artificial light in the room which is due to a power cut. “This is a new tactic the Taliban have adapted, they vandalise and cut the power lines.” She says the rumours are they cut the power when they have not been paid their “money”.
As the mother of one began to tell the story of her struggles as an artist in a conservative society and why arts are the key to change the current violent landscape, her mother, Habiba Langri, walks into the room. After warm Afghan pleasantries and offers of more sweets, tea, a short telling off to her daughter for not offering more fruit, she took her seat against a floor cushion, helping Horakhsh fill in details from her childhood days.
Horakhsh’s parents were forced to move the family from Kabul to Mazar, a province in northern Afghanistan, when Mujahideen’s fighting in the capital intensified. Langri says everyone had lost someone in the bloodshed, she herself had lost a brother, a talented painter whom she thinks Horakhsh takes after. Pointing to a framed picture of him on a shelf, she says “He was killed just a month after his wedding,” a subject that still brings tears to her eyes.
“Missiles were coming from every direction in Kabul so we moved. We were there (Mazar) for seven years and we had three to four good years there, but then Taliban slowly reached Mazar and destroyed it too,” Langri says.
Horakhsh’s father narrowly escaped the Taliban’s wrath. “If they (Taliban) heard you speaking Farsi (primarily spoken in Kabul) they would beat you or kill you. They came to our house and started questioning my father. He started speaking to them in Pashto, just like themselves, so they left him alone,” said Horakhsh.
The schools started to close for girls and three-year-old Horakhsh’s elder sisters, who were seven and eight, were forced to stay at home, a concept that Langri said was completely unacceptable to her husband. “Their father said the girls can’t sit at home. I will not allow my children to be uneducated.”
They had no choice but to endure around four months of, “brutal and frightening war” in Mazar but finally managed to escape when the fighting took a brief pause. The family sold their entire belongings “within four days” and packed a few bags to make the long and dangerous journey back to Kabul, with plans to travel to Pakistan from there.
“We left at 3am, I can’t express how I felt. My heart was in a horrific place every minute of that journey, I prayed all the time,” said Langri, unconsciously placing her hand on her chest as she spoke.
The trip took the family three days and three nights, using whatever means of transport along the way, including horses. After reaching Kabul, they spent another three days in the city before travelling to Pakistan.
In Pakistan, Langri found peace knowing all her children could get an education. But she said she was never happy being there, because “it wasn’t our home.”
“We paid a high price for the children to be able to study,” she adds.
The family returned to Kabul in 2002, after seven years in Pakistan. Their home was wrecked, destroyed by a missile. But Langri said they did not despair, it was their home and they rebuilt it.
Mother and daughter agree that although Taliban had been defeated some of their traditional views had been imprinted onto society.
“Before the Mujahideen and Taliban, women were free to dress as they liked. They could wear a hijab or mini skirts, it was very open. But it all changed,” said Langri.
Although the restrictions placed on women had been mostly lifted, including those forbidding them to leave the house without a male escort, it was still uncommon and frowned upon. Horakhsh’s sisters, now in their teens, were not as joyous as their mother about being back to their hometown.
Horakhsh says gradually as the years went on, women’s presence outside started to become less unusual, although even today there are significantly more men visible on the streets than women, and practically none at night.
“The society is very limited, very traditional, it’s problematic for us (women) and it’s not something that will change in the near future, this is something that will take a lot of time to change,” Horakhsh said.
Even attending an exhibition could prove to be difficult for Horakhsh and other fellow women artists, and requires a lot of logistics because they tend to run into the evening. Taxis are notably scarce when dark, leaving the women to have to organise being picked up by either family members or trustworthy hired drivers.
For Horakhsh, who lives 20km outside of Kabul, travelling to the city is made complicated by lack of transport and neighbour’s critical gossips. On the days that she has business in the city, she leaves her one-and-half-year old daughter with her mother-in-law, joins her husband at 6am for his commute to Kabul, and returns with him. Regardless of her appointment’s timing, she is in Kabul by 7.30am.
“My home is still considered part of Kabul…Imagine, in those far away provinces, their girls can’t even go to school, let alone be allowed to go out and work on arts,” she says wistfully.
She does not consider driving because it has its own set of challenges, such as harassment by men drivers or worse “slashed tyres”, and she insists even the women who drive are not brave enough to drive at night.
Horakhsh, her husband and their daughter live with four of her in-laws. The second storey of the villa is still under construction so the entire family currently resides on the ground floor.
Her husband’s family too had fled Afghanistan for Pakistan during the war, when they returned, her mother-in-law, Malali Thana, says, Kabul’s culture had changed too much.
“This is not what Kabul used to be like. It used to be clean, people were educated and free…we couldn’t live there anymore. This is much nicer and more peaceful,” Thana says.
Eager to see some of Horakhsh’s work, we head to her studio, which is the corner of the bedroom she shares with her husband and her daughter. When the construction is finished, she hopes to have a dedicated space for her work.
Horakhsh’s style is unique, she paints female like figures generally surrounded in colourful landscapes. Yet despite the bright colours, sadness and grief jump out of the paintings.
Her signature twisted figures with their hands up in the air surrounded by the trees are Horakhsh’s inner feelings, “screams, excitement and pain,” projected onto the canvas, inspired by her surroundings, the war and pain that she says have become part of everyday Afghan life.
“Today there is an explosion tomorrow there is no conversation about it, as if nothing has happened. It’s frightening when killing, injuries, explosions, become normal everyday things,” she says.
Her work is not generally understood by Afghans who she says expect art to be “beautiful landscapes and portraits,” because of the lack of progress and access to arts. She sells the bulk of her work at exhibitions held in embassies to westerners.
Horakhsh’s family and her husband’s family, unlike many in Afghanistan, are active supporters of her work and Berang Arts. They do not object to her organising seminars and workshops, with mixed groups of men and women, or travelling abroad for exhibitions and conferences. “I consider myself very fortunate when I think about those women who can’t leave their homes to go to school, and they long to do arts…this is a problem you will see all around Afghanistan.”
Horakhsh says even women who do pursue arts often give it up after they get married, because they are expected to run the house or their husbands do not approve of them continuing as artists. She balances it all by painting from 11pm onwards.
Having access to courses, space and art material are other common deterrents that artists face she says.
“Majority of artists here don’t have suitable space in their homes to work. It’s common for seven, eight family members to live in a small house together, they (an artist) can’t expect to have one room dedicated to themselves…and majority of families don’t have the financial means to provide a studio,” Horakhsh says.
Through Berang Arts she tries to tackle these issues by organising regular seminars, sometimes with academics and foreign experts, holds workshops and exhibitions, collaborates with Kabul University’s Fine Arts department, and when the group have offices they provide studios on their premises to artists to work freely or even provide those in need with art material.
They even introduced the “old academic lecturers” at Kabul University to the benefits of using technology, when a tour of Van Abbe Museum in Holland was organised using Beam - a robot at the museum which could be controlled from anywhere in the world. Over 300 people including students, lecturers and artists attended.
“For the first time here (Kabul), all the artists gathered and we toured this museum in Holland together. The university’s teaching methods are very old,” she says, and something that most art students she says complain about.
Funded mostly by its co-founders and by grants, often from foreign embassies, in 2016 they were unable to raise the roughly $12,000 a year needed to hire offices and had to give up their premises.
“We continue our work but having our own centre is extremely important for us…we would be able to do so much more.”
Despite the daily challenges, Horakhsh keeps on going because she believes “a country and society will only develop and be alive when arts and culture is alive within it, next to all its other developments. Arts and culture are like the soul in a society.”
“One of our goals in Berang (Arts) is to use art tools and events, to create a peaceful environment. An environment where everyone feels peaceful, where people hate wars and are tired of them,” she says.
At the French institute as the seminar to a group of about eight artists concluded, a debate about the next meeting location sparked. Without official offices, they meet wherever they can. “This area is a target, because there are so many western buildings, embassies around here,” one said.
“I am afraid whenever I am in this area, I know I can die just crossing a street around here,” added another artist.
While others, like Horakhsh, argued that they could not stay at home and be afraid of “I can die”.
“If there is an explosion, well what can you do? The situation here is such that every day that you leave home you might be caught up in an explosion. You can’t sit at home all year round because there might be an explosion,” she said.
A compromise was reached that they would only meet in this neighbourhood if they required the institute’s speedy internet and other facilities. After a few selfies and group pictures for their facebook page, the group parted ways. The way out was a one-way rotating iron door, followed by a second metal door.
It did not take long for me to understand why there were concerns about security. Myself, Horakhsh and her husband, who had arrived to provide Horakhsh a lift home, went for a bite to eat at Golbahar shopping mall, a five-minute walk from the school and a 10-minute walk from my hotel.
After the meal, we said our goodbyes and I met my driver outside, who looked a little shaken up. The closed road back to the hotel did not help his nerves. “There must have been an explosion, this road should not be closed,” he said.
At the hotel, there was extra security, no cars were getting in unless pre-approved despite the fact that all cars are always checked for weapons and explosives. The guards were more alert, the main entry doors were shut and guests had to use a separate entrance, one I did not even know existed. As I was having my bags checked at the first hotel checkpoint, the guards confirmed that an explosion had indeed taken place nearby. “Did you not hear it?” one asked.
The location of the food court in the basement had shielded us from hearing or feeling the explosion that took place nearby, minutes before we had stepped outside.
A terrorist had thrown grenades at the security checkpoint, luckily there were no fatalities.
The explosion did not make headlines and the conversation around it lasted about five minutes the next day among Kabulis. As Horakhsh had said, explosions are just part of daily life in Afghanistan.
Sarvy Geranpayeh is a UAE based writer who travelled to Afghanistan for the story.