Kabul Works It Out

The skateboard teacher © Kabul - City at Work

Bird seller

Those searching for an image of Kabul that goes beyond the façade of war, drug trafficking and security issues: look no further. Kabul – A City at Work is what you need. This multimedia project offers the stories of people working in Afghanistan’s capital on an online plate, through photographic portraits, interviews and video shorts.

Starting from the idea that Kabul has often been misrepresented, the project aims to show both Afghan viewers and an international public a different, positive side of the city by focusing on its economic life. “Since 2001 it has gone from a devastated ruin, with ninety percent of its buildings damaged or destroyed, to a city reborn. It is now a vibrant and fascinating metropolis of nearly 4 million people. Kabul at Work gives a voice to the people who keep this city humming along despite the war and mayhem”, as the website puts it. To sum up its goal: attracting a global audience for cultural issues in Kabul, giving Afghan people an international voice, getting rid of negative perceptions of Afghanistan and making way for future creative projects.

Quran maker

A mishmash of personal stories 

The international and Afghan crew behind Kabul at Work brings new episodes on a weekly basis, starring Kabul’s citizens in their very working environments. So far over eighty episodes have been put online. The day-to-day noise and everyday rumble of the city that other reporters and film makers desperately try to filter out of their documentaries, is exactly what Kabul at Work attempts to record. “Whether rich, poor, famous, mundane, or simply eccentric, these characters give you an intimate peek into a Kabul you never knew existed. Their stories, told in their own words, will paint a picture of Kabul that will entertain, shock, and inform at the same time,” the project’s website promises. It features individuals with different backgrounds and ages and from a variety of areas. There is the bird seller, reminiscing over the happy times he had in the mountains when he was fighting the Russians; the sweet maker, who became such an expert at his craft people come and ask his advice to start in the business; the skateboard teacher, the bone setter, the traffic control kid, the Qur’an maker… the list just goes on and on. Testimonies of people one would otherwise never hear from have been gathered, and collectively they give an idea of what the city is about, essentially.

Street kids on Macroyan housing complex skating with Skateistan

Ommulbanin Shamsia Hassani is one of them, a young graffiti artist who is part of a collective called Roshd (‘Growth’). “Modern art is a new concept here,” she says. “Afghans are against it. They say it’s what a Westerner does.” This inspiring woman sees that differently. She believes art has a role to play in representing a country: “I think art can change society. And we try our best. I know I can’t do it all on my own. But I want to bring change, even if I change one percent of people’s thoughts, it’s something.” She took her debuting steps as a graffiti artist during a workshop and is now working her way through the streets of Kabul, spray cans at the ready, introducing graffiti to Afghanistan for the very first time.

People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

The man behind all this is photojournalist David Gill, who has been living in the dynamic city of Kabul for several years now. The first time he went to Afghanistan was for work purposes. “The more I lived in Kabul, the more I was fascinated about the people around it,” he says, “The reason why I went to live in Afghanistan was because I was tired of trying to tell a story about people’s lives from afar, just dropping in, parachuting in and then leaving again.” He was inspired by a book of American historian Studs Terkel, called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

The Kabul at Work story gathering method is mixed. Sometimes someone would come up to David Gill with the advice to have a talk with a certain individual, other times seemingly hazardous encounters led to an interesting story. It is not always easy to get people to speak about how they perceive themselves: “I’m not sure that Afghan people, people traditionally from a more tribal culture, actually talk about themselves as individuals. That has been one of the most difficult aspects of the project to be honest, to get people to talk about themselves in the first person,” David Gill admits.

Abdullah Haji Wakil - the bone setter of Kabul

A round of applause

A part of the interviews have already been broadcast on Al Jazeera, and as a series on Afghan television. Gill: “It was so well received the TV station repeated it three times. Individual Afghans have spoken to myself. At first they were like: why do you want to interview me? I’m just a taxi driver, I’m just a sweet maker. Now they get the concept of it, and I think they can promote the idea that ‘normal people have a voice’. Because everyone has interesting lives in Kabul. It’s a war-torn country, thirty years of war. Most people have got a very interesting historical background.”

The hope of the project makers is to keep the project alive with the help of community leaders, project managers, volunteers and local mentors. This way it could turn out to be an anthropological study that reaches other urban and rural areas in Afghanistan as well, and eventually will render a voice to thousands and thousands of unheard stories all over the world.

 Traffic control kid

Photos: © Kabul – A City at Work


This post is also available in: Dutch