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Media scholar Wazhmah Osman’s book, Television and the Afghan Culture Wars: Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists (University of Illinois Press, 2021) analyzes the impact of international funding and cross-border media flows on the national politics of Afghanistan. Her research is rooted in feminist media ethnographies that focus on the political economy of global media industries and the regimes of representation and visual culture they produce.
Osman’s critically acclaimed 2007 documentary, Postcards from Tora Bora, has been shown in festivals around the world. Prof. Osman was born in Kabul, and grew up in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. As the United States completes its two-decade intervention in Afghanistan, Osman sat down with Jeannette Estruth to discuss her new book, her past films, and the uncertain future of a nation.
This interview was conducted via Zoom, with participants sitting on lands which are the ancestral lands of the Lenape, Munsee, and Muhheaconneok people.
Jeannette Estruth: Professor Osman, you were a filmmaker before you wrote this book: could you talk a little bit about your film and your earlier filmmaking work?
Wazhmah Osman: Before I made the film and before grad school, I worked in the media industry. I worked for a bunch of TV stations in New York. I have a double BA in English and film from Rutgers. And so I got into the production world, but I didn’t like the corporate aspects of it, including the hierarchy, nepotism, and contingent labor types of things.
After a few years of that, I moved towards independent journalism and filmmaking. I started working with small production houses and film co-operatives like Millennium Film Workshops, Good Machine, and Al Jazeera. Then, together with a few friends, I formed a film crew.
After 9/11, there was so much misinformation about the Afghan people and Afghanistan. Even the role of Afghanistan, as it connects to the events of 9/11, is still fuzzy. There was so much misinformation in news reports, documentaries, and books. Yet it launched the US military operations and a Forever War in Afghanistan, the longest war in US history.
We decided to go back to the source and assess some of that information, in particular, the narrative around saving Afghan women. That was one way that the war was sold to American audiences, especially in the anti-war movement. It was a way of packaging and justifying the conflict, and getting more people on board.
So we went to Afghanistan and shot the documentary over the course of three summers when we had time off [from our academic work.] And when we came back, most of the footage was interviews we did with different Afghan women across different segments of society, about the situation of women and whether their lives had improved post-U.S. intervention and international development aid.
It was largely ethnographic. However, when we had test screenings, most people connected more with the personal story which we were shooting on the side, which was my story and my family’s story of becoming refugees of war, as well as the loss of going back to places that I remembered and seeing them destroyed and not being there. And so after we collected these questionnaires and listened to people we shifted the focus from a more traditional talking heads documentary to a more personal, unconventional, and somewhat experimental one that combines animation with live action.
It received a good bit of critical attention and did well in film festivals, but in terms of getting it broadcast and sold, and reaching wider audiences, it was very challenging. The types of things we were doing at that time—like flashbacks and flash-forwards and dream sequences—are now commonplace. But at the time, it was too unconventional for corporate media channels including PBS. PBS’s POV was initially interested but they dropped the ball perhaps because they didn’t know how mainstream audiences would respond to an Afghan-American refugee perspective.
JAE: You talked about a cohort or crew of people who were your interlocutors at that moment. Was New York City part of your creative process, and if so, how?
WO: That’s a great question. I mean, if it wasn’t for New York I wouldn’t have met so many great people, so that creative and intellectual community was really important. Look at how we met in Brooklyn through our shared friend group which is a crossover of artists, academics, and journalists. People who are drawn to city life are a particular type of people. They are open-minded and curious, there’s a real community feeling and an intellectual intensity. There are so many amazing people here from around the world and all the other states too.
JAE: Would you speak about how you came to the book project? Was there a relationship between filmmaking, and what became your book?
WO: The filmmaking process and book writing process, or writing of an article for that matter— the thing they all have in common is that it’s difficult. I have so much respect for my research subjects, who were mostly journalists, media makers, and filmmakers because I know how hard it is to produce work, especially in a war zone.
Similar to what led my film crew and I to make Postcards from Tora Bora, with the book, which started as something else, my dissertation. I wanted to bring the voices of Afghans into the fold, to redirect the global conversations about Afghanistan to Afghans. But aside from that broad objective, I didn’t know the best route to achieve that.
Initially, I wanted to work with the Afghan diaspora in Queens, New York, just because it was the easiest thing to do. And truth be told, my advisor, anthropologist Faye Ginsburg, encouraged me to go back to Afghanistan for my dissertation research because I have the language skills and cultural fluency.
I had recently returned from making and then screening the film there but I went back for fieldwork. That was my longest trip, a full consecutive year. There’s the official work that you produce but I always say I could write another book on all the behind-the-scenes aspects of traveling throughout Afghanistan and central and south Asia. Initially, I was thinking about working on film festivals, just because I had experience with the international film festival circuits. But ultimately, I decided to work on TV because I realized that the film industry, social media, and print didn’t reach wide audiences because there are high illiteracy rates and for infrastructural reasons.
Because I also wanted to direct the dialogue about Afghanistan back to Afghans, and TV and radio broadcast technologies are very important there, that was where I needed to do research. Most of the big debates and cultural wars around gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, sectarian violence, the role of U.S. development and military interventions, and the international donor community, were happening through television. So I think that’s ultimately what led me to the book project.
JAE: Once you were immersed in fieldwork and research, how did that process unfold?
WO: I am trained as an ethnographer. My methodological background is anthropological and in critical media studies. Being a filmmaker prior to that, I’m comfortable interviewing people. So that was my primary method, going into it.
There were many challenges while I was there: how I was being perceived and having access to some media venues and not others. I mean, I identify as Afghan American. I spent most of my life here [in the United States]. I am a mixed culturally, nationally, and ethnicity-wise, kind of a combination of things in Afghanistan.
So, that helped in many ways getting access to some of the more sectarian stations. You have T.V. stations that are more religious, or more secular, or more left, although they don’t use the word left as much. They say “Roshan figure,” which means “enlightened thinker,” partially because of the stigmatization and affiliation of the left with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
And so, it was challenging, because I had to present certain aspects of myself in order to get access to different media outlets, and personally it was an act of becoming almost like a chameleon. Sometimes I was like, “Who am I?” I had to do so much code-switching, and shifting identities.
For instance, my youngest sister Fatima came to visit me during this time. I went to pick her up at the International Airport and she didn’t even recognize me, and she was like “You look one of our aunts,” and I was like, “well yeah of course, if I’m going to survive here, and take the bus and taxi like everybody else, and I’m on a student budget, I have to blend in.” It’s a survival mechanism.
JAE: What would you hope is the most significant thing that people who are not familiar with the Afghan media landscape take away from the book?
WO: The book writing process for me was an act of figuring out what the research was telling me and how to frame that into a cohesive argument. What I wanted to say, and then having the confidence to put it out there, challenges some of the dominant narratives on Afghanistan. You know–and I talk about this in the book–when I moved from journalism and filmmaking to academia, I had this idea that in academia, the discourse on Afghanistan was going to be much more accurate and thoughtful, and that was not the case at all.
In fact, I realized that is where much of the public misperceptions of Afghanistan, the negative perceptions of Afghanistan, that Afghan people are “tribal” or that we’re “backwards” come from. These are actual words that academics use, including “frozen in time,” and “stuck in time.” Afghans are also portrayed, you know, as extremely misogynist, highly patriarchal, so forth, and so on.
That’s not to say there is no truth to those things,. But what I was also trying to communicate was that there’s incredible creativity, and social movements led by people, reformers, and activists, who every day are risking their lives to create a more progressive, more egalitarian, pluralistic, democratic, diverse society. Those are the stories we don’t hear, and it’s because of this colonial history and its contemporary incarnations. If you read Rudyard Kipling onwards towards to Winston Churchill, and so forth, they all perpetuate these myths.
By going to the source and explaining geopolitics from the ground up, it naturally presents a view that is different from the view at the top.
JAE: Maybe we could turn to the fact that in October, it will have been 20 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan.
WO: This is now the United States’ longest war. I think it’s really important to think about and reckon with the fact that the US is the last superpower standing in the wake of the Cold War. We could have used that opportunity to be a force of good domestically and internationally. Yet we’ve become an empire. I mean the amount of funding and percentage of the government budget that goes into the military spending and things like that here, compared to other countries is, is unreal.
That shapes who we are. We have seen glimpses of the true cost of war, largely thanks to whistleblowers and investigative journalists and other people who’ve taken great risks to themselves in order to uncover things like Guantanamo, and what happened at Bagram and other types of extrajudicial programs such as torture and rendition. So I think we need to really stop and pause and think about that, as well as the consequences of that, including the global refugee crisis.
Afghanistan and Syria, for example, flip flop as the number-one country with the most refugees. But we have also destabilized countries throughout the world. So as people whose tax money is going to support all of this, we have to really think about all of that. After the Vietnam War, there was a moment of reckoning, which spurred a strong anti-war movement and accountability from our elected officials, and now I don’t see much of that.
JAE: What do you make of the Biden administration’s delay in withdrawing of US troops from Afghanistan?
WO: Trump was going to withdraw on May 1, and Joe Biden then chose September 11. The Taliban were not happy with that. But it doesn’t really matter, you know. I think what matters more is what withdrawing troops means. Brown University’s Costs of War project and other studies show that a lot of it is just shifting to private contractors, drone surveillance, and aerial war.
So it’s less about ending the war and more restructuring it to shift accountability and public perception. Much of the burden of the Forever War has already shifted to the Afghan National Army, who are beholden to the US government, as well as to private contractors. And how many army bases will be left? How many prisons will be left? How many of them are black sites that we don’t even know about?
So I think those are some of the bigger questions. I’ve heard people talking about how that there needs to be some kind of UN peacekeeping troop presence, because you have all of these ruthless warlords, who essentially became warlords largely thanks to Cold War geopolitics.
So we do have some kind of responsibility to make things better. I mean, some Afghans, I have to say, wanted US troops to stay, so I don’t want to speak for all Afghans. But there should be some peacekeeping troops or something because it’s a highly volatile environment for people who, largely thanks to US policies, are trying to do more progressive work.
JAE: What would you like to see more of, policy-wise?
WO: At this point, I wish there could be a simple policy to improve the dystopic situation in Afghanistan. One easier solution is to bring more people into the fold, because so far, the US, at least the previous administration, was largely focusing on negotiating with the Taliban.
But there are so many civil society groups and amazing people in Afghanistan. You know women and men who are doing such incredible work, giving those people more of a voice and a seat at the table, would be a good start. People who are on the ground every day are trying to implement and put policies in place in order to create a democratic society. They want to hold lawless warlords accountable, both local warlords and international warlords.
We also need visas for these activists, filmmakers, and journalists, and media makers, and other reformers who are regularly targeted by warlords and conservative groups —they need international support. Post- 9/11, it would have been very effective and the country wouldn’t be as bad off as it is right now if the US-led coalition had actually put some of the warlords on trial, instead of giving them positions in the government, but now they’re even more powerful than ever. I think that would be a very difficult task now.
There have been so many policy blunders in the tangled history between the US and Afghanistan, it makes one wonder if perpetual war is the endgame.
Wazhmah Osman is an assistant professor in Temple University’s Department of Media Studies and Production and the PhD program in Media and Communication.
Jeannette Estruth is Assistant Professor of History at Bard College, and a Faculty Associate at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.