Kabul: Reconstructions explores the multiple manifestations, meanings and resonances of the idea of reconstruction – as both process and metaphor – in the city of Kabul in the last days of 2002. At that time, in the Afghan bureaucratic arena, dominated by the jargon and worldview of international NGOs, reconstruction referred to large-scale social and economic development projects meant to build or alter the infrastructure of the country’s administration, production, and regulation. On the local level, meanwhile, reconstruction seemed to translate into the literal renovations and new constructions undertaken by individuals as they seek to rebuild the physical city. Finally, for those of us outside Afghanistan, reconstruction came to mean the process by which we pieced together an image of this place and these people from the scraps of information gathered between the lines of mass media transmissions, the memories preserved in expatriate family stories, traditions and recipes, or personal communications from friends and family on the inside.
The video is made up of six different kinds of footage, all shot in Kabul in December 2002 and assembled into a loose database form: road footage from a drive through Kabul’s many neighborhoods and suburbs; scenes from construction sites around the city; carpenters from Nuristan building and hand-carving an ornamental cabinet to furnish my parents’ new Kabul home; dusk falling at the Microrayan, a housing project built – but never finished – during the Soviet era; the women of my family making aushak, a traditional Afghan dish; and a performance where in the absence of my father, who is my own primary link to the country, I decided to dress up in his clothes.
Kabul: Reconstructions was originally produced for a site-specific exhibition at Exit Art in New York, where it was installed on three monitors housed inside a replica of a UNHCR refugee tent. A carpet and pillows were arranged in the tent so that people could sit and watch the video, and one day a week I interacted with visitors to the tent by serving them tea and World Food Programme biscuits while offering to answer their questions about the project and about the current events in and history of Afghanistan. As part of the project, I also invited a group of Afghan-Americans and Afghans (including young journalism students from the AINA Afghan Media Center in Kabul) to revise and update my view of reconstruction by posting video, audio, images, text and links to a communal weblog, which can still be accessed online at www.kabul-reconstructions.net (in the archived section Follow the Information).
After the Exit Art exhibition closed, the website was adapted (in a continuing collaboration with programmer Ed Potter) to add a section called Ask A Question, where viewers could submit their questions about Kabul’s reconstruction through an online form. Once a question was submitted, I would use familial diasporic networks to transmit it to Kabul and bring back an answer, thereby enabling the general public to access these alternative sources of information about the Afghan situation that generally remain in the private realm. For over a year, I also maintained a monitor of Western media coverage of the reconstruction in the Follow the Information section of the site, so that visitors could contrast the very different kinds of information provided by these different sources. When the Ask section first went live, I sent an announcement to several listservs, which was forwarded across the Internet, and while the number of questions asked was relatively small (although they were surprisingly interesting and difficult to answer) the website received 50,000 hits in the next 12 months. It was also quickly indexed in major search engines, which meant that accidental viewers (people searching the terms “kabul” or “reconstruction,” for example) frequently found their way to the site. I continued to answer questions on the site occasionally until 2007, when I archived the Ask A Question section and added two new sections, Map the Jirga and Clock the Elections – web-based versions of the subsequent projects Kabul: Constitutions and Kabul: Selections.
Read the text about Kabul: Reconstructions and the collaborative construction of diasporic identity here.