Reaching a wider audience (above: a cat listens to the live broadcast of the BBC Today Programme on Radio 4 at the British base in Basra Palace, 2006)

Monday, 11 August 2008

Arm Yourself with Books

“You want weapons? We're in a library. Books. Best weapons in the world. This room is the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”

I have spent the past week finding out about the media in Afghanistan. I embarked each morning once the suicide hour had passed (by 10am they have either detonated, been caught, or chickened out - allegedly), climbed aboard a deliberately dusty (low profile) Toyota and bumped around the pot holed streets of Kabul visiting various media organisations, until night fall drove me back to my lodge where I gathered thoughts, compared stories and grilled everyone I could lay my hands on about what radio stations they listen to.

On my return, I feel as if I have travelled back (forward?) in time to the reality of the British school holidays, my adrenaline rushes fuelled by breaking up squabbling kids rather than unfounded fears for my safety. I don’t have to look far to see three examples of modern media consumers. My teenage daughter texts and instant messages far more than she speaks and my to sons pour through piles of DVDs, TV channels and YouTube clips of people falling off bicycles in search of entertainment. And (I impress myself here) we even scuttled off to the village library yesterday (open once a week in the old school house) where the kids begged to borrow and the lady who worked there gave my residency in the village the benefit of her doubt. My daughter has been glued to a Louise Rennison “knicker novel” since.

You might think a depressing contrast to last weeks assessments, however despite the lack of media law in Afghanistan, I was struck by the advent of hundreds of radio and TV stations – many of them self funding and commercial (importantly NOT reliant on external money). We picked up a mobile phone for peanuts (with a clever registration system designed to catch out kidnappers) and market stalls were loaded with DVDs for sale (I was told you could buy Ross Kemp for under a dollar – I assume they meant his series filmed in Helmand rather than the man himself). I was also impressed with the sheer numbers of newspapers and magazines bursting onto the scene. One outlet told me that even down south in traditional Pashto areas, women’s magazines were popular. The guest house I was staying in provided more than one English Language newspaper neatly tucked under my pot of green tea every morning with breakfast. Although broadcast media and developments like SMS technology are impressive, it is this return of the written word which moves me most.

A few summers ago, I read about Sultan Khan’s attempts to salvage Afghanistan’s history and literature by secretly buying and selling books in Seiierstad’s novel, The Bookseller of Kabul. Khan risked his life for his passion, but the tragedy is that so much did not survive. As Hamida Ghafour describes in her heart rendering account in the Sleeping Buddha as she searches for evidence of the written words of her late grandmother, “books that survived the communist purges, were looted by the Mujahideen and what was left was burned by the Taleban”.

So to meet, as I did this week, a former Mujahideen commander who had fulfilled his life long dream of opening a public library is hope that there might be a lasting wind change. As a result of recent history, books are at least on the surface treasured by all. The very idea that our second-hand shops and car boot sales in Britain are overflowing with paperbacks would be met with bafflement in Afghanistan, even amongst the illiterate.

Whilst Thomas Carlyle may have said, “the greatest University of all is a collection of books”, there is a more sinister use for the written word than pure learning. In a chilling twist, I learned this week that the insurgents (amongst them foreign Taleban, old school Talibs, and War Lords, but not exclusively so) are using the pen along with their swords of might and have launched in recent months a sophisticated press operation capable of out-spinning both the Government of Afghanistan and the international community put together. Along with a state of the art website, they issue up to ten press statements a day in Dari, Pashto and English, this compares dramatically with NATOs habit of English-only releases and the Governments recorded inability and reluctance to interact with Afghan journalists. I have to wonder – what else have they got planned?

The quotation at the start of this article came not from a War Lord, but from a battle weary Time Lord. My children have been momentarily pacified by Doctor Who, and the squabbles have been abated – but his words send a chill through me and in a poignant moment I wonder whether the Government of Afghanistan and her allies are prepared for this battle. Arm yourself indeed.