Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Sharbat: The Afghani Mona Lisa behind bars

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian reflects on the story of an Afghan woman who was twice the cover of an international magazine and who was arrested last week

Al-Ahram Weekly

Do you remember the famous portrait of a beautiful young girl with searing green eyes and a dark complexion, wearing a red scarf around her head and staring intensely at the camera?

Afghani Sharbat Gula, who was believed to have been 12 at the time, in 1984, was photographed by award-winning American photojournalist Steve McCurry to appear on the cover of National Geographic magazine as his subject, “The Afghan Girl.” The image of Gula’s face was named “the most recognised photo in the history of the magazine” and has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Sharbat’s photo has also been called “The First World’s Third World Mona Lisa.”

Last week, Gula who is currently in her mid-40s, was arrested, accused of having a forged Pakistani identity card that allowed her to stay in Pakistan since she fled the conflict between Afghan mujahideen and Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. In young Sharbat’s case, her beautiful but embattled face— resolute, silent but accusing — spoke volumes about the struggle of human beings fleeing war and seeking asylum, not only in Afghanistan, but anywhere, then and in the future. Gula’s parents were killed in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the young girl walking with her grandmother and four siblings across the mountains to Pakistan.

The photo that was first introduced to the world by McCurry was taken three decades ago at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar in Pakistan. At that time people weren’t much interested to know who the cover girl was. Indeed, no one knew her name for 17 years until the photographer wished to meet the cover girl again and travelled back to Pakistan in 2002. Sharbat at that time was in Afghanistan and lived near Tora Bora mountains, by this time a mother. As a traditional Muslim woman, Sharbat wasn’t allowed to meet men outside her family. But then her husband allowed her to be photographed and she came to meet McCurry in Pakistan. Since then the photographer stayed in contact with her.

Steve McCurry thinks that the world sees the humanity in Sharbat and that she wants the same things we all do, but she lives in another part of the world. Sharbat eventually became a widow with three children. A fourth died in infancy. A woman who continues struggling with life’s tough circumstances.

“When I photographed her in 2002, she looked hardened because of the climate, anxiety, lack of proper hygiene, poor nutrition. Despite all she’s endured, she’s still going,” McCurry told Al-Jazeera English news Website last week. He took another photo of adult Sharbat in 2002 — with a look as striking as the first one — and when the second photo was published in the April 2002 issue of the National Geographic with an article about her life, written by Cathy Newman, this time McCurry received thousands of letters from people around the world expressing interest in marrying, adopting or helping her financially.

“Personally for me, I was so curious as to who she was,” McCurry said. Sharbat, until 2002 had no idea that her image published in 1985 had been seen by millions. It was only then her story began to be told.

Last week, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) along with security forces raided Sharbat’s house, searched all her belongings, took important papers, and money, amounting to $2,800, and arrested her.

McCurry expressed his willingness to continue to help this woman whom he considers part of his life. The award-winning photographer made a statement when he was informed of Sharbat’s arrest. “I am committed to doing anything and everything possible to provide legal and financial support for her and her family. We object to this action by the authorities in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “She has suffered throughout her entire life, and we believe that her arrest is an egregious violation of her human rights,” he said in his statement.

McCurry wishes justice to be done to Sharbat and that she be treated in a respectful and dignified way.

The day Sharbat was arrested, Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch published a column commenting on her arrest. In his column, Simpson praised the Pakistani government’s past action in protecting the young girl who captured the world’s attention, saying: “Pakistani authorities could rightly hold their heads up high three decades ago.” He added: “Now they are well on their way to shredding their reputation as a generous refugee hosting country.”

Sharbat Gula could face up to 14 years in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted of bribery, according to the Pakistani National Database Registration Authority (NADRA). The FIA are also trying to catch three officers thought to have been responsible for giving her a fraudulent ID card.

Millions of Afghans were displaced from their lands by the conflict between the mujahideen and occupying Soviet forces. They established businesses and started families in Pakistan. The number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan today is 2.5 million. But now they are not welcomed, but actively blamed for crime and terrorism.

NADRA says it has uncovered 60,675 fraudulent ID cards. This at a time when the number of Afghans leaving Pakistan is rising following a government crackdown and an increase in UN financial assistance to Afghan refugees going back to their country. According to a UN report, more than 350,000 Afghan refugees have already left Pakistan to return to their roots, most of them young Afghans who were born in Pakistan.

Inspired by McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl” photo, Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish released an instrumental song, “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula,” in their 2015 album Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Sharbat Gula was married to Rahmat Gul when she was 16. Her three daughters, Robina, 27, Zahida, 17 and Alia, 15 have until this time been with her. Sharbat, or sorbet or syrup, is an Arabic originating word that means a sweet fruit-flavoured concentrate or beverage. It remains to be seen what Sharbat’s fate will be in the coming days — a woman whose bitter-sweet face symbolises dignity, resilience and the plight of her people.

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