An Afghan National Army soldier keeps a casual watch from inside a guard tower at a Base in the Panjwai District west of Kandahar City. Photograph by Philip Cheung.
When covering important political stories, some journalists talk to the major players. But other writers strive to let the underdogs be heard. In her new Maisonneuve cover story "We Felt No Mercy," which appears in Issue 39 (Spring 2011), Naheed Mustafa offers an unmediated look at the lives of Afghan citizens. Neamatullah Arghandabi, a former mujahed who helped fight off the Soviets, opens up about life as a young soldier and the current state of his country.
Mustafa is an award-winning print and radio journalist. We talked to her about the difficulties of foreign correspondence and how to tell personal stories from countries in conflict. To read "We Felt No Mercy," pick up a copy of our Spring 2011 issue or contact us to order it.
Mick Côté: Can you tell me about the initial contact with Arghandabi?
Naheed Mustafa: It was straightforward. I basically phoned him up and just asked him. Obviously, I had to tell him how I got his number and then I just asked him if he was interested in trying to meet. He said sure. The issue was nailing down a time with him because he was really busy. He comes to Kabul once every few months. The other thing that I found while working in Afghanistan—and not just there—is that people don't really stick to their times.
MC: Was he reluctant to share his story?
NM: He didn't really understand what I was trying to do. Not in terms of literally understanding, but he didn't really "get it." He didn't really understand why I was interested in his story and he didn't really understand why I wanted to construct this particular piece.
The project is actually a lot bigger than this particular item. I've been collecting stories for a while, but I'm not really sure what I'm going to be doing with them. It's an opportunity I take when I'm working on other things over there. He asked, "What's the point? It's not really a story. I'm not anyone famous or particularly influential." But to me, that's what was interesting. That's the story I wanted.
MC: In the article, you allotted a lot of room for quotations and very little for narration. How did you make this decision?
NM: This was the first time I've tried this type of format. The model for it was Studs Terkel's book, The Good War. He collected stories of people who participated, in various ways, in World War II. He has these long types of discursive quotes. I've seen that style in other places but I hadn't ever done something like that myself. The point of the oral story is to get people to tell their own story, and that seemed like the most obvious way. I was pretty nervous about using that style, and I wasn't sure that people would find it compelling.
I've done long feature-style narrative from Afghanistan in other ways. I've done it in broadcasting, and I've done it in other print features. But part of the effort for anybody is: how much of ourselves do we insert into that story? We're going to insert ourselves in various ways. The most obvious way would be that first-person narrative about who you're meeting and who you're talking to and your impressions. The other part of it is really about what we choose to quote.
Obviously, even the way that I've done it—even in selecting these particular passages—that's still mediating his story. But I think it comes closer to an unmediated story than if I had written my version of what he was saying. That's one of the things that I was struggling with a lot. It's not always easy to figure out how to quote people because people don't always just talk in short form. When you look at those kinds of interviews, people have a lot to say about themselves, and they tell you because they want you to hear it.
Part of that discussion for me, internally, is: how much of a duty do I have to report that? If I'm there to talk about people's experiences, then how much should I keep myself out? I thought it was one way to get a story out, with as much content as I could in the style that he would tell it.
MC: Are there things you left out in the editing process that you wish had made the cut?
NM: I think I got at the core of it. One place that I wasn't able to go, because that was part of our more informal talk that we had before, was this idea of the lasting impact on people personally. One of the things that I've been told by a lot of people—I'm sure it's part of the experience of people who live in conflict in general—is that a lot of people don't sleep. They don't sleep well, they don't sleep for a long time. They're just plagued by nightmares, and I would suggest that there's a level of post-traumatic stress that a lot of people in the general population have.
Arghandabi mentioned that to me. He said, "I don't sleep." When I was doing the interview, my translator was with me. He doesn't sleep either. He's a good friend of mine and he struggles with getting proper sleep and being at peace. He's a very private person, and he says to me all the time, 'I don't sleep." I started telling him that everybody out here is like that. So when we were leaving the interview, he said to me, "He said he didn't sleep." I had told him that everybody has that struggle here. To me, that's kind of one of the lasting legacies in that place. Regardless of where in that conflict you've been situated, whether as a fighter, a civilian or a refugee, people have had a profound impact on their quality of life. Not just literally, but also in terms of their own emotional resources.
That's not something that a lot of people hear about over here: that this is a nation that is suffering with a lot of emotional trauma. I just thought it was interesting that this guy, who's done a lot of things that we would be comfortable saying are pretty bad things, ultimately is affected by them, the same as my friend, who's generally a good guy.
MC: Would you say people in Canada have some kind of resistance to some of the topics you put forward?
NM: People here will make references to things like corruption and the inability to trust who you're talking to. Those conversations, I think, tend to happen in a political realm. The idea that the people are brutal, or ruthless, or savage—the typical things that people might say, derogatory things—fall into the realm of stereotype.
People are never entirely what others perceive them to be. What I find interesting is when people here say, "the Afghan people want," "the Afghan people think"—I'm not really sure how they know that. Nobody really bothers to ask them. I think Canadians would be surprised to know what Afghans think of their own situation and the things that they think should be resolved.
One of the things that I found hard to put forward, because people are so resistant to it, is that a lot of Afghan civil society groups, or even members of Afghan women's groups, are not totally averse to the idea of the Taliban having shared power. That's not a reflection of their ideology, but I think in general terms, you could say that Afghan politics are of an extreme pragmatic reality. It's a pragmatism that sometimes goes too far because it results in people—politicians and powerful people—just switching sides to go with the flow. People will say that it's a conflict that needs to come to an end. You can't end a conflict without engaging everybody.
People don't really have a context for understanding the Taliban. They think that life was grand, that everything was great and wonderful, and that the Taliban came and that life was horrible. I find that a subject area that people are very resistant to: the idea of rethinking the role of the Taliban in the future of that country.
MC: As a female journalist in a foreign country, have you encountered any problems in seeking people's personal stories?
NM: I personally think I have a little bit of an edge over my male colleagues. When I'm there, I'm there as a freelancer. I don't have any kind of corporate backing and my resources are limited. For me, most of my storytelling is coming from—for a lack of better term—ordinary Afghans. I find that I probably have a lot more access to people's homes than if I was a man. Comparing myself to other freelancers who are in the field, I think people tend to trust me a little easier. I get invited into people's homes much easier. I get to talk to their wives or their sisters or their mothers, and see their kids and hang out with them. I think that that's something that would generally be more difficult for men.
I think there's a sense that women journalists are easier to deal with, or that we are less aggressive. People, I find, don't have their guards up. I more readily get the answers to questions that I ask because people are less defensive around me. That's my reading of it. I could be entirely wrong, but that's the sense that I get. If I challenge people, especially if they're in a position of power, I find that generally they'll answer my questions. I'm not saying that they'll totally come clean, but I find that I can get away with a little bit more.
MC: What kind of project can we expect from you in the near future?
NM: I don't know! I'm working on a couple of things right now and I'm hoping to go back. I'm actually hoping to do a travel piece about the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan and following the trail of that highway. I would jump off that highway at various points to see different communities and talk about how the northern part of the country is changing. That's something I have in the works. I haven't really thought about it but it's definitely the place I'd like to go next.
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