On a recent trip to Afghanistan, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox drew fire for calling it "a broken 13th-century country." The most common objection was not that he was wrong, but that he was overly blunt. He's hardly the first Westerner to label Afghanistan as medieval. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince recently described the country as inhabited by "barbarians" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.
But that is not the Afghanistan I remember. I grew up in Kabul in the 1950s and '60s. When I was in middle school, I remember that on one visit to a city market, I bought a photobook about the country published by Afghanistan's planning ministry. Most of the images dated from the 1950s. I had largely forgotten about that book until recently; I left Afghanistan in 1968 on a U.S.-funded scholarship to study at the American University of Beirut, and subsequently worked in the Middle East and now the United States. But recently, I decided to seek out another copy. Stirred by the fact that news portrayals of the country's history didn't mesh with my own memories, I wanted to discover the truth. Through a colleague, I received a copy of the book and recognized it as a time capsule of the Afghanistan I had once known -- perhaps a little airbrushed by government officials, but a far more realistic picture of my homeland than one often sees today.
A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.
I have since had the images in that book digitized. Remembering Afghanistan's hopeful past only makes its present misery seem more tragic. Some captions in the book are difficult to read today: "Afghanistan's racial diversity has little meaning except to an ethnologist. Ask any Afghan to identify a neighbor and he calls him only a brother." "Skilled workers like these press operators are building new standards for themselves and their country." "Hundreds of Afghan youngsters take active part in Scout programs." But it is important to know that disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable. I want to show Afghanistan's youth of today how their parents and grandparents really lived.