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Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Truth of History

I was with Professor Eric Hyer a couple of weeks ago presenting our film Masses To Masses: An Artist in Mao's China at the Asia Society in New York City. It was an intellectually savvy crowd--these were not people that had a casual interest in Chinese art and politics--but experts and collectors of the art. It struck me during the Q and A, debating whether or not the old lady folk artists of Shaanxi Province engaged in traditional paper cutting during the Cultural Revolution, that the truth frequently has many layers. It isn't to say that there are no hard facts, or universal truths, but that the level of observance is the real litmis test.

During the process of making Masses we read all the scholorarly work, looked up all the experts on our topic, generally tried to keep abreast of the big picture. However, focusing on our little corner of China, Yan'an in this case, the story more or less supported the larger published writings on the subject, but there were those differences. Differences I think that make our story unique, but at the same time, challenge some of the accepted truths about the time. I recall quizing the artists featured in the film about things they experienced that didn't quite fit with the accepted truths of the time and there was a shared belief that Yan'an, being far from the center (Beijing), it was freer. And within the small artist brigade itself, age made a difference in individual experience and perception of what it was like to live through such upheavel.

These disparities aren't to say that the larger published accounts aren't true or that the experiences of the artists in our film have no merit, but they do demonstrate a difference between, for lack of better words, tactical and strategic reality. It is worth taking a few minutes to write about because I have found this to be the case in almost all my work covering current wars and conflicts in places like Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and past events in China and elsewhere. It makes relating history challenging and worth it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Kabul to Kandahar

My attempts to continue blogging from Afghanistan weren't very successful primarily because I was bouncing around and internet wasn't up in most places. I did take a road trip from Kabul to Kandahar. In spring 2002, my last time in Kabul and Kandahar, the trip would have taken two days. It only took seven hours this time--and that included a stop for food at the US PRT in Gazni.

The journey was relatively uneventful although once we hit Mokur we were a bit more alert. The area between Mokur and Kandahar has been the scene of increased contact between coalition forces and anti-coalition elements. It is difficult to characterize these anti-coalition forces as Taliban or al Qaeda, but there is certainly a portion of the population that continues to fight against the US led efforts to eliminate Taliban remnants and lead in the nation building process currently underway.

The lack of females along the roadside is striking. In fact I didn't see a single woman or teenage girl the entire 350 miles journey. Back in Kabul one can see a more cosmopolitan influence, there are women on the street. Most are covered still but they are out and about. The pace of change is much slower in the rural area. I remember Georgia in the early nineties. People in Batumi and other outlying provinces would always talk about the unashamed and "loose" ways of the "Tbilisi girls." The city was clearly seen as a place where traditional values were crumbling in the face of new forces and pressures--primarily from the west.

In Kandahar we stayed the night near the Canadian PRT. The group I was with needed to pick up an additional Humvee for the return trip to Kabul the next day. There wasn't enough room in the SUV for me so I hunkered down in a private house for the night while others went elsewhere to pick up the humvee. On the way back to my location they took small arms fire that splintered the bullet-proof glass on the rear passenger window.

Leaving Kandahar the next morning, a sniper round struck the driver's front window again splintering the glass but causing no other damage. That was all we needed to start referring to the humvee as the bullet magnet. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful.