Pakistan: Afghan Refugee, Manizha’s Brush Tells A Story

By: Duniya Aslam Khan: eds. Kate Bond and Tim Gaynor   |  26 November 2015 

Every stroke of Manizha’s brush tells a story. Through her art, hundreds of women have been given a voice, a chance to speak out about their harrowing experiences of life under the Taliban.

But each painting reminds Manizha, a 26-year-old Afghan refugee, of her own struggle, which began in 1997 when she and her family were forced to flee Kabul.

Even now, she can still remember the family’s desperate break for the border. “En route to Pakistan our van was stopped by the Taliban,” she says. “They searched our belongings, took all our family photos out and [set fire] to them, saying, ‘It’s forbidden’. A cold shiver still runs down my spine when I think of that moment and recall their ferocious faces.”

After the family found safety in Pakistan, then eight-year-old Manizha had the chance to attend school for the first time in her life. She quickly rose to the top of the class and even began funding her own studies.

But, as the years went by, a sense of despair that Manizha felt in exile only increased. “I was angry at the treatment of Afghan women,” she says. “I was sad about the war in my country and I had so much going on inside my head which I wanted to vent through writing, but I did not have enough money to get admission to a university master’s degree programme.”

In time, she turned to art, and decided to focus instead on drawing lessons. Her paintings were so compelling that her first two were sold on the second day of an exhibition, giving her the confidence to carry on.

Today, Manizha is working on a series of nine paintings called ‘The Untold Narrative’ about the suppression of Afghan women under the Taliban. She works on canvas with oil paints, acrylics and charcoal. Each painting focuses on her main character’s struggle, which according to Manizha may not otherwise have ever been heard.

“When I meet brilliant refugee youth like Manizha I see a more promising future for Afghanistan in them,” remarks Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s representative in Pakistan.

In a country where children and young people constitute nearly 70 percent of the Afghan refugee population, Ratwatte recognizes the importance of Manizha’s work.

“With one of the youngest populations in the world, residing both in and outside of the country, investing in empowering Afghan youth with education and skills to ensure the sustainable reintegration of these youngsters is imperative,” he says.

Like so many Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, Manizha dreams of one-day returning home. There, she hopes to exhibit her work and share the skills and techniques she has learned in Pakistan.

“Pakistani art is amazing and diverse,” she says with excitement. “Art is like the global language of communication where colours speak for you and everyone understands it. I want to promote peace and harmony through my work and I wish one day Pakistani artists could also go to Afghanistan and showcase their work.”

By Duniya Aslam Khan, Islamabad

ISLAMABAD, Nov 26 2015, Pakistan (UNHCR)

Afghan Street Artists Strive To Beautify Kabul

Guest Writer: Jennifer Glasse / Source Al Jazeera

His plan is to make Kabul the graffiti capital of the world, one mural at a time. It won’t be an easy task; there are kilometres of blast walls in the Afghan capital, symbols of the perilous security here.

Artist Kabir Mokamel and a group of supporters have started the project with their own money.

“Our first goal is to contribute something to beautify Kabul,” he explains. “Plus, Kabul has all of these blast walls, and they look extremely ugly.

“Psychologically, when I come into Kabul I feel under siege. So we’re painting some strategic pieces of art in order to educate the public.

“When you put a picture on a wall, the wall disappears and you are in a new space, that’s very important for me.”

The first piece Mokamel and the volunteers painted is a giant pair of women’s eyes, brown, piercing.

"I’m watching you. Corruption is not hidden from God or the people’s eyes."  

“I’m watching you. Corruption is not hidden from God or the people’s eyes.”

The message, against a bright yellow background, reads: “I’m watching you. Corruption is not hidden from God or the people’s eyes.”

 Another piece features Afghans toting hearts in a wheelbarrow, and a heart with a band aid across it. “It’s about healing the wounds of the country,” Mokamel explains.

We arrive as Mokamel is starting a new series “Heroes of my City,” to celebrate everyday people as heroes. When we first get there, the mural doesn’t look like much – a few bits of colour on the white wall. “It’s a complicated piece, it has 32 colours, the anti-corruption one had only nine,” the artist says.To make the outline of the piece, the painting of three street sweepers has been projected on the wall and drawn in pencil. Mokamel, his volunteers and anyone who would like to participate may help paint it.

Children who usually beg among the busy Pashtunistan square traffic come over to see what’s happening.   Soon, painter Maryam Kohi is talking to a young boy then hands him a paintbrush. She has worked on several of the murals, despite recent car bombs that have many Afghans concerned about security.  Mokamel and his volunteers worked several hours in mornings and evenings, but security concerns halted painting for several days

‘Ordinary heroes’

“All people are living in fear so with this Art, we can change the look of the city, and give a message of peace to the people and a message of acceptance of each other,” Kohi says.

Mohammad Nabi, an old man who was walking by, paints text about ordinary heroes, alongside a policeman who has also accepted a paint brush from Mokamel.

This is what the artist wants, to bring people together.

“They are just passers-by, they’re curious about what we are doing. Sometimes they have a bit of apprehension and we just invite them to come and paint,” Mokamel says.

“They always say they have never painted in their life, we say, just try it, and then they do and some come back the next day.”

Accidental painter Nabi says his few minutes at the wall have made him feel patriotic, that he’s helped do something to make the city clean, to show that he loves Afghans and Afghanistan.

“People get messages through these paintings, and godwilling everyone, our children become educated and understand these things,” Nabi says.

“Even people who have no education can understand the message when they see this.”

That’s another of Mokamel’s goals with his paintings, to create what he calls visual literacy.  Many Afghans cannot read or write. He wants to use art to simplify the many complications of Afghan life.

“For me the metaphor is we have a lot of problems in Afghanistan very complex problems, being it economical, being it social, or political,” he says.

“What we want to do is to show them through these simple paintings, block colors, is that you can actually break down these complex things into elements, and then you can pull them apart and put them together to make something new.”

His painting of street sweepers is complex, with many tiny areas for the 32 colours. It takes him and his volunteers longer than he thought it would to complete – about two weeks.  They worked several hours in mornings and evenings, but security concerns halted painting for several days after car bombs and other attacks had the people of Kabul on edge.  The street sweeper painting is the first in the series honouring ordinary Afghans.

Mokamel and his volunteers worked several hours in mornings and evenings, but security concerns halted painting for several days

Mokamel and his volunteers worked several hours in mornings and evenings, but security concerns halted painting for several days

“We want to shift the paradigm of heroism in Afghanistan,” Mokamel says. “It has always been heroes with guns or with swords, you know?

“So we want to celebrate the people that we see every day who are working on the street.”

Other murals will be of boys and girls going to school, and an old man on a bicycle, a hero for not adding to Kabul’s pollution and traffic.

Afghan contributions only

Mokamel does not want any international or government aid money. He would like to complete this project with money donated by regular Afghans. That way it’s their project, he says.  International money hasn’t been well allocated. “For example, a lot of money was spent on anti-corruption campaigns, more than $700m,” he says. “But you see corruption is actually increasing, not decreasing. There should be initiative from the people and for the people to start combating these things.”

Mokamel hopes the project will get even bigger.  He plans to invite international graffiti artists to Kabul to paint their works.  If they don’t want to come because of security or other reasons, then he will ask them to donate their designs for his volunteers to paint.  He knows it’s an ambitious project, but he hopes it will help change the way the world sees Afghanistan.

“It’s time for Afghanistan and for the world to contribute something else other than weapons and war,” Mokamel says.  “We have been through war for the past 36 years, it’s really time to give art and artists a chance.”

Al Jazeera / blog    Photo Credits to Al Jazeera

A tweet from the other side of the globe ~Purple Sunbird~ By Tahir Khan Arzani

Quest Writer  -: Tahir Khan Arzani from Lahore, Pakistan.

This was the first tweet I got about thirty five years ago and then onwards I started getting them every day early in the morning from about one and half feet from my window. What am I talking about? I am sure you would ask me how I could get these tweets thirty five years ago when twitter was not yet even born.

It was the early eighties and I was in my early twenties. My room was on the outer side of our house in Model Town, one of the serenest and the greenest locality in the historic city of Lahore, Pakistan. It is an old mansion built in the year 1936 even before the partition of India and Pakistan.

My room had a typical colonial four and a half feet, two laired vertical wooden window. Inside it was a two door opening with four milky rosette patterned foggy glass on each side and front part a typical mesh fitted double door. Outside the window there was an old bougainvillea mixed with an orange bell flower creeper covering half of the window and moving stealthily up to the roof. The months of March and April it is all spring in this part of the world and the bell flowers are at full bloom. After hard winters of four months the weather becomes very pleasant in springs here and we start sleeping with open doors only mesh doors are closed as a measure of protection from mosquitoes.

So, coming back to the earliest tweet. My bed was just next to the window. Early one morning while I was in a deep slumber I had to get up on account of a noisy shrilling tweet tweet. It was a constant call repeated several times in a minute that woke me up. Though it was pretty disturbing, I got up angrily but when I looked out side the window where this loud call was coming from my anger turned into shear amusement and enjoyment. It was truly a mesmerizing scene, an ideal setting for a painting in reality with lush green background of bougainvillea leaves with a crumbling and twisting old branch on one side and vibrant orange bellflowers in foreground. At the bellflowers was this stunningly beautiful metallic, purplish-black bird acrobatically clinging up side down to the hanging flower and making these loud tweets. The little beauty couldn’t see me because of the mesh. So, this was the first tweet I ever received and also my formal introduction with the Purple Sunbird which turned into an affair later on.

I was so amused with this happening that I wanted to see this little gorgeous creature more closely. Next day I took a thin jute rope, tide it to the nearest branch and pulled it closer to the mesh window. And from that day onwards this bird started to wake me up in the mornings for many years to come and I still enjoy this spell binding beauty from a kissing distance.

The strange fact of the animal Kingdom is that in animal world males of most of the animals and birds are much more beautiful then that of their female partners. This might sound like a male chauvinistic statement but actually it is so. It can be witnessed from the lions in the African jungles to this tiny Purple Sunbird of my region. Nectar Eatting Sunbird

Lets talk about some technical details that are very important to know for a bird watcher.

This bird is commonly known as “Purple Sunbird” and its scientific name is (Nactarinia asiatica)

It is normally about 7-10 CM (4 inches) in length but I have seen slightly bigger then these about 12-14 cm as well but rarely.  

Males are of striking metallic shiny blackish-purple often misunderstood to be black at the first sight but it is metallic purple. Females have from grey to olive greenish upper coat and paler yellowish to off white under parts. Both male and female have probe type bill which is slightly longish cervical with long tubular tongue ideal to penetrate into the long bell flowers and other tube flowers to suck nectar from.

Habits

Purple Sunbird can be seen in gardens, parks and house lawns where greenery is found in urban areas of Lahore during the spring and summer months. It hovers from flower to flower penetrating its beak into the flowers while staying still in the air with its wings fluttering up and down for hundreds of time in a minute like a still helicopter in midair. This fluttering causes a humming sound that pushes a common bird watcher to think that it might be a hummingbird when technically its not. These sunbirds can be seen in pairs and some times in small groups of three to five.

Flitting from one flower to another often clinging upside down to probe with its slender curved bill for the nectar which is its basic diet.  They also catch and eat small spiders and insects especially to feed their young to cover the requirements of protein in their diet but, it is not a major portion of their feed.

Call

Males are very noisy. I have seen the them sitting restlessly on the top of a medium height tree (20 to 25 feet) max or on a nearby wire making regular calls of tweet tweet.. tweet tweet from 2 to 7 times for good half an hour in the mornings but they also do it in other hours of the day as well.

Migration

These Purple Sunbirds are locally nomadic and are found from Thatta in the south near the Arabian Sea to the Himalayan foothills (1200m) in the north.They are also found in desert areas when flora is in abundance. They are absent from dry mountainous regions. In Lahore they are seen till mid October to maximum end November before the hard winter begins and then they return in early spring.

Nesting

I have noticed over the years that the purple sunbird returns in the month of March and the mating and nesting months are from March to May.  They make their nest in bushes, small trees and dense creepers on the garden walls at a height of 3 to 10 feet max. Female makes the nest.. She remains busy finding the right material. The nests are made of soft grass, at times rubbish thin cuttings of cloth. Mostly in longish pouch type close at the bottom and hanging from a tree branch (not necessarily very strong). Normally a sunbirds nest is not very neat from outside but she keeps a neat round opening on the outer side slightly below the branch with which it is hanging. She gives enough cover shade to the opening so that direct rain doesn’t affect the new born chicks. On average there are 2 to 3 pale greyish or greenish eggs with white marks on them. From two to three eggs are hatched but mostly there are 1 to 2 survivors

While going through my field notes of the year 2013 about sunbirds that I just found. I think that some details can be very informative and of some interest to our readers.

It was the March 2013 I noticed that these Sunbirds arrived back in my garden on 15th of March after an absence of three and a half months. Extensive loud calling of the male and dance could be seen for good 15 to 20 days. Both male searched and selected the appropriate place to make a nest. The female started making nest on 2nd of April. The work was completed in 14 -15 days and the female started sitting in the nest from 16th of April. Only female incubates the eggs. Incubation lasts about 14-17 days. Male does help in raising the young. Two featherless naked chicks were hatched. I with the help of my daughter 13 and my younger son 8 years kept a close eye on the nest but from a safe distance and It was the tenth day one of the new born was found dead in the nest and the other one was rescued by my daughter that jumped out of the nest three times in two days. we put her back each time but now fully feathered and very active lone survivor was ready to take its chances and wanted to take its first jump to explore the new world. My son marked the chick with some washable colour to recognize it in the field. It took its first flight after two days. The family remained a regular visitor of our garden the whole summer and we could identify the younger one easily.

So readers, this was my story and the Purple Sunbird for you from my side of the globe. I am sure all of you must have a story of your own to tell. We must share them with each other especially with our children so that, in this way we can transfer these positive habits to them because children are our future but they seem to be so busy while using their laptops and cell phones that they don’t realize what they are missing and how far away they have gone from the natural world. This is our responsibility to convey all this to them in order to bring them back to real world.