“You never forget Afghanistan”

As will be evident from this website, the Moesgaard Museum has carried out research in Afghanistan for generations. In the 1950s, the main figure was Klaus Ferdinand, and in the 1970s some of his first ethnography students took over, including Gorm Pedersen, Asta Olesen and Birthe Frederiksen. In the 1980s, Afghanistan was inaccessible to researchers due to the Soviet occupation, but in the 1990s, Kristian Dall was one of the young researchers to continue the proud tradition.

Kristian first went to Afghanistan in 1996, carrying out fieldwork for his ethnographic thesis. He had planned the journey in close cooperation with Klaus Ferdinand, and Kristian would among other things end up collecting artifacts for the Moesgaard Museum and partake in building up the exhibition ‘Afghanistan – behind the headlines’ in 2001.

In the following, you can read about Kristian’s encounter with a devastated country where Taliban has just taken power.

Much of Kabul was destroyed during the civil war. Photo: Moesgaard Museum

Much of Kabul was destroyed in the civil war. Here a street view from 2001. Photo: Moesgaard Museum

Pride and humour

I drove from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan“, Kristian recalls. “It was an extraordinary experience. The closer we came to Kabul, the greater the devastation. Large parts of the city were razed to the ground, and the few houses still standing were riddled with bullet holes. At the same time, the place was full of destroyed cars and tanks“.

The destruction left an impression, but so did the people.

You never forget Afghanistan. It’s a country so full of contrasts, and in spite of all their problems, the population was exceptionally hospitable“, Kristian says, looking back at his encounter with the Afghans. “They welcome you with pride and on an equal footing. At the same time, they have a silly kind of humour which I really like“.

Surrounded by burqa-clad women

North of Kabul the civil war was still going on, and one could often hear the faraway explosions. The gravity of the situation was also reflected in the great distress suffered by some of the capital’s inhabitants. Kristian remembers one incident in particular:

I was walking down the street in the old bazaar and suddenly found myself surrounded by a group of burqa-clad women. They wanted money for food and were evidently desperate. Several clung to me and refused to let go. But of course I couldn’t help all of them“.

Meeting the religious police

The Taliban had banned photography and filming, but Kristian was to make a movie as part of his fieldwork. Thus, he had to hide his camera.

We passed a great deal of checkpoints where Talibs were stationed with their kalashnikovs. I was really terrified that they should search the car and confiscate my camcorder and my recordings, but luckily that didn’t happen“.

Kristian almost got into trouble at one point, however:

I walked around taking photos in a bazaar in Ghazni, when suddenly a Talib from the religious police tapped my shoulder. He carried a kalashnikov and was really not pleased“.

Luckily, the Taliban in Peshawar in Pakistan had given Kristian a permission to do ‘technical photography’, i.e. photographing wells and the like. Together with assistance from Afghan colleagues employed in the Danish NGO DACAAR, the permission saved Kristian from being arrested by the religious police.

Encounter with a Talib

Kristian would have yet another encounter with the Taliban in Kabul, however. A Talib, also carrying the mandatory kalashnikov over his shoulder, accosted Kristian in the street and insisted that he should come along:

I had no idea what was going on, but after a while we arrived at a hospital“, Kristian recalls. It turned out that the hospital lacked running water and that the Talib wanted Kristian to build a well:

Because I was white, he assumed that I was either a business manager, a doctor or an engineer. But I had to tell him that, unfortunately, I was unable to help“.

Filming in a village

Kristian made his documentary, ‘The men in Deh Hamza’ in a small village at the foot of the mountains in central Afghanistan. Here, Tajiks and Pashtuns lived side by side and there was a a sense of solidarity in the village.

The Taliban rarely passed by, and when they did, it was merely to collect zakat – taxes. Still the villagers appreciated the Taliban for their ability to maintain security. Other than that, they were merely another central power not very present in the local area. As the Taliban was largely absent, Kristian had no trouble filming in the village.

The documentary for instance shows the men in the village talking about the insurgency war against the Soviet in the 1980s, which cost more than a million Afghan lives.

Working for Moesgaard

In 1997, Kristian was in Afghanistan once again, this time to collect artifacts for the UNESCO Collections at Moesgaard Museum. Those are ‘portable collections’ which can be borrowed by Danish schools for use in the classroom.

Among other things, he collected synthetic objects made in China, which have come to replace or supplement traditional objects, and he also bought a collection of kites.

The exhibition ‘behind the headlines’

After 9/11 2001 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, Moesgaard Museum decided to make an exhibition about Afghanistan. And as Kristian was the most recent Moesgaard employee to have visited the country, he wrote the exhibition texts together with ethnographer and expert on Afghanistan Klaus Ferdinand.

It was a really cool thing to make that exhibition“, Kristian says. “It only took 7 weeks and the energy in the process was great. It’s something I’m proud of having been part of“.

Homemade toys. Photo: Moesgaard Museum

Homemade toys displayed at the ‘Afghanistan – behind the headlines’ exhibition. Photo: Moesgaard Museum

Here you can read more about the exhibition Afghanistan – behind the headlines

You can also read more about the civil war and the years under the Taliban.