Simon was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1963 and educated in England finishing at Oxford and Bristol Universities with a degree in Philosophy and Sociology. After leaving the Documentary Photography course in Newport, South Wales he worked for far-left publications specializing in work on anti-racist activities and fascist groups, in particular the British National Party. In 1994 he gave up photojournalism in favor of landscape photography.
His book “For Most Of It I Have No Words” about the landscapes of the places that have seen Genocide was published in 1998 to wide approval including praise from the novelist Anne Michaels and Louise Arbour, Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The piece was exhibited around the UK including the Imperial War Museum as an Impressions Gallery (York) touring show and in Europe including the influential Nederlands Foto Institut. The work is now a British Council Touring Exhibition traveling to venues as far removed as the Holocaust Museum in Houston and Photosynkyria (Thessaloniki). His piece “Long time, No see” about Native America was shown at Camerawork, San Francisco in 2001 and the current work from Afghanistan has been shown already at pARTs Gallery Minneapolis, The Griffin Center for Photography in Boston and Galerie Martin Kudlek (Cologne). A raft of exhibitions of the work from Afghanistan called ‘time|bomb’ will take place in September at Open Eye Gallery (Liverpool); Side Gallery (Newcastle); Hereford Photography Festival; Trace Gallery (Weymouth); Photofusion Gallery (London); The British Council (London); the Architecture Museum in Frankfurt and Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon.
His work is held by private collectors and in the collections of The Portland Art Museum, Oregon; the British Council and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Weismann Art Museum in Minneapolis.
In 2002, Simon won a Silver Award from the Association of Photographers and his Afghan work won the European Publishing Award meaning the book will appear as a book in September 2002 in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian language editions.
Above image: Portrait of Simon Norfolk by Mohammed Khalil at White Light Photo Studio in Kabul.
Darius I of Persia and Alexander the Great were the first to invade Afghanistan, using the country as a gateway to India. They were followed in the 7th century by Islamic conquerors and, in the 13th and 14th centuries, by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. All these empire builders left their mark.
Around 1750, Ahmad Shah Duranni brought together a state recognisable as the precursor to Afghanistan. A high-point in Afghan history, his control stretched from central Asia to Delhi and from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea.
In the 19th century, Afghanistan became a battleground in the rivalry between Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia for control of Central Asia. Three Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-42, 1878-80, and 1919) ended inconclusively, with full independence from Britain achieved only in 1919.
During the Cold War, King Mohammed Zahir Shah developed close ties with the Soviet Union, accepting extensive economic assistance from Moscow. His overthrow in 1973 was followed by a decade of instability as liberal reformists came under pressure from both radical Marxists seeking closer ties with Moscow; and from Washington-supported, armed conservatives who sought to create an Islamic state. Fearing the government was on the verge of collapse, Moscow responded with a full-scale invasion of the country in December 1979.
The Soviets were met with fierce resistance from Mujaheddin groups already invigorated by opposition to the liberal government. Initially independent and armed with outdated weapons, they soon became embroiled in the crucible of Cold War rivalry. Washington began secretly funnelling billions of dollars of sophisticated weaponry into Afghanistan, with the CIA taking the lead in training and funding. Iran, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who all wished to see a weakened USSR, supplied additional military assistance. Moscow’s troops were soon bogged down in a brutal, unwinnable conflict and eventually, worn out and beaten, they sued for peace. The Soviet withdrawal was completed in February 1989, leaving the pro-Soviet government of President Najibullah in precarious control of Kabul. (The cost of this decade of fighting is hard to calculate. Perhaps one million Afghans lost their lives and up to 5,000,000 were made refugees in a proxy war, fought at arms length, between the USSR and the USA. Many have argued that in funding and training the opposition to the Soviets, the CIA created the radical Islamists who were later to become the terrorists of September 11th.)
When the Mujaheddin finally captured Kabul in April 1992, fighting quickly continued as the commanders of the various factions vied for control. Anarchy ensued; tens of thousands were killed; Kabul was devastated in repeated and often random rocket attacks; and whole districts of the city were ethnically cleansed.
From murky beginnings in 1994, instigated and controlled by Pakistani Intelligence and financed by Saudi Arabia, a group calling itself the Taliban, emerged as an alternative to self-serving, Mujaheddin in-fighting. Initially popular, they swept to military victories across Afghanistan finally seizing control of Kabul in September 1996. By late 1998, the Taliban controlled some 90% of the country, with Ahmed Shah Massoud’s opposition confined to a mountainous corner of the North East.
The Taliban’s scorched-earth tactics, human rights abuses and ultra-hardline interpretation of Islam isolated them from the international community and oppressed ordinary Afghans. In March 2001, despite worldwide protests, the Taliban destroyed the magnificent Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, dating from the second and fifth centuries. Furthermore, the Taliban were suspected of allowing foreign terrorist organisations to run training camps in their territory. On August 20th, 1998, U.S. cruise missiles struck an Al-Qaeda training complex near the eastern town of Khost in an attempt to kill Osama Bin Laden, believed to be involved in the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7th. After the catastrophic destruction of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11th 2001, Bin Laden was named chief suspect and the Taliban were accused of harbouring wanted criminals.
On October 7th, after the Taliban repeatedly refused to turn over Bin Laden, the USA (supported by the British,) began air strikes in revenge for the attacks on Sept. 11th. There followed five weeks of ferocious aerial bombardment involving everything from precision-guided weapons to cluster bombs, B-52 carpet bombings and BLU-82 ‘Daisy Cutters’. When the American attacks were over, the Northern Alliance walked into Kabul to find virtually no resistance. On December 7th, the Taliban regime collapsed entirely when its troops fled their last stronghold in Kandahar, although skirmishes continue in the mountainous east of the country.
Although there is the possibility of real democracy emerging under the new government of Hamid Karzai, it has come at a terrible price. Thousands died in the American bombardment and Afghanistan’s tattered infrastructure, wrecked by decades of war, is now utterly devastated. Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden remain at large.
Kingdoms rising, kingdoms falling,
Bowing nations, plumèd wars
Weigh them in an hour of dreaming
Cooking chestnuts on the bars.
-W. B. Yeats
European art has long had a fondness for ruin and desolation that has no parallel in other cultures. Since the Renaissance, artists such as Claude Lorraine and Caspar David Friedrich have painted destroyed classical palaces and gothic churches, bathed in a fading golden twilight. These motifs symbolized that the greatest creations of civilisation – the Empires of Rome and Greece or the Catholic Church – even these have no permanence. Eventually, they too would crumble; vanquished by savages and vanishing into the undergrowth. The only thing that could last, that was truly reliable, was God. And man’s only rational response in the face of God’s power, was awe.
The landscapes of Afghanistan are also ‘awesome’ (in the original sense of this word) but the feelings of dread and insignificance are not related to the power of God but to the power of modern weaponry.
Afghanistan is unique, utterly unlike any other war-ravaged landscape. In Bosnia, Dresden or the Somme for example, the devastation appears to have taken place within one period, inflicted by a small gamut of weaponry. However, the sheer length of the war in Afghanistan, now in its 24th year, means that the ruins have a bizarre layering; different moments of destruction lying like sedimentary strata on top of each other. A parallel is the story of Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the remains of the classical city of Troy in the 1870s. Digging down, he found 9 cities deposited upon each other, each one in its turn rebuilt upon the rubble of its predecessor and later destroyed.
Afghanistan keeps similar artefacts in what seems to be a Museum of the Archaeology of War. Abandoned tanks and troop carriers from the Soviet invasion of the 80s litter the countryside like agricultural scrap or they have been used as footings for embankments and bridges, poking from the earth like malevolent fossils. The land has a different appearance where there was fighting in the early 90s. In this instance the tidy, picked–clean skeletons of buildings are separated by smooth, hard earth where de-mining teams have ‘swept’ the area. In places destroyed in the recent US and British aerial bombardment, the buildings are twisted metal and charred roof timbers (the presence of unexploded bombs deters all but the most destitute scavengers,) giving the place a raw, chewed-up appearance.
Mikhail Bakhtin called this kind of landscape a ‘chronotope’: a place that allows movement through space and time simultaneously, a place that displays the ‘layeredness’ of time. The chronotopia of Afghanistan is like a mirror, shattered and thrown into the mud of the past; the shards are glittering fragments, echoing previous civilizations and lost greatness. Here there is a modern concrete teahouse resembling Stonehenge; an FM radio mast like an English maypole; the Pyramids at Giza; the astronomical observatory at Jaipur; the Treasury at Petra; even the votive rock paintings in the caves at Lascaux.
Throughout history, many civilisations have been brought down by barbarians, but the destruction, no matter how savage, always leaves behind a trail of clues. A building destroyed by the cataclysm of an American 15,000 lb bomb creates a different historical record to a structure gradually reduced to its concrete ‘bones’ by thousands and thousands of small Kalashnikov bullets. The notion of a chronotope is extremely useful here. Art historical references may be intriguing, but the destruction of Afghanistan is first and foremost a human tragedy in which millions have lost their lives. The people killed in these attacks leave almost no record – only the forensic traces survive to tell of the carnage. Seeing Afghanistan as a chronotope can reconnect the evidence in the landscape to the story of this human disaster. It points to the archaeological remains that are the only indicators of the appalling suffering that is modern war, a suffering so atrociously suppressed in mainstream media coverage.
In a way, I had seen the destruction of Afghanistan before, not directly, but in the ‘Illustrated Children’s Bible’ given to me by my parents when I was a child. When the pictures showed David overcoming Goliath, these Afghan-looking mountains and deserts were the background. If Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, these trees and animals were drawn in the middle distance. More accurately, the landscapes of Afghanistan are how my childish imagination conjured up the Apocalypse or Armageddon. I felt I had already lived these landscapes in the fiery exhortations of a childhood Manchester Sunday School: utter destruction on an epic, Babylonian scale, bathed in the crystal light of a desert sunrise.
BALUCHI DESIGN MOTIFS
The Baluchis created their weavings under the most primitive conditions. They were geographically isolated and had little contact with wool or dye traders. As a result, they had to become self-sufficient in their development of wool breeding techniques as well as dye products.
Thus, the Baluchi style of weaving is unique within the textile world. Like so many other nomadic weaving cultures in the Near East, Middle East and Far East, their weavings reflected a signature or mirror image of their surroundings, through the use of indigenous materials. From raging sandstorms to roaring floods, the Baluchis’ environment was harsh in the extreme, creating a tribe of fiercely independent and rugged survivalists who required virtually indestructible, desert ready gear in the form of textiles.
There was a gender-related division of labor within these Farsi speaking Sunni Muslim Baluchis and their world of textile weaving: men bought and dyed the wool and did any trading or business, while only women wove textiles. Baluchi women weavers employed ingenious and skillful techniques as well, and through their inventive use of these materials, primarily natural undyed colored wool from goats, sheep and horses, they replicated, in their textiles, the natural colors they actually saw in their surroundings. From simple horizontal ground looms made from tree branches or whatever else they found close by, they created weavings that are marvelously intricate yet incredibly durable.
Like all Turkoman desert nomadic weavings, Baluchi textiles are dark. Turkoman rugs are all dark red, but unlike those weavings, Baluchis are made exclusively from dark brown wools. And, because much of that wool is not dyed, the colors are somber and understated. In addition, nomadic peoples were forced to tolerate the bright, hot light of desert sun during the day. Thus, when they entered their tents during the day and at night, they preferred dark rugs and textiles, which granted a respite from the glare of the sun, and conformed with their religious views as well.
THE USE OF SYMBOLS IN BALUCHI DESIGNS
The earliest Baluchis, from the Caspian Sea, were located near the Old Silk Route. As goods were traded back and forth over the centuries they were influenced by ancient Chinese philosophy and its symbols, which they incorporated into their designs. This exposure to Chinese cultures created designs in their textiles that were both utilitarian and spiritual. The light/dark patterns in the Baluchi textiles represent the ancient Chinese symbols of polarity known as yin and yang, positive and negative, male and female, day and night, etc. These symbols are often overlapped with woven images representing the Eli BelI Ende, translated “woman with hands on hips” or the birthing position. This is the ubiquitous female goddess of fertility, the most frequent motif in Baluchi textiles, next to the yen yang motif. Turkoman tribes, from which the Baluch are descended, included the octagonal-shaped gul or flower in almost all of their designs. Each of this symbol’s eight sides represent the 8 elemental forces in nature, represented in the Chinese Book of Changes, by eight separate trigrams. The octogan itself represents the Chinese “Great Circle of Life”.
The Baluchis are a sub-tribe of a Turkoman tribe known as Salor, the oldest of the five major Turkoman tribes including the Yomoud, the Tekke, the Ersari, the Saryk, and the Salor. All of these tribes wove rugs that filtered into the 19th century Afghanistan markets. Prior to that time, Baluchi weavings were relatively unknown because of their geographic isolation.
Early records of Baluchi history are meager. Essentially, there were two main Baluchi tribes, the first of which was forcibly relocated by the Shah of Persia (now Iran) to Western Nuristan (now Western Afghanistan) in the late 1700’s. The second group was relocated to what is now Southern Afghanistan. This collection features both knotted, pile weavings of the Baluchis in Western Afghanistan and the flat-woven textiles (kilims) of the Baluchis in Southern Afghanistan.
Southern Baluchis speak Makroni and Western Baluchis speak Farsi. But since the early Baluchis had no written language, Russian and English military officers, as well as Persian, Arab and Bokharan historians, have provided the only known written historical references about the Baluchis.
In essence, the only “permanent documents” provided by the Baluchis themselves are their weavings. These textiles, both artistic and functional in nature, were the ultimate combination of spirit and craft and provided the very foundation upon which the nomadic culture of the Baluchi tribe was built.
These textiles of the Baluchis provide insight into the relatively unknown tribal culture that consisted of annual and seasonal pastoral migration. (In other words, the seasons determined where the tribesmen would take the flock.) But throughout the migrations, and throughout the centuries, there existed a timeless, uninterrupted weaving tradition that is now, unfortunately, lost to us forever.
TEXTILES FOR A TENT CULTURE:
The setting up and taking down of tents in a fast and efficient manner within a nomadic society was essential. The function of many textiles was to readily move all of the various items associated with nomadic living, including the tent itself and even the babies of the tribe from place to place in the desert. Other textiles, such as hearth rugs, and rugs used for dining and family rituals were a form of movable architecture. Therefore, textiles that could be assembled and disassembled easily and those that could be used as transportation and storage bags were a fundamental part of the Baluchi way of life.