Canadian-Afghani director and actress Nelofer Pazira came to Ankara for a screening of her movie Act of Dishonour. The film is dedicated to those Afghan women who are no longer among us. We met with Pazira to talk about creating art, feminism, Islamophobia and taboos.
You’ve been all around the globe: an Afghan born in India, then headed to Canada via Pakistan. Do you remember the details of your journey, or is it all blurry?
Afghanistan is not blurry at all. I remember our home and the small trips we used to make to the countryside. At one point, we lived not far away from a small river. My parents and their friends used to go there for fishing. During my childhood, there were days when everything seemed normal. But things changed with the arrival of the Soviet-Afghan war. First, it was only in the news, there were no big explosions or gunshots. Then gradually, we started seeing signs of it. As the war grew bigger and the government weaker and weaker, we started experiencing the rocket fires. People started being sent to the army and only their bodies were brought back. That’s when the war became very close to us.
During my childhood, there were days when everything seemed normal. But things changed with the arrival of the Soviet-Afghan war.
I was 16 when we left Afghanistan for Pakistan. I remember every step of it very well. But I didn’t think of it then. At that time, all I wanted to do was to get out. It’s only now that I see the effect it had on me. Not only did we leave everything behind, we also had no clue of how difficult it was going to be. It was only once we crossed the border that I cried. I didn’t know how the future would be, where we were going.
We have an incredible writer in Canada, Margaret Atwood. One of her novels is called Cat’s Eye. I read that book when I learned English. The story is about this old woman re-visiting her life. It tells about small things. This is how leaving Afghanistan was for me. I had to leave everything behind. We couldn’t even take pens and pieces of paper with us. We dressed like poor people so that we would look like villagers and not get stopped. We wore burkas to hide our identities, but I have to admit that we didn’t think about these at all. My uncle’s wife, 5 months pregnant, was coming with us. She and my mom dusted their hands with ashes so that they wouldn’t look like they were from the city. Our biggest fear was to get caught. If we did, my dad would’ve gone to prison and who knows what would’ve happened to us. It was only when we got to the other side of the border that we realised the effect all of this had on us.
We wore burkas to hide our identities, but I have to admit that we didn’t think about these at all.
So no, it’s not blurry. It is very vivid and it lives with me. And bits of it come out in my work from time to time. Subconsciously, parts of it is always there.
You eventually came to Canada. What can you say about migration and resistance to migration in Canada and elsewhere?
I have an aunt in Kabul who’s a very independent woman and likes her job. But now, she’s constantly worried because she is the only one from the family left. She keeps asking: “what will happen to me when I get older? If I get ill, who’ll take care of me?”. Afghanistan is not a society where you can rely on public services. We’ve tried to help her leave the country but it’s very difficult. No European country accepts people now. My second cousin was deported from Holland all the way back to Afghanistan because they had reached their quota of refugees.
I think that September 11 was the point where a layer of our Western civility was peeled off.
I think this is where the resistance comes from. When there is a moment of crisis, such as the war in Iraq, countries open their borders to these refugees faster than they accept other refugees; gays and lesbians, women and others. But when there’s no immediate drama, you are just seen as a burden. I think that September 11 was the point where a layer of our Western civility was peeled off. An anxiety about “the other” started growing. We’re supposed to have excellent legal systems and wonderful understanding, yet the response was “Hold on a second!”.
As both Afghan and Canadian, you have the privilege of equal access to both cultures. This also means equal access to criticise them. Does this make it easier for you to make art?
It’s absolutely true that you have an easier time if you speak the language and have direct access to the culture. But everybody charts a territory for themselves. It took me 8 years to find out what kind of movies I wanted to spend my life making.
A hijab and a miniskirt are both pieces of fabric and that’s what they should be seen as.
The reason I filmed the movie in Afghanistan is it’s a country that I’ve come to know recently, even though I grew up there. I went back to discover it as an adult. Also, I have no nostalgia about it. I don’t think it’s the most incredible place on earth and I don’t think Afghans are the best people in the world. I’m not romantic about Afghanistan. But each time I go back, I see new layers.
What about the difference between being a foreigner and a local? Is a Westerner’s islamophobia simply “criticism” when it comes from a local?
I think it all depends on your purpose, about the method you apply. As long as you don’t stereotype or blame, it’s criticism. But, I’m well aware that I could easily become a poster girl for feminists in the West. Although, some of them may not like me because I say things that would disappoint them. Such as claiming that not all Afghan men are horrible and violent creatures. My own father, for one. What would I do without him? I do what I do because of my dad.
As for making orientalist art, I have a story from a show that I was invited to in Italy, like the Italian version of David Letterman. When arriving, I was introduced as the “honourable Afghan guest”. I took my seat among several other people, including one of the ministers. After showing parts of my film, the whole discussion turned out to be about how Italy had to help the people of Afghanistan. I said, “Hold on, that’s not what the film is about. Don’t use my work to justify your own political agendas.” The host replied saying: “We’ll take a break.” And everyone in the audience suddenly turned their backs on me. They were disappointed because I didn’t buy into with their interpretation of my film.
In a way, we’re all trapped. In the East as well as in the West.
A quote from your movie says: “A woman in a miniskirt and stockings who’s trying to look sexy isn’t any different from a woman with a burka who’s trying to look mysterious.”
Yes. A hijab and a miniskirt are both pieces of fabric and that’s what they should be seen as. But I make people in the audience uncomfortable when saying this – both the devoted religious and the secular ones. The only thing I care about is whether there’s a choice or not. This goes for all sorts of clothing.
Once I dyed my hair completely blond because I just didn’t know how it was being a blond woman in a society that values external looks so much. Another time, when I was at university, I wore the hijab for a few weeks to understand how it feels and to see people’s reactions. I was quickly embraced by Muslim women who called me sister even though I still was the same person. But my journalist school classmate reacted totally differently: she said she was worried and hoped that I wasn’t going to continue wearing it. This polarisation in perceptions amazed me. So in a way, we’re all trapped. In the East as well as in the West.
Photo credit: The Banff Centre.