Bringing colour to the lives of the people of Kabul


Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Until I read about her in the Guardian yesterday the name Neda Taiyebi was unknown to me, as I suspect it probably was (still is?) to most people here in the UK. I hope that it will soon be a name that is better known as this young lady is engaged in an activity that deserves wider attention.

Neda Taiyebi is an Iranian born artist who for the past year has been living in Afghanistan. At a time when many people have been fleeing from the war ravaged cities of that desperately poor country, Neda has chosen to travel in the opposite direction and believes that she has found a situation in which she is more able to express her artistic talents. Part of the motivation for her work is to be found in her commitment to enabling women to express themselves in an area that has been male dominated and asserts a bullish image to the world. She has commenced this task with enthusiasm and by taking advantage of the devastated landscape that surrounds her in the suburbs of Kabul.

Neda has noted the lack of public art within Kabul, and decries the fact that whilst efforts are being made to revive educational institutions within the city, these are seen as functional establishments with little consideration being given to the development of cultural or aesthetic well-being. Determined to begin to redress the balance, Neda Taiyebi has embarked upon a unique project to create areas of beauty amidst the rubble and chaos of the bomb torn streets of Kabul. A picture in yesterday’s Guardian shows a group of children playing on a piece of street art created by Neda Taiyebi, which is clearly bringing some joy into the lives of these youngsters.

Neda’s approach to creating public art is highly original, but has been achieved by seeking out some of the most potent symbols of violence and destruction to be found in the area. So far, she has created works of art by decorating the husks of three immobilised Russian tanks that have scarred the city streets for a number of years. These previously rusting shells of burned out vehicles have been assaulted with colour, patterns and images that could never have been imagined when these armoured beasts originally patrolled the streets of Kabul.

Taking inspiration from the domestic art that she had seen all around her in her home in Iran, including patterns from textiles and patchwork designs, Neda Taiyebi has demonstrated how symbols of death and ruin can be transformed into a colourful play station for local children. Drawing inspiration from such domestic items has asserted the contribution that women have made to creativity and design and has brought a more reasoned approach to interpreting the streets of the city. In so doing she has received some support from the Afghan government; though sadly, this has of necessity included the presence of an armed guard whilst she undertakes her work.

As we await the arrival of Christmas here in the UK, we have become familiar with the usual colourful lights and trappings that surround us on the streets of our towns, cities and villages. Whilst very little of this can truly be described as street art, it brightens our lives in the midst of winter, and brings pleasure to children and adults alike. Perhaps the work of Neda Taiyebi in Kabul will bring smiles to the faces of people of that once great city. Her assertion that more attention needs to be given to encouraging a cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the world undoubtedly challenges politicians and educators in a country which may see other priorities. However, the smiling faces of children playing on a decorated tank which in previous times would have probably terrorised them, is just one indication of the importance of her work.

Thank you and happy Christmas to Neda Taiyebi, may your work continue to bring joy to the streets of Kabul. And, of course happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to whoever may happen to read this blog.

It sometimes takes extraordinary courage to be a teacher


Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised, but I was a little disappointed yesterday when having mentioned the name Sakena Yacoobi to a group of students, I found that none of them had ever heard about this amazing lady’s work. As they had not heard of Dr Yacoobi or her commitment to education, it was hardly likely that they would have been aware of The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) which has achieved so much in that desperately poor country.

Dr Sakena Yacoobi is a formidable lady who has, for many years campaigned for the rights of those from poor communities, and especially girls, to receive an education. Having determined to take affirmative action to secure educational opportunities, she has on more than one occasion put her own life at risk and found herself under threat from powerful organisations and terrorists. However, her own personal educational experiences – she was the first member of her family to receive a formal education beyond the early years of schooling, and then found herself living as a refugee outside of her native Afghanistan, has reinforced her commitment to support others to achieve their potential.

As a refugee in the USA, Dr Yacoobi worked to gain degrees in biological sciences and public health. Her academic work was highly regarded and eventually she was made professor at an American university. Such is her commitment to the people of Afghanistan, however, that she decided to return home and develop a number of schools for children in some of the poorest areas of the country. At a time when the Taliban were in power, Dr Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which supported underground schools with a specific intent of ensuring that girls received a good education. This was a brave action which she entered into fully aware of the risks she was taking.

There are a number of stories about the courage of this extraordinary lady. In particular, reference is made to the occasion when armed members of the Taliban came to a school she was running and tried to impose their narrow beliefs upon her and her staff. With considerable courage Dr Yacoobi invited these armed men into her school and served them tea, whilst arguing in defence of the education of girls, quoting freely from the Quran in justification of her actions. She admits that she thought that the men would kill her, and possibly others within the school, but eventually she persuaded them to leave and went calmly back to providing lessons.

During the period of Afghanistan’s Taliban occupation it was estimated that underground schools organised by Dr Yacoobi and her colleagues were educating up to 3,000 girls. Many have since spoken of the opportunities that these schools afforded them and the gratitude they feel towards this courageous lady.

In 2011 The WISE Prize for Education was established to recognise the services given by outstanding individuals. This prize now has an important international status and is awarded only to people who have made a significant contribution towards changing the lives of others through education. This prestigious award has just been presented to Dr Sakena Yacoobi by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation. On receiving the prize Dr Yacoobi emphasised that many in her country still live in extreme poverty, and are certainly not free from terror. She further indicated that many of the people in Afghanistan continue to suffer and have feelings of helplessness. However, she sees increased educational opportunity as one part of the equation that can assist the inhabitants of Afghanistan towards a better life.

Whilst Dr Sakena Yacoobi remains largely unknown here in the west, there are certainly many in Afghanistan who are indebted to her for her courage and determination. Let us hope that life for those who continue to suffer in that country improves in the near future, with the inspiration of Dr Yacoobi this must be a possibility.

Details of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) can be found at the link below.

Do please take the time to watch the brief video below in which this extraordinary lady tells part of her story


One man leading the way – will others follow?

Alberto Cairo, a brave Italian with a big heart, serving the people of Afghanistan.

Alberto Cairo, a brave Italian with a big heart, serving the people of Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan is ever mentioned during conversation here in England, it is almost invariably discussed in relation to the series of tragic wars that have blighted the country now for many years. Generally regarded as a failed state, one of those countries to which travel is most definitely not advised by the British Foreign Office (and the equivalent in many other countries), and a place where equality of opportunities appears very low on the national agenda.

Never having visited  Afghanistan I am not qualified to comment in any informed manner on the country, other than to make observations on what I have read or gained second hand from those who have been there. One of my brothers in law spent some time there with the British army and spoke with great affection for the people he met and the hospitality that he received from many of the local inhabitants. Similarly, a colleague recalls passing through Afghanistan on his way to a region of the Himalayas in the late 1960’s and was also treated with kindness and courtesy wherever he went. How sad then that it is now a country regarded in such negative terms.

An article in the Guardian newspaper colour supplement this weekend, written by Emma Graham-Harrison, reported how a number of foreign nationals have settled in Afghanistan and have come to regard it as their home. Despite the ravages of war and the inequalities that clearly create difficult living conditions in much of the country, these stoical individuals feel a commitment to Afghanistan, and more particularly to its people.

One of these interesting and determined individuals is an Italian physiotherapist named Alberto Cairo, who first arrived in Kabul in 1990 to work on the rehabilitation of war casualties. He says that:-

“To see all these patients coming with terrible wounds, it was quite tough, but strangely, I have felt since the beginning that I am in the right place. I realised that I was really useful.”

Having initially worked exclusively with the casualties of war, Alberto Cairo now provides support to anyone who comes to his clinic. His current clients still number amongst them the victims of conflict, but are equally likely to be those who  have been injured in car or industrial accidents or as a result of genetic disorders or difficult home births. He works incredibly long hours and often with minimal resources, yet he is totally committed and positive about his work.

Within the Guardian article one particular paragraph stood out for me. Alberto Cairo states that within Afghanistan life for disabled people is made harder because, whilst they are not rejected, they are subject to pity, rather than seen as having rights. This assertion, more than any other in the article made me think about the situation for disabled individuals in countries that have been so brutally used by warring factions for so long. Pity is usually reserved for the helpless, those whose situations are beyond hope. Fortunately Alberto does not see the condition of these individuals in this way.

With much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed, the national economy in melt-down and many of the population still living in terror, how does the government of Afghanistan determine its priorities? In Alberto Cairo the country has an individual who has established wheelchair basketball, introduced therapeutic programmes and dedicated his life to the improvement of others. Increasingly in poorer communities around the globe these kinds of initiatives are dependent upon the work and determination of individuals such as these. Whilst governments are so focused upon increasing the economic stability of their countries, there is always a danger that the most vulnerable members get left behind.

It is to be hoped that the people of Afghanistan experience a time of peace that has eluded them for so long, and that they will be able to make progress towards achieving a more stable and secure society. History appears to be against them, but there are many talented people in the country who given the chance can certainly make a difference. Sadly, the people with whom Alberto Cairo works are likely to remain very low on the list of national priorities until other issues are confronted and resolved. Thank goodness I say, for the professional dedication and compassionate example of people like Alberto Cairo and the countless others who are prepared to live in such difficult circumstances and put the needs of others before their own.