A conversation with Wazhmah Osman

On how television can heal Afghans, the burden of representation and untapped talent of Afghan creatives

I’m always looking for folks in the Afghan diaspora who are doing good and valuable work. Recently, I came across a new book that was about the medium of Afghan television, its power and its influences in the past 20 years. It’s titled “Television and the Afghan Culture Wars: Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists.” So I reached out to the author, Wazhmah Osman, who is an assistant professor at Temple University and an Afghan-American filmmaker. I always get excited when scholarly work about Afghanistan is done by Afghans themselves, something that is not quite as common as you may think. We discussed the power of television in Afghanistan, how Afghan voices are still ignored 20 years into the occupation, and of course, “The United States of Al.” I learned a tremendous amount of things from our chat and I’d highly recommend the book. I found it well written and accessible as a non-academic. You can buy it here.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity; it was done over Zoom. The full interview is currently available for everyone before it moves to subscribers-only. While I try to keep most of this newsletter available for free to all, I encourage folks to subscribe because some of the better material will be available to subscribers only.


Arash: Hi Wazhmah. Thanks for joining me. We have tons to talk about and I can ask you a million questions but I’ll start off with: why did you write your book? And if you can talk just briefly about what that process looked like?

Wazhmah: I was a filmmaker and journalist for about seven years or so after undergrad and I didn't go to grad school right away, like a lot of people do these days. I started grad school and started my master's program at NYU in Middle Eastern Studies in 2003. So it was right after 9/11. That really shaped my perspective, because there were so many reports coming out about Afghanistan in the news and documentaries, books and things like that.

But most of it centered the voices of non-Afghans. It seemed like the environment, for people in positions of power, be it in academia, or in the media world, political commentators, politicians, for to make careers off of Afghanistan based on the same very limited information that they were spinning in order to frame the events of 9/11 in the same way. It was a powerful echo chamber of misinformation. I think probably my desire to write the book went all the way back to then. My then partner and I made the film “Postcards from Tora Bora,” which partially came from the same desire.

But most of the responses to the film were like, “Oh, this is a quaint personal narrative or story.” It was not taken seriously as the other work, whether it was in a novel form or a documentary form, as the work of non-Afghans.

So long story short, the book is about contemporary issues from the last 20 years—that was such a formative time for me. I really wanted to have more voices, like ours, be a part of the dialogue and not just readily dismissed as secondary information or sources. I actually had one institution that I was working with that said “it's good to have minorities and people of color in news stories for some interviews and sound bites, but we don't really want to bring them in for the broader analysis because they're not really capable of analysis.” And so, things like that were upsetting to me, because I think we're capable of doing both.

Arash: We certainly are and that’s something I struggle with myself a bit and why this newsletter exists. I still want to be objective and fair about Afghanistan, its people, and its history. I want to be objective about who we’ve claimed as heroes, narratives that we’ve heard from friends, family, folks in our community. And what is the actual truth? I think your book was, was kind of useful in that because it goes against certain preconceived notions about Afghanistan.

Wazhmah: Situational knowledge is important, the fact that we have a leg in both cultures is an advantage, not a disadvantage. I do agree with what you're saying is that there is a problem in our communities. We can't deny that there have been all sorts of biases, discriminations, and other problematic things that we have to analyze within ourselves. 

The last thing I want is for people to accuse me or other Afghan academics of that because then it proves their point that “white scholars and white journalists can see things more objectively.” But I do agree with you, that's something that we do have to contend with. And I had to contend with that too, at times. Because, we all have heard some Afghans and I think to myself “Oh, my God, what is coming out of their mouths?” You have to just put those voices aside. Unfortunately, I see some of that being reproduced by younger generations too. And I want all of us to be part of the change that, you know.

Arash: I think your book takes on some classic Orientalist and Westernized views of Afghanistan, which is that Afghans are mostly to blame for this current state of affairs. It’s something that I came across in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora as well, right? Afghans have this inferiority complex, we tell each other we’re just a divided, conflict-ridden people and that’s just how we are. Afghans are never neutral, they’re always at plus one as these super hospitable people and super-warriors or they’re at negative one as savages and terrorists who don’t know how to coexist.

Wazhmah: I've just noticed growing up in the United States that we make so many accommodations for supposedly democratic models that are premised on really undemocratic things. I was taught how the early American settler experience was very pluralistic and democratic. It was based on dialogue and town halls. Then there’s theory, based on cafes in Europe, where, all these people were meeting to talk about ways of challenging the government and other oppressive forces. These moments have entire theories built upon that then are taught to us. And we think like, “Oh, wow, you know, Western people have such a long history of these incredible democratic models.” If you look at them closely, all the things I was taught are actually not pluralistic. They're very exclusionary, they're racist or sexist, a lot of them are premised on racism, and center white masculinity,

We don't talk about that, but when we talk about places like Afghanistan, all we talk about is its historic failures and issues with governance, there’s this double standard. I mean, here we're in a moment [in the US] where voter suppression is happening, violence against black and brown and Asian communities, all kinds of harmful immigrant policies coming to light. What I was trying to say is yes, Afghanistan is flawed but they're no more flawed than what is happening in the U.S. More importantly that we have just as many people and social movements fighting for justice.

Arash: So I really enjoyed your book and I think the title, “Television and the Afghan Culture Wars” is great because, in regards to Afghanistan, we don’t often think of the conflict there in this way, a game of soft power. But one line that stood out to me was:

“Today Afghanistan does not have full sovereignty over its airspace, airwaves, or land. The US government has given itself, with its powerful military might behind it, jurisdiction over Afghan airspace above a certain altitude.”

It’s easy to forget that, I think.

Wazhmah: I think what I was trying to say is two things. One is that we can't deny that Afghanistan is in a weaker state position, in a colonized position in relation to the US. It's important to keep that in mind because that impacts so many things over there, right? There is this big American investment militarily, economically, politically, and culturally over there. I think some of that is to good effect and some of that is not to good effect. So part of what I wanted to show with my research is that because there are so many other global players besides the US -- that is a positive development. There are other international governments interested in Afghanistan and also have been investing in it, so it mitigates some of the power of the US. This investment has enabled so many different media outlets and venues to pop up. That diversity is always good. You have women's media, you have different ethnic groups that have their own media. You also have the nationally minded ones and that's all great. It’s created a way for people to be in dialogue with one another and debate and sometimes it gets really contentious, but it's better than what has happened the last 40 years, which is people picking up arms and going to kill one another. I think the culture can move forward and this is a positive development, one that also goes against the dominant western narrative that it's just static and fixed and stuck in time because it's not.

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Arash: I was recently listening to this NPR podcast and it was talking about how storytelling can empower empathy, healing and allows for greater understanding at times. Do you think that television and storytelling have that potential for Afghanistan and Afghans as well?

Wazhmah: Oh yeah, absolutely. This word empathy, its use is so important. Storytelling always has the ability to elicit in best-case scenarios empathy and worst-case scenarios antipathy and hate. I write about the media’s role in eliciting both in my article Agents and Villians of the Security State. When it's done well, you want empathy. We also want to complicate that because sometimes just because you have an empathetic character or a likable character — people get so excited. They're like “oh my god, finally we're not portrayed as terrorists” but it poses its own dangers as you point out in your excellent piece. I like Tamim Ansary, I like Fariba Nawa, Sahar and Zohra’s book “One Story, Thirty Stories” and many more. All these people from different generations who I think just write really beautifully and truthfully. They mix political analysis with personal accounts and I think that there's a lot of talent in our community and needs wider audiences.

Arash: Since we're talking about the power of television and its influence on people. In your book you discuss, within Afghan media, things such as the developmental gaze and the imperialist gaze. Within American media, since you’ve seen a bit of “The United States of Al,” do you think the show is redeemable?

Wazhmah: Well, you see all these incredibly nuanced shows out there such as Ramy or Insecure. You have all these more nuanced characters, conflicted, queer characters. It started with Modern Family and other ones and that didn't age well. We got to a point where the portrayal of all these different communities is getting better, and more nuanced, and actually more, as opposed to just one show here and there.

That’s why I think what you wrote is really important. I'm loving the Twitter storm because we do deserve better. You're not supposed to generalize about people, that’s race theory 101. We are human, we have human emotions, human complexity, and a range of types of people. Then there’s the contingent that's just like so happy with any kind of representation regardless of how reductive because we've been so invisible aside from the stock villain characters. Yeah, we deserve more.

Arash: Yeah, I’ve watched Insecure, for example, it’s not a show about blackness inherently. It can discuss it, at times. I can guarantee people will enjoy stories about Afghans and by Afghans because, in the end, they’re just stories. If it’s a powerful story, done well and creatively, it will resonate. So this is the question that I ask: what’s it gonna take? What’s it gonna take for our folks to get a shot?

Wazhmah: I didn’t know of Colson Whitehead until I went to a talk of his. He was talking about his novel “The Underground Railroad.” It's like a magic realism version of the historic Underground Railroad that slaves used to escape to the north. But he said something that I think is very much in line with what you're saying. He said I find myself feeling so blessed and fortunate because I never felt pressured to write about slavery because so many African American writers before me wrote about it. Now I'm coming to it in a way where I could be a lot more creative and experimental. I'm in an older generation than you are, but we are all part of the first wave, where no matter what we write, folks will ask us: why are you not writing about the plight of Afghan women? Or why are you not writing about these religious extremists? It's like war needs to be foregrounded for them to understand it. All the creativity that's within all of us, that's just not legible to the mainstream media. The second thing I was going to say is that a lot of it has to do with who are the gatekeepers, which is a term we use often in media studies — the gatekeepers don't reflect us. And I think that's part of the problem.

There is this article by Paula Chakravarrty, a mentor of mine, it's called #CommunicationSoWhite. What she does, along with her co-authors, is look at the boards of directors, editors, and publishers of all these media and communication studies journals. The vast majority of them are white guys. From that, she deducts that that’s one of the main reasons why so few of us, who are not part of that elite group, get published or cited. In other words, our work is not given the same opportunities to circulate. Therefore, we don't get promotions, or we don't get to have that expert voice.

Arash: I guess my question if it's about the concentration of folks who are gatekeeping and that have the power? For that to change, and for our stories to be heard, is it going to require Afghans to become executives at publishing companies or require us to be executives at Warner Brothers for there to be actual change?

Wazhmah: I mean, I bet that would help. I guess I think about other communities, adjacent communities that have also been historically misrepresented, under-represented, represented in very stereotypical ways like Arabs, and Pakistanis, and, and so forth. But most of them seem to be in a place that they've had at least some breakthrough in terms of more complex characters.

I think the more the better. We’re still pigeonholed. I'd like to see more diversity in terms of gender and sexuality too. We have a ways to go. I think, again, Americans especially have a long way to go because the discourse about us and is so deeply entrenched, you know? I mean, I don't know if you feel this way but I often feel when I go into different spaces. People have this image of me of like, oh, you're an Afghan American woman, you should be like this and that. Then they almost tell me: “wait a minute, what? You're just not what our perceptions are.” And I'm like, well, it's the same problem I had when I’m in Afghanistan. How is that any different? But you can’t live by other people’s perceptions and if we have more diverse representation that would be easier.