Nation draws on Edwards’ knowledge of Afghanistan

David Edwards, professor of anthropology, is gaining national recognition for his work in preserving and analyzing precious video footage and photographs capturing the changing face of Afghanistan from 1987 to 1995. Over the past summer, Edwards, an expert on the Soviet-Muslim conflict as well as Near-Eastern and South Asian cultures, was responsible for bringing an extensive film and photographic library from the region to Williamstown. The collection, which was in danger of disintegration in Peshawar, a town on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, will be archived and analyzed using modern archival technology.

The films and pictures were taken in Afghanistan throughout a brutal period of war between Soviet troops occupying the country and loosely organized guerilla groups composed of Muslims from various parts of the globe (the fighters called themselves mujahedeen, literally meaning the people of holy struggle). The library’s coverage begins with the demise of the Soviet occupation, continues through an interim period of civil war and ends with the rise of the Taliban, including their arrival in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city.

The films and pictures were taken by scores of Afghan photojournalists trained by the Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC) to traverse Afghanistan with the various rebel groups and document the Afghan insurrection. “It shows a side of the war that no other archive does. It is from an Afghan perspective,” said Edwards.

Given the recent history of Afghanistan under the Taliban, as well as the possible impact the current land and air war will have on the nation and its people, the AMRC archive has the potential to educate viewers about how and why Afghan civil society disintegrated and what sort of sociopolitical structures exist today.

The library, comprised of 700 hours of video and over 12,000 photographs, is unique in that it addresses the recent history of the fractious nation from an exclusively indigenous perspective. A recent New York Times article described the footage and pictures as “extraordinary in their ordinariness.”

According to the article, the vast majority of the pictures and video document hours of ordinary life in the war zone of rugged Afghanistan and illustrate how the lifestyles of different time periods have coalesced into an uneasy hybrid of old and new. Specifically, the video captures a range of activities including inhabitants fishing by exploding Soviet-era hand grenades in a river, children attending madrassas (religious schools) and men playing ancient games on the rugged Afghan steppe. Furthermore, it illustrates the reassertion of 19th century social structures along with the use of AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

During the course of his ongoing research into recent events in Afghanistan, Edwards heard that the archive was languishing at the AMRC offices in Peshawar in less-than-ideal storage conditions and was in danger of being ruined by 120 degree days, sporadic electricity for climate control systems and untrained maintenance personnel.

Edwards had been aware of the existence of AMRC since its creation in 1986, but had lost contact with its director after 1992, when news about the center’s projects dwindled to a trickle and finally stopped.

“In January, a close Afghan friend of mine got in touch and told me that AMRC was actively interested in finding an educational institution to partner with in saving their archive,” said Edwards. “Several major research institutions agreed only to serve as repositories for the archive. We came up with a more innovative approach, which allowed AMRC to keep the original materials while we kept digital copies of everything.”

During the past summer, AMRC personnel brought the library to campus and began transferring the data to digital media with the help of Edwards and Williams graduates and students.

“We also incorporated a training component so that AMRC personnel would have the expertise they needed to use sophisticated video editing and scanning equipment,” said Edwards about the archival process. The project was funded by the College, and archiving will continue until the fully organized library is completed in 2003.

Initially, the project was carried out as a normal component of Edwards’s research. However, the library’s importance has increased dramatically following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the resulting American retaliatory strikes against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. The Bush Administration has expressed its intentions to participate in the rebuilding of a modern Afghanistan, and Edwards feels that the resource will be extremely valuable in the construction of American policy impacting the future of Afghanistan. Since the archive documents the effects on Afghan society of its rapid militarization during the period of Soviet occupation, the war’s impact on the nation’s population and the rise in power of the militant religious parties, it holds great potential for the architects of American policy to understand the entire situation.

 “These resources, once organized, will give policy planners and others insight into what Afghanistan was like, how and why Afghanistan changed, and what some key areas of concern will be in the future,” said Edwards. He also intends to teach an anthropology course that uses the fully digitized archive as a central resource. “I’ve changed direction somewhat with the course since its initial conception last spring,” he said candidly.

“I’ve never taught a course before solely on Afghanistan for the simple reason that I never thought enough people would enroll.”

“It’s phenomenal that we have this opportunity to observe such a primary resource, especially considering its pertinence to current events,” said Elliot Morrison ’04 of the new course offering.

Edwards emphasized that he is tailoring the class to student interest, and has shifted the focus of the class slightly to cope with anticipated demand stemming from the current focus on Afghanistan. He has enlarged the section size from 12 to 19 students, and has added a second section. “My original plan was to have students directly involved in putting together videos and photo essays using the materials. Given these larger numbers, it will be difficult to have students working with video directly,” he said. “I still intend to have students work with the photos and we will be viewing a fair amount of the video in the collection in class.”

Aside from its use as a course resource, Edwards is actively planning to facilitate greater public understanding of the recent history and social changes that have occurred in Afghanistan; he is creating an exhibit in concert with members of the art history department and the Office of Information Technology that will be shown at the Asia Society in New York in late February.