A world that could have been

Global reputations of places
photo credit: 3 in the globe via photopin (license)

Some places have bad reputations and most tourists avoid them. Although these places can be menacing, they can also be compelling. Even more so when you remember how they used to be.

Perhaps war zones or rugged areas where rebel groups lurk, nations with unfriendly governments, or otherwise unstable locations where conflict has recently ended.

But the places are intriguing because they weren’t always like that. Once upon a time every place had its heyday. Did the outside world perceive these places differently during times of peace and prosperity?

Take Syria and Iraq, now unrecognisable shadows of their former selves, cursed with reputations for war and suffering. Long ago, Baghdad was one of the most magnificent cities in the Islamic world, where the heart of an Empire beat during the golden age of Islam. In those days, Baghdad was known for its scholars, its philosophers, and its innovators.

The Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs are some of the world’s most ancient, where civilisation itself may have begun. Their present suffering is painful to observe.

Somalia, whose capital city Mogadishu was once the pre-eminent city in the Horn of Africa, making a fortune from its role as a major trading port with the Arabian Peninsula and India. For a long time, Somali Muslims and Ethiopian Christians lived peacefully side by side.

During the Middle Ages, Somalia became a prosperous trading nation where Islam gained power and flourished. In the 1940s, Somalia was an Italian colony home to over 22,000 Italians. The standard of living was one of the highest in the region, partly thanks to a well-developed manufacturing industry.

Somalia later passed into the hands of the British, and finally gained its independence in 1960. But a military coup in 1969 and subsequent establishment of a communist state heralded the beginning of Somalia’s slow descent into chaos and failed statehood.

Afghanistan: known in the 1950s and 60s as a progressive nation where innovation was encouraged, where women’s equality was enshrined in law, and where young people went to university to pursue their dreams. All were free to do so unhindered by religious and political fanaticism.

During the final years of the Afghanistan invasion, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox referred to Afghanistan as ‘a broken 13th century country.’ He was totally wrong.

But unfortunately, Fox’s view reflects common perceptions of Afghanistan and its inhabitants, who are often believed to be ungovernable barbarians living in a chaotic land. This dangerously inaccurate view informs much of Western foreign policy towards Afghanistan and countries like it.

In 2010, Afghan-American university president Mohammad Qayoumi, who left Afghanistan in the 1960s, is determined to educate the world about the country he knows and loves, as it used to be.

Qayoumi put together a compelling photo essay, ‘Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan’, full of images of an unrecognisable nation.  The photos of William Podlich reflect Qayoumi’s original theme, this time showing Afghanistan from the perspective of an American family living there in the 60s.

Examining both collections is an uplifting and thought-provoking experience, yet at the same time melancholy. The images show female university students in Kabul wearing skirts without headscarves, studying science alongside their male peers, socialising at cinemas and coffee shops, and shopping at record stores stacked with the latest Afghan and international hits.

Podlich’s pictures show Americans interacting normally with Afghans on the street in a relaxed manner, even one where Podlich’s wife is wearing a sleeveless Western dress.

According to Qayoumi, 1960s Afghanistan had an efficient and organised government, a vibrant economy, and a strong tradition of law and order. Institutions such as the national airline, Ariana Afghan Airlines, were reliable and well regarded internationally. Overall, Afghanistan had a decent reputation.

In fact, Afghanistan of the 1960s had many of the ingredients for success. Its people had every reason to expect a bright future during these halcyon days.

How tragic it is, to see the state of these nations today after decades of war, communism, and religious extremism have taken their toll. These are the most common driving factors of civilisational retrograde and they have caused immense destruction.

There are no excuses or justifications. The wasted potential is immense, both for the countries and for their people. Innovation, freedom of speech, modernity, fair governance, justice, all summed up into a strong, clearly communicated nation image, are necessary for any civilisation wishing to thrive in the 21st century.

Any force that tries to deny them that opportunity is not a force for good. Let us hope that one day these battered civilisations will rise up again on the global playing field of a new century.

“Who knows?” said Qayoumi in a 2010 interview with NPR. “Maybe in 20 years from today, we can look at a very different Afghanistan, where we can look at the pictures of today — and see that same kind of stark contrast that we can see now with the pictures of the 1950s and ’60s.”

As an old Afghan saying goes: “A stream that has seen water before will see water in the future also.”

Perhaps by showing the world a different side of these much-maligned nations, we can help to lay the groundwork for their eventual rebirth and regaining of lost reputations.

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