Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Education Against the Odds: How a Student and Mother from Afghanistan’s Central Highlands Stole Social Media's Heart

afghanistan womens education, afghanistan literacy for women, central asian small group tours
Image shared on Facebook by teacher Yahya Erfan,
widely shared and used by media outlets across the world.
The image was one that spoke of love and determination.

In mid-March, a student sheathed in a blue scarf took an exam on the floor of an outdoor classroom in provincial Afghanistan with a baby lying across her lap.

Yahya Erfan, a professor at the university where the exam was taking place, took a photo of the scene and posted it to his Facebook account.

It promptly went viral.

The 25-year-old woman in the photo, Jahantab Ahmadi, sat cross-legged, her face bent over her exam papers in concentration as her two-month child bawled due to an earache.

Jahantab, a mother-of-three, hails from the remote settlement of Hoshto, in the Miramar district of Afghanistan’s Daikundi province. To sit the exam in the provincial capital Nilli, Jahantab had to travel two hours on foot over coarse mountainous terrain and a further nine hours on public transport along a rough, bumpy road.

The photo became a source of inspiration for social media users in a country where timelines are too often full of the news of bloody attacks.

Despite coming from a conservative society, where many men oppose women’s education, Jahantab is fortunate enough to enjoy her family’s support and admiration.

afghanistan womens education, afghanistan literacy for women, central asian small group tours
Jahantab Ahmadi with her husband Musa Mohammadi and their baby
Her husband, Musa Mohammadi, who comes from a poor family, has been a vital pillar of support.

Shortly after the photo appeared on social media, the pair had reason to celebrate — Jahantab passed the university entrance exam known as the kankor, scoring 152 points out of 360.

Jahantab’s story triggered offers of financial help both inside and outside the country. One UK-based organization, the Afghan Youth Association, recently launched an online GoFundMe campaign to help pay for her university fees.

The campaign has so far raised more than $14,000 – a fortune in a country where about 39 percent of the population lives in poverty. Thanks to the campaign and other funding, Jahantab is now enrolled at a private university in Kabul where she majors in Economics.

Afghan social activist Zahara Yagana was a key mover in attracting aid to Jahantab's cause and has been posting updates on the young student's progress.

This inspiring story, written by Maisam Iltaf, was first published on Global Voices Online on 4 April 2018. It is republished with permisison.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ikat Textile Exhibitions

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Installation from To Dye For: Ikats from Central Asia
If you live in North America and are serious about textiles, please consider visiting Washington D.C. before these remarkable exhibitions close in July.

At the Smithsonian's Sackler gallery until 29 July is To Dye For: Ikats from Central Asia. It brings together about thirty of the finest historical Central Asian ikat hangings and coats from the Freer|Sackler collections, donated by Guido Goldman, as well as several of Oscar de la Renta’s iconic creations.

The aim is to explore the original use and function of these dazzling fabrics and the enduring appeal of their extraordinary designs.

Over at the George Washington University Textile Museum until 9 July is the exhibition Binding the Clouds: The Art of Central Asian Ikat. This exhibition also celebrates the the artistic innovation of 19th-century Uzbekistan.

It showcases 32 ikat hangings from the collection of 100 textiles donated to the Museum's collections again by Guido Goldman. A lifelong lover of the arts, Goldman became enchanted with Central Asian ikats through a chance sighting of a colorful ikat hanging in a New York gallery's window in 1975.

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Ikat fabric produced in Bukhara 1800 -1850
Sebastian Smee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for The Washington Post, recently reviewed the two exhibits. 

Smee himself is a strong advocate for ikat. “If I could see only one kind of art for the rest of my life, it’s easy. Textiles. Uzbekistani textiles. No question about it,” he writes.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Samarkand Stitches 
Ikat: The "Thread That Connects Generations"
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Uzbek Ikat DNA Project

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Death of Uzbek Film Maker Shukhrat Abbasov

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Scene from The Whole Mahalla Is Talking about It
One of the greats of Uzbek cinema, Shukhrat Abbasov, died recently in Tashkent, aged 87.

Born in 1931, in the city of Kokand, in the Ferghana Vlley, Shukhrat Abbasov  graduated from the Tashkent Medical College in 1949.

Then in 1954 he studied in the Department of Directing at the Tashkent State Institute of Theatrical Arts. In 1958 he undertook further directorial studies in Moscow's famed "Mosfilm".

From 1958 he held senior positions at Uzbekfilm studio until 1991, after which he became the Secretary of the Board of the Union of Cinematographers of the Republic and later the Deputy Chairman. He also taught drama and cinema courses at the State Institute of Arts and Culture of Uzbekistan

As a theater director he staged successful productions of Heart Secrets by B. Rakhmanov, Nurkhon by K. Yashen, Meysar's Tricks by Hamza, Sick Teeth by A. Kakhhara and others.

Huge numbers of students flocked to this lectures at art institutes and he mentored many Uzbek directors. People who knew him said that Shukhrat Abbasov possessed an unusually productive memory and erudition: he was able to enchantingly read the verses of Uzbek, Russian and French poets and he knew how to enjoy life, its beauties and intellectual wealth.

uzbekistan cinema directors, art history textile tours uzbekistan, soviet film legends
Shukhrat Abbasov in 2015
But it is as a film maker of remarkable films in the 1960s that his reputation was cemented. The film You are Not an Orphan (1962) is based on the true story of blacksmith Shaakhmed Shamakhmudov and his wife Bahri Akramova, who adopted 15 children of various nationalities during  WWII.

Tashkent City of Bread, beautifully shot in black and white, and scripted by Tarkovsky’s collaborator Andrei Konchalovsky, this powerful melodrama tells the story of a young boy who undertakes the perilous journey to Tashkent, to earn some money for his hungry family.

Filming in the periphery of the Soviet Union, in a time of relative political relaxation, Shukhrat Abbasov actually dared to depict the poverty and famine that resulted from the Bolshevik Revolution.

In tribute to this much-loved and multi-awarded film maker, there are now retrospectives of his films in Tashkent.

Recently, Human House, screened The Whole Mahalla Is Talking about It. Mahalla is a form of traditional Uzbek community that celebrates together weddings and funerals and everything in between. In the USSR, the mahalla was considered a relic of the past.

uzbekistan cinema directors, art history textile tours uzbekistan, soviet film legends
Original poster from Tashkent City of Bread
In the center of the film are several mahalla families living on the border with *new Tashkent*. Parents still do not know what an elevator is and how the word ar-chi-tect is pronounced. Their children are building those elevators and mastering advanced occupations.

Mothers are eager for traditional daughters-in-law,  but the children growing up in the USSR are resisting traditional marriage. A number of funny misunderstandings and expectations, hopes and disappointments make up a beautiful patchwork that will please all fans of Soviet comedies.

The old and the new Tashkent are divided intentionally and strikingly, emphasizing the inevitability of change.  One of the most interesting aspects of this film is seeing what the city looked like then, prior to the 1966 earthquake that devastated much of the old city.

The Whole Mahalla Is Talking about It is one of those wonderful propaganda films fueled by Soviet mythology about communism, friendship of peoples, industrial progress and emancipation.

Many of Shukhrat Abbasov's films can be found on YouTube. And this week at Human House, which regularly hosts film evenings, there will be screenings of more of his films.

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Uzbekistan as Film Location
Tashkent's Soviet Buildings
The Blacksmith and his Family Return 
Tashkent: A City of Refuge

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

First Iranian Women Weightlifters Make History in Uzbekistan

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Elnaz Bajelani, who comes from a famous weightlifting family
The first team of female athletes in Iran’s weightlifting history has made their presence felt in Uzbekistan’s competitions.

The four-strong team is currently in Uzbekistan to attend the Asian Youth and Junior Weightlifting Championship.

The team is led by Reyhaneh Tariqat, the deputy chairwoman of the Iranian Weightlifting Federation for Women’s Affairs.

As the Iranian women athletes are first-timers, naturally they are not expected to set very good records in their first overseas event.

Still, the breaking of a 70-year spell is a significant development for Iranian female weightlifters. This will blaze a trail for Iranian women weightlifters to wrestle with steel and tussle for international and Olympic medals as men do.

The four members of the Iranian Female Youth Weightlifting Team include Parmida Mahmoudian, Elnaz Bajelani, Mahdieh Kolali and Seyyedeh Narges Mirzaki in the 58, 63, 69 and plus 75kg categories, respectively. The four athletes had an interview with the Persian-language Varzesh3 sports website while in Uzbekistan for the contests.

weightlifting, uzbekistan hosts weighlifting championships urgench, central asian art craft history tours small groups
Reyhaneh Tariqat, deputy chair of the Iranian Weightlifting Federation for Women's Affairs (centre)
with the team members.

Mahmoudian: I was afraid of standing behind the weight, but …

Parmida Mahmoudian, whose name has gone down in history as Iran’s first female weightlifter in international contests, competed in the 58kg division and finished sixth. The presence of this weightlifter received extensive coverage and even led to the creation of the Parmida Hashtag on social media networks in support of the Iranian sportswoman.

This is what she said about her first experience in the Asian competitions: "Although I was the first athlete to go on the deck, I had a very good feeling. I had very strong rivals and they had a high level of preparation. Maybe it was frightening for me to go on the deck and stand behind the weight when I looked from the outside, but when I lifted the weight for the first time, I had a very sweet feeling. I was very excited and, thank God, I lifted all the weights properly."

Concerning the fact that she was the first Iranian woman with the Islamic headscarf that took part in the contests, she said, "They had designed very good clothes for us, and lifting weights caused me no discomfort."

weightlifting, uzbekistan hosts weighlifting championships urgench, central asian art craft history tours small groups
Parmida Mahmoudian competing in the 58 kilo division

Bajelani: Women, Too, Can Succeed in Weightlifting

Elnaz Bajelani, Iran’s second representative in the women’s weightlifting contests, competed in the 63kg category and has, so far, had the best performance of all team members by having finished fifth.

This is what she told Varzesh3 about her sweet experience: "I feel proud for having taken part in the contests for the first time and being a member of Iran’s first female team. That we could lift weights with Islamic outfits approved by officials made us happy."

In reaction to those who believe weightlifting is a man’s sport, she added, "It’s right that weightlifting is a physically demanding sport, but it’s no reason for women not to succeed in it. I assure you that Iranian women, too, can pull off many successes in the future."

Kolali: I’m Thinking of Grabbing Medals for Coming Years

Mahdieh Kolali has attended the competitions in the 69kg category. As for how she felt during the competitions, she said, "I’m very glad to be a member of the first women’s team in Iran’s weightlifting history. I wasn’t stressed out at all, and I managed to repeat the records I had set during my exercises. I had a very good experience, and the kind of outfit I was wearing indicated my difference with others. I assure you that wearing the Islamic headscarf is not a limitation for us, whatsoever, and I promise to bring medals for my country in the coming years with this very outfit."

Mirzaki: We Showed That Girls Can Also Do It 

Narges Mirzaki, the athlete in the plus 75kg category, is the last of the four Iranian weightlifters to compete in the championship. In her interview, she told Varzesh3 about her presence in Uzbekistan and the contest ahead.

"It’s a good feeling to be attending Uzbekistan competitions as the first Iranian women weightlifters. We take pride in exercising and attending the contests while observing the Islamic dress code. I will redouble my efforts in the future, and I’d like to finish among the top three as of next year. Some say women cannot be weightlifters and cannot succeed. This is not true. We four people have been practicing for four months and we’ve gotten here now. Definitely, other girls can come forward and succeed."

Uzbekistan’s Weightlifting Federation has been honoured by the Asian Weightlifting Federation to host the 19th Asian Youth (qualification event for the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games), 24th Asian Junior Women and 31st Asian Junior Men Weightlifting Championships from April 20-30 in Urgench.

Below is an excellent 3-minute video about this team and its aspirations. [If the video does not show on your device, please go directly to]

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White Silk Road - Snowboarding Afghanistan
Cricket in Afghanistan and Tajikistan

This article first appeared online on Iranian Front Page News and is reposted with permission under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.