with Afghan Girl, a photograph of Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry
Afghan Girl—a portrait of Sharbat Gula when she was between ten and twelve years old—may be the most iconic photograph in the world. Published on the cover of National Geographic in June of 1985, it was taken by photographer Steve McCurry at a children's tent school in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984. We all owe reverence and respect to Mrs. Gula for the honor of viewing her image, an image for which it is debated whether or not she gave permission to be taken. She states remembering her anger at it being taken, although her photographer claims that she gave permission, after the teacher at the school explained to her that it was for the good cause of bringing global awareness to the plight of refugees and encouraged her to agree to have it taken.
Whichever way it played out, we are looking at a woman who has suffered much from a very young age and as such deserves our solemn respect when viewing her image. The photograph of her face has been disseminated extensively; sometimes used to raise funds for charities benefitting orphans and refugees, at other times used as propaganda as it was by President George Bush to inspire public support for the war in Afghanistan. Her story deserves to be shared through the lens of her own experiences, not what her face has meant to others, especially the men who have profited from selling it.
Ms. Gula's childhood in the Kot district of eastern Nangarhar province was interrupted when Soviet forces invaded and destroyed her village. Some accounts state that her mother had previously died from appendicitis, others that both parents were killed in the attack by Soviets in 1984. She left home with her grandmother or her father and siblings for the refugee camp where she was photographed. Completely unaware that the photograph of her had reached celebrity status—she led the difficult life of any a refugee, giving up the education she had hoped to complete and struggling to eke out a sustainable existence. She married young—13 years old in her account, 16 years old in her husband's—and spent 35 years as a refugee, building a life in Pakistan where she and over a million other unregistered Afghan refugees lived illegally. Photographer Steve McCurry tracked her down in 2002 with a crew from National Geographic, and identified her using five experts—all male—one of which poked at her eyes with tools in order to study her irises, an imaginably unnerving experience even with her husband at her side. She was photographed again at that time, preferring to be photographed with her face covered but ultimately agreeing to show her face.
It is unclear to what extent Mr. McCurry has repaid or assisted the subject of his photograph. The auction house Christie's officially lists the original print of Afghan Girl as having sold for $178,900. The proceeds are officially listed on Christie's as going to Imagine Asia. "Inspired by the story of Sharbat Gula, the Afghan Girl, Steve McCurry founded ImagineAsia to help children in Afghanistan. Proceeds from the sale of this image help fund ImagineAsia's educational mission. http://www.imagine-asia.org." (Christie's) The website included in the description goes to an unrelated website in Japanese advertising a hotel. Variations on the URL (".net" instead of ".org) also lead to dead-ends—a blank chalk red page with no text. Individual prints continue to sell for $10,000-$15,000 a piece.
Earlier this year Ms. Gula was arrested and deported for having false papers, facing years in prison and thousands in fines. Pakistan has intensified measures to expel the many refugees in their borders, even if they have lived there for decades as Ms. Gula has. She is the sole breadwinner for her family; her husband died five years earlier from Hepatitis C, as did her eldest daughter, leaving behind a 22-month old child. She was separated from the infant and her four living children when she was imprisoned for 15 days, while suffering from Hepatitis C herself. She described her imprisonment as "the hardest and worst incident of my life." (BBC). Upon news of the arrest, the photographer Mr. McCurry vowed to aid and fund her return to home. The Afghan government realized the bad publicity and invited her to return, offering to purchase her a home in Kabul. One can only hope her suffering may now lessen, and that her children can receive the education she was unable to have for herself. The honorable Ms. Kabul deserves the gratitude of all who have been inspired by the intensity of her expression and the plight she represented. May every food we make be eaten with conscious empathy for those who have hungered.
The dish for this food and art pairing—the best dish I have to offer—is a very filling, flavorful, nurturing dish that feeds many. The reds and greens remind me of the aesthetics in the original image of Ms. Gula, and as such I hope she may be honored every time this is made, and that all those dear to her may always be healthy, fulfilled, and free of an intrusive male gaze.
I have researched many recipes to arrive at the exact flavors I was raised to know and love. This recipe by Evelyn in Athens on the Genius Kitchen website is truly fantastic. I make very few alterations below.
- 4 medium to large ripe yummy tomatoes
- 4 medium green peppers (if using a single 9x13" baking dish, you'll only get 6-7 vegetables in total)
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 10-13 tbsp uncooked rice (a 'heaping' tablespoon per vegetable to be stuffed)
- 1 large onion, chopped fine (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced very fine
- 1/4 cup fresh spearmint, minced (1 1/2 tblsps dried, crumbled)
- 1/2 cup parsley, minced
- 1/2 cup shredded carrots or zucchinis
- 1/2 cup pine nuts or 1/2 cup slivered almonds (optional)
- 1/2 cup hard mizithra cheese or kefalograviera or parmesan cheese, cut into tiny cubes
- 1/2 cup raisins (optional: My sister detests raisins in stuffed tomatoes, I love them—it's up to you).
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1 to 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp and 1 tsp tomato paste
- salt and pepper
- 1-2 large potatoes and/or carrots cut into wedges or large pieces (optional)
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 8 large slices of feta cheese (optional)
1) Cut off tops of tomatoes (retain tops) and carefully scoop out flesh into a large mixing bowl. You can keep the top attached on one part so that it it easy to guess which top goes with which tomato (but it's fine if they don't match!)
2) Cut off tops of peppers (retain tops) and remove seeds and membrane.
3) Place tomatoes and peppers in a pan large enough to hold them comfortably. Rub a little bit of sugar onto the rims of the tomatoes and peppers.
4) Take tomato flesh and process it until pureed.
5) Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a skillet and add the onions just long enough to soften them a little. Add the rice and brown it slightly, being careful not to burn it (five minutes at the most).
6) Place the rice and onions in the mixing bowl. Add garlic, mint, parsley, nuts, cheese, raisins, carrots or zucchinis, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Stir to combine.
7) Use a spoon to scoop the mixture into the tomatoes and peppers.
8) Add the tops of the tomatoes and peppers like lids. Sprinkle a touch of sugar on top of each.
9) Combine 1 cup of water, 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup white wine (optional) with a scant tablespoonful of tomato paste and a little salt and pepper. Pour this around the vegetables. Into this space, place the potatoes and/or carrots.
10) Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for approximately 1 and 3/4 hours (vegetables should pierce easily and be slightly blackened in parts).
11) Turn off the oven and leave them in for another hour to 'mellow' before serving. This is important so that the flavors absorb.
12) This is best served slightly warm or at room temperature, and is delicious served with feta. Enjoy!
Sharbat Gula, in 1984 & 2002
The following articles and sites were used as research for this post: