Sharp, simple reminders of major political facts are woven into a stunning cinematic fabric in Meena Nanji’s brilliant documentary ‘View From A Grain of Sand’.

This is not a war zone, but destruction is everywhere.

In Meena Nanji’s documentary the stories of three Afghan women’s lives are beautifully told and poignantly located in the enormously violent forces that have shaped Afghans’ lives. Millions have to leave or burn; one says, “There is not even snake’s poison here.”

Shapiray, who fled to a makeshift life in a camp in Pakistan, talks as she sits at a sewing machine, the only thing she took when she left her home north of Kabul. Her husband had been a freedom fighter, and they had always discussed the Afghan situation; but he had been killed in a Soviet ambush, and she sews to remember him. Her camp is not that makeshift either; some Afghans have been there for 20 years, and three million remain in Pakistan.

Shapiray does go back; she and her relatives rebuild the uncommandeered home they had fled when it was destroyed in the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. There is no running water and no electricity, but, having become a teacher while in Pakistan, should she stay here, where her new pupils’ drawings are all of war and death, or go back to the camp?

The other two women’s lives show other complexities. In Roeena’s childhood home in Kabul, boys and girls were totally equal, and under King Zahir Shah there were no dress codes; women wore skirts if they wished, went about freely, and followed all manner of occupations and professions. Roeena dreamt of being a pilot, and we see a woman driving a bus. In 1964, women got the vote, and forced and underage marriages were banned. Today — no kites, no music, no TV, and there are public beheadings, some secretly filmed by RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Nanji’s commentary evokes Thomas Hobbes — no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor,…

Larger systemic forces

But Afghanistan does not embody Hobbes’s dreaded collapse of the civil condition, because much larger systemic forces are at work. Zahir Shah’s urban rule was accepted by rural warlords — who regarded women as property — if he generally left them alone. After Zahir’s overthrow in 1973, a series of Soviet-imposed dictators upset the warlords, and in 1979 the Carter administration began funding anti-government rebels. Then the Soviet Union invaded with 100,000 troops, installing a puppet regime and bombing and imprisoning indiscriminately. But they ended the heroin trade, and urban Afghan women faced a dilemma: the modernisers were also occupiers. Roeena, now a doctor, continued treating the wounded.

With militias rampaging everywhere, millions fled, and Afghanistan became an ideological battleground; the United States was determined to oust the Soviet Union at any cost, in this case by funding Afghanistan’s most extreme, rigid, and bitterly misogynistic faction, the Taliban. In the 1970s, many of the Taliban had gone to Pakistan, where they had found a friend in the then dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The U.S., Nanji tells us, knew what the Taliban and the other Mujahideen were like, but as religious fundamentalism transcends national borders they enabled the addition of Saudi Arabian billions to the billions the U.S. was already giving the Taliban; in effect, the US funded, perhaps created, religious war in Afghanistan. The U.S. government even declared March 21 Afghanistan Day.

In 1989 the beaten Soviet Union withdrew, to western jubilation, and left 1.5 million dead. Afghan women faced the catastrophic consequences of becoming ‘acceptable targets for abuse in the name of religion’. Roeena now lives in Peshawar, and treats children in the camp, 40 kilometres away.

Wajia, the third woman, is as devout and faithful a Muslim as Shapiray and Roeena and, like them, is working out her own way of being one. Where Roeena pursues her career and strongly resists her mother’s pressure to get married — ‘Marriage is a point where I can’t learn any more’ – Wajia eventually agreed when her family found a decent man with a solid government job. She respects him and is more religious than he is, but is in no way bounden to his thinking. She does go back, for the first time in 25 years, taking her small son Haroon on his first trip outside the camp, and the bus moves from tree-lined Pakistani roads through barren passes and on to deserted roads clinging to craggy rocksides. This is not a war zone, but destruction is everywhere.

Destruction everywhere

Nasim of RAWA, face covered, says, ‘Even the trees have died.’ Girls can again go to school, but the U.S., apparently in search of Osama bin Laden, bombed all the wrong places and now funds the warlords; there is no peace or stability outside Kabul, and the burkha is de rigueur. President Karzai is relatively clean but admits he has little control; the posters in Kabul are of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic and non-fundamentalist Northern Alliance leader who was assassinated in the first week of September 2001.

Wajia is aghast at the beheadings: ‘Where in Islam is this?’ Like Roeena, she sees a country where a majority in the parliament are linked to armed groups and where constitutional rights are overridden by religious law. Should she stay?

The film weaves the stories with sharp, simple reminders of major political facts into a stunning cinematic fabric supported by a beautifully understated soundtrack and narrative. It has rightly won a string of international awards, and it made a huge impression on its first Indian showing at the Thrissur film festival.

Introducing the film in Chennai recently, Dr Lakshmanan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies quoted Ambedkar: ‘I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women had achieved.’