Photos Of Afghanistan's Past: Modernity Lost

The Afghanistan of Mohammad Qayoumi's memory is far from that of a "broken 13th century country," as it was recently described by British Defense Secretary Liam Fox.

Qayoumi, now a university president in America, grew up in Kabul in the 1950s and '60s. It was a period of calm and prosperity — and even optimism — before the Soviet invasion.

And thanks to a batch of vintage photos, Qayoumi has opened a window into that world with a photo essay recently published in Foreign Policy. The images depict a world that is slick, modern — even Western.

  • Record stores brought the rhythm and energy of the Western world to Kabul teenagers in the 1950s.
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    Record stores brought the rhythm and energy of the Western world to Kabul teenagers in the 1950s.
  • This infant ward in a Kabul hospital in the 1960s contrasts sharply with one Mohammad Qayoumi visited in 2004 in Mazar-e-Sharif. Today, nearly one in four babies born in Afghanistan does not reach its fifth birthday.
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    This infant ward in a Kabul hospital in the 1960s contrasts sharply with one Mohammad Qayoumi visited in 2004 in Mazar-e-Sharif. Today, nearly one in four babies born in Afghanistan does not reach its fifth birthday.
  • Qayoumi recalls playgrounds where mothers used to take their children to play. Now, only men loiter in the city parks and it is considered unsafe to bring children outside.
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    Qayoumi recalls playgrounds where mothers used to take their children to play. Now, only men loiter in the city parks and it is considered unsafe to bring children outside.
  • This movie theater was located near where Qayoumi once lived. There he watched Hollywood movies, like Spartacus, The FBI Story and The Dirty Dozen.
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    This movie theater was located near where Qayoumi once lived. There he watched Hollywood movies, like Spartacus, The FBI Story and The Dirty Dozen.
  • Afghanistan once had Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. In the 1950s and '60s, such programs were very similar to their counterparts in the United States, with students in elementary and middle schools learning about nature trails, camping and public safety. But scouting troops disappeared entirely after the Soviet invasions in the late 1970s.
    Hide caption
    Afghanistan once had Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. In the 1950s and '60s, such programs were very similar to their counterparts in the United States, with students in elementary and middle schools learning about nature trails, camping and public safety. But scouting troops disappeared entirely after the Soviet invasions in the late 1970s.
  • Afghanistan's once strong and functional defensive forces are today only a memory. After the Soviets left, Pakistan was instrumental in destroying the country's armed services. Since civil war in the 1990s, the subsequent Taliban takeover and the U.S.-led intervention, domestic security forces have proved extremely difficult to build, even as security remains a top concern.
    Hide caption
    Afghanistan's once strong and functional defensive forces are today only a memory. After the Soviets left, Pakistan was instrumental in destroying the country's armed services. Since civil war in the 1990s, the subsequent Taliban takeover and the U.S.-led intervention, domestic security forces have proved extremely difficult to build, even as security remains a top concern.

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The photos show women in demure scarves, but also in pencil skirts and other fashions of the 1950s and '60s. And just as striking is what some of the women are doing: buying records. Back then, Qayoumi tells NPR's Deborah Amos, Afghans favored songs by Western pop singers like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Tom Jones.

Those were the days before the country was ruled according to strict Islamic principles, although religion was part of Afghanistan's culture.

"I think Islam was always important, but the level of zealousy was never there," Qayoumi says.

Qayoumi left Afghanistan in 1968 and now lives in California, where he is the president of California State University, East Bay. He decided to publish the photos, he says, to show the richness of Afghanistan's past, and its future potential.

"From the 1880s to 1978, Afghanistan was a very stable country, which had only six rulers," Qayoumi says, "which is far more stable than most European countries in that era."

Of course, Afghanistan's history also includes many eras of conflict and destruction, from the empire of Alexander the Great to the Arab conquests, and more recently, to occupations by Britain and the Soviet Union.

As for the future, Qayoumi cites an Afghan saying: "A stream that has seen water before will see water in the future, also."

"Who knows? Maybe in 20 years from today, we can look at a very different Afghanistan," he says, "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."

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