Photos Of Afghanistan's Past: Modernity Lost Imagine an Afghanistan with clean streets and cars, a hopeful place where women take their children to the parks to play and teens shop for pop music in new stores. That's how the country looked in the 1960s. And Mohammad Qayoumi has the pictures to prove it.
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Photos Of Afghanistan's Past: Modernity Lost

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Photos Of Afghanistan's Past: Modernity Lost

Photos Of Afghanistan's Past: Modernity Lost

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos.

The British defense secretary recently called Afghanistan a broken 13th century country. But that's not the memory of Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi. He grew up in a prosperous Kabul of the '50s and '60s. A time when women wore tight skirts, men had sideburns and there was a rock and roll craze. It was the calm before the storm of the 1979 Soviet invasion.

He shared his memories in a photo essay on the Foreign Policy website. Dr. Qayoumi is not President of California State University East Bay.

Good morning.

Dr. MOHAMMAD QAYOUMI (President, California State University East Bay): Good morning.

AMOS: The pictures are beautiful. You have a photo of two women in a record store and they're wearing pencil skirts and heels, very fashionable hairdos and they're leafing through records. What were people listening to at that time?

Dr. QAYOUMI: Well, at that time, you know, people were listening to all kinds of music. Certainly, a lot local music. But, you know, especially the young generation were very much interested in Western music - Frank Sinatra. We used to listen to Elvis, and we used to listen to Tom Jones. Those three were quite popular in the early '60s.

AMOS: What really strikes me, looking at these photographs, is honestly the women. That there are some women who are wearing scarves, but you certainly do not see the burqa - the long garment that women now wear in Afghanistan that covers them from head to toe. Was that a different time in Afghanistan, where Islam was not as important as it is today?

Dr. QAYOUMI: Well, I think Islam was always important, but the level of zealousy was never there. And actually you could see some women at that time wear burqas. If I recall, for the first year of college at Kabul University when I was there for a few months, I would hardly see any women covering their head. I would say maybe at most five percent to 10 percent maximum.

AMOS: What do you want people to see in these photographs, besides a country that is very different from the one that we see today?

Dr. QAYOUMI: Well, I think, you know, I would like them to see that whole region and also Afghanistan has been a country with a very rich history. From the 1880s to 1978, Afghanistan was a very stable country, which had only six rulers, which is far more stable than most European countries in that era.

AMOS: I remember stories about Afghanistan, that it actually was a tourist destination.

Dr. QAYOUMI: Yes. When I was growing up I was - you know, because that was a time that you were - because we were seeing the beginning of a large number of people coming to the country - those with an interest in the historic side. The kind of things that raise curiosity of a lot of archaeologists, a lot of individuals who had interests about history. There were a lot of people who had interest in hunting.

AMOS: When you look back at those pictures, do you have a sense that you are looking at turn of history?

Dr. QAYOUMI: Well, in some ways, yes. But I think one also has to keep in mind that Afghanistan, throughout its 5,000 year history, has seen those kind of days where the country has seen major improvements and has been a center of trade and a center of quite a bit of activity, and has been destroyed over time, also. You know, when you start from the Alexander to the Arabs, to the British and then the Soviets. There is a saying in Afghanistan that: A stream that has seen water before will see water in the future, also.

You know, looking at the potential that Afghanistan has, who knows? 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.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

Dr. QAYOUMI: Thank you.

AMOS: Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi is the president of California State University East Bay. He joined us to talk about the Afghanistan of his childhood in the 1950s and '60s. And he was speaking to his from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco.

You can see the photographs of Afghanistan on our website, npr.org.

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