Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Kabul, the Fulcrum of History

I've recently discovered, thanks to Jon Courtney at SPACE Gallery, the wonderful blog of Adam Curtis, a BBC documentarian and video archivist. The Medium and the Message mines a treasure-trove of old BBC clips, mostly from the Cold War era, to synthesize new historical narratives for our era. I think that it's the finest example of blogging I've come across yet, a seamless, beautiful, and compulsively engaging combination of words, photography, and video.

I'm currently poring through Curtis's ongoing series of posts on Kabul, and its historic role as the place where empires go to begin their decline. It begins with the British empire retreating from Kabul in 1841 - an event dramatized in 1971 BBC documentary - and traces the origins of Islam in Afghanistan, then discusses the West's 20th-century efforts to Westernize the city and the nation. There's a bit about Buckminster Fuller's pavilion for the Kabul International Trade Fair of 1956, and the establishment of the national airline, and the evolution of Afghan rock and roll. And the latest post, about the parallel lives of Benazir Bhutto - who helped to fund and empower the Afghan Taliban - and Yegor Gaidar, who implemented Russia's rapid, "shock therapy" transition to capitalism under Boris Yeltsin.

Here's some amazing footage that Curtis cribbed from a 1985 BBC report. It shows a modern Kabul factory, with middle-class workers, at the beginning of the Soviet invasion:

Also in that same post is a clip that shows the offices of GOSPLAN, the Soviet central economic planning bureau, just a few months before the collapse of communism. But do yourself a favor and read the whole thing - quoting bits and pieces here makes it sound like a mishmash, but Curtis weaves these different vignettes together beautifully.

Note: Unfortunately, BBC's video player is only designed to work in the UK, so only some clips on Curtis's blog will work. But this gives Americans a chance to see the internet the same way that savvy Chinese users do: by using proxy servers to fool the censors. Here's how.

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