Afghan Chronicles: Day Five, A School Gets A Library

Today was one of the days of shooting that will go down as one of one of the most fulfilling days of not only shooting, but most fulfilling days, period. When working on a project, there is a process.

First, it’s the idea, something is here, a story, I am not sure what it is, but I can’t stop thinking about it, and I begin to shoot. Then the doubt sets in, what am I doing? Am I wasting my time and everyone else’s? And then there is the inevitable magic moment, and it always happens, where it all clicks. The hard work pays off and the moment arrives where you think, there is no other place or task that I would rather be doing than what I am doing at this moment. It is a moment of grace and flow, and when it happens, I feel extremely grateful. It motivates me when I am not feeling the “flow.” The memory and pursuit of these moments get me out of bed in the morning.

In my film, Undetectable , the “moment” was Belynda’s shit speech. I had been following her for over six months as she went on and off her HIV/AIDS multi-therapy medications. As a side effect of the medications, she told the most harrowing story of shitting on herself at work.  After that experience, she decided she would go off the HIV/AIDS medications. She was furious, humiliated and told the story with devastating candor. When she spoke and I was filming, I thought, there is nothing on this planet I would rather be doing. 

See her video at the bottom of this page.

On this day I had a similar experience.

We started the day about 8 a.m. at the small four-room house of ABLE (Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University’s Box Library Extension). The building is crammed with numerous floor-to-ceiling columns of paperback books written in Dari and Pashto. The dedicated staff collates, inventories and bundles the endless stream of books that are distributed to over 20 provinces throughout Afghanistan.

On this day the staff piles two large stacks of books into the trunk of a compact white car. They tie a blond wooden book shelf on the car’s roof and we drive about 40 kilometers outside Kabul to the Humayan Shahid School, Dasht-e Barchi. The school has never had a library, has no electricity or running water. Over 800 students attend the school in three shifts. We visit the first shift which is designated for girls.

On seeing one book shelf, and two bags of books, I have to admit, I am skeptical. How is this going to make a library?

We veer off the paved highway and pass mud-walled stores and homes and bounce along the mud road with ruts more than two feet deep. It feels like we are riding a bronco and I grip the door handle, expecting to jump out at any moment to push the car through the mud. The town, like the school, has no electricity or running water, but I see a resident talking on a mobile phone, and with the snow-capped mountains in the background, the clash of primitive and modernity felt very Mad Max.

We pull in front of a mud wall with a metal gate. The gate opens and exposes a cement school in the shape of a U with a small dirt courtyard. We hear the girls screaming and laughing behind the windows, the cement walls heighten the sound. When I point the camera at the girls they shriek with laughter and hide behind the and peak out again. I am mindful of capturing images of girls. I ask the teachers for permission who shake their head in the affirmative. Those girls who don’t want to be photographed don’t come to the window. The girls look in age between seven and 16.

A group of men appear from the school, and with the ABLE staff and a wheelbarrow, they transport the book shelf and books into the classroom. I am still skeptical on how this one book shelf and a couple of bags of books could a library make.

They place the lone book shelf in the cavernous cement classroom, and I think, how quaint but this will never fly. But then the books arrive with a couple of teachers and about 12 students. They began to unpack the book bags and place the books on the shelves. The men bring in a table, about six to eight chairs and about six desks. Within 20 minutes, the room was transformed into a library. The girls gather around the desks and begin to read and sound out the words to their first book.

To see the excitement on the teachers and girls faces, I felt as if I was witnessing a miracle. One book shelf and 500 books, something seemingly so insignificant, can open worlds and possibilities to hundreds of kids.

My life and world will never be the same, and it’s all because of Nancy. Her determination and commitment to make a positive difference in other people’s lives is remarkable. She has restored my faith in humanity. What makes her so compelling is her lack of sentimentality and her feisty candor. She loathes that I am following her around with a camera and screams at me nonstop.  She knows that it might be good for the organization so she puts up with it.  I’m trying to get the story and get out of Afghanistan alive.  The only time she gets a bit sentimental is when she speaks about her late husband, Louis, the love of her life. It’s the only time she softens.

Not to put this 84-year-old force of nature on a pedestal but she genuinely has devoted her life to the people of Afghanistan. By building school libraries and cataloging thousands of historic documents to restore the nation’s memory, she shows the international community how to work in Afghanistan. It takes a lifetime, and numerous tiny wins like the one today, to make a difference. In this world of instant gratification, there is no place or room for people like Nancy. We don’t have time or patience. This needs to change. Especially in the US.

After we leave the school, someone from ABLE drops a box of pastries in our car and we eat as we drive to our next appointment.

About one hour later we are in an upscale part of Kabul. Cement walls instead of mud, nicer roads, no potholes. We enter another gate and are waved through by two machine-gun toting guards and suddenly we were transported to Los Angeles. We were standing before a modern sleek house, complete with electricity, running water, manicured garden and palm trees. A domestic and security staff hover about as we pull into the circular driveway.

I struggle to process the constant changing landscape, behind door #1 impoverished school, behind door #2 stately home with guards sporting machine guns, behind door #3 President Karzai. I feel I am in a weird dream I can’t wake up from. I need to trust and keep moving.

We were at the home of future and past Afghanistan President, Ashraf Ghani.

Corcoran with Afghanistan President, Ashraf Ghani, at his house in Kabul.
Corcoran with Former Afghanistan President, Ashraf Ghani, at his house in Kabul.

Before he arrives we speak with his brother, Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzi , who is not as polished as his brother, but very accessible and disarming. On this day he makes a self-deprecating joke about how his job is to help with the landscaping around the house. He says he has an apartment in Manhattan on Madison and 53rd and a house in Vienna, VA.

After the interview I ask Nancy how a “gardener” in Kabul owns two properties in the US? In her customary discretion, she said she didn’t know.

After the fall of Afghanistan, Ashraf was granted asylum in the UAE on August 15, 2021. His brother, Hashmat, stayed in Afghanistan to advise the Taliban on their new government with former President Hamid Karzai and former Chief Executive or “Co-President” Abdullah Abdullah.

Mr. Ghani praises Nancy on and off camera and could not have been kinder and efficient. His interview lasts no more than 10 minutes and he speaks only about Nancy and the positive impact she has had on Afghanistan. Nothing about his campaign, nothing off point. He generously allows us to take picture with him and we were off.

That afternoon the Palace calls. President Hamid Karzai has agreed to a brief interview to discuss Nancy and ACKU. They want to meet tomorrow. Nancy says no because we are scheduled to visit a school in Charikar, Parwan Province, about a 90-minute drive from Kabul. She has her priorities.

Hamid Elmi, President Karzai’s press secretary wants three talking points from us. We go back to the ACKU office and I discuss with Nancy and Leila the three talking points and go back to the Gandamack and send them off to Mr. Elmi. The talking points are listed below. Elmi is smooth and friendly over the phone. I assume we are a shoo-in.

Dear Hamid-

Thank you for taking the time to forward our three talking points for our ACKU video to President Karzai. We know how busy he is with the visiting U.S. and EU delegation, so your assistance is greatly appreciated.

We have three questions we would be most grateful to ask his excellency. The time involved will not take more than 10 minutes.

The talking points:

1. You have been so supportive of ACKU since its inception. What is your reason for your continuous support of the Centre?

2. What do you think ACKU can contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan?

3. For new partners involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, what do you think they could learn by Nancy Dupree’s example?

I have an early dinner of coq au van (chicken with bacon and mushrooms) at the Gandamack Lodge and retire to my room to write, transfer my footage to my hard drives to prepare for the next day. Lights out at 11pm.

Click here for Day Six: Charikar

Activist Belynda Dunn in a scene from Undetectable from PBS Independent Lens