An Israeli in Afghanistan, Armed With a Camera

The return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan rekindled Israeli photographer-videographer Yoray Liberman’s memories of his perilous journey to the embattled country

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Daily life in Kabul.
Daily life in Kabul.Credit: Yoray Liberman
Yoray Liberman
Yoray Liberman

In 2004, I got a huge surprise: The Afghan consulate in New York had accepted my application and that of my ideal partner, photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Shaul Schwarz, and pasted tourist visas into our passports. And if you have a visa – you use it.

We arrived in Kabul on a flight from Istanbul. I remember that even from the air, we marveled at the varied topography that we could see from the windows of the airplane. We were also wondering how in all those mountains it was possible to track down in a single individual – Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

When we landed, there was so much chaos around the passport control booth that our Israeli passports were stamped without any questions, along with dozens of other foreign passports.

We traveled around Afghanistan for more than a month. Together and separately, we photographed and documented stories from Afghan life, one of the elements of which is cultivation of the poppies from which opium is produced.

The U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, operating in and around the town of Ghazni.Credit: Yoray Liberman
On our way to Panjshir Valley we stopped at the Shomali Plain.Credit: Yoray Liberman
A woman and children in Kabul. From time to time you may see women's faces uncovered, even if momentarily. Credit: Yoray Liberman
Credit: Yoray Liberman
The Panjshir Valley. Locals are proud to make their living from farming, not opiumCredit: Yoray Liberman

Afghanistan is the world’s No. 1 opium exporter. In the vicinity of the city of Jalalabad, we took pictures of entire families working in a field. The looks we got were very unpleasant. At night we couldn’t fall asleep.

One morning at the local market, we were chased by a man with a knife yelling “Allahu Akbar.” Thanks to the crowd’s fast thinking, the incident ended without harm. I also emerged from it with the realization that in places where there is an American army presence, they don’t like foreigners.

In Kabul, I filmed a Passover seder conducted by Zebulon Simentov, the last Jew in Afghanistan. The truth is that his neighbor was also Jewish, but the two men hadn’t been on speaking terms for six years, so he wasn’t invited. The neighbor, Yitzhak Levy, died in 2005 and his casket was brought to Israel for burial.

The two men had stayed in Kabul well after all the other Jews (including their families) had left the country, mainly to deny each other the distinction of being “the last Jew in Afghanistan.”

Players ready for Buzkashi, played with a goat carcass.Credit: Yoray Liberman
Fields of opium poppies line the road from Kabul to Pakistan.Credit: Yoray Liberman
Northern Afghanistan. Credit: Yoray Liberman

For many decades, the Afghans have been living in an impossible reality of endless war. A Soviet occupation; a Taliban takeover and the imposition of stringent Muslim Sharia law; an American occupation along with NATO forces; and now again the Taliban. Despite such a harsh reality, we met people with whom we became very friendly.

Mahmoud, the driver whom we hired, was with us for most of the trip and saved our lives on several occasions. He suspected that we were Israelis but ran the risk nevertheless. We also forged a relationship with an Afghan photography agency whose photographers helped us a great deal.

Ironically, it was with the Americans that we experienced the moment in which we were in the greatest danger. We had joined a unit of U.S. Marines that was operating near Ghazni Province (which was under Taliban control at the time). We joined the troops to photograph their patrol missions in the villages there.

We filmed the arrest of an Afghan and the facility into which he was put. The American battalion commander didn’t like that and without batting an eye or considering the possible result (and he knew that we were Israelis), he took our cameras and deleted the pictures. Then he led us beyond the entrance to the American military position and shut the gate on us.

A man carrying an umbrella while riding a donkey in the northern region of Badakhshan.Credit: Yoray Liberman
The U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, operating in and around the town of Ghazni.Credit: Yoray Liberman
A young girl in a cemetery in Kabul. The green flag marks the grave of a mujahid – a warrior for Islam.Credit: Yoray Liberman
Aides of the governor of Fyzabad, in his office.Credit: Yoray Liberman

At that point, we found ourselves inside Ghazni, waiting five hours for our driver as hundreds of eyes stared at us in a street full of Taliban wearing distinctive hats.

When we took off from Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but think about the change in my attitude regarding who was an enemy and who was a friend. I also mulled over my thoughts about a country that had known so much war, bloodshed and killing.

What I saw on that journey wasn’t encouraging to me. I hoped the presence of the U.S.-led coalition forces would ultimately succeed in bringing Afghanistan to a better place. I also had hopes for the Afghans themselves. Seventeen years later, it appears that my hopes had been misplaced.

For more photos and stories about Afghanistan, see Yoray Liberman’s Instagram page: @yorayliber.

Daniel Tchetchik has worked at Haaretz since 2003, photographing for the Galleria and weekend supplements. He is creator and editor of the Haaretz photography blog. His work has been exhibited at Israel’s top museums and at a number of exhibitions abroad. His work may be viewed at danieltchetchik.com.

A game of Buzkashi in Kabul.Credit: Yoray Liberman
Playing Buzkashi in Kabul.Credit: Yoray Liberman
Credit: Yoray Liberman

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