Saira Shah

Saira ShahReporter and broadcaster Saira Shah was born in Britain of an Afghan father (though half Scottish), writer Idries Shah, and a British mother (though Indian). She first visited Afghanistan in the '80s and there became a freelance journalist covering the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation. She has regularly traveled to hot spots like the Balkans, Algiers, Palestine, Congo, Iraq, Columbia, Northern Ireland and Sudan. She was part of the group that made Beneath the Veil, shown in this country on CNN, which vividly exhibits the hell that was Taliban Afghanistan. With her dear friend, director James Miller, Shah also made a sequel called Unholy War that won numerous awards including a Peabody Award. Last year Shah and Miller set up a production company and were working on a documentary for HBO in Israel in May 2003 when Miller was killed by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. Shah has recently published a memoir, The Storyteller's Daughter. For the time being she lives in London.

The Storyteller's Daughter is Saira Shah's account of her search for cultural identity. In an interview she has said, "'Two people live inside me. Like a couple who rarely speaks, they are not compatible. My Western side is a sensitive, liberal, middle-class pacifist. My Afghan side I can only describe as a rapacious robber baron. It revels in bloodshed, glories in risk and will not be afraid.' She goes on to explain, 'I think it was really important to my father that we didn't grow up feeling we didn't belong anywhere. He wanted us to have a metaphorical homeland, so he created a community out of stories. The only thing that surprises me was how amazed and horrified he was when I turned around at 21 and said, 'Well I'm going there, if that's where I come from.'"

afghanistan map

Robert Birnbaum: In The Storyteller's Daughter, while you don't dwell on it you mention that you were something of a cultural subversive. Can you say more about that?

Saira Shah: Yeah, yes, you rumbled me. [laughs] I am a cultural subversive. It's got nothing to do with the book. The kind of personality I am, is that if I see rules I want to find out if there is a way … I don't break them. I don't really break them. I try to get around them. I try to do things—I suppose that it does have to do with Afghanistan because I try to do things that I am not really culturally allowed to do. Particularly when I go to the East, not just Afghanistan, just because I am a woman, I have to do that. I am quite firm about things I want to do. I want to be able to go places. I want to be able to meet people. I want to be able to see things. And to do that I have to cheat, really. I suppose I started doing it when I was seventeen. I kind of pulled one over, slightly, on my uncle. I dressed up as a boy and he was a bit absent-minded … It's interesting how much you can get away with, even in really, really regimented cultures. Sometimes in more regimented cultures than in looser ones—some things just slip through people's radar, because they have never been challenged or they have never come across that situation before. And they don't notice. It's a really, really strange thing. If you stand up and wave banners and shout and say, "I stand for this," and enough of you are doing it—like anti-Vietnam-war protesters or something—suddenly you hit the radar and then people start opposing you. But if you can make yourself indefinable you can sneak through gaps…

RB: Indefinable or invisible?

SS: They can be very similar. If you can't be defined the mind won't see. It's a bit like the thing I wrote about when I went through the hospital when I was doing the undercover. There we made ourselves invisible by re-categorizing ourselves.

RB: The book starts out, the reason for your travel to Afghanistan is to secure something concrete about your cultural background, coming from your father's accounts and stories. Had you not taken a certain turn there in Afghanistan, what had you been planning to do with your life?

SS: Well, I am the kind of person that has drifted from one thing to another. I wanted to be a writer, actually. That was my secret.

RB: It's out now.

SS: Yeah. I got all this pressure from my family. My father was a writer and everyone would say to me, "You're going to be a writer." And I remember being about six or seven years old and already worried that I hadn't written a best seller. As I got older I rebelled and didn't want to do that. So I spent my career being a journalist. And I think it was important—that I really had to go to Afghanistan first. It felt like it was the thing I had to do before I could get on with anything else. That, of course, took me into journalism, and that was like writing as well. And then—I was very shy—I did television journalism because I'd have to work with people. And I don't think I am shy any more, so it worked [laughs].

RB: As you went through your initial experiences in Afghanistan in the mid and late '80s, did you write them down?

SS: [drinking tea] Umm.

RB: Was that the basis for some of what appears in your book?

The West is a very problem-solving culture. And one of the problems of Afghanistan is that it doesn't lend itself readily to being sorted out on the West's terms.

SS: Yeah. Lots of it is in the book. For instance, the stuff about the Valley of Song is practically verbatim from what I wrote down in the '80s. I tried really hard to write a book about my experiences. Where I had been left at the end of the '80s, was I really had gone through a good six months of absolute hell after I wrote about the mujahidin selling Stingers [missiles] to Iran. I got death threats from the commander who I had accused of selling Stingers but I also got in a really weird situation with the expatriates who were mostly rabid right wingers, based in Peshawar. They were in a sense, journalists and many the people based there were really pretty political and they absolutely cut me dead, cut me loose. Basically they made it quite clear it would be a good thing if I were bumped off. And at the same time I had slipped up with my Afghan side, I got in trouble with my family, and so I had been cut off from the protection of both worlds. I had this threat, and I am very bloody-minded and I stuck it out. I really thought if I left it would be admitting that I was afraid, and I didn't admit, even to myself, that I was afraid. It was really interesting when I read back the stuff that I had written in the '80s and I had never been able to finish it. I couldn’t work out why. And then when I read it again I saw why I couldn't finish it. Two reasons. The first one was it was too close, I had to carry on lying to myself that I wasn't afraid and there were whole bits where I was talking about the geese we had…

RB: As guard animals.

SS: And I had written pages and pages about how funny the geese were. The geese would all stand on one leg and copy each other and they used to attack Bat, my partner, and it was all written as this little comic thing. And then I was getting more and more clammy and I couldn't figure out why.

RB: Agitated?

SS: Umm, nervous. This was years later. I suddenly went back to that time when we had the geese because we were afraid that people would come into the house and get me. And yet I hadn't been able to write about it at that point. And the second reason is that there was symmetry after the Taliban. History made more sense because you could see a progression and it really became clear I had not seen and that really the West had not seen, in the '80s, that there were two separate wars being fought in Afghanistan. There was the Superpower conflict. But there was also the mujahidin who were fighting a really different war. Pakistan was fighting a really different war for Islam. We really didn't recognize it at the time. It's exactly what I was saying about people not seeing things that they are not set up to see. In the book I say that we'd be in Peshawar and dead bodies with their throats cut would come floating down the canal. These were the victims of intra-mujahidin fighting—different factions were fighting among themselves, and there would be explosions in the town, and we never really looked into them. We didn't look and we didn't perceive. It seemed to me that history had come around and we were again in a position where I got a second chance, if you like. And again in the '80s Afghanistan was considered important because it was the front line in the Superpower conflict and now it was considered important as the front line in the war against terror. It seemed like that there was a real danger of the same mistake being made and the wrong things being looked at. So it just seemed to be symmetry and also my story…

RB: Has it not in fact already happened, these mistakes two years later?

SS: I think it is happening.

RB: Just today I came across this: "We have executed a private assessment of Afghanistan, available to both civilian and military elements of the USG, and these are our key judgements: 1) Taliban is back in force, strong in the south, and opening a northern front. 2) Goodwill for US and NATO has collapsed. 3) Support for the Afghan government is in flux—the US Government is largely to blame. 4) Refugees unable to return home are aggravating instability and poverty and so on… So what's changed?"

SS: Says it all, doesn't it? I couldn't agree more. The West set out to solve a series of problems in Afghanistan. The West is a very problem-solving culture. And one of the problems of Afghanistan is that it doesn't lend itself readily to being sorted out on the West's terms. And I am afraid that the West really picked the wrong problems to solve and the wrong methods to solve them. In being very fixated on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, they neglected the cause of the Taliban and the causes of bin Laden. The Taliban particularly are not a homogenous group.

RB: But mostly they are Pashtuns

SS: Mostly Pashtuns, yeah. Even in something like this [the above-mentioned assessment]. "The Taliban could take power…" as if there is this kind of creature called Taliban. In fact, the Taliban are a very ad hoc sort of thing. For want of a better word you could almost call them a mind set. 'Taliban' just means students. It's not that the Taliban are coming back, they have never gone away. They are still there. There is a massive culture of warlordism in Afghanistan, as is quite well known. Where do they get those weapons? Well, they got them from the Soviet occupation—both from the Soviet Union, in captured weapons and the United States. So I fear for Afghanistan. I fear now is a little window and things will get very grim again unless there is a very different sort of commitment and that's not only for money but a commitment to attention.

RB: The Afghan worldview seems to me to be almost untranslatable into English. There are some values that don't seem to cross over the linguistic barrier. And for all the talk about the fanaticism of the Taliban towards the end of your book you quote someone, Abdul Haq, claiming that the Taliban could have been bought off. Why didn't the US do that?

SS: Oh yeah, he said that to me, tragically, a few days before he was killed. He said it a couple of days before the US bombing [of Afghanistan] started. He was pulling his hair out and he was saying, "It would cost a fraction of the price." At that point it was a political thing for the States. I am sure they were very well aware that they could have bought off the Taliban.

RB: Are you sure about that?

saira shahSS: Yes, because Pakistan knew that. Pakistan, had already, with Saudi money, bought them off. And Pakistan was desperate to avoid a war in Afghanistan and would certainly have been saying that to the US. But that wasn't the point. The point at that time was that it was just post-9/11 and they needed to be seen to go in and be doing something. Just giving a whole lot of money to a lot of warlords would not have gone [over] too well, even if it had been covert. But it would have worked. It's like that old fable I grew up with—I think it's an Aesop's fable and it's in Rumi as well. The Sun and the Wind were having an argument about the horseman, about who could take the cloak off the horseman. And the wind blew and blew and the horseman just drew his cloak tighter. And then the sun came out and the horseman thought, "Oh what a lovely day, I'll just take my cloak off and sit down." That is more the approach you need in Afghanistan. If you go in with an army, Afghanistan is the graveyard of armies. It's not going to work. If you are perceived to be an occupying force, it's not going to work. I remember going in to Chitral as the US bombing started and there was a sign up saying, "To America, we yearn for death as you yearn for life." You are not going to beat a people like that. It's not worth. It's just not worth it. There are different ways. There are different ways to try…

RB: Your recognition of your fear(s) in the instance you mentioned makes even more remarkable to me and more vivid the fearlessness that you displayed in Beneath the Veil. You were in a scary place.

SS: I was petrified.

RB: You are narrating and then drive by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue—which really sounds absurd in English—and you comment on its ominous appearance. And then moments later in the video you are forced to go back there and you drive into the courtyard and you say in an understated way, "This is not good."

SS: [laughs] That was my English side, my English sense of humor.

RB: You say, "…I grew up unable to admit feeling fear." [p16] You can't afford fear in a place where centuries of war mean that courage is not a luxury." That statement bristles with…

SS: Fighting talk, yeah.

RB: Your voice doesn't quiver and your hand doesn't shake….

SS: I recorded that later. [both laugh] In Beneath the Veil when I did little bits from the undercover, when I look back at the video diaries my voice is shaking. I was just scared every single moment. It's so funny I can see that I am petrified. That was easily the time that I was most scared in my life. And it was a different sort of fear that I felt. It was sustained fear. Frankly, if some one starts shelling you, you get physiological reactions and then maybe you feel sick afterwards. But that psychological fear is a bit different.

RB: I recently read a review by David Thomson of a new biography of the legendary photographer Robert Capa [Blood and Champagne -Alex Kershaw]

SS: Oh yes. I must read that.

RB: Thomson brought up the issues around the famous photograph Capa took of a dying militiaman from the Spanish Civil War—the issue being whether the photograph was in some way staged. In your book there is a place where you ask a young man to repeat his comments a few times. Also you mention that a demonstrator who was chasing you, screaming like a wild man and then help you when you fell…

SS: I still don't understand that. I think I made more sense of the little boy. The director kept asking me to ask the question again and again, which is some thing that I usually don't do. I was weak willed and I did it. I felt terrible about it. Then he completely changed around his answer and gave it a positive spin. It was like seeing the birth of a star, seeing the birth of a myth. In that moment I understood in part what myth is for—in that it gets you through things. On the demonstration, I just put it in. Actually, that is one of the things that you can do with a book that you can't do with a film. You can't afford in a film to have loose ends and say, "I don't really understand this, but I thought it was jolly interesting." But that's exactly what the case was with the demonstration. It happened exactly like that and I don't know—it's not that it wasn't real. Because they were throwing half bricks at us and those were real [laughs]. But it was as though it was a sort of collusion.

RB: It had an on/off switch…

SS: Pretty much, yeah,

RB: There was an incredibly haunting and moving scene where you are talking to three girls whose mother was shot in front of them. I always hope that my inclination toward skepticism doesn't become cynicism—I read your book after I had seen Beneath The Veil and I wondered about when one of the girls starts crying on camera as you are asking her…

SS: That was genuine.

RB: …what happened to her mother. She won't say.

SS: That was genuine. Obviously, when you are cutting you put in a shot. But she absolutely did start crying. I say it in the book as well. And very interestingly the one who started was the older girl, the fifteen-year-old. It's good you brought that up because it involves someone I wanted to bring up. That was shot by my really good friend James Miller who was killed recently. Please don't call him a cameraman. He was a director—but on Beneath the Veil he was cameraman.

RB: He was killed while directing on something that you were working on in Israel.

SS: He and I made Unholy War together, and he had gone on to win an Emmy for that as director. It used to drive him mad when he was alive and he was called a cameraman. There is a little story about that tear. When I was writing the book he was absolutely my best mate. I would phone him up and complain that I couldn't write bits. And I couldn't write the bit about the little girl. I put it off. It was almost the last thing I wrote in the book. I had written almost everything, and I just couldn’t get the bit about the little girls. And I said, "Look, James, how on earth can I explain to people what it felt like because when he and I and Cassan the director went into that courtyard it just blew us away. It was just a raw feeling below the level of words, anything, just this overpowering feeling.” And James said, "Just imagine that you are looking through a viewfinder and the whole viewfinder is full of one eye and from that one eye, really slowly, you see one tear squeezing out." And I said, "Yeah?" James said, "What you have to do then is to imagine what deep well of suffering that one tear has managed to escape from." And that said a lot about James. He saw things beyond the picture. And that's why he became a great director. But no, it was absolutely genuine and it was at that point that she started to cry.

RB: You are at a bar in Kabul and you are watching this apparently burnout case of a journalist…That reminded me that you have denied in print that you are a war junkie. Does anyone who covers war zones admit that they are war junkies?

In fact, the Taliban are a very ad hoc sort of thing. For want of a better word you could almost call them a mind set. 'Taliban' just means students. It's not that the Taliban are coming back—they have never gone away.

SS: I'll tell you why I have denied it. I think I have met war junkies.

RB: Was the guy you described a war junkie?

SS: That would have been a war junkie, and I really, really hope I am not the same way. I really honestly believe that I am not. There have been times, certainly first in Afghanistan—the first time I got shelled, I felt this guilty, "Ooh, I've been shelled" but you bloody well get over that unless you are that kind of person who keeps doing it—like a drug. I was three years in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the '80s. And then I went to Switzerland and worked in radio and television there for three years. Then I went to London and was based there for a couple of years, and then I joined ITN, which is a news organization. They sent me around to all sorts of places including wars. And then, of course, I went back to Afghanistan and made Beneath The Veil and Unholy War. My career hasn't been exclusively wars by any means.

RB: You went to Palestine. You went to Colombia.

SS: If I am a war junkie, it's for something else. It's not wars. People in extreme situations are fascinating to me. You see a dimension of human beings, a capacity for good and for evil that is recognizable in us but isn't brought out except in extreme situations. It teaches you much more about yourself and about the people that you meet. If anything is addictive, that's addictive. But being shelled—oh no. It's like Rumi says, "Go high behold the human spirit." And you do. You do behold the human spirit. And it's a pretty amazing thing.

RB: Isn't there a great deal of hopelessness attached to Afghanistan? The pictures and the fact that Kabul had been decimated, a good part of the agriculture has been destroyed. Millions of people have been uprooted. What grandeur of human spirit will lift Afghanistan from those terrible and declining conditions?

SS: At this point it needs a little bit of help—that human spirit. [laughs] We are equating two different layers that don't go together. But yes, you can't expect a country that has been systematically destroyed over twenty years to suddenly become a flourishing economy and democracy. It's just not going to happen. It needs help from outside. Partly at the end of the book I am trying to explain the difficulty in helping. It needs a specific sort of help. It needs a help without assumptions, a help without expectations. It needs more than even decent charity. It needs love, for want of a better word. And that's hard. I am saying as well as money there must be a quality of attention. I don't see that happening.

RB: You're correct. They are two different things. What I was trying to get to is this notion of expectations. As a journalist and you aspire to more creative endeavors, writing fiction.

SS: I'd like to.

RB: After Beneath the Veil, what were your expectations of how people would respond?

SS: To me or Afghanistan?

RB: The public response to conditions in Afghanistan?

SS: After we made Beneath the Veil and it was aired—it was before 9/11. It had a big impact for a documentary. It was shown on CNN, and in Britain people were talking about it in their offices the next day. And obviously that is a great feeling, but I didn't think l that would change anything, and I didn't think that the Taliban would end.

RB: This is in the context of a Britain that is increasingly anti-asylum-seeking and anti-Eastern-Asian. So for a moment there was sympathy for Afghanistan?

SS: Yes.

RB: Is there a significant Afghan population in England?

SS: Not huge, like Pakistani.

RB: Do people know the difference?

saira shahSS: [makes raspberry sound] Probably not. We are all Pakis. I have to say that people that saw the film were moved by it but not moved to the point where they would do anything. We finished Beneath the Veil in a feeling of hopeless impotence because particularly of what we had seen in the North. We'd seen people pushed right up against the border with Tajikistan—there was huge mass of population up against that border, and I was absolutely convinced that it was only going to be a matter of months before the Taliban went through and the opposition was wiped out. They would have just been massacred. I remember thinking, "Oh god…" and then 9/11 happened with such strange resonance, really. It was a strange, awful time. I saw the picture coming through and I couldn't believe it. I just didn't want to believe it had anything to do with Afghanistan. Quite early it was people saying it was bin Laden. And when I gradually realized I remember the feeling of shame. I got a huge feeling of shame that it was to do with Afghanistan. Which is strange because my travels there have taught me I am absolutely not a pure Afghan.

RB: You write that your own sense of Islam was "hermetically sealed in a bubble," liberal laissez faire. Why isn't that the ascendant view of Islam?

SS: I don't know why.

RB: Becoming a journalist was not a calling for you, like, "I'm going to save the world."

SS: No, it became more of one I suppose. I am not a political person. I never have been. I don't map the world politically. I map the world in terms of individuals and psychology and that's just how I am. And I suppose every story is one on one when you get down and talk to individuals you begin to understand that you are like them…it's that thing about being connected. I really believe that human beings are connected to other human beings and they just don't realize it.

RB: If James Miller hadn't been killed while you were making this film in Palestine, would you still be working in television? It seems like that was a turning point.

SS: I was doing television because I liked working with James because we were mates. Although he wanted to write screenplays as well. The only reason I don't want to do television now is television is [about] teamwork and so I'd have to go out with another team. And I don't want to travel with other people. It's not that I don't like other people, it's that it was a really good team.

RB: This is, of course, an unheard of point of view because we are told that as professionals we must work with everyone.

SS: I don't know, maybe I'm not that professional. We were really good friends but were also a fantastic—not to blow my own trumpet but I will blow his—fantastic professional team. It made things easy that would be difficult any other way.

RB: You have written a book. You indicated an interest in doing more writing. Has that become a more concrete thing for you?

SS: Since May life has been pretty hellish, pretty well all the time. At the moment I am jumping over a hurdle race, the obstacle race of all the commitments that I have lined up. I do the commitments. And so I am sitting here talking to you because I am committed to doing a publicity tour for the book. And I am finishing the film besides it’s James' last film, and when that's finished—which is going to be about January my plan is to disappear off the radar. And you will neither see nor hear of me for quite sometime. Yeah, I hope to get back to Afghanistan.

RB: Well okay. Thanks very much.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

Scroll to Top