Experimental Voices

Afghanistan: In Search of an Independence Day

By Mariam Ghani

In Afghanistan, the Dari word jeshn refers to an annual national celebration, analogous to an “independence day” like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. The Afghan jeshn, however, is anchored neither to a single historical event, nor to a fixed date on the calendar. Instead, the jeshn represents a shifting set of commemorations that reflect the constant reconstructions of the 20th-century Afghan nation-state.

From 1919 to 1973, the jeshn celebrated the anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Britain. The day chosen for the celebration, however, was neither the day when the border skirmishes of the Third Anglo-Afghan War ended, nor the day when the Treaty of Rawalpindi was signed, thereby securing Afghanistan’s right to manage its own foreign relations for the first time. Instead, the jeshn was celebrated on the first day of the month of Sonbola (in the hejrah-e shamsi Islamic calendar), which usually corresponds to the end of August, when the season changes and the weather is likely to be perfect for staging an outdoor celebration.

During the reign of King Amanullah (1919-29), jeshn was celebrated at Paghman, the resort town in the mountains just outside Kabul. The holiday provided an opportunity for Queen Soraya and her progressive sisters to try out new fashions, including daring experiments with the veil, on the general public.

When the Musahiban dynasty replaced Amanullah, former general and new king Nadir Shah moved the primary jeshn celebration to the military parade grounds in Kabul, and extended it into a three-day festival. From this time on, the jeshn was dedicated equally to displaying the state’s military might and to playing sports, on the field and in the Ghazi Stadium built by Amanullah. Wrestling, buzkashi and cricket dominated the jeshns of the 1930s; by the 1960s, soccer, basketball and volleyball drew the largest crowds, reflecting a shift from British to American influence.

The first Afghan feature film shot entirely in Afghanistan takes the jeshn as its subject, while establishing a “house style”—wrapping a fictional story around a core of documentary footage—for the national film institute, Afghan Films. Like an Eagle (1967) tells the story of a little girl from a village near Paghman who runs away from home to see the jeshn celebrations in Kabul.

In the film’s central scene, her expressions of childlike wonder are intercut with film from the actual jeshn of 1966, which shows a large audience, including the king and royal family, watching men dance the Attan and schoolgirls twirling flags.

The Afghan Films archive also contains a newsreel from 1970, which records the most noteworthy jeshn of the “decade of democracy,” the period from 1963-1973 when King Zahir Shah took control of the government back from his autocratic cousin, General and Prime Minister Daoud, and liberalized both state and society. For this particular jeshn, a miniature world’s fair was set up, with national “pavilions” in tents and displays from the various Afghan trade associations. In the newsreel, the prince Ahmad Shah visits the fair, praises the various exhibits, and then pauses before a rug woven with the image of his father, King Zahir. There were also international delegations of performers for the celebration the previous night at the theater, known as Kabul Nandare, including gymnastic displays by scantily clad Soviet acrobats.

Daoud had been sidelined throughout this decade because his stance on “Pashtunistan”—a united front of Pashtuns across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan—had alienated Pakistan so much that Afghanistan’s trade routes to the Indian Ocean were cut off. Pointedly, Daoud only appeared in public at the Pashtunistan festivals traditionally held, during those Pashtun-dominated years, on the third day of jeshn celebrations. He was not idle, however, but actively rebuilding his networks in the army and forging a new alliance with the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (the PDPA, or Afghan Communists).

In 1973, while Zahir was in Italy, Daoud staged a bloodless coup d’état and ended the monarchy of which he was once a part. Daoud’s new republic celebrated its jeshn on a new day: the anniversary of his coup on the 26th of Saratan, 1352 (July 17, 1973).

A newsreel documenting the first jeshn of Daoud’s republic begins with a performance at Kabul Nandare by artists from Soviet and non-aligned countries (note the looks of frozen disapproval on the faces of the audience, during the Russian “folk” dance). A traditional spear-throwing race at the parade grounds is followed by wrestling and football matches (the latter between teams from the USSR and Iran) at the Ghazi Stadium, where Daoud’s emergence from beneath a gigantic painted image of his own face prompts, according to the newsreel narrator, the “continuous applause and emotional fervor of thousands of patriots.” After the match ends in a draw and the city grows dark, stadium spectators crowd around the leader’s stand, cheering. Fireworks are released from the field, river and palace to the skies. Daoud walks through the crowd as people press from every side, straining to lay their hands on him. This promotion of a cult of the leader, which in some ways survives to the present day, marks the only truly important divagation between the jeshns of Daoud’s republic and those of the monarchy it replaced.


Within four years Daoud would be dead, assassinated along with his family by the PDPA. He had, unwisely, sidelined the party after using them to make his coup; when he moved to arrest their leaders in 1978, they struck back and staged their own, much bloodier revolution. From 1979-1991, the jeshn would celebrate the anniversary of the PDPA coup, the 7th of Sawr (April 27).

Two separate films were commissioned from Afghan Films on the occasion of the 1979 jeshn: one documenting preparations for the first anniversary, the other recording the celebration itself.

Both films were shot in color, which necessitated processing outside the country (usually in Uzbekistan). The color film captured the Party’s symbolic use of red flags, sashes and banners—only the first of several sophisticated image-making techniques employed by the PDPA around its jeshn. Another is the Party’s use of white pigeons, seen towards the beginning of the jeshn film in an expertly staged shot where they appear to cluster freely around a group of female students, and then again towards the end, where a single white pigeon, with a red tie around its throat, adorns the podium from which party leader Noor Mohammed Taraki addresses the crowdTaraki’s speech and the film’s narration play on the multiple meanings of the word khalq (“the people”), which is both embedded in the name of the PDPA and specifically the name of the party faction to which Taraki belonged. By the time of this first PDPA jeshn, the Khalq faction had already ousted the rival Parcham (“flag”) faction and exiled its leaders. The Attan, a dance traditionally performed at jeshns as a reminder of the Pashtun heritage of the rulers, is repositioned as a celebration of the Party by slight shifts in the colors of the costume and the patterns of the dance. The film’s editors give equal time to women and men while depicting military and civilian parades, and are also careful to include close-ups and cutaways of spectators that represent all the different groups inhabiting and invested in Afghanistan, notably a Hindu army officer and Russian diplomats. Most importantly, the film establishes a picture of the collective spirit of the Sawr Revolution through its ground-level shots of the jubilant marchers from regional party delegations, waving what the narrator calls “a wild row of red flags” and chanting their “respect, regards, hurrah, applause, revolutionary chorus and excitement mixed with happiness and screams.”

Brief cutaways to Taraki’s deputy Hafizullah Amin—who had been building up a cult of Taraki as a subtle preface to toppling his mentor—give no hint of the conflict already being waged, or the worse days still to come. Beneath the facade of joyous celebration lay the brutal reality of internal party conflict, which fueled purges, arrests, torture and plots. Within the next year, Taraki and the Soviets would attempt to kill Amin and Amin would succeed in assassinating Taraki, briefly taking control of the party and state. On some sides, Amin’s reign was experienced as a period of sheer terror; on others, it was interpreted as an abortive attempt to wrest control of Afghanistan back from its Soviet “mentors.” All can agree, however, that it ultimately led to the Soviet invasion of late 1979 and the replacement of Amin with the puppet president Babrak Karmal, head of the exiled Parcham faction, restored to power on the back of Soviet tanks.

The apparently unrestrained enthusiasm of the first PDPA-era jeshn, therefore, gives way to the altogether more sober jeshn held on the second anniversary of the Sawr coup. Here the jeshn is once again an almost purely military affair. The narrator remarks, so dryly that you suspect him of some hidden sarcasm, that “different units of the brave Armed Forces of Afghanistan, these defenders of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, with their ironclad discipline, and with the powerful strong steps, marched past, and paid tribute to Babrak Karmal and other government and party officials, proving their invincible power once more.” The images, back to black and white, are edited to show the army’s troops as goose-stepping aliens who march through Kabul while the populace looks on in silence that may signify disbelief, fear or resignation. In fact, watching this film without subtitles, it is easy to imagine that this is not the Afghan army, but the Soviet one—not that much distinction between the two existed then, since Soviet officers were placed as “trainers” in almost every branch and battalion of the Afghan military. Notably, the fighter jets that fly overhead are described as doves (and “protectors of peace”), but no actual doves, or white pigeons, are in evidence.


The date of the jeshn was shifted again in 1992, when a coalition of mujahidin parties created the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The “mujahidin republic” celebrated its jeshn on the 8th of Sawr, the day when the government of Najibullah (the last PDPA president) fell.

The Afghan Films footage from this period mostly consists of unedited newsreel rushes, for which the corresponding sync sound recordings have been lost. Two films with different labels might document jeshns of the mujahidin republic. One is labeled “Hizb Harakat anniversary” and depicts a parade by members of that mujahidin party, including both a militia and a soccer team, through the city center. The other is labeled “New Years” and shows President Rabbani and members of his cabinet holding court at the stadium, distributing packages to the waiting crowds. There is a parachutist, a parade of sorts, and even a ragged improvised Attan. A marked difference exists between these maybe-jeshns and the jeshns of years past: No women participate in the parades or displays. Women and girls are present only as spectators, and they all wear the veil, a phenomenon not seen since the jeshn of 1959, when Daoud’s family appeared unveiled and quietly signaled the end of purdah, the symbolic separation of women from society.

In 1995, the Taliban came to Kabul. Their arrival marked both the end of the mujahidin republic and the end of Afghan Films, which sacrificed some of its prints to the Taliban bonfires of books and films, but managed to preserve its negatives. If the Taliban state celebrated any jeshn of its own devising—which is doubtful, considering that New Year’s celebrations were banned—there is no filmic evidence. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan Films was revived, and Afghanistan reinstalled its king (albeit as a purely ceremonial “father of the republic”). The nation also reinstated the monarchy’s jeshn, reverting back to the same occasion and to nearly the same day celebrated during Zahir’s era, which Amanullah originally intended to mark Afghanistan’s independence from foreign control (an irony that has not gone unnoticed, particularly with British troops in the country for the first time since 1919). The mujahidin jeshn, the 8th of Sawr, has also been preserved as “Victory Day,” enshrined alongside “Independence Day” in Article 18 of the 2004 constitution.

Since 2007, however, neither jeshn has been publicly celebrated, apparently because security concerns preclude gathering the people en masse before the politicians meant to represent them. One day, perhaps some time after the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014, it may again be possible to commemorate Afghan independence with a military parade that feels like a purely formal display. We can only hope that when that moment arrives, people will feel like celebrating.

January 17, 2013


Mariam Ghani (b. New York, 1978) is a visual artist whose work explores how histories, places, identities and communities are constructed and reconstructed. Her exhibitions and screenings include dOCUMENTA (13) [2012], the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011), Sharjah Biennials 10 and 9 (2011, 2009), National Gallery, Washington DC (2008), Tate Modern, London (2007), EMAP, Seoul (2005), Liverpool Biennial (2004) and transmediale, Berlin (2003). Public projects have been commissioned by Creative Time and the Arab American National Museum, among others. Critical texts have appeared in FUSEViralnetPavilionSarai ReaderRadical History Review and the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. In spring 2012 she collaborated with Afghan Films and the media archive collective to launch a digitization project in the Afghan Films archive.

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2014 by in Essays, Volume 2 - April 2014 and tagged .
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