I hate war. That’s why I’m drawn to it. I’m waging a war against war. – Reza
Self-described nomad, photographer, and National Geographic fellow Reza Deghati was in D.C. to give a National Geographic Live! talk at headquarters. In his new book, War and Peace: A Photographer’s Journey, Reza details his decades-long odyssey since exile from Iran. (See NG News editor David Braun’s conversation with Reza about the book here.)
In the book, Reza refers to the late Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud as “the Bearer of Light.” Over coffee, I asked Reza about his deep friendship with Massoud and about his own efforts—inspired in part by the man known as the “Lion of Panjshir”—to empower and educate Afghan women and children.
“In each nation, each region, you find layers of people who make history,” Reza told me. “Some work at the level of families—a father, a mother, a family leader. Some change the history of a city, a country. Then there are the people that are beyond all these. They come once every century or two. They bring the whole story together and turn the page. When I first met Massoud in 1985, within a few days, I recognized: I’m with one of them.”
Why so, I wondered? What made Massoud so exceptional?
“Vision: One of the things that struck me was his vision. He had such a positive, sweeping vision of a bright future—for Afghanistan, for Iran, for the entire world.
“In 1985, Massoud talked about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back then no one was thinking about that. I thought I heard him wrong. ‘After the Soviet Union?’ Well, he said, all empires fall. ‘When will that happen?’ I asked him. ‘Immediately after they’re defeated in Afghanistan.'”
After the Soviets were indeed driven from Afghanistan, Reza rode into Kabul in a tank at Massoud’s side, and joined him as he addressed the resistance leaders he had trained. One waved his gun. “Put that away,” Massoud told him. “The next war we fight will be a war on ignorance. Instead of guns, pick up a pen. That’s what we’ll carry. Pens, not guns.”
“Years later,” said Reza, “Massoud was fighting again, but everything had changed. He was fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban. He had no backing from anyone.
“Even then, in the worst moments, surrounded by enemies, he insisted that education continue. He took me to a facility where he was training his soldiers to become peace officers, police, in a liberated Kabul.
“Massoud was offered refuge with his family, escape. He removed the hat he wore everywhere and stood on it. ‘As long as there’s this much space for me in Afghanistan,’ he said, ‘I’ll stay.’ And instead of retreating, he had his family flown by helicopter to him—he was that confident of victory.
“I asked Massoud what he wanted to do when Afghanistan was free,” said Reza. “Would he lead the country? He could’ve done anything, but he didn’t want political power. He pointed to a small schoolhouse in the distance: ‘I’m going to be a teacher in that school,’ he told me.”
Massoud’s forces and Reza would return once more to Kabul, but without Massoud: A few days before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, suspected al Qaeda operatives posing as a film crew assassinated the charismatic rebel leader.
Reza carries on the educational work that Massoud began, planting the seeds, he hopes, of a free and peaceful Afghanistan. The non-profit Reza created, Aïna, trains Afghan journalists, produces a radio broadcast by and for Afghan women, and publishes the first magazine for Afghan children. “Journalism and education,” Reza says, “are the two vectors that will change the world.”
See the traveling exhibition Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul.
Photographs courtesy Reza and National Geographic Books