Poet Zohra Saed aka Professora Talibonita is currently living in ABD-istan, a small island off the coast of PhD-land, the realm of steady salary and glamorous curriculum meetings. She is Afghan by birth, Brooklyn through sheer hard labor. She is the co-editor along with Sahar Muradi of the recently released book One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature.

About a hundred years ago, the only images of Afghanistan that housewives were getting were illustrated images that came on postcards or matchbox cards that were collectible. So while she reached for a tin of coffee, she also felt like she was able to reach the world. Afghanistan was not the only country in these collections. Amongst the grouping of wild and far away places, Afghanistan did pop up it’s face and it was usually moustached, turbaned and with weaponry. Women rarely showed up in these images unless they were in contrast to American women. Despite being available in the domestic sphere, these images were mostly men — Afghan men in the way the west saw Afghan men: in full turbanismo. This has become my favorite term for the hypermasculinization of Afghans and Afghanistan.

These images are from my personal collection of “Afghanistan in the Western Imagination” pieces. There is so much to say about the pieces, their time period and the reception (use) of these images. But, I am saving it for this incredible dissertation that I am writing (so it can gather dust in some library shelf sometime in the future if, in the best case scenario, I finish it). Here I will just allow the images to speak for themselves and will pass on some light commentary:

Liebig was a strange early 20th century beef and lamb extract company. I can only imagine it as something like a protein drink but with actual real meat as the protein. According to the wiki it says that it was a literal brown syrup mixture that came in a glass bottle and was extra salty. Pardon me Liebig but that sounds totally yuck. It was because travelers and adventurers took it with them when out in the deserts and wilderness of the world that their packaging came with a lot of images of places that were very difficult to reach for the ordinary person.

This one has fire and two Afghans sleeping on a stone slab. I need to translate the French but I have always imagined the ad to be something like this: “In Afghanistan, when there is no food they cook their friends while they sleep! Luckily, we have canned beef extract!”

These three, part of a series of eight, return to that Turbanismo concept. Afghan men with their weapons and turbans. Perhaps we should refer to it as Af-gun-istan men hanging around.

These are classics and date back to a New York coffee company from 1889. Again the Khyber Pass appears as a place of danger and ornate…well, ornate Orientalism. You can see someone who looks like Shah Shujah, who gave up the Kohi-Noor diamond to the Brits in order to return to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan he is known as the traitor king. Here there is a romanticization of his profile.

This is from a Ford brochure from the 1950s. Very much like the fabulous movies of the time “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World” or any of the other cars on a journey films that highlighted a very American concept of adventure — this one proves that the Ford survived in Herat. If you look through the gray, you can see that there is an Afghan stagecoach (gaadi) to the right of the Ford. The brochure given out to family households also has an incident, which reads like almost every other book/essay/film about Afghanistan from the British down to the present. In the brochure the Americans almost cause a battle because one of them offended one of the heavily-weaponed tribesmen by offering him his leftover beans. What bad taste, anyone would be offended at being offered sloppy-seconds. The Ford began in Europe travels through Turkey to Asia and then I believe returns.

This is from a British cigarette company that documents important images from British history. What is fascinating about this is that it documents the defeat of the British in the second Anglo-Afghan war when one surviving British soldier, a doctor, was sent back alive to tell the British what the Afghans did to them. The British thought it was so easy to take over Afghanistan that they sent a caravan of British soldiers with their wives, their servants and a few camels filled with tea, food and even dinnerware. Now that’s pluck!

Now this is Afghanistan as I had heard it in my household. This photo is of the modernizing king, Shah Amanullah, from the 1920s. This is on his European tour perhaps it was 1928 (he was ousted in 1929). His wife was the first Muslim woman to publicly unveil. She was photographed multiple times in lovely 1920s dresses and shocked Afghanistan. Shah Amanullah was friends with Kemal Atta Turk and planned a modernization of Afghanistan just as Atta Turk had implemented in Turkey. However, it was too fast too soon for Afghans and so he was ousted and he lived out his life in exile in Rome. But here the royal couple are in their heyday.

And here is my favorite stamp. My father was an avid stamp collector and he had this one, which I remember loving because of its colors and because I had always wanted to join the Girls Scout. I hadn’t because we were struggling immigrants and no one in Brooklyn took Girl Scouts seriously anyway. This was a stamp that supported Girls Scouts in Afghanistan, which came about after the Peace Corps created programs with Afghanistan. The outfit is similar. Perhaps it was also a way to encourage more families to send their daughters to be Girls Scouts.

My collection is extensive and I’m still in the process of making my inventory. But I’m curious about how others respond to these images. There is another article I was thinking of retyping here and it is the story of a Ernest O. Hauser, an American (one of 55 other Americans in Afghanistan, so he says), who in 1944 writes this:

“An American mechanic, name of Owen Wilkins, was late for the show in Afghanistan’s only cinema. In the dark he groped his way to an empty balcony seat and sat down. Presently he heard a hissing sound on his left, then another hiss from his right. When the lights went on for intermission, he found that he had squeezed in between two Japs — spectacles, mustaches, buck teeth and all. Owen gulped, then settled back in his seat for the remainder of the show. After all, he was on neutral ground.”
(The Saturday Evening Post: March 25, 1944)

What is really crazy about this racist speculation is that he may have been sitting in the movie theater with an ethnic group indigenous to Afghanistan — and not Japanese. But he runs with the Japanese sitting and the rest of the story is some paranoid WW II era garbage fest.

Anyway — here is a glimpse. Let me know what you think.


  1. Wow, that beef extract sure sounds delightful, any idea where I can pick me up some Liebig?

  2. This was so interesting! The pictures create this indirect nostalgia for a time that I never lived through but yet can feel running through my veins. It’s strange to see parts of your country in old ads but at the same time it cements its existence – like affirmation that yes, such a place did exist before the bombings began in 2001 and no, it’s not what you see on the news now. Thank you for this Zohra!