When the US government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, the Afghan-Iranian artist, photographer and activist Fatimah Hossaini thought little of it. People warned her, of course. The Americans will leave Afghanistan, they said, and all kinds of trouble will follow. But she hardly listened. Life in Kabul, where she had been working since 2018, felt so full and free, it was all but impossible to imagine the clock turning back.
The simple fact was that she had lived with more day-to-day restrictions in Tehran, where she was born and grew up, than she had ever had to put up with in Kabul (her Afghan grandparents fled to Iran in the 1980s, during the Soviet-Afghan war). “Life was good,” she says. “In Tehran, people are a little depressed with the situation. But in Kabul there was so much hope and desire. A new generation was burning with it. I could see women in every sector: musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians. I could teach my classes at the university without a hijab. I could show my students any image I liked. These things would never happen in Iran.”
But life really was about to change. When a newly elected Joe Biden confirmed in April 2021 that American troops would be withdrawn by 11 September, Taliban insurgents began to intensify their attacks on the Afghan state; in May, for instance, a car bomb outside a Kabul school killed more than 60 people, most of them schoolgirls. “Even I could see that the security situation was different,” Hossaini says. “I lost two journalist friends [to Taliban attacks] during those months. When my mum called, which was every day, she would say: Fatimah, use a different entrance each time you come home.”
At one point she did go back to Tehran, largely at her parents’ behest. (Her mother is a housewife and her father runs a small business. The oldest of three sisters, Hossaini, ever independent, moved to Kabul when she graduated from university.) “But I only lasted a month and a half.” She struggles to explain it. “I just had to be in Afghanistan. I was there in the bright days; I felt I should be there in the dark days too.” Ahead of an exhibition of her photographs in the US, she had an American visa, and this was her insurance policy. “I thought: if the worst happens, I can use that visa.” She shakes her head. “My parents couldn’t believe I was going to go back. They said I was crazy. But I didn’t listen to them.”
In Kabul, things seemed calmer. She told her mother the media were exaggerating the situation, and that she was not to worry. But her mother did worry, and no wonder. Across Afghanistan, cities were falling to the Taliban: Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif. It was now August. A friend called and said, book your seat to the US; in three weeks, commercial flights will be no more. “Imagine it,” says Hossaini. “I had heard my grandparents’ stories. I knew about all the people that got stuck in Afghanistan in the communist years, even those with visas. But still, I couldn’t believe it would happen to me. My mind turned away from it. The night before Kabul fell [on 15 August], I did an interview with CNN. I said: ‘People will never let the Taliban claim this city.’”
On the same evening, she and 10 friends went to a cafe to drink tea. “One of them invited me to her sister’s wedding! We were just drinking and talking. We didn’t know, then, that this would be the last time we would meet.”
The following morning, having at last booked a flight to the US, she got a taxi to take her to a clinic for a PCR test. The driver thought she must have lost her mind. The Taliban are at the gates of Kabul, he said. Looking out of the car’s windows, she noticed that in the streets people were running. What kind of person runs in Kabul in August? “It wasn’t normal. I began to think something might actually be going to happen.”
At home she made some green tea and took it on to her balcony, with its view of her city, and it was then that she saw them: “Down below were Taliban fighters on their motorcycles, waving their flags. They’re here, I thought. I shouted it: ‘THEY ARE HERE!’ But there was no one to hear me. I was alone.”
She isn’t sure how she got through the night. She couldn’t cry, she couldn’t eat. She had missed her flight, if it had, in fact, left. The next day, another friend called. “She said: ‘They’re going door-to-door looking for journalists, musicians, teachers; make sure you’re not alone.’ I got my backpack, my laptop, my camera, and a hat that’s traditional to my tribe [Hossaini is an ethnic Hazara, a group that has often been persecuted in Afghanistan], and I went to stay with friends.” She spent the next two days with them, deleting all her social media, begging journalists who had any footage of her to take it down. Her voice is full of contempt. “Those fucking terrorists. One day, early in the morning, we had three Taliban at the door. They were only looking for food, and when we gave it to them they left.”
But her mind was clear now: it was, she finally conceded, time to go. Like thousands upon thousands of other desperate Afghans, she pitched up at Kabul airport. She would spend the next four days there. “It was crazy,” she says. “Mothers abandoning their children; lovers abandoning each other. People were so desperate, they would do anything to leave.”
It wasn’t, she tells me, as we might have seen it on television. She wasn’t in the military section of the airport, where British and American soldiers were filmed by news crews lifting tiny babies over wire fences. She was in the commercial part, a chaotic realm that could only be accessed through seven Taliban checkpoints. Inside, people stood in long lines, each one corresponding to the country to which they hoped to travel seeking asylum. It was frightening, and surreal. Looking around, she saw several Afghan politicians, and the singer and TV personality Aryana Sayeed, one of Afghanistan’s biggest stars.
At first, Hossaini joined the American line. She knew that to go to the US would make it almost impossible for her to see her family again: travel between the two countries is extremely difficult. But she was desperate, and she had her visa, after all. Wouldn’t it help her? Apparently not. “Get back, get back!” the Americans shouted. This made her very angry. “I thought: you betrayed us. We’re about to lose everything. You have ruined our country. At least be a little nice.”
Like others in the airport, she began to call out to embassy staff, irrespective of which country they represented. Germany, Italy, Poland: four days in, and she would have gone anywhere.
It occurred to her that in France, artists are admired, even revered. “Just take me,” she yelled, in the general direction of the French. “I’m an artist!” She was duly allowed to move from the American line to the French line – and it was at this moment that the miracle occurred. “David Martinon, the French ambassador in Afghanistan, used to come to my exhibitions in Kabul. I was wearing that crazy outfit with a scarf; only my eyes could be seen. But he recognised me. ‘Fatimah?’ he said. He put his arms around me. ‘You will be welcome in Paris,’ he told me.”
Some hours later, she flew alone to France, relieved but sorrowful, grateful, but in mourning (her friends were eventually all dispersed to other countries). “It was very hard,” she says. “Afghanistan didn’t only give me pain; it gave me love too. I was connected to it by my heart, and when France gives you asylum, the arrangement is that they take your Afghan passport and your ID card, and you must sign a paper that says you won’t ever travel there. Can you believe it? My heart. I had to promise them not to go back to Afghanistan.”
I meet Hossaini in Paris on a hot July day. She is wearing a sleeveless, pleated dress – it’s so fine, you could probably pull it, Fortuny-style, through a wedding ring – and a brilliant smile that only rarely dims. A year on, she is living in the city in a tiny attic, a bona fide garret at the top of an artist’s colony on the edge of the Marais. And how she has made it her own. The building’s wide, sweeping staircase and peeling plaster walls are so very belle époque they might have come from the pages of a novel by Colette. But step inside her rooms, which smell deliciously of roses and cardamom, and you find yourself in a little bit of Afghanistan: low seating, striped throws, a bowl of nuts to welcome the visitor.
On the walls hang some of her own photographs and – I notice it straight away – the brightly coloured hat she grabbed on that fateful day when she left her home in Kabul for the last time. “Women make these with their hands, out of nothing,” she says, taking it down to show me. “Textiles are an important part of Afghan culture because the country was on the Silk Road, and they have many meanings. You can tell by looking at these whether their owner is married or single. It’s a beautiful thing for me – a symbol of resilience.”
In Afghanistan, women must currently draw on every available ounce of their resilience. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, in the year since the Taliban took over, Afghan women and girls have experienced a “suffocating” crackdown on their rights. They are banned from attending school and restricted in the ways they can work; should they dare to protest against such infringements, they are inevitably arrested, and often tortured and abused in custody. The burqa, a garment that covers every part of a woman’s body, including her face, has been widely reimposed. There has also been a surge in child marriage.
Is Hossaini surprised things turned so bad so quickly? She shakes her head. “The Taliban are exactly the same as they were 20 years ago,” she says, her voice scornful. “The only difference is that they have Twitter accounts now.” She knew they could not be taken at their word, and she isn’t optimistic that things will change any time soon. “They are stupid, idiot terrorists, incapable of governing properly. On the other hand, so much talent has left the country, and I am not sure that even half of it will ever go back. I am with those women who protest. Their resistance is very brave. But no, I don’t feel very hopeful.”
Hossaini, who is 29, was a well-known (and well-connected) figure in Kabul – a photographer, a curator, a university professor, and the founder of Mastooraat, an organisation that supported artists and performers in Afghanistan. Leaving was agonising. From childhood she had longed to see the land of her grandparents, and from the moment she first visited Afghanistan in 2015, she fell passionately in love with it. She had so many friends there. “This crazy connection with my roots,” as she puts it.
But in terms of her work there was a particular wrench. Inspired by the fact that whenever she travelled abroad, people would inevitably ask about the burqa, she had spent several years photographing the country’s supposedly “unseen” women with their faces uncovered, their bodies swathed in fabrics of every imaginable colour – a project she would now never finish.
In Paris, though, her mind turned to it again. Why shouldn’t she complete it with a series of portraits of women just like herself? After all, a person is no less an Afghan just because they are in exile. And what better way to celebrate aspects of a culture – singing, painting, acting – that are now banned by the Taliban? (In Kabul, people are struck now by the absence of music; the city’s soundtrack has no melodies.)
To her original collection, then, she gradually added portraits of some of those who had fled Afghanistan in August 2021: women such as Aqila Rezai, a film star who had worked in Afghan cinema for 30 years, and Shegofa Ibrahimi, a theatre actor who left the country with nothing but a dress made for her by her mother; women like Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh doctor and one of the first non-Muslim members of the Afghan parliament, and Marzieh Hamidi, a member of the Afghan national taekwondo team.
“My aim has been to break the stereotype of the Afghan woman,” she says. “I have worked to portray all backgrounds, and all ethnicities. In every province, faces are different, some fair-skinned and some dark, and traditional dress is different in every province too. This project is all about the face: its power, its individuality, its ferocity.” But the series has also taken on extra meaning – a new resonance – since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan once again. “It’s the most valuable thing, because the pictures preserve things – ways of being, and of dressing – that are important culturally. To see a woman’s face at all …” Her voice trails off. There are no words. Even now, it all seems so unbelievable.
And what of her own exile? The past year, she says, hasn’t been easy. “When I arrived I was in shock. It took two or three months to accept what had happened.” She knew no one, and spoke no French. “I’ve struggled a lot. But I have been made welcome, in a very honourable and respectful way. I hear that in England, Afghans are still living in hotel rooms. Here, I’m respected as an artist, I’ve been able to continue my work, and I have a platform from which to speak about the women of Afghanistan.” Will she stay? She sounds uncertain. “I love Paris. It’s amazing. I do feel France can be my home. But maybe I will go back to a central Asian country to live, just to be somewhere close to Afghanistan.”
What does she miss most? If I were able to visit, where would she tell me to go? She looks out of the window, towards the shimmering Seine. “I really miss my house,” she says, softly. “I miss the nights when my friends came over and we cooked food together. I miss the mountains. I could see the Hindu Kush from my window. I miss being able to travel to Bamiyan [a province in the highlands noted for its carved buddhas, the most famous of which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001]. That’s where I would tell you to go. To Bamiyan, for the buddhas, and the lakes, and the amazing food; and I would tell you to go to Herat too, to see the Citadel, and to eat an orange and some small fishes from the river … Yes, I really do miss every inch of my home.” Does she think she will see it all again one day? She nods. “One day.” It’s a matter of circumstance, not desire. When – if – the chance comes, just let them try to stop her.
Amidst the Technological Conflict with the US, China Intensifies Efforts in AI and Microchip Development
China is actively pursuing the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductors to secure its position in the global race for technological superiority, which has become a significant source of geopolitical tension with the United States.
Recognizing the critical importance of these two fields for China’s economic and military future, Beijing is intensifying its efforts to find domestic solutions. This comes at a time when the U.S. is aiming to restrict Chinese access to cutting-edge technology necessary for high-tech microchip production. Through substantial investments and President Xi Jinping’s call for “self-sufficiency” in science and technology, China’s strategy focuses on fostering a collaborative environment that accelerates development and narrows the gap between China and the West.
During a speech at the ZGC Forum, Mei Jianping of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology acknowledged the existing gap in various areas crucial to AI progress compared to developed countries. The technology fair, held in Beijing’s Zhongguancun district, a prominent tech hub, prominently features AI as one of its hot topics. Mei emphasized the need for an exchange of ideas and collective contributions to position China’s next generation of AI and its scientific and technological industry on par with the rest of the world.
The ZGC Forum encompasses various events related to sustainable development, financial technology, smart cities, identifying transformative young entrepreneurs, and the significance of innovation in state-run companies.
Dr. Yu Yue, from the Strategic Alliance for Technological Innovation in the Chinese Artificial Intelligence Industry, outlined China’s plan to boost technological growth through the establishment of a nationwide network of AI developers. The objective is to ensure high-quality development at every computing center and promote extensive collaboration, constructing a comprehensive network that facilitates the new model of AI technology development.
To inaugurate the ZGC Forum, President Xi sent a letter emphasizing the need for greater global collaboration without explicitly mentioning U.S. restrictions. Xi highlighted the importance of international cooperation, openness, and knowledge sharing to address common development challenges amid the ongoing scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation.
Renowned figures such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also participated in the forum, expressing their belief that China has the potential to contribute uniquely by sharing its technologies and experiences.
The forum takes place against the backdrop of strained U.S.-China relations due to repeated disputes over Taiwan and the U.S. shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon that violated American airspace without permission. However, recent weeks have shown some signs of thawing, as mentioned by U.S. President Joe Biden during the G7 summit in Hiroshima.
Another positive development occurred with a meeting between China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, and his U.S. counterpart, Gina Raimondo. Described as “candid” by the American government, the talks addressed the impacts each country’s actions have had on the microchip sector. Wang expressed concerns regarding the U.S.’s China policies related to the economy, trade, semiconductors, export control, and outbound investments review. Raimondo, in turn, voiced her concerns about China’s increasing restrictions on U.S. interests, such as the recent ban on the use of Micron’s semiconductors in critical infrastructure projects.
China’s actions can be partially seen as a response to Washington’s decision in October to limit exports of microchip-manufacturing technologies to China, aiming to prevent China from developing cutting-edge weapons. These microprocessors are essential for AI and the advancement of other state-of-the-art technologies like smart electric vehicles. Taiwan plays a significant role in this standoff as it produces 60% of global microchips and 90% of the most advanced variants. The country’s capability to produce three-nanometer chips surpasses China’s, making it a crucial factor in this landscape. In March, Xi directly accused the U.S. of leading a Western strategy of “containment, encirclement, and suppression” against China to hinder its development.
Despite the geopolitical tensions, the atmosphere at the ZGC Forum was marked by confidence in the future. Huo Jiaqi, a 23-year-old postgraduate student from the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, expressed optimism, stating that China has overcome similar challenges in its history. The forum showcased a wide range of technological advancements, including smart humanoid robots, police robots, drones, and metaverse avatars parading on LED screens.
In summary, China is determined not to be left behind in the global race for technological superiority in AI and semiconductors. The country recognizes the significance of these fields for its economic and military progress. With substantial investments and a focus on fostering collaboration and development, China aims to bridge the gap with developed countries. The ZGC Forum serves as a platform for discussing and showcasing advancements in various technological areas. Despite the ongoing tensions with the U.S., there are indications of a potential thaw in relations, as recent meetings between Chinese and U.S. officials demonstrate. The forum reflects China’s commitment to achieving self-sufficiency and becoming a key player in the global technology landscape.
We Can’t Thank You Enough For Your Support!
Compiled by Team VoiceOfEU.com
For More Info. & News Submissions Contact Us: info@VoiceOfEU.com
For Anonymous News Submissions: press@VoiceOfEU.com
South African president appoints judge to oversee weapons-for-Russia inquiry | International
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed a judge to oversee an inquiry into allegations that the country supplied arms to Russia on a ship that docked secretly at a naval base in December.
The allegations were made this month by the United States’ ambassador to South Africa, who said he was sure that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto the Russian-flagged cargo ship Lady R when it docked at the Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town late last year.
Ambassador Reuben Brigety indicated that the U.S. had intelligence to sustain the allegation and he said he would bet his life on the accuracy of his claim that weapons were loaded onto the ship.
The Lady R container-carrying ship is under U.S. sanctions for being tied to a company that has transported weapons to aid the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
South Africa has denied there was any government-sanctioned deal to provide weapons to Russia, although it hasn’t categorically ruled out that an unofficial transaction took place involving another entity.
Judge P.M.D. Mojapelo, a former Supreme Court of Appeal judge, was appointed chairman of a three-member panel to investigate the incident, Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement on Sunday. A lawyer and a former minister of justice were also appointed.
The panel has six weeks to complete its investigations and another two weeks from then to provide a report to Ramaphosa, the president’s office said.
“The panel has been tasked to establish persons who were aware of the cargo ship’s arrival, and, if any, the contents to be off-loaded or loaded, the departure and destination of the cargo,” Ramaphosa’s office said.
Ramaphosa ordered the inquiry because of the seriousness of the allegations and “the impact of this matter on South Africa’s international relations,” his office said.
South Africa could be in breach of international law and its own laws regarding weapons sales if it is found to have supplied arms to Moscow for the war in Ukraine.
The incident has strained relations between the U.S. and South Africa, which is Africa’s most developed economy and a key Western partner on the continent.
South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise has said the Lady R was visiting to deliver an ammunition shipment from Russia that was ordered by South Africa in 2018 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Modise has refused to release cargo documents related to the visit by the Lady R after requests by opposition parties, saying they are classified. She said she will release them to the inquiry, though.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition
Sweden to Implement Permanent Residency Tests Commencing in 2027
A recent study conducted by the Swedish National Agency for Education has revealed significant disparities in the quality of teaching among different providers of Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) courses. Out of the 30 providers investigated, only six were found to offer good quality teaching, while the remaining 24 exhibited various issues, with three of them displaying serious deficiencies.
The report examined both distance learning and on-site classes, highlighting a particular concern regarding the lack of opportunities for students in distance classes to practice speaking Swedish. Helén Ängmo, the director-general of the agency, emphasized that insufficient opportunities for students to speak Swedish raise barriers for their integration into society and the labor market. Participation in dialogue, whether with healthcare providers, government agencies, or educational institutions, is crucial, and it is troubling to observe persistent quality issues in SFI, especially in relation to distance classes and their level of individual adaptation.
Although online classes offer greater flexibility for teachers to tailor course materials to students’ abilities, they generally provide fewer opportunities for varied interaction, as students are often required to work independently at home with limited chances for practicing spoken and written skills with their peers.
Another prevalent issue identified was the lack of opportunities for students to practice Swedish in everyday situations. Many students expressed their desire to learn conversational skills for interacting with people and engaging with government agencies and authorities.
Some students even reported being unable to communicate with supermarket staff despite having studied SFI for a considerable period of time. Others mentioned having learned how to communicate with staff at their children’s schools or preschools from their own children, as these topics were neglected in their SFI studies.
Furthermore, students with a higher proficiency in Swedish often faced a lack of challenge in class, and their influence on teaching methods was limited. However, providers that more frequently tailored classes to students’ interests, experiences, and goals were more successful in incorporating examples from their daily lives.
For instance, healthcare workers were given the opportunity to practice language used in the healthcare sector, while others received assistance in language skills necessary for picking up their children from school or completing various forms.
Teachers’ expectations and the support they received played a significant role in determining the quality of teaching. In classes where teachers felt there was insufficient assistance from school leadership, limited collaboration with their peers, or inadequate time for teacher-student contact in online courses, the quality of teaching tended to be poorer.
To address these issues, the agency emphasized the need for better support for teachers in developing and adapting their teaching methods to suit individual students. Only 55% of SFI teachers in the 2022/23 academic year possessed the necessary qualifications to teach SFI at the adult level, a figure deemed insufficient by the agency.
While acknowledging the potential benefits of online classes, the agency emphasized the importance of their further development to ensure that students in such programs have an equal opportunity to develop their Swedish communication skills compared to students attending in-person classes.
Online classes provide flexibility for individuals to combine their studies with work or parental responsibilities, but equal access to language development should be ensured.
The agency underscored the significance of SFI for Sweden as a country, emphasizing its role in providing individuals who do not have Swedish as their native language with the opportunity to learn Swedish and effectively communicate in everyday life, the community, the workplace, and further studies. Municipal-run Swedish for Immigrants classes for adults were highlighted as playing a vital role in this regard.