In the summer of 2005, a visual artist and an anthropologist teamed up for an unusual journey. Lukas Birk (under the alias “Smiley Wallah”) and Sean Foley (under the alias “Kartunwallah”) ventured into Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran as tourists. This new type of ‘tourism’—one mixed with journalistic ambitions—allowed the pair to experience the countries, their people, and their cultures for themselves.
Birk and Foley spent many months travelling through Afghanistan and neighboring countries trying to understand and document the thrills and pleasures of recreational travel in conflict zones. The result is Kafkanistan (Glitterati Incorporated), a book that is at once thought-provoking, inspiring, and surprising and raises many questions about the way in which the American media conveys information about these countries.
Kafkanistan is best viewed as a kind of road book, following the standard plot of a journey in which the heroes meet and confront a variety of obstacles and challenges. Throughout the book we see the two protagonists, Kartunwallah and Smileywallah, dressed as locals attempting to integrate themselves into the local culture and reconcile their own preconceptions of the people and the country. During their journey, the pair interviewed fellow travelers, hailing from Vietnam, Germany, and France, among other locales, and revealed their stories of how they came to explore the region, their views on the countries they were visiting, and their take on America. Kafkanistan is an inside look at a remote, beautiful, and misunderstood region of the world.
Birk discusses his experiences with The Click. He remembers that the inspiration for the project came about when Sean Foley contacted him, asking him to meet in Pakistan to start a documentary about tourism in Afghanistan and the country's neighboring regions.
Birk recalls, “We had travelled together years earlier in Ladakh in the north of India but not seen each other since. At that time, the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan was at its height and there were rumors of one million Indian soldiers stationed in the Kashmir/Ladakh region. Countries issued travel warnings for the region which affected tourism a lot, yet nothing was happening . We were on the other end of the region and saw nothing more than passing by army trucks.
“Sean had been to Afghanistan and he knew the border area around Peshawar quite well. For our first trip we met on the Indian/Pakistani border in the summer of 2005. It was like, ‘Meet me Monday between 2 and 3 p.m. at the tea stall right where you cross the border.’ And so we did and started from there.
“Sean had been reading Kafka’s The Castle and I had a German copy with me. We talked about one character that travels through this land of tourism in conflict zones as a narrative and the story and protagonist in Kafka’s The Castle was very much resonating with that (someone who doesn’t belong where he is right now, someone who doesn’t know who to trust but yet is there for a certain goal.) The more time we spend and the more people we met, in our own ways, we related The Castle more and more to our own experience and the experiences of the tourist we met.
“One of the main issues is that you don’t know what is going to happen. It’s like a road trip to a place that has no road maps. That is exciting but also challenging, as well as life-threatening.
“On our first trip, we did not it to Afghanistan, as we decided against crossing the border via the Khyber from Pakistan. There was too much fighting and lots of people warned us against doing so. This fueled the idea of stories, as you don’t know to trust or not to trust. Rumor and fear played a big part in our journey. We crossed that route a year later without major problems but were surrounded by stories of snipers, bombs, and fatal attacks. Not having too much of a plan was definitely part of the project. I might even call it a method of research.”
Birk reflects on the access he received throughout his travels. He recalls, “Afghanistan was a lot safer from 2005-2010 than it is now. We moved around relatively easy during that time. Whether we were in Iran, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, we had fantastic experiences with the local people. We slept in strangers houses, were invited to weddings. There was tea, food, laughter, and millions of smiles without speaking a common language. Hospitality given there puts everybody in the West to shame.
“Of course there were routes and areas in Afghanistan we didn’t go to but in Pakistan and Iran it was no problem anywhere. In Iran this has not changed but in Pakistan the situation in the Tribal and Afghan border areas has changed drastically. The biggest limitation is that you have to trust people in order to safely move from one place to another. There is no certainty if it is going to be okay or not.
“Visiting Kabul for the first time in 2006 I was very surprised about how NGO staff would interact with the locals. The few tourists present, including myself, would walk around the markets and streets, talking to shop keepers and those who were curious about a foreign face. Most NGOs were not allowed to do so and would only shop in certain places, being driven by massive 4x4s just 250 meters from their house to the local bar for non-Afghans where they would drink and feast in western manner before being driven back to their houses.
“Most of the locals I met had never talked to anyone of these people who were there to ‘help’ them. I was shocked about how money had been wasted not only by governments but also charitable organizations. I guess I am still shocked how a country can be occupied for fifteen years by foreign power, with billions spent, and not have proper roads in the capital (except from and to the Green Zone).
“Kafkanistan is misconceived a little bit in itself. Everything you will find in this book is a misconception of sorts. In my opinion most misconception towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran come from the lack of knowledge of the history, cultural connections, language, religion bases or simply why certain things happened in the past. Many rural Afghans had never even heard of 9/11 or the Twin Towers, even though this is the reason why there is foreign presence in Afghanistan (imagine their misconception of America and the West after more than ten years of war).”
Reflecting on his experience and what he has learned along the way, Birk notes, “This is very difficult and also very emotional to answer. I would say I understood that experience replaces knowledge. I have great respect for those who risk a lot in order to contradict the knowledge that was given to them by actually experiencing for themselves. Traveling there, just like anywhere else, taught me to not just walk but see where I am placing each step.”
We are fortunate Birk brought along his camera to document those steps, for it is through his lens that we consider the complexities of this part of the world with fresh eyes. Birk and Foley remind us of the importance of firsthand source materials, unfiltered by a larger political or financial interest that allow us to take in the nuances of a world very different from our own.
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Photographs from Kafkanistan
Curated by Miss Rosen