Author: Shirazuddin Siddiqi of BBC Media Action, December 3 2015 - When a TV debate show was filmed at the tomb of one of Afghanistan's founding fathers it was clear how much a sense of 'place' is interlinked with 'identity'.

Not even a mosquito flapped its wings, as Afghans would say to describe a completely empty place, in and around one of the most sacred sites in southern Afghanistan.

Open Jirga, a TV debate show for people in Afghanistan, had chosen the space - between two of Afghanistan’s most important historic sites - as a filming location to discuss 'national identity' with an audience of Afghans representing 21 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

The Khirqa-e Sharif (shrine of the cloak) is home to Prophet Mohammad’s cloak – which has only been taken out twice since it was put there for safekeeping in the 18th century. Next to the Khirqa lies the tomb of Ahmad Shah Abdali (later known as Ahmad Shah Durrani), founder of modern Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah was a young general in the army of the Persian Emperor, Nader Afshar. After the emperor was assassinated, he separated a large part of the empire and declared it an independent country, Afghanistan, in mid-18 century.

Usually one of the busiest places in Kandahar due to its cultural importance, the site had been sealed off for two days by Afghan security forces so we could film. The senior police officer charged with the responsibility of securing the site said he “couldn’t remember seeing the Khirqa so empty ever before.”

For logistical and security reasons, it was a lengthy and tricky process to secure the venue – but it was certainly worth it.

A strong debate

Locating filming at a site so engrained in Afghanistan’s culture had a powerful impact on both the panel and the audience and facilitated a strong debate on an issue which might have sounded more theoretical and abstract anywhere else.

People in the audience, young and old, female and male, educated or otherwise, enthusiastically engaged with the debate – on a subject brought to life by the luminous tomb of the founder of their country in the background.

“Look, I can’t speak if I sit, is it ok if I stand up?” asked an elderly man who had travelled over 450km to be in the audience.

“I’m so happy to be at the tomb of [Ahmad Shah]… every ethnic group, including the Hindus sitting [behind me] are sons of Afghanistan, this is our home and Afghanistan is ours” he said passionately.

Another audience member, talked about his indifference to tribal divisions, saying, “Turkman, Pashtun and Tajik are all from one nation... when we travel outside the country, we are all known as Afghans. No one calls us Tajik or Pashtun. We want to be called Afghan.”

Is Afghanistan a united nation?

The central focus of the debate was simple:

‘Ahmad Shah Durrani laid the foundation of modern Afghanistan in 1747 but, nearly three centuries later, is Afghanistan a united nation?’

It’s an important question for Afghanistan. Although the country has made much progress over the past decade – it remains a fragile state divided on the lines of language, religion, ethnicity and tribe. By providing a platform for debate, Open Jirga provided a rare opportunity for dialogue on ‘identity’, in an environment which has become increasingly strained in the face of increased conflict and uncertainty.

The next morning, I happened to fly back to Kabul on the same plane as a number of audience members. They were from various ethnic, regional and linguistic backgrounds and had flown in to take part in the discussion as strangers.

Now, post-broadcast, amidst lively discussion and laughter as the debate continued, they looked like old friends.

The subject of national identity is a tricky subject in Afghanistan, but by addressing the topic, Open Jirga is providing an important role in encouraging unity between different groups of people through powerful, but peaceful discussion.

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in Afghanistan.
Image credit: BBC Media Action

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