08 May 2009

Even with a 'Taxi,' it feels like pulling teeth

I showed the second half of Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), director Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary on U.S. torture policies and practices from Guantanamo to Afghanistan to Iraq, to a classroom of sociology students last night. The film follows the case of Dilawar, an innocent cab driver from Yakubi, Afghanistan, who was tortured to death by American soldiers while detained at Bagram Air Base near Kabul in 2002.

Forewarning students about a film’s possibly offensive content and informing them it is all right to leave if they are offended is standard operating procedure for me anywhere and is perhaps especially important in Afghanistan, where the dominant norms are conservative compared to Western ones. Footage of forced male nudity, a tactic designed to humiliate detainees, was my primary concern and the only female student in the class was headed for exit abut 10 minutes into the film. I wondered whether the nudity offended or whether she left to escape the judgment of the male students had she stayed.

While setting up my laptop and projector for the second part, I asked my students for their initial reaction to the first installment. Silence. By this point in the film, Dilawar’s cause of death had been ruled a homicide by the physician who signed the U.S military’s death certificate.

“Who do you believe should be held responsible for Dilawar’s death?” More silence. “I am not talking to hear myself. I asked you a question. Who do you believe should be held responsible for his death?” The quiet melted. The soldiers who beat him, said one student. The people who gave them their orders, a second said. All of them, another added. “Can you elaborate?’

The news that day carried reports that more than 100 civilians, including as many as 20 children, had been killed earlier in the week as a result of U.S. airstrikes at suspected Taliban in Farah province, western Afghanistan. Hundreds of people protested in the town of Farah on Thursday. “Witnesses said the crowd chanted ‘death to America, death to the invaders’, and demanded US forces leave Afghanistan,” reported BBC News.

“How does this make you feel about the prospect of Pres. Obama sending another 21,000 U.S. troops here?” I asked.


  1. Seamus:

    What is the general opinion of your students on the US military presence?

  2. Hey unc

    do you have any interactions with US soldiers ? or are they more on the outskirts of the city?

    Hope all is well,


  3. Unc

    Do you have any interactions with US soldiers or are they mostly in the outskirts of the city?

    One Love


  4. I wondered whether the nudity offended or whether she left to escape the judgment of the male students had she stayed.Subtle read, bro...

  5. Otto, my sense is that most of my students grudgingly tolerate the U.S. military presence because they fear their absence would allow Pakistani and Taliban influence to increase. Anti-Pakistani sentiment is, as you might expect, huge.

    Sean, there are many U.S. and ISAF forces in and around Kabul, but they don't interact with anyone other Karzai government officials. Most are strongly encouraged, if not ordered, not to mix with the general public for fear they would become the targets of violence. Private security contractors are more visible by comparison.

  6. Hi Seamus,
    Have been reading your blog since you arrived in Kabul but haven't figured out how to enter a comment.
    I have been sending you emails to your personal address but, to date, have received no reply.
    Seems as if you are doing a great job - and that is not going to be followed by "Brownie"

  7. I commemorated the first meeting of the "Old Men's Left/Lib Blogging Society" this morning. We'll be here when you get back!