Sunday, March 17, 2002

I've got green eyes. Technically, they start at brown round the pupil and diffuse into green and grey, so normally I would describe them as hazel, if I thought about them at all. Normally, I don't: they're a fact of life, something I did nothing to create and, in fact, in a lot of ways, they're quite a nuisance. Eye colour should mean nothing, not contribute to a person's personality and definitely, definitely, should not change a person's life. Yeah, you got it, I'm thinking about the girl with green eyes, the Afghan girl, who appeared on the cover of the "National Geographic" in 1985 and will reappear there in April 2002. (And, if I'm being trivial and superficial, I could also be thinking of the film "Big Trouble in Little China" which I recently taped and wish I hadn't, for all that it was entertaining rubbish). No one knew her name, but it turned out to be Sharbat Gula (which apparently means sweetwater flower girl).

She was probably born in about 1972; in about 1978, Soviet MiGs bombed her home village and, among others, killed her parents. Her grandmother took her and her siblings and everyone ended up in a Pakistan refugee camp. (Nasir Bagh, if that means anything: it means nothing to me, apart from a label). And in 1984, Steve McCurry took her photograph when she was one of many in the school tent.

Steve was on a routine mission to take the sort of photographs National Geographic specialise in: the juxtaposition of the routine and the bizarre, which would be tarted up with banal descriptions and use to sell magazines to comfortable people who wouldn't go a million miles to get the primary evidence of these disaster areas. "Lightning in a bottle" is one description of her photograph, another is "a picture of beauty and poignancy amid terrible hardship".

For the next ten years, McCurry found himself driven to find her again (or was he just paid to get more pictures?) Motives can be mixed and the muddy can be as important as the pure. Still, Afghanistan was a gigantic melting pot: 23 years of war, 1.5 million people dead, 3.5 million people displaced, what chance of finding one girl among so many?

So in December 2001, there was another massive combination of coincidences. US interest in Afghanistan was - well - more than usual (!!), that refugee camp was just about to be demolished and McCurry was despatched to Pakistan as head of a small team to get that girl.

If she lived, she'd be about 29. Well, she had lived: an ordinary life, with the usual share of hardships and, perhaps, a little happiness. She'd had four children, she'd gone back to her village, her husband worked in the city (Peshawar, as a baker), she saw him in the winter, when the city pollution was low(ish), as she was severely asthmatic and couldn't cope at other times. She had a place in a restrictive society, and, being a devout Muslim, accepted it.

And then it all changed. That tall white man with a moustache came back, scattering temptation. He could provide a pilgrimage to Mecca, education for her children, money, which is all very nice, but he could, without thinking, destroy her place in the community. From being just one of many, she's now going to be the woman who removed her burqa and allowed a stranger to photograph her bare face. She came from a culture where she could not be seen to look at a man who wasn't her husband, and yet she was being given the temptation to destroy her reputation for the sake of her children's future. If the children do get educated, they are unlikely to stay in her village. If she accepts the paid pilgrimage for her and her husband, will there be a place for her in her own village again? What future is there when the cameras have moved on to focus on some other form of human misery?

Well, Kim Phuc could give one form of answer. She's that naked girl, photographed running away from a napalm bombing in Vietnam. And today, she lives in Canada, is an ambassador for UNESCO and has her own charity for children caught up in war. She is "embracing the opportunity to tell her story rather than recoiling in uncomfortable self-consciousness". I can't imagine Sharbat Gula taking that path. The happiest thing for her is for her to slide back into obscurity and rebuild her family and her place in the community. And that is why, though normally I'm as curious as a cat, that I won't be making any attempt to find or buy the April issue of "National Geographic", or any other issue. They've crossed a line of intrusion into privacy, which I find unforgiveable.

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