I want to start noting stories that deserved more than they received, so here goes. ‘The Afghan Girl’ is one of the more known stories when it comes to exploration of eastern narratives. I always felt a strange connection with this photo – I saw it when I was a teenager and I immediately felt like I could have been her, she could have been me, life is a bizarre lottery.
A unique guilt comes with being a part of a diaspora – I have survivors guilt, because here I am drinking a £3.50 coffee and complaining that it took too long to connect to the wifi, and here is the Afghan Girl, someone who endured more pain than I could fathom. Our geographical locations are pure chance but our lives are so different as a result, but we share the same eyes and so I often find myself thinking of her, and I know that sounds weird, but here we are.
The Afghan Girl has a name, and she deserves to be called by it. Sharbat Gula was born in 1972. Her mother died in Afghanistan when she was eight and afew years later, she was living in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan with her father and siblings because of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
She was literally a child when National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry visited the camp in 1984 and insisted on capturing her for the magazine. The cover went on to be one of the most iconic issues they ever did, and the picture of Sharbat was soon dubbed the ‘The First World’s Third World Mona Lisa’ and honestly I am not sure how I feel about that title, but moving on.
Despite the success of the cover, Sharbat received nothing from it for many years. Her eyes were meant to reflect fear of war, she later said it was actually the of having her photo taken. She was married at 13, had four children, one died. She found out she was a cover girl in 2002, 18 years after the photo had been taken. Her husband died in 2012. Sharbat’s second daughter also passed away, leaving her baby daughter behind. In 2016, Sharbat was imprisoned for allegedly obtaining Pakistani ID illegally. She was then deported back to Afghanistan after living in Pakistan for 35 years, a place that had become her home.
Good did come from the famous photo. It led to the National Geographic setting up a charity for Afghan girls and evoked sympathy around the world for those suffering in Afghanistan, a landlocked place, a historically unconquerable place, a place of resilience, surreal pain and natural beauty.
In 2017, the Afghani government gifted Gula a home in Kabul for her and her kids. I hope she is doing well.