Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Visit to the Museum of Afghanistan with Trill Zapatero

The world has been exposed through a host of media on the events that have played out in Afghanistan over this past decade. Videos and scores of stories about the war and the accompanying tragedy it has brought along with the scenes of families deriving what comfort they could from simply being together, have danced across our television, computer and movie screens or appeared in magazine, books and newspapers.  The carnage of so many years of war has wreaked havoc on the country and it will take many generations to erase. Even with the number of images and the countless stories that have come out, there are aspects of the country and its people we don’t hear about or absorb; things such as its history, its culture, the arts and its people. One Second Life resident, Trill Zapatero has decided to bring some of those aspects to the residents of the virtual world and has built the Museum of Afghanistan to create awareness and help educate on the country and the plight of its people. In particular the struggle of a group of women called the “Revolutionary Association of the Woman of Afghanistan” (RAWA). The group was established in 1977 and is an independent political and social organization of “Afghan women fighting for human rights and for social justice in Afghanistan.”

The museum is located on one of the SIM’s that is owned and operated by Four Bridges and it opened to the residents of Second Life in September of 2010. Ms Zapatero is an artist in both her first and second lives and I’d interviewed her for an article that appeared in Second Arts a year ago. With commitments in my first life I had been unable to attend the opening of the museum and with both of our schedules full it was several weeks before we were able to catch up. She graciously agreed to meet with me there for a tour. I had seen many images of the country, its mountains and cities, in various media publications. When I arrived at the museum site it was as I had seen it in still shots and movies, but now I was able through my avatar to move about as if I were physically there.

“Hello Nazz … it takes a few minutes for the sculpty mountains to rezz.” She said.

As I waited for them to rezz, we chatted, an exchange of pleasantries. I then asked if she was ready, to which she replied. “So this over here is the information center. This eBook slide thingy is the basic background of RAWA … how they began during the soviet occupation and how the founder was assassinated by the Afghan version of the KGB. “

“I had been out to their web site.” I commented.

“Yeah, this is right off the website, but I want to redo the slideshow. It’s a bit too academic and long and I'd like to shorten it.” She said and then paused before she added; “The website upload there is to RAWA's website. In here is a thing on their current projects … orphanages, clinics, schools literacy programs.”

I found a donation kiosk and dropped a few hundred lindens into it. The money transfer showed it went to another name and I asked, “Is that your bank alt?”

“Yeah, she is just a bank. All my clothes sales go to Trill, then to the alt and then to my PayPal then to my bank account, just for RAWA then to RAWA … actually, because RAWA isn't a recognized charity, they get no NGO or government funding of any kind, the money goes to Afghan women’s mission and from there to RAWA.  So it's a bit of a chain but all the money goes to RAWA. I pay rent out of pocket.” She replied.

“What happened with the Central Asia Institute?” I asked, having remembered her support for that organization when she’d first established her clothing line (BoHo HoBo).

“Well, I did some research and I decided I'd rather support a local indigenous group of Afghan women … also because they are against the occupation by NATO and they are also politically active and 'politics' is a major part of the problem in Afghanistan. On this shelf here are some recommended books.  I have a few more to add … really awesome books.” She said in reply.

“Recommended by RAWA?”

“Well also by New York Times and The Guardian.” She said and then continued; “Malali Joya, A woman among warlords is a NYT best seller. She isn't part of RAWA … and Meena is the founder of RAWA … they are the women who started the clandestine schools for children especially girls, during the Taliban years … they are the journalists who took the footage of human rights abuses during the Taliban regime as well, at great risk to their lives … some have been assassinated.  It's an amazing organization such bravery and dedication … they are all totally volunteer and they are supported by brothers and fathers. Actually, it's a common story that girls are recruited to work for RAWA by uncles and fathers … uncles, fathers, and brothers’ often act as chaperones and drivers. It's a really incredible phenomenon in such a patriarchal society.”

“Without any intent of being critical toward either Afghan culture or Islam … the role of women is very limited is it not?” I asked.

“It is and I'm having a hard time understanding that.  Is it 'Islam', is it merely a twisted 'fundamentalist’ interpretation or is it culture or a combination … liberal Muslims insist it is fundamentalism.” She said.

She asked if I’d like to go in the museum, but before we did I said. “Let’s talk about the build for a bit ... its modeled on the topography of Afghanistan?”

“Very much so, Afghanistan is 2/3 mountains and desert. When I move to the SIM next door I'm going to really try to make it look Afghan … I love terraforming. These mountains here are all sculpts.” She replied and then began explaining about the entrance to the museum. “It starts here with the poem by Rumi, on the rocks.” She turned her avatar toward a picture and added; “This is Rumi. He was born in what is present day Afghanistan; I think it sets the mood for the museum. The museum is a celebration of Afghan culture.”
We entered and she continued, “This first room is physical geography exhibit. This 3D map is clickable … nearly everything in the museum in clickable, like the vase in the corner. The scroll in the jar, rezzes a scroll with fast facts about Afghanistan and then disappears after five minutes.”

I clicked on the vase as she had suggested and the following text chat line appeared on my screen.

Afghan vase: There is an ancient story about when God made the world he had bits of rubbish and broken parts left over. The jagged pieces would not fit anywhere else and so he just threw those down and that formed Afghanistan.

“Parts of the country were part of the famous silk road …” I commented, recalling some of my world history lessons many years ago.

“Yes, exactly … crossroads of Asia, the road from the south met up with the east west road. So many civilizations have been through here … Alexander the Great, the Persians,  Buddhism, it was part of Ashoka's empire, the first Buddhist Empire of India way back in the day.”

“Have you visited the country?” I asked.

“No, the closest I've been is the border of India with Pakistan … similar geography and culture.” She replied and we then moved our virtual selves into the next area of the museum where she continued with, “This is the cultural geography exhibit. Afghanistan is very ethnically diverse, there are over 70 different languages the official language is Dari, which is a variant of Persian.”

“Did you receive any help or support from anyone when you did the build?” I asked.

“Oh, some scripting help … I mooch scripts off people or get them online.  I have a book scripting recipes for second life and I made all the textures and most of the objects, not the animals. I'm going to put a bibliography from each exhibit into a box and put it in each room so people can research more if they like.” She replied and then added; “You can click on things if you like … these are model houses over here by the window. The slide show controls come from Jacobo Sands.”

“I heard in the interview video that you’d had some visitors, Islamic visitors who've liked what you've done. Have any Afghani’s stopped by in world yet?” I asked.

“No, but my friend in Germany teaches German to Afghans and she brought a colleague here, an Afghan gentleman who teaches German to Afghans and he saw the museum from her laptop, she said he was really thrilled. I've bought some picture books of Afghanistan at Amazon and looked at everything I could online. The objects on the shelf here are clickable too; each has a sentence about it.” She replied.

I took her suggestion and clicked on a few objects and the chat line responses appeared at the bottom of my screen.

Plate of Sprouts: A week before the New Year, lentils are placed in a dish to sprout. They symbolize new growth.

Haft Mewa: In Afghanistan, they prepare Haft Mewa (Seven Fruits), a fruit salad made from 7 different dried fruits served in their own syrup
Coloured Eggs: Decorated eggs symbolizing fertility, sometimes one for each member of the family.

Tulips: The Guli Surkh festival which literally means Tulip Festival is celebrated only in Mazari Sharif during the first 40 days of the year when the Tulip flowers grow. People travel from different parts of the country to attend the festival.

“I'd love to try some Haft Mewa.” She commented and then turned her avatar toward another display. 

“These houses are so many prims, so it's great that they can appear and disappear.  The cities are mostly walled lanes. “

“I was looking, very intricate in detail. How long did it take for you to build?

“I started the museum at the end of May but I've been working on it every day since then … nearly every day.” She replied.

 “This begins the arts section, music and Dance. It was fun to make the instruments. I think the most fun is making the objects. These here are different kinds of fabric. Actually the material culture of Afghanistan is in danger of being lost.” She said as we moved to the next.

“How did you become connected with 4 Bridges?” I asked.

“Well, when I first did a fundraiser for Afghanistan, Any1 (Gynoid) was also raising awareness for 4B and she introduced me to millay (Freschi), who started 4B … actually it was Millay that suggested I make a museum. I was thinking it would take me a few weeks and would just be a little extension of the information centre.”

“So from an extension of the information center ... it sort of blossomed to its current state?” I asked.

“Yeah, I got all carried away … plus it's a good way to learn sculpting and scripting, to have an actual project. So much of the things that women make here, are the same as the Banjara women of India. These are carpets and poetry … but I’m not done this room yet.

“Women are the keepers of culture are they not.” I commented.

“In some ways, I suppose … it's the women who actually weave the carpets and some of the most famous poets are women … Rabia Balkhi, she was the sister of the sultan of Herat in the 16th century, she fell in love with a slave and for that her brother had to kill her … honor killing … she wrote her last poem in blood on the walls and so she is famous … love causes pain. It seems very Afghan could be the jumping off point for a film that highlights the case of women there today but she is famous among both men and women which is interesting. “

We chatted for a little while longer and then she excused herself as she was expecting guests in real life. I thanked her for the tour and information, delighted that we had finally found some mutually free time.

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