Indian readers mainly know you because of your Kabul Nightclub books since most of your other work has not been published here. When did you last visit Afghanistan?
My last trip to Afghanistan was in 2009. It was after I finished working on both Kabul Nightclub books. I went back because I missed the place and the people. Having spent so much time there, I have a special feeling for the country. Unfortunately, 13 years have passed since my last visit. Many of the friends I made there no longer live in Afghanistan. They migrated to other places with their families and loved ones because it seemed safer to go out and live a life less filled with threats to their lives every day. What is happening there at the moment is very sad. I think a lot about Afghanistan but, honestly, I don’t know when I will be able to go back there.
Yes, it is true that many books have not been translated from French into English, so they have not been published in India. I hope that will change. HarperCollins was a good editor to work with on the Kabul Nightclub books. Amruta Patil, the Indian graphic novelist, introduced me to Karthika VK, my editor who was then at HarperCollins. Initially, I wanted to do three Kabul Nightclub books, but I had no more material so I only did two.
How do you see the politics of representation in these two novels? How has your experience and representation of Afghanistan been shaped by being French and white?
I was much younger when I wrote and illustrated these books. I knew very little about Afghanistan. I was just getting started there, and working on graphic novels was more of a creative outlet to document and share my experiences. I wasn’t trying to be an expert or educate anyone on Kabul. I was trying to make sense of what I saw around me. I don’t claim this is the only way to see Kabul. This is my point of view, the point of view of a Frenchman.
Being French and white gave me many privileges, and it also made some people suspicious. I have traveled extensively in Afghanistan. Outside of Kabul, I have been to Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, Herat, Kandahar and several other places. Tribal leaders were curious about why I was in their country, who I worked for, and whether I was a spy, but they were also bound by a traditional code of honor and hospitality. According to custom, they are supposed to take very good care of strangers and feed them well. I have to say it worked really well for me.
I must add that as a guest I too had to be responsible. Religion can be a sensitive subject in a context like Afghanistan. It was fine to say that I was a Christian, but it was important to be absolutely clear that I was not there to preach Christianity or convert anyone. In France, on the other hand, the situation is quite different. Half of the population is not religious. I have observed that in Afghanistan people have a hard time understanding the concept of atheism.
Tell us about Kabul Requiema book you wrote after the Kabul Nightclub books.
This book was created in collaboration with Sean Langan, British journalist and documentary filmmaker. He spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. He has fascinating stories to tell, but also stories that would scare most people I know. He was kidnapped by the Taliban while shooting a film in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has made numerous documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK. We met in France for a week. We watched the movies together. He would stop during a scene and then tell me more to give me some context and more stories because you can’t fit everything into a movie. You have to be aware of the time and the audience. Based on his narration of his experiences, I created the graphic novel. I wrote and illustrated.
Who are the Afghan authors and artists whose work you tend to follow to keep up to date with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan?
After my return from Afghanistan, I used to meet a lot of Afghans in Europe at parties and cultural events. There were shared memories to lean on, things to remember. But I lost contact with people over time while I was dealing with projects in Iran, Chernobyl, Nepal, Cambodia, Palestine and Iraq. Life takes you in so many directions.
I am in close contact with Atiq Rahimi, who is a Franco-Afghan author writing novels set in Afghanistan. They offer important information about the country and the culture. He is also a filmmaker. He makes documentaries for French television now, but he grew up in Afghanistan. In fact, he went to a well-known school called Lycée Esteqlal. I know this because it was managed as part of a collaborative effort between the governments of Afghanistan and France. There were students from both countries, even children of French diplomats. Atiq left Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. He was a teenager. He obtains political asylum in France.
What do you think of the way France, and more broadly Europe, have reacted to the changing dynamics in Afghanistan? I mean after the fall of the elected US-backed Afghan government and the takeover by the Taliban.
I think France was a little surprised by the way the United States left Afghanistan after the talks between the American government and the Taliban in Doha. It looked like US troops would take longer to leave the country and put up resistance to the Taliban, but that didn’t happen. With regard to people who leave Afghanistan and seek asylum in other countries, I think France has chosen to give priority to people who have worked for the French government and the French army in Afghanistan. They often put themselves in dangerous situations, so France has a moral responsibility to protect them and their families. Much more could be done for vulnerable Afghans. The visa application process alone can be so long and frustrating. Things shouldn’t be so difficult.
What do you think of collaborations between French and Afghan artists to promote dialogue? Afghan refugees are worried about Islamophobia in France, and the French are worried that Afghans are not adapting to the French way of life?
It’s a good idea. Secularism is something very important for the French, and sometimes this can create difficulties in welcoming religious people. And you are right; cultures are different in terms of the place of women and homosexuals in society. There is Islamophobia in France, in fact all over the world including India, but I think French society is quite open overall. It is democratic, free and secular.
After Afghanistan, you lived in Iran for a while and even worked on a book there – Thus was silent Zarathustra (Silent was Zarathustra). Tell us about that.
This book was published in India but the Kabul Nightclub the books attracted more attention. It is about my explorations with Zoroastrianism in Iran. I went there because my friend Sophia had invited me. Her father Cyrus Yazdani, a famous man, was murdered. I got really interested in his story when I talked to Iranians and learned more about him. As part of my research, I also went to Geneva where the murder trial was taking place. The book talks about him but also about Zoroastrianism, one of the first monotheistic religions in the world.
Indians, of course, are familiar with Zoroastrianism because many Zoroastrians live here. In fact, I also worked on a little graphic novel about Homi Bhabha, the Indian Zoroastrian scientist who was instrumental in setting up the nuclear program. He died in a plane crash near Mont Blanc, which is in the Alps in Europe. I was very intrigued by this story. He was traveling to Vienna when this tragic incident happened.
It was a huge loss for India because he was the father of India’s nuclear bomb. Although there is no evidence to prove he was attacked, the theory or rumor that he was has been circulating. I built on that idea, so everyone comes – Cold War, CIA, Pakistan. Daniel Roche, a Swiss mountaineer who traveled to the Alps, found debris from a plane crash in the mountains. It could be from the plane Homi Bhabha was on or another Air India plane.
Tell us about your new projects.
my latest book, At the Women’s House, published during the pandemic. It has stories of a health care unit providing support to vulnerable women in Saint Denis, a location in the northern suburbs of Paris. I am now thinking of other projects. After the Kolkata Literary Meet, I’m going to spend a few days in Delhi and meet Indian artists there. We’ve discussed collaboration ideas, but it’s too early to tell.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.