How can we tell a story that is ours but also belongs to millions of others? How can documentary film and engaged scholarship portray the realities of war?
In episode 22 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews filmmaker Wazhmah Osman about the politics of memoir, what the trauma of war does to archival research, and Wazhmah’s critically acclaimed documentary film, Postcards from Tora Bora, which recounts Wazhmah’s return to her childhood home of Kabul, Afghanistan nearly 20 years after her family fled Cold War violence.
Guest: Wazhmah Osman
Wazhmah Osman is a filmmaker and an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies and Production at Temple University.
For the 2016–2017 academic year, she is a visiting fellow at New York University’s Center for Media, Culture, and History.
Her research focuses on the politics of representation and visual culture of the war on terror, and in her forthcoming book she analyzes the impact of international funding and cross border media flows on the national politics and culture of Afghanistan.
Her critically acclaimed documentary film Postcards from Tora Bora traces Wazhmah’s return to her childhood home of Kabul, Afghanistan nearly 20 years after her family fled Cold War violence. In the film, armed only with rapidly fading memories, Wazhmah recruits some unlikely and reluctant guides to put together the pieces of her past. On an alternately sad and humorous quest, she encounters confused cabbies, the enthusiastic former minister of the tourism bureau, a museum director that archives land mines, and a group of angry street vendors. As she talks about in our interview, the film depicts a strange intersection where cultures clash, identities are mistaken, and the past violently collides with the present.
We chatted about
- The evolution of Postcards from Tora Bora from traditional documentary to a more experimental narrative film (03:30)
- National and personal archives in the context of war (09:15)
- Finding a balance between objectivity and personal emotions in autobiographical work (16:00)
- How to tell a story that is yours but is also shared by other people (20:20)
- Combining filmmaking with political activism and academic training (23:00)
- The importance of ethnographic interviews to a democratic media (30:15)
- Imagining otherwise (38:30)
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The destruction of personal and national archives
The loss of all kinds of things happens, from human life that disrupts families, to all kinds of cultural and national institutions that people have spent generations building up are in many cases burned or bombed or destroyed to build a new kind of post-war culture.
The experimental nature of her film
It was a difficult experience for me because it was uncomfortable. I had to go from being more of the filmmaker to being the subject of the film. It became like an inter-referential, reflective kind of film.
Balancing objective and narrative work
We have to keep a distance from the subject matter, be objective, be critical, and rationally analyze the pieces. If you’re too stepped in the subject matter, it’s difficult to keep that objective distance and analytical mindset, but you have to feel it first.
Telling a story that’s yours but also shared by others
I wanted to be sure the story wasn’t just going to be representative of my family’s story, but that other Afghans could relate to it as well. 50 percent of the population has become refugees, and if you include internal displacement, it’s three quarters of the country.
The development of activism
If you’ve experienced the injustices of war, there’s no way that you can be pro-war, or not call out when you see warlordism or war hawks today drumming up the beats of anger and rage and racism so that they can muster more war.
Ethnographic interviews are very relevant if you want to get at the beat and pulse of a country. If you have good interview skills and you’re building relationships with people and they trust you, then they share from the heart.
We the people who don’t have capital and power and powerful institutions on our side, [must] realize what we do have on our side is each other, and that we’re going to build alliances across races and genders and sexualities and nationalities and fight for one another.
More from Wazhmah Osman
Projects and people discussed
- Steve Jablonski, producer
- Kelly Dolak, co-director
- Faye Ginsburg
- Margaret Mead Film Festival
- Kasteller Dok Film Festival
- Splice In Film Festival, about gender and politics in Afghanistan
- Imagine Otherwise interview with Minal Hajratwala, episode 18
- Imagine Otherwise interview with Nikiko Masumoto, episode 10
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Black Lives Matter
- More information about Afghan refugees and internally displaced peoples
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise hosted by Cathy Hannabach and is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
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Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build a better world. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach (00:19):
I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:23):
Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome text, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds. This episode is brought to you by our brand new hot off the press publication called Book Marketing for Academics.
Cathy Hannabach (00:45):
As I’ve talked a little bit about on this podcast before, at Ideas on Fire, we help academic authors map out, propose, write, edit, publish, and market their scholarly books. And over the years, I’ve had dozens of clients and friends and colleagues and other super-smart people who have told me that they struggle with how to market their academic books, or if they should even be doing so at all.
Cathy Hannabach (01:10):
They’ve written these amazing feminist, queer, anti-racist, social justice-oriented books, but they don’t know how to let people know about them. Their publishers encourage them to do book marketing, but don’t offer much practical guidance for what that actually means or how to do it.
Cathy Hannabach (01:27):
So I took the advice templates, worksheets, and resources that I’ve been giving to folks over the years and bundled them into this book. You can get your copy of Book Marketing for Academics on our website at IdeasOnFire.net. This is episode 22.
Cathy Hannabach (01:43):
My guest today is Wazhmah Osman, who’s a filmmaker and an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies and Production at Temple University. For the 2016/2017 academic year, she’s also a visiting fellow at New York University’s Center for Media Culture and History. Her research focuses on the politics of representation and visual culture in the war on terror.
Cathy Hannabach (02:07):
In her forthcoming book, she analyzes the impact of international funding and cross-border media flows on the national politics and culture of Afghanistan. Her critically-acclaimed documentary film, Postcards from Tora Bora traces Wazhmah’s return to her childhood home of Kabul, Afghanistan nearly 20 years after her family fled Cold War violence.
Cathy Hannabach (02:30):
In the film, armed only with rapidly fading memories, Wazhmah recruits some unlikely and often reluctant guides to help her put together the pieces of her past. On an alternatively sad and humorous quest, she encounters confused cabbies, the enthusiastic former minister of the Tourism Bureau, a museum director that archives landmines, and a group of angry street vendors. As she talks about in this interview, the film depicts a strange intersection where culture clash, identities are mistaken, and the past violently collides with the present.
Cathy Hannabach (03:08):
So thanks so much for being with us, Wazhmah.
Wazhmah Osman (03:11):
Thanks for having me, Cathy.
Cathy Hannabach (03:14):
So let’s jump in. You are a filmmaker, a scholar, an activist, and the director of the critically-acclaimed documentary film, Postcards from Tora Bora. I’d love for you to tell our listeners a little bit about that film, the process of making it, and how that all came together.
Wazhmah Osman (03:30):
We started the film back in 2004 with my ex-partner who’s also a filmmaker and an academic, and our idea initially was to make more of a traditional documentary to see what the situation of women in Afghanistan was after the US intervention post-9/11 because there was so much talk leading to the build-up of the US military intervention in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, and one of their main reasons was to liberate Afghan women, so we wanted to see if that was really the case.
Wazhmah Osman (04:21):
But what happened along the way was, Kelly Dolak, the co-director and co-producer of the film, she also was documenting just my personal journey, being back in Afghanistan, which is where I’m originally from and I was born there. And we left as refugees when I was a child, so she was documenting all the more personal experiences I was having returning to my home country in many ways.
Wazhmah Osman (04:58):
And so when we brought the footage back, at that point I was in the culture and media program through NYU Anthropology, and we had test screenings. And also my advisor, Faye Ginsburg, was one of the advisors for the film, and so she helped us organize some test screenings at various different institutions and classrooms, and most people didn’t respond that well to the footage that we had that was more talking heads documentary style interviews with women across the population, all different segments of the population, talking about the situation of women there, but most people reacted very intensely to the personal footage that we had.
Wazhmah Osman (05:54):
And so we shifted directions in going from more of a traditional documentary to more of a personal unconventional genre-bending kind of direction, which people responded to well.
Cathy Hannabach (06:12):
Nice. So what was that kind of personal footage or that turn that the film took?
Wazhmah Osman (06:22):
I think it was a difficult experience for me because it was uncomfortable because I had to go from being more of the filmmaker to being the subject of the film, and Kelly, my ex-partner, is also in the film, so then we both became … it became an interreferential reflexive kind of film documenting our process of going there and being in Afghanistan and all the emotions that were surfacing for me around having to leave as refugees, and also documenting other people’s stories, personal stories, and the different generations of people who’ve experience war.
Wazhmah Osman (07:12):
So I was the first generation who experienced the Cold War with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but since then, there has been multiple other wars. There’s been a civil war and the rise of the Taliban, and now the war on terror. And so we interviewed many people, including children who’ve been impacted and families that have been impacted in terrible ways. And so in many ways, I think the film became more of an experimental film, but also more of a narrative film because it tells the story of what happens to a country that’s once peaceful and progressive and has all kinds of cultural and artistic institutions and also Democratic institutions, and what happens when you have … war doesn’t even begin to … war is a one-word catchall, but what happens when a society essentially collapses.
Wazhmah Osman (08:18):
And in that power vacuum, you have extremists and Islamists and all kinds of other people coming into power, and so the loss of … so many things happened, from human life that disrupts families to all kinds of cultural and national institutions that people have spent generations building up are literally, in many cases, just burnt or bombed or destroyed to bring in a new type of post-war culture, but I still don’t recognize Afghanistan. But a lot of activists are fighting to bring about positive changes again.
Cathy Hannabach (09:11):
One of the kind of main themes of the film or one of the topics that you explore a lot is family history and the ways that family history interacts with national history, with cultural history, how it gets all kind of tangled in complicated ways, and how you tell that history when the archival objects that normally serve as evidence of that history are gone in the context of war, in the context of just family life, but particularly in the context of war.
Cathy Hannabach (09:46):
How did you track down all of the kind of archival materials that you needed for the film? Was there stuff that you couldn’t find? Did you have problems getting photographs or interviews or transcripts or the kind of documents, visual or text that you needed?
Wazhmah Osman (10:07):
Yeah. No, that question was so well-put and so relevant to the film, and something I always say is for refugees, all refugees, but especially war refugees and people who have to leave their country almost immediately, that archive or having archives is just so crucial, it’s almost … I think my relationship to archives, personal archives, national archives, is a very intense and emotional one in many ways, and so I think recreating the pre-war Afghanistan, the happier Afghanistan of my childhood was very difficult, and some of it, I think in the film have been … it was just serendipity in that we went to my grandmother and grandfather’s house, and in one of the rooms there was still some boxes. Everything else was stolen, even things like window fixtures and things like that were stolen or looted over the years, but there was still a few boxes of photographs.
Wazhmah Osman (11:37):
The only things we brought with us, and it was very difficult to escape Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, but the only thing we brought with us was a suitcase of photos, which was subsequently stolen at Karachi Airport en route to coming to the US. And so it was great that we found these photographs that I thought after all these years must be burned in the wintertime to keep people warm or something like that.
Wazhmah Osman (12:11):
And then in addition to that, we went to visit an aunt of mine in Pakistan and she had old Super 8 films of my mother and my mother and father’s wedding, and also when they … so part of my family is Pakistani because a long time ago during the … I’m trying to figure out which time it was, but basically the British divided part of Afghanistan with Pakistan, and so they used to come to Afghanistan for vacation, so she had these old home movies of Kabul, which they loved to visit because people from around the world used to visit Kabul because it was one of these cosmopolitan centers that was known for being very diverse and rich in culture, and people were very hospitable.
Wazhmah Osman (13:06):
I remember as a child growing up in Kabul, there was all these hippies. That was actually one of the first English words I learned was hippie. And so they used to come visit and vacation in Kabul, so in those respects, it was sheer luck that we happened upon the home movies and these photographs. And then in addition to that, the now defunct, but semi-functional Ministry of Tourism had some brochures from the 60s and 70s where they were geared towards tourists from all around the world, and so we happened upon those too.
Wazhmah Osman (13:54):
And we used all of these various archives that we had built from the home movies to photographs to brochures to kind of recreate what had been destroyed and lost. Yeah, so that’s the story behind that. And I think that really added a layered texture to the film that people tend to really enjoy and like to watch.
Cathy Hannabach (14:24):
So you mentioned the kind of weirdness, or newness at least, of finding yourself part of the story as opposed to the person making the story, in front of the camera instead of behind the camera, and it seems that that is something that a lot of people who work with autobiographical material wrestle with. How to tell a story that is yours, but is also shared by other people, particularly when you’re creating material about family.
Cathy Hannabach (14:58):
And several of our previous podcast guests have talked about this, the kind of challenges of that. The pleasures of it for sure, but also the difficulties of that. I’m thinking of Nikiko Masumoto who talked about making plays and performances that are about both her personal family histories, but also how they intertwine with Japanese internment writ large.
Cathy Hannabach (15:22):
Minal Hajratwala wrote a gorgeous memoir about her personal family history and how her family over the decades have moved out from and back into India throughout the Indian diaspora, and she also talked a lot about the difficulty or the needing to step lightly when talking about family stuff, but also wanting to offer the kind of critical lens that, as scholars, as filmmakers, as activists, that you have.
Cathy Hannabach (15:59):
Did you find that particularly challenging, creating a film that involved family stuff?
Wazhmah Osman (16:07):
Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that to do autobiographical work involves going into a certain uncomfortable zone that we’re not used to, especially, I think, if you’re trained in more traditional ways of documentary filmmaking. Or many of the social sciences up until recently have trained us, in order to be good scholars or good filmmakers, that we have to keep a distance from the subject matter and that we have to be objective, and that we have to be able to be critical and rationally analyze the pieces. Because if you’re too much steeped in the subject matter, then it’s difficult to keep that objective distance and analytical mindset.
Wazhmah Osman (17:15):
And so, I think that was maybe part of why it was hard to all of a sudden be on the other side of the camera and be the subject of the film. I had to relinquish all of that training and sort of just give up that control that comes with that too. It also helped that the person that was doing most of the filmmaking was my partner at the time, so that helped in terms of just releasing some of the control around that. But you also go into a place of exploring your emotions around something that’s very difficult.
Wazhmah Osman (18:03):
How does a child rationalize or make sense of war? As an adult, I still haven’t been able to, but trying to explain to a child, which is what happened in my family’s case, but to many other families. My father became a prisoner of war, some of my uncles were killed by the Soviet-based regimes that were in power. We stopped going to school, we had curfews. The Soviet police as well as army were patrolling Kabul streets.
Wazhmah Osman (18:49):
And then all of a sudden overnight, my mom and my grandma decide that we’re going to leave. So my sisters and I, with my grandmother and my mother, leave everything we know. So it’s an incredible sense of loss, and not being able to understand. One minute I’m in the first grade and I’m playing with my classmates and just being a kid, and then the next minute, I remember there was a bombing raid at our school, and from that point on, it was just one battle after another battle, and we were hiding in my grandmother’s shelter until we finally left.
Wazhmah Osman (19:37):
Yeah. So I think I’m getting a little tangential here, but I think it’s really hard to all of a sudden tap into those emotions and those memories of loss and war, and then not be really sure where the story goes and where I’m going to go and what you’re going to end up with, as opposed to having more of a script. And I think part of it for me also was … Okay, so to be honest, I was very begrudging about switching to a personal story, but I’m very, very glad we did.
Wazhmah Osman (20:20):
And one of the concerns I also had, aside from just releasing some of my scholarly training and control over the story, was that I wanted to make sure that this story wasn’t going to just be representative of my family’s story, but also that other Afghans could relate to it as well. 50% of the population has become refugees, and if you include internal displacements, it’s three-quarters of the country. So this is something that affected everyone.
Wazhmah Osman (20:59):
And so I was, what’s the word? Satisfied that I had communicated something that represented other people in Afghanistan as well during a screening that we had in Kabul in 2008. We were invited by this German festival, it was sponsored by the Castle Film Festival, it was called Splice In, I’m forgetting the exact name, it was called Splice In Gender in Afghanistan, something like that. So they invited us to screen the film in 2008 at [inaudible 00:21:48], which is an old French institution and school, and over 1000 people showed up, all Afghan for the most part.
Wazhmah Osman (21:59):
And during the film and after the film when the lights went up, people were in tears, and my father was there too, had really great questions, and they were moved by the film. And so that, for me, made it worthwhile. Because I wanted to make sure that the film communicated something about war to people that hadn’t experienced war just to show the extremeness of how it and how much it destroys a family and a country, but it was also really important for me that it be a space for healing for insiders as well, people who’ve been traumatized by it.
Wazhmah Osman (22:44):
It screened around the world, mostly in the US, but I think that, for me, was a really important screening and kind of made me feel like it was important that we made that film the way that we did.
Cathy Hannabach (22:59):
The film was such a moving piece, but it’s also such a fantastic example of how combining art, in this case filmmaking, with political activism and your academic training, can do something really important in the world. That can contribute to a kind of worldmaking or kind of social justice imagining otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach (23:28):
I’m curious how you see your work maybe beyond the film, including the film, including your other projects, how you see your work combining those three realms, art, activism, and academia.
Wazhmah Osman (23:51):
Well first of all, thank you for saying all those kind things about this film, but I think for me, activism happens almost naturally in that if you’ve experienced certain things, you can’t help not to have a social justice bend to your work, meaning that just very simply put, if you’ve experienced the injustices of war, there’s no way that you can be pro-war or a supporter of war or not call out when you see warlordism or these war hawks today drumming up the beats of anger and rage and racism so that they can muster more war.
Wazhmah Osman (24:51):
And so it sort of happens naturally in that sense. But I think the film also beyond war is interesting because most films that are done in Afghanistan, especially documentaries, are done by men. And so in this case, you have two women that both have access to the wider street culture of Afghanistan, but we also have more access to the private spheres of Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is, what in academia we call … they have homosocial worlds. And so we were able to get these personal interviews that I think other people couldn’t get access to.
Wazhmah Osman (25:44):
And also being two women on the street interviewing, we interviewed everyone from shopkeepers to ministers to taxi drivers, and people were really surprised that we would have that kind of access, but I think our gender and sexuality and many things came into play there as well, and I think it was important for us in that respect, when we decided to go the personal documentary route, to keep both of us in it and to be as real about it as possible. Because at one point, we had some distributors interested and they wanted us to have maybe a celebrity do the narration or things like that, and we decided against that.
Cathy Hannabach (26:34):
That would’ve been a really different movie.
Wazhmah Osman (26:38):
Yeah. It would’ve been.
Cathy Hannabach (26:39):
For sure, yeah.
Wazhmah Osman (26:40):
And I think in terms of the artistic aspects of the film, a lot of the credit goes to our co-producer and editor of the film, Stephen Jablonsky, and Kelly as well, who both were able to use all these computer special effects and all these various softwares to kind of bring the old brochure back to life. They animated all types of things. And they also animated kids’ drawings, we went to visit some orphanages and kids’ schools and things like that, and Stephen and Kelly designed it in such a way so that they animated various things. And so that created a much more rich layered narrative element to it that I think audiences can really feel the story more. So I think that’s how that happened.
Cathy Hannabach (27:41):
Nice. This might seem like shifting gears, but it relates, I swear. When the DNC, the Democratic National Convention, came to Philadelphia this past summer, you were part of this really amazing panel called The Next Four Years: (Neo)colonialism, US Foreign Policy, and Strategies of Resistance, and the connection I’m thinking of is this, in many ways that panel, it brought together professors, filmmakers, scholars, journalists, activists, people from across professions, across communities to get at some of those questions that you were just talking about, the kind of effect of war by people who have actually experienced it, who have been the target of it, who have different investments in it, different roles to play in it, particularly colonial wars or neocolonial wars in our contemporary age.
Cathy Hannabach (28:36):
And I’d love to hear more about how that panel worked. What you thought of it, how your role as a filmmaker and a filmmaker who has produced films about war, how that fits into this kind of broad-based coalitional critique of US imperialism.
Wazhmah Osman (28:58):
Yeah. The panel that was DNC-related in Philly last month, that was sponsored by JVP, Jewish Voices for Peace was also one of those really incredible experiences and opportunities that I’ve had, and I think for that panel, I was able to tap into both being a filmmaker and being an academic, as well as an activist, and bring it all together. And I think one of the things I realized was that I’ve been going back and forth to the region, Afghanistan and all the surrounding countries for a long time under all those capacities, but that in many ways, that the research that I was doing for my scholarship also can be applied to and used for activism.
Wazhmah Osman (30:13):
So most of my methods are ethnographic, which means that I work with people and I interview people, and so that’s very relevant in terms of if you want to get the beat or the pulse of a nation or a country, you’ve got to really sense a good sense of that, because if you have good interview skills and you’re building these relationships with people and they trust you, then they share from the hart. They really tell you what’s going on.
Wazhmah Osman (30:48):
And one of the things that I’ve encountered there over and over again is the continued impact of war and warfare, whereas I experienced one of the first wars as a child, nowadays, especially during my last research trip there, I noticed that people have been very much impacted by drone warfare, and that’s the latest technologies. And the irony is Afghanistan, according to UN statistics, has one of the highest amounts of landmines, and there’s many different organizations that are trying to clean up those landmines, but it’ll probably take decades before that’s done because it’s a very long and tedious process.
Wazhmah Osman (31:37):
And now, one of the newest technologies of war, drones are also being utilized in Afghanistan more than many other places, especially on the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So it has one of the world’s oldest and newest war technologies, and so I can’t help but … even though my research was not about war and the topic of my manuscript was about international funding of the media in Afghanistan, there’s no way that you can’t not talk about the everyday impact of international military forces and weapons of war on the daily lives of people.
Wazhmah Osman (32:29):
And so when I was asked to be a part of this panel, I was able to bring those stories and talk about that, and also combine it with my media scholarship and training, which is that in many ways as a country, we are censoring the true experience of war. And more and more, we’ve become a media … Let me clarify. The mainstream media represents this shock and awe, dazzling virtual reality of war that is not really what people experience. And I think partially that has to do with what the US Government and media learned with both the Vietnam War and the civil rights is that when you show a newsreel of what’s actually going on, it usually changes the tide of public opinion against war in many ways.
Wazhmah Osman (33:41):
And so since then, for example, this is just one of many ways that the US mainstream media censors war footage, is that since Vietnam, many presidents, including President Obama, do not show the coffins of deceased soldiers that return from Afghanistan, or before that, when they returned from Iraq. And also, journalists are discouraged from going to the front lines, so you have more and more pre-packaged stories and embedded journalists so that the military can control what they see and what they don’t see.
Wazhmah Osman (34:34):
And so this is a very dangerous move in a society that is supposedly Democratic and supposedly has an independent media, like the US like we’re supposed to. And that seems to be the trend more and more is not seeing what’s really going on, so that’s one of the things I talked about also, is how important that is that we show that. And so in that respect, I was able to bring in various aspects of my training, both as an academic and as a filmmaker and as an ethnographer into analyzing the situation.
Wazhmah Osman (35:23):
And I just wanted to say one more thing. It’s very similar to what’s happening, I think, with the Black Lives Matter movement now, you can make a correlation between the civil rights movement is that when you do have actual footage of these things, people are stirred. People sort of wake up from their consumerist stupor and want to do something. Because I honestly do believe that the vast majority of human beings are good. They’re just innately good, and they don’t want to see injustice, whether it’s towards people in our own country here in the US or in other parts of the world.
Wazhmah Osman (36:06):
And so people are empathetic, they care. They’re sympathetic. They’re compassionate, and they don’t want to see people being bombed to bits by bombs that are coming from our country. Or in this country, having the police shoot at and kill innocent people without any proof preemptively. Yeah. So I’ll leave it here.
Wazhmah Osman (36:34):
I’ll just say one more thing, I think the DNC panel was a very energizing experience for me because not only were the panelists representing a cross-section of journalists and activists and academics and everybody else in between, but the audience itself was just so energized, and I think it reminds me that cities like Philly and New York have such incredible people and have built such positive social movements.
Wazhmah Osman (37:12):
It was a packed audience at the Philadelphia Ethical Society and you had a section with signs that said, “Homos against empire,” and you had all the queer contingent there, and then you had another section of left-leaning people sponsored by Jewish Voices for Peace, and then you had more liberal people and centrist people, but somehow everybody was coming together to really think about, debate what’s going on with US foreign policy and how we don’t want certain things to continue happening in our name, because we don’t live in an isolated world, we are all interconnected, we can feel one another’s pain, and likewise, violence crosses borders.
Wazhmah Osman (38:18):
The reason why we have the war on terror as we do in many respects is because of foreign policy mistakes we’ve made. Mistakes I think is the generous term to use for it, but I’ll leave it at that.
Cathy Hannabach (38:34):
Definitely. So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which is really at the heart of what this podcast is all about. So the name of this podcast is Imagine Otherwise, and all of the guests, including yourself, that come on here are just absolutely astounding, fantastic examples of what it means to actually do that.
Cathy Hannabach (38:58):
So I’ll ask you, what’s that world that you’re working towards when you make your films, when you step in front of a classroom, when you write your scholarship, when you help organize activist events, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What’s the world that you want?
Wazhmah Osman (39:16):
Yeah. That’s such a great question, and I love the name of your podcast too, Imagine Otherwise, because I feel like deep inside all of our hearts, there’s a reason why we do what we do, and often what we do is not the most popular trendy things to do, and most of us when we do it, sometimes we’re putting ourselves in jeopardy but we’re motivated by something.
Wazhmah Osman (39:41):
And so I think the easiest way maybe to answer that is what I said in the JVP DNC related talk, which is for me, 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union was a really pivotal year, and I think for a lot of people that remember it, that was a really important year because first the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, and I remember as a kid after 10 years of occupation, I was elated. And I also remember some kids in school were rude and they said, “Now that Afghanistan’s finally free, go back,” but that’s a whole other thing.
Wazhmah Osman (40:38):
But I remember there was a sigh of relief that you can almost feel and hear around the world, where a superpower had collapsed. The Soviet Union had imploded, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and people were finally imagining peace like, “We’re going to have a world where there’s going to be no more Cold War, there’s going to be no more eminent threat of nuclear warfare, there’s going to be not living in constant fear of going into bomb shelters,” or things that human beings have had to live with for a long time.
Wazhmah Osman (41:32):
But that didn’t happen. And if you think about where we’re at right now, both in Philly and in New York, everybody since 9/11 feels under constant threat of another terrorist attack, and if you see a suspicious package, the signs are everywhere. Before that, there was orange alerts and red alerts and all of that, and so I think the world I would like to imagine is that peace is still possible, and peace can still happen.
Wazhmah Osman (42:15):
And sometimes it seems like a very distant dream, but that’s the world I’d like to imagine. And I think a key aspect of that, which goes back to all the other great questions you’ve asked me, is that I think we need to feel it first before we could be analytical and critical and objective and all those things, I think we need to be able to feel for and empathize with our neighbors, whether in our own communities or more internationally and globally, we need to build alliances and networks.
Wazhmah Osman (42:58):
And so if we start from this position of feeling it first, then it’s going to be hard to … I’m trying to figure out how to best say it. It’s hard to be able to feel the hatred necessary or the prejudice that’s necessary or the racism to be okay with being violent towards groups of people, being violent towards, whether it’s Black youth in this country, or Arabs and Persians and Muslims and South Asians in other parts of the world, essentially the global South and the global East, it’s going to be much harder to be okay when our country goes to war someplace else or decides to have regime change of a Democratically-elected leader, be it in South America, in Latin America, or in North Africa or wherever.
Wazhmah Osman (44:16):
That’s the world I would like to see. I would like to see a world where we, the people who don’t have capital and power and all these powerful institutions on our side, realize what we do have on our side is each other, and that we’re going to build these alliances across races and genders and sexualities and nationalities and everything and fight for one another. Fight for one another’s human rights because we’re all the same and want that for one another. We’re all compassionate in that respect.
Wazhmah Osman (45:08):
No, we’re not all the same and we all have different things, but we can still bridge the gap. And then I think imagining a world where peace is really possible so that we don’t have to spend so much of our budget going to … a huge percent of the US budget goes to the military, the Department of Defense, and that can be spent so much better for education and the arts and culture and other types of social services, and I think that would be a beautiful world if that happens across the globe.
Cathy Hannabach (46:02):
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Be sure to check out our website at ImagineOtherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.