Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.
Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.
Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.
Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.
Wedding bands, 1970s.
The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.
Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.
Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:
After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.
Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.