Afghanistan As It Once Was
Published 4 February 2013
The Kabul in William Podlich's photographs is an almost unrecognizable place -- a bustling capital of nattily attired men and women, many wearing Western dress; modern cars; and green parks. A place where women -- Afghans and foreigners -- could freely walk the streets. A peaceful place where tourists, unconcerned for their safety, could take buses to the major historic sites in the country or across the border to Pakistan.
In 1967, Podlich, a professor at Arizona State University, began a two-year stint in Afghanistan with UNESCO, teaching at the Higher Teachers College in Kabul. He brought along his wife, Margaret, and Peg and Jan, his two teenaged daughters.
Podlich, an amateur photographer, recorded his adventures in hundreds of photographs that his family is now sharing with the world. Podlich retired from Arizona State in 1981 and died in 2008 at the age of 92.
“When I look at my dad’s photos, I remember Afghanistan as a country with thousands of years of history and culture,” Peg Podlich told "The Denver Post," which worked with the family to first publish the photos. “It has been a gut-wrenching experience to watch and hear about the profound suffering which has occurred in Afghanistan during the battles of war for nearly 40 years. Fierce and proud yet fun-loving people have been beaten down by terrible forces."
Clayton Esterson, Peg Podlich's husband, who has assumed the role of archivist for the photographs, is maintaining a website where they can be viewed. He told "The Denver Post": "Many Afghans have written comments showing their appreciation for the photographs that show what their country was like before 33 years of war. This makes the effort to digitize and restore these photographs worthwhile." (26 PHOTOS)
Of her father, Dr. William Podlich (second from left), Peg Podlich said: "He had always said that since he had served in WWII...he wanted to serve in the cause of peace. In 1967, he was hired by UNESCO as an expert on principles of education for a two-year stint in Kabul.... Throughout his adult life, because he was interested in social studies, whenever he traveled around [in Arizona, to Mexico, and other places] he continued to take pictures. In Afghanistan he took half-frame color slides [on Kodachrome] and I believe he used a small Olympus camera."
"I grew up in Tempe, Arizona, and when my dad offered my younger sister, Jan, and me the chance to go with him and our mother to Afghanistan, I was excited about the opportunity," says Peg Podlich (right). "I would spend my senior year in high school in some exotic country, not in ordinary Tempe.... Of course, there were loads of cultural differences between Arizona and Afghanistan, but I had very interesting and entertaining experiences. People always seemed friendly and helpful. I never got into any real difficulties or scrapes, even though I was a fairly clueless teenager! Times were more gentle back then."
Peg Podlich (in sunglasses) during a family trip by bus from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan.
Jan Podlich is pictured during a shopping trip to Istalif, a village about 30 kilometers northwest of Kabul. "We arrived in Kabul one sunshiny morning in June.... My dad met us and was able to whisk us through the customs. We proceeded into Kabul in a UN 'kombi' (kind of an old-school SUV). I was tired, but I can remember being amazed at the sight of colorful (dark blue, green, and maroon) ghosts that were wafting along the side of the road. My dad explained there were women underneath those chadris and that some women had to wear them out in public. We never called the garments burqas."
Afghan men gaze out over the village of Istalif, some 30 kilometers northwest of Kabul.
Jan Podlich (left) and Peg Podlich at Paghman Gardens in Kabul. Then a lush oasis, today the gardens no longer exist.
Afghan schoolgirls return home after attending school, an act that the Taliban would ban some 30 years later. "Afghan girls, as well as boys, were educated up to the high school level, and although girls [and boys] wore uniforms, the girls were not allowed to wear a chadri (burqa) on their way to secondary school," says Peg Podlich. "Able young women attended college, as did the men."
Young Afghan students dance on a school playground as a teacher and a student accompany on instruments.
Men and boys washing and swimming in the Kabul River.
Afghan students learn chemistry in a mud-walled classroom.
"For the year that I was in Kabul, my family lived in a house in Shar-e Naw, up the road from the Shar-e Naw Park," says Peg Podlich. "My parents had lived in Denver, Colorado, in the 1940s. My mother would say that Kabul reminded her of Denver: about a mile in altitude, often sunny, with beautiful mountains in the distance. I thought it seemed somewhat like Arizona because of the arid landscape and lack of rain. Since I was born [in Arizona], it was very easy for me to appreciate the stark beauty of the landscape there in Afghanistan."
The Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque, near the Kabul River
A boy decorates cakes, cookies, and other sweets.
"In the spring of 1968, my family took a public, long-distance Afghan bus through the Khyber Pass to visit Pakistan (Peshawar and Lahore)," Peg Podlich remembers. "The road was rather bumpy in that direction, too. As I recall it was somewhat harrowing at certain points with a steep drop off on one side and a mountain straight up on the other! I remember that before we left Kabul my father paid for a young man to go around the bus with a smoking censor to bless the bus or ward off the evil eye. I guess it worked -- we had a safe trip."
The 2.6-kilometer-long Salang Tunnel, which passes beneath the Hindu Kush mountain range, was built with the help of the Soviet Union. It opened in 1964.
Young boys walk home on the outskirts of Kabul.
The Bamiyan Valley, home to giant Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. "That was a bumpy, rough trip," recalls Peg Podlich, "but I'll never forget how wide and green the valley was or how monumental those two Buddha statues were, carved into the face of the cliff.... The statues were a magnificent sight, even to someone like me who did not really understand the history or technical achievement of those statues."
A smaller Buddha statue in the Bamiyan Valley
"The Higher Teachers College was a two-year institution for training college-level teachers, located at Seh Aqrab Road and Pul-e Surkh Road, on the west side of Kabul, near Kart-e Sei," recalls Peg Podlich. In this photograph, a Mr. Bahir (left), who was William Podlich's counterpart at the college, and an Afghan teacher pose outside the school.
Young Afghans gather to share tea, sing, and play music.
A merchant fries jalebi, a sweet Afghan dessert, over an open fire.
Two sisters pose for a photograph on a street in Kabul.
Peg and Jan Podlich attended the American International School in Kabul. Peg says there were around 250 students attending the school in 1967-68, with 18 graduating seniors.
An Afghan military band assembles for an unknown event.
"I was in my senior year of high school and I attended the American International School of Kabul out on Darul-aman Road," says Peg Podlich (pictured at left). "In Tempe, I had walked four blocks to school; in Kabul a school bus stopped outside our home. Jan and I ran out when the driver honked the horn. On the bus, we were supervised by Indian ladies wearing saris, of course, and were driven with about 20 kids back through Kabul, around the hill to the west side of town."
William Podlich strolls on a hillside outside of Kabul.