To mark the donation of a collection of letters from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Library of Congress on Feb. 24 opened a new exhibition titled “Voices from Afghanistan.” The exhibition is on view 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through May 8, on the first floor of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. The exhibition may also be viewed online.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to begin “surrogate broadcasting services in the Dari and Pashto languages to Afghanistan” (Public Law 107-148). Since that time, the station known locally as Radio Azadi has become the most popular source of news in Afghanistan, offering information, political satire, and literary and music programming.
For more than eight years, from every corner of Afghanistan, letters from Radio Azadi’s listeners have made their way to RFE/RL’s headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic. Merchants, clerics, farmers, university students and schoolchildren from cities and rural villages have sent “fan mail” and other correspondence to the station. Letters sent from large cities are placed into regular postal bins, while those from remote regions—including the country’s inaccessible tribal areas—are loaded onto horses and pack animals. Through nearly impassable mountainous terrain, they come to one of RFE/RL’s 11 post-office boxes around the country or to a drop box in Peshawar, Pakistan. Radio Azadi journalists collect the letters and drive them to RFE/RL’s Kabul bureau, where they are eventually loaded onto planes bound for RFE/RL’s headquarters in Prague.
More than 50 letters and other items from Afghanistan are being displayed at the Library, in cooperation with RFE/RL. The exhibit marks the first installment of RFE/RL’s gift to the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division—a collection comprising 15,000 letters from listeners of Radio Azadi.
Letters selected for display at the Library include those from schoolchildren describing the conditions in their schools, young people writing love poems to their significant others, villagers complaining about corrupt officials, prisoners asking for prison reform, refugees describing their plight and older people discussing life and work in Afghanistan decades ago. Many of the letters are illustrated with floral and animal designs reminiscent of an earlier tradition. (See story on page 57.)
The display also includes items from the Library’s Near Eastern collections, including 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from Afghanistan that mirror the style of recently acquired letters from the region. The tradition of writing on long scrolls is demonstrated in the recent acquisition of a 63-meter-long letter, which is juxtaposed with an 18th-century scroll from the area. A 19th-century lacquer-ware book cover richly illustrated with roses, tulips and chrysanthemums is placed near a similarly adorned letter recently sent to Radio Azadi.
Photographs of modern-day Afghanistan and its people are also on display. Visitors can listen to clips from Radio Azadi’s broadcasts in Dari and Pashto with voiceovers in English and live telephone conversations among family members re-united through Radio Azadi.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is an independent, international news and broadcast organization with programs—radio, Internet and television—that reach influential audiences in 20 countries such as Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the republics of Central Asia. RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).