Mahboba Rawi is a strong-willed Afghan-Australian woman who has dedicated her life to help orphans in Afghanistan. She is the founder of Mahboba’s Promise and a mother figure for thousands of orphans and widows currently supported by her programs. Abdul, one of these orphans, is in love with Fatemeh, the girl next door. The two have been exchanging romantic letters for almost a year and hope to marry each other one day. But Fatemeh’s father has other plans – he has decided to marry her off to anyone who can offer a large sum of money as her dowry. Devastated, Abdul is hoping when Mahboba arrives for her yearly trip to Kabul, that she will help him again. When Mahboba hears the story, she is very concerned about Abdul, and Fatemeh’s possible fate in a forced marriage, She is determined to make the marriage happen between Abdul and Fatemah. However, the demands that Fatemeh’s father makes are beyond anyone’s expectations. He won’t let the marriage take place unless Mahboba pays him $10,000 or finds a wife for his eldest son who then can replace Fatemeh in taking care of the household. With nothing to Abdul’s name, the fate of the couple depends entirely on Mahboba’s ability to meet or negotiate the father’s terms. But Mahboba only has one month and limited resources.
It was in early 2006 when my wife Sanaz Fotouhi and I embarked on a journey to make a film in Afghanistan. I was an Honours student at the Australian National University then and determined to make a documentary in Iran or Afghanistan. As a migrant, I was going through a stage where I wanted to understand my background and represent different aspects of it to the world where I was living. Filming in Iran was not as easy as I imagined. To get permission to film there meant months of paper work, which I did not have. As luck would have it, my father-in-law had recently been appointed to establish a bank in Kabul. This made my choice a lot easier.
I began researching for a topic online and by contacting different NGO organisations. One of the issues that continuously came up was the increase in women’s self-immolation as a form of suicide. I was intrigued and horrified by records showing a massive increase of cases of self-immolation since the fall of the Taliban in 2004.
This formed the central question for my film and after travelling to Kabul twice that year I managed to make a 15-minute documentary on the reasons behind this issue. The film was screened in Australia and internationally, and won a few awards. It was generally received well by audiences. I was happy about this, since after meeting and filming a lot of the young girls in the burn units that have attempted suicide, I had a great sense of responsibility to tell the world their stories.
However, after one of my screening in Australia, I overheard a conversation between two audience members. “It’s Afghanistan, this sort of shit happens there!” This was like a knockout punch to my face. I was hoping that after watching the film people would to identify with the situation of these young girls. But instead it seemed that like many other outsiders, I had only added to the existing stereotypes of the western world.
Concerned by this idea, I felt compelled to make another film in Afghanistan. It was around this time that I was introduced to Mahboba Rawi. She was a strong-willed, enthusiastic Afghan-Australian woman who, through her charity organisation, Mahboba’s Promise, has been raising money to provide support and education to more than two thousands orphans and widows in Afghanistan.
I was greatly curious about her work and her huge ambitions. Her own life story I found incredible. She was a woman who had to escaped Kabul at the age of fourteen, lived in refugee camps of Pakistan, and eventually married and came to Australia. But her life was turned upside down when she lost her small son in a drowning accident. However, instead of letting all these struggles consume her, she had made a promise with her God to save all orphans of Afghanistan. Through her charity organization called Mahboba’s Promise she has been able to help thousands of orphans and widows in Afghanistan. If her presence and quirky attitude did not capture me, her story and what she was doing most certainly had me hooked in.
It was during our first meetings that Mahboba asked me to make a film about her. I soon realised that she would ask this pretty much of anyone who has ever held a camera. She knew the importance of media and wanted to spread the word about her work. I felt that making a film about this courageous Afghan women, was my chance to repay my debt to Afghanistan.Of course this was not easy, I wanted to find a story that was not merely showcasing a charity worker or a welfare corporate video to help Mahboba’s Promise. I wanted to tell a human story that shows the great ripple effect Mahboba’s work is having in Afghanistan. I kept in touch with her and looked for ideas for over two years. It was in early 2009 that Mahboba told me that she was going back to Afghanistan to attend to her projects, one of which was about a marriage between one of the orphans and a girl who lived next to the orphanage. After many months of search, this seemed to be it.
This was the story I wanted to tell. The fact that it was potentially a love story with a happy ending meant that the western audience could relate to it, but it could also showcase how Mahboba’s work for these orphans does not finish with providing food and shelter. Her engagement with these kids was an ongoing investment in changing the future of a country.
To make this story, we self-funded the trip with our own savings as a two member team and headed to Kabul with Mahboba. I would do the camera work and Sanaz, the sound.
Having been to Afghanistan previously, I was very familiar with the challenges of shooting a film there. I had been arrested and put in prison, slapped at the border crossing by security guards and generally been under constant surveillance by the secret police there. Added to this was being worried about my wife Sanaz who, to be honest, seemed a lot more courageous than me. With all this in mind we embarked on our journey.
On the plane on our way there, I remember the only thing I was asking the universe for was more DRAMA and good God, didn’t the universe just deliver!
Links to the film: