Five Magic Words

Based on 14 trips to Afghanistan between 1994 and 2010, A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan is the work of photojournalist Seamus Murphy. His work chronicles a people caught time and again in political turmoil, struggling to find their way. See the project at http://mediastorm.com/publication/a-darkness-visible-afghanistan

Afghanistan and Lebanon are both volatile places, survivors of long civil wars with violent aftermaths and intransigent political crises. Yet, it doesn’t take much of a lull before tourists find Lebanon again. Afghanistan, in contrast, has been virtually absent from tourists’ maps for decades now, despite very real safe havens where we might go. (The analogy is an imperfect one – Afghanistan ranks 7th on the 2011 Failed States Index whereas Lebanon comes in at 43, though perhaps it’s most telling that both of them make the list.)

What if our refusal to tour, our suspicion that some places are simply doomed, has little to do with the big picture? What if – when it comes to Afghanistan and Lebanon, in particular – it has more to do with the stubborn resilience of a catchphrase in one instance versus its absence in another? Acquaintances of mine who know next to nothing about Beirut frequently call up one epithet as though from a distance: “Wait…it used to be ‘the Paris of the Middle East,’ right?”

Plug “Paris of the Middle East” into Google and Wikipedia entries for Beirut and Lebanon come up first. (Unless I’ve fallen victim to personalized search.)

It’s amazing, the effect of these five little words. Afghanistan is so rich in geographical beauty, culture and history, but it has nothing like this magic phrase, which undoubtedly played a role in boosting Lebanon’s tourism by 22 percent in 2010. If that’s not a testament to the power of marketing on our minds and world, then I don’t know what is.

Of course, you might ask: Why does it matter whether tourists go to Afghanistan right now? Doesn’t the country have way worse problems? It does, but it’s clear that people – by which I mean, voters and tax payers, not journalists, soldiers or spies – think about a country differently if it’s conceivable that they might someday visit it.

When it comes to just watching a documentary, it’s a subtle shift, yet it takes the viewer from static to dynamic. The continuing distress of a country, any country, for years or even decades, may be consequential but it’s not inevitable. In Afghanistan, in Lebanon, the future is open.

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