SHARE
COPY LINK

AFGHANISTAN

Couple embark on Afghan circus road-trip

A German woman and her Canadian partner set off last week to help bring a circus to children in Afghanistan. They will be braving the Taliban by taking a rickshaw on one of the world's most dangerous road trips.

Couple embark on Afghan circus road-trip
Photo: DPA

Adnan Khan, 41, and his anthropologist sweetheart Annika Schmeding, 25, have embarked on the punishing 8,000 kilometre trip to Istanbul that demands a police escort and hoisting the rickshaw onto trucks to navigate the trickiest stages.

Their purpose is twofold: raise money for a charity that uses circus training to lift the spirits of children in war-torn Afghanistan and to spread those circus skills along the way, to brighten the lives of refugees and orphans.

Adnan left Kabul by road on July 11 as Schmeding flew to Islamabad, after eight months in the Afghan capital, to prepare the way.

Accompanied by Afghan police, Adnan drove to the eastern town of Jalalabad, then onto the border with Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Washington considers the tribal belt the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda, and a den of Taliban and other Islamist militants plotting attacks in Afghanistan and against the West. It has not seen Western tourists in years.

Nor does the three-wheel rickshaw, painted yellow, green and white with a jazzy “Rickshaw Circus” on the side, and sporting a brass clown horn, go unnoticed in terrain synonymous with kidnapping, suicide bombings and ambushes.

“I finally got the rickshaw to the Pakistani side. It took hours. It was quite funny. A policeman told me “I haven’t seen a carnet de passage (the document needed for tourists to cross the border) in years,'” Adnan told AFP by telephone on Monday.

His next task was speeding the rickshaw to Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, where Osama bin Laden kept a house during the 1980s war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and onto the capital Islamabad.

“The local tribal police force is going to have a guard travel with me,” he said, adding that he would be rushing to make Tuesday’s first show.

The trip has been months in the planning. Khan and Schmeding expect to spend two months winding their way through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey – averaging 300 kilometres a day in six hours – in temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius.

The couple are determined to raise as much money as possible for the Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children (MMCC), which was recently forced to close a school in the western city of Herat and sack staff because of a shortage of funds.

“We realized that MMCC is very good at running their programmes, but not really good in terms of publicity. So we wanted people to know that there’s been an actual social circus running in Afghanistan for about 10 years,” said Khan.

The journalist, who lives in Istanbul but has been coming to Afghanistan regularly for the past 10 years, spoke as girls sang, juggled tennis balls and skittles, and boys danced around the rickshaw.

Organisers say the circus encourages concentration, discipline and stimulates intellectual development.

“When they learn how to juggle and they go on stage, they get so much more self-confidence. They learn to express themselves. They learn how to trust, to share,” said Schmeding.

Since 2002, the charity says it has reached more than two million children in a country where singing, dancing and cultural shows were banned by the Taliban regime, which was brought down in the 2001 US-led invasion.

Besides children, the MMCC also puts on shows for adults designed to raise public awareness of basic hygiene, malaria and anti-personnel mines.

“One thing is the educational message in it. Another one is to have the children being entertained,” said David Mason, the founder and co-director of MMCC.

“In Afghanistan, entertainment has another mission. It’s therapy, collective therapy,” he added.

Since 1979, Afghanistan has been largely at war. The 1980s saw the mujahideen fight to evict Soviet troops, then came civil war between 1992 and 1996, until the Taliban took power and the 9/11 attacks prompted the American invasion in 2001.

Since then, a deadly Taliban insurgency has grown with each passing year, killing more than 3,000 civilians in 2011, according to the United Nations, which is a record.

In Pakistan and in Iran, the rickshaw circus will stop every three days in a large town, where they will work with children in orphanages, hospitals and refugee camps.

“It will be nice to raise some money for MMCC as they desperately need it. But the awareness is more important,” said Khan.

AFP/jcw

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

OPINION & ANALYISIS

What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”

SHOW COMMENTS