Extraordinary stories from the most interesting artists, writers, athletes, and thinkers on the kaleidoscope of Muslim experience.

Season two of This Being Human is proudly presented in partnership with TVO.


Season 2


Mariam Ghani is an artist, writer, and filmmaker. Her work looks at places, spaces and moments where social, political and cultural structures take on visible forms, and spans multiple disciplines.


Welcome to This Being Human. I’m your host Abdul Rehman-Malik. On this podcast from the Aga Khan Museum, I talk to extraordinary people from all over the world whose life, ideas and art are shaped by Muslim culture. 



There's a new generation that has a very unique perspective to how they see themselves as young Muslims in the modern world. 



I am this wide-eyed girl. I'm like, I want it all, I want to experience it all.



Everyone has a story. Sometimes you just have to find out what it is.



Like the poem that inspires this podcast, The Guest House, by Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi, we’re talking to people who seek meaning and joy in work and life…regardless of what the day brings.


Today, artist and filmmaker, Mariam Ghani.



Art functions in kind of the way that being a public intellectual did in the 20th century, which is that you're allowed to think about anything you want for as long as you want. And then, put something out into the world about it in pretty much whatever form you want.



I spoke to Mariam Ghani in the spring of 2021, not long before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. That changed the context of this interview, which had a lot to do with Afghanistan’s past and her relationship to the country. And yet, so much of what she had to say feels even more relevant and urgent today.


Mariam is not just an average Afghan. Her father, Ashraf Ghani, was the country’s president before the Taliban took over in the autumn of 2021. But that’s not why I wanted to talk to her. We invited her on to talk about her art and her films. And telling the story of art in Afghanistan, especially by women, art that preserves the country’s past and imagines the country’s future, is now more vital than ever. 


We spoke around the time of the US release of her feature-length documentary, What We Left Unfinished  – a remarkable movie about how Afghan filmmakers navigated civil war, Soviet occupation, and censorship, to make films that ordinary people would find entertaining.

But we began with Mariam’s personal history. She was raised in the United States, at a time when her family was living in exile from then-Soviet controlled Afghanistan. I started by asking her what kind of relationship she had with Afghanistan when she was growing up.



Yeah, it was the relationship of someone raised by exiles. So a vision of the country

filtered through longing and despair in a way, because for the entire time that I was

growing up, Afghanistan was at war of one kind or another. And for most of that period,

it was impossible for my father to go back because his family was being quite intensely

persecuted by the communist government all through the late 70s and the 80s. And I think that of course affected how I saw the country.



You finally do go to Afghanistan, in your 20s when the restrictions on your family and the exile is lifted. What was it like to return to a home of sorts that you had only known through your family and through people, and through culture, and through imagination, I imagine, and through the stories that you were told?



Yeah, I had known it also through the images that my mother made when she was there

as a, as a newlywed. My mother is actually a really talented photographer. I didn't

realize that until I saw other people's family pictures and I was like, our family pictures are so much better than other people's family pictures [laughs]. She has an amazing eye and a great sense of composition and balance and colour and all of these things, so she had shot super-8 footage and also a lot of slides and photographs all over Afghanistan. They traveled all over the country as newlyweds. So I had a picture of the country through this image-making that my mother had done. And that picture was beautiful. It was a beautiful image that I sort of held in my imagination. And when I first got to Afghanistan, one of the first things I saw as we were flying in was, you know, the kind of splendor and majesty of the mountains that surround Kabul and the mountains that you fly over to get to Kabul. But then also when we landed, we landed in the airport. This was 2002. And the landing strip was lined with the carcasses of Soviet planes and other planes that had just like kind of crashed there. Of course, it doesn't look anything like that today. But it was a very... there were a lot of very strong first impressions on that first trip. A lot of things were ad hoc at the time. I actually, I couldn't get a plane ticket in advance to go there. I had to get a plane ticket to Dubai and then take a cab to the sort of secondary terminal and then wait in the cafe until about like 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning when the guy from Ariana Airlines would show up with a briefcase and then you would pay him in cash for your ticket to Kabul, and he would write it by hand.



That's incredible. That’s incredible.



It was quite an adventure, yeah. I mean, I fell in love with Afghanistan immediately. I think because I did have that familiarity with it from family stories. And I had a kind of, I would say, inherited nostalgia for Afghanistan that has come into my generation. And it is a beautiful place. I mean, it's a stunning, stunning landscape. And there was a spirit in that moment that was really infectious of people rebuilding.



In her movie, What We Left Unfinished, Mariam explored the communist period of Afghanistan’s history. But it’s not a political documentary. Not exactly, anyway. The movie is about the film industry at a time when it was controlled by the Soviets. She profiles five films that were left unfinished when the government finally fell – mixing together scenes from those movies, interviews with the filmmakers and contemporary footage of the places that they were shot,  often in buildings that have since fallen into disrepair. So what did she want the world to see in these unfinished films from a bygone era?



The beauty of this film is the dreams it contains. And I think that's what these filmmakers

were most concerned with at the time, is this possibility of putting on screen these kinds

of dreams of possible Afghanistans that maybe didn't actually exist at the time, or only

existed for a very small group of people. And I think that's always incredibly valuable to

revisit. Especially since in Afghanistan our wars have always been, you know, wars not

only about territory and not only over bodies and resources and land, but always about

competing visions of the nation. So I think, you know, in this moment when we're

engaged in another struggle over what Afghanistan should be, I think it is valuable to

remember that that's a struggle that's happened before and that artists have a role to

play in imagining the nation. And actually there are today many people dreaming of

many possible Afghanistans. There's not only like two visions of Afghanistan that exist

right now. There's hundreds. And yeah, for me, that's the beauty of these films.



It was a strange and dangerous era of filmmaking. Basically anyone who wanted to

make a movie in Afghanistan’s communist years had to apply for state funding, which

meant they had to go through a censorship board. But despite some artistic tradeoffs,

the state was giving these filmmakers a huge amount of support.



Things like, the filmmakers talk about this in the film, how they, how they had as many

helicopters as they wanted and they could just, they could just like bring in all the

soldiers and you know, and anything that they wanted from the government, they

basically could have for these films. So there was a real investment in the industry with

the knowledge that film could be a real weapon in the culture war, right, that the Soviets

were interested in waging there.



I mean, as you said, Mariam, these films are being made while Afghanistan is under

Soviet occupation. There’s a war going on. The rest of the world is watching. And what

they're watching is this epic battle, between the Mujahideen resistance and the Soviet

occupation. And yet you document this group of Afghan filmmakers who are literally

risking their lives to make these movies and the audacity of them and some of the

stories you tell Mariam are just so astonishing - live ammunition being used, people

being hurt or worse while filming. You know, one thing that occurs to me as I watch this

footage that you've unraveled for us is why are they doing it? Why are these filmmakers

engaged in this work knowing that the risks are so high?



Ultimately, they're artists who really, really loved what they did. And it was one of the

reasons I was really interested in making this film in the first place, because I was

curious about these choices that artists make in times of war, under conditions of

government repression and censorship, in states of emergency. These are very live

questions today, because there are a lot of places where artists are having to make the

same kinds of choices. And so I was curious about how this had played out for these

Afghan filmmakers, and I think a lot of them were put into difficult positions at that time

where if they wanted to keep making films, which was the thing they loved most in all of

the world, they had to make certain compromises politically and they also had to accept

enormous amounts of risk in terms of both the possibility of… like this constant possibility

that everyone in that kind of intellectual class faced of being caught up in one of the

purges. If you put one foot wrong, that's it. You're in jail. And also, the real physical

dangers that they put themselves in whenever they went and shot on location, which

were also very real, because as time went on, I think they became more and more

visible targets for the Mujahideen, for opponents of the regime, because they became

more and more identified with the regime.



A big question looming throughout the film is about exactly that identification with the

regime - how much were these filmmakers able to pursue a creative vision and how

much of it was about making the ruling party look good? Is this art or is it propaganda?

Mariam doesn’t think we’ll ever know their true feelings about that.



There's a Walid Raad piece that I always reference when talking about this, which is

“The Truth Will Be Known When The Last Witness Is Dead.” It's about the Lebanese

civil war. And I feel that's really true [laughs].



Mariam has also turned her lens onto the United States. In 2004, she started the Index of the Disappeared, a collaboration with the artist Chitra Ganesh. The project focuses on people who went missing after 9/11. Together, they pour through things like declassified documents, news clippings and army field manuals to try to put together the fullest picture as they can about what happened.



One thing that some of our friends who are human rights lawyers who we've worked with on this project have said is that what we have managed to do is actually amass a fairly unique historical record of this time. So it's an artwork, but it's also a project of history writing in a way.



Sometimes they use their research as a jumping-off point for art installations. But they also let the public access it as a straight archive - like you’d find in the back room of a library.



It's just binders, it's binders and binders and binders. I mean it is a full-on functioning archive that people actually do sometimes come and do research in even when it's not in circulation. But sometimes we kind of make visual or poetic interventions that are drawn from documents in the archive. So we create neon signs or light boxes or we have all these postcards that we've made out of like, little phrases that jumped out at us from documents in the archive, which we always describe as moments when the official register breaks in some way and you see some kind of trace of like a person in a declassified document or there's some accidental poetry somewhere.



I can give you an example of one specific installation we did.



Yeah, I’d love to hear that.



Yeah, this was back in 2008 for the Creative Time project, Democracy in America, which had an exhibition component at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. And we were walking through the armory to kind of pick a space. And we found this room that had been the headquarters of a National Guard regiment. And it had this kind of amazing, huge cabinet that still had all the labels on the shelves from the brigade commander's use of the cabinets, but had things like Brigada SOPs and so on on the shelf labels. And so we took that as an opportunity to do a really specific installation and an update of the archive, an extension of the archive around military codes of conduct and the ways that shifts in those military codes of conduct and revisions to army field manuals post-9/11 had led to events like the really horrible things that happened at Abu Ghraib, the deaths at Bagram in 2002, and a lot of similar things that came out in the Senate Armed Service Committee report of I think that was 2008. So it was-- we in that case, we actually configured it to look like the office of an internal army investigator, like someone from the Army CID that had been interrupted in mid investigation service, like shredded paper everywhere, there were field manuals everywhere. There were like investigations open on the desk and like partly redacted and highlighted. There were all kinds of things going on like that. There was like sound in the room, like footsteps and dialog. And there were also slides from army PowerPoints, which are fascinating and really bizarre. Yeah. So and we're looking at all these kind of code of conduct, PowerPoints in particular. 



What do you hope the public take away from the engagement with these installations and with this archive?



Well, I think our project with the Index of the Disappeared has been a somewhat quixotic one, which was to archive around the gaps in the records until we formed a picture of what was missing. Because we have worked primarily, especially in the later years of the project, we were working primarily with declassified documents which are heavily redacted in some cases. And I think we actually did manage to do that, which was surprising even to us. But I think the long duration of the project allowed us to really, you know, build up enough connections between different aspects and different pieces of different investigations, different documents, different -different parts also of this American imperial project and the imperial boomerang back to the United States, that we were able to see things that we couldn't have seen in a single in a single case, in a single incident, in a single document or in a single year, right? So to have done this for 17 years, gives us a really different perspective on it. And I think a lot of my work as an artist and a filmmaker has been concerned with this question of not only which parts of the past are available to us in the present, but also what of the present will be preserved for the future? History is a struggle.  



There was one more piece I really had to ask Mariam about. In 2018 – long before we heard of COVID – she was approached by the medical charity, the Wellcome Trust, to contribute to an international project called Contagious Cities. They wanted her to do a piece about pandemics. 



They came to me with a very wide brief, which was make something about contagion,

and cities, and virality and migration, you know, disease in general. I was like, okay, I

can do that. I decided actually to approach it through language, which is something I've

made a lot of work on. And I went back to the Susan Sontag essay “Illness as Metaphor”,

which is a classic essay written actually when Sontag was going through cancer

treatment. And I kind of took that as a starting point and expanded it, but I quickly

realized this was like an enormous topic, thinking about how language affects how we

treat people who are sick, and so then I decided to develop it into a feature film. And

that's actually what I was working on when the pandemic started, was this film about

basically pandemics and their rhetoric.



Wow. You're working on a film about pandemics and the pandemic of our generation

happens. What goes through your head when you hear that this is bigger than any one

of us thought, when the World Health Organization gives that fateful announcement that

we are in a global pandemic. What goes through your head as someone who's working

on a film on precisely that topic?



I was very unsurprised, I will say. I was unsurprised that we were in the middle of a pandemic, but it ended up being-- it was much worse than I even anticipated it could

possibly be, but at the same time, all the things that I had been afraid would happen

happened. So I had gotten actually very worried about our level of pandemic

preparedness while I was working on this project. So I got specifically very interested in

the metaphor of the war on disease. And I came to think of it as a kind of master

metaphor in our thinking around illness in the 20th century. And I was very curious

about what it was doing in the world in the present. And one of the things that it was

doing and had been doing for a while was really creating a kind of bioterrorism national

security paradigm around pandemic preparedness and pandemic response. And a lot of

responsibility for pandemic planning had shifted from public health agencies to national

security agencies. And a lot of epidemiologists were worried about this and I got very

worried about this as well. And I think we've all seen how that worked out. I don't think it

worked out super well.



With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mariam had to reimagine that film.



Yeah, well, obviously, I had to rip up the whole film and start over. What it is is now is a

film that looks at this metaphor of the war on disease as a metaphor we've lived

and died by since the bubonic plague, but it also, you know, not only examines these

contagious histories, but also kind of asks, what if it weren't a war? What would public

health look like if we reimagine it around living with each other and with other species

and with diseases. And I think the way to get it there is through culture and pop

culture, actually, because that's always the way that things move from science to




Mariam, just before before we finish up, I have to ask you this, because this has been

such a rich conversation, and reflecting on what you've talked about and your

experiences as an artist, as someone who inhabits the in-betweenness of cultures, as

someone who documents the world in such interesting ways, there is underlying it all, a

lot of pain, a lot of suffering and a lot of trauma, a lot of hurt. How do you as an artist

sort of contend with that?



It is... it's something I grapple with a lot, I think, I've tried over the years and I think I've

gotten better at this over time, I've tried to really think also about how to make art

politically as well as make political art, and by that I mean how can I make art in the

most ethical way. And try to engage everyone that we're in dialogue with in a way that's

also ethical and not extractive, which I think can be a real problem in the documentary

world. But it's something I think that's always a work in progress. The standards and

practices that I were told were the right standards and practices are not necessarily

things that I think are equitable and inclusive. And so I think it's always a constant

practice of trying to find, you know, my own definitions of justice and what a

healing justice looks like in the world.



Mariam Ghani, what does “this being human” mean to you?



I do love that poem because I think it really encapsulates it so well. I think for me, this

being human is being alive to the world and everything that it can bring, which, you

know, is both painful and joyous, and then bringing that into what I can contribute back

to the world.



Mariam, this has been, it’s been a wonderful, wonderful conversation. Thank you so

much for joining me on This Being Human.



Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.



Thanks for listening to This Being Human. 


You can find links to Mariam’s work in the show notes, including places to stream What We Left Unfinished. 


This Being Human is produced by Antica Productions in partnership with TVO. 


Our senior producer is Kevin Sexton. Our associate producer is Hailey Choi. Additional editorial support by Lisa Gabriele. Mixing and sound design by Phil Wilson. Original music by Boombox Sound. Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica Productions. Shagheyegh Tajvidi is TVO’s managing editor of digital video and podcasts. Laurie Few is the executive for digital at TVO.


This Being Human is generously supported by the Aga Khan Museum, one of the world’s leading institutions that explores the artistic, intellectual and scientific heritage of Muslim civilizations around the world. For more information about the museum go to www.agakhanmuseum.org


The Museum wishes to thank Nadir and Shabin Mohamed for their philanthropic support to develop and produce This Being Human

Mariam Ghani is an artist, writer, and filmmaker. Her work looks at places, spaces and moments where social, political and cultural structures take on visible forms, and spans multiple disciplines. Her films have screened at the Berlinale, Rotterdam, CPH:DOX, DOC NYC, Sheffield Doc/Fest, SFFILM, Ann Arbor, FIDBA, and Il Cinema Ritrovato, among other festivals. Her work has also been exhibited and screened at the Guggenheim, MoMA, Met Breuer and Queens Museum in New York, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the CCCB in Barcelona, the Sharjah, Lahore, and Liverpool Biennials, the Dhaka Art Summit, and Documenta 13 in Kabul and Kassel, among others.

Her early interactive work was preserved by Rhizome for Net Art Anthology, their history of net art in 100 works. Some of her recent texts have been published in e-Flux, Frieze, Foreign Policy, Triple Canopy, and the readers Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency and Cultural Production, Critical Writing Ensembles, Dissonant Archives, Social Medium: Artists Writing 2000-2015, and Utopian Pulse: Flares in the Darkroom.

Ghani has received a number of fellowships, awards, grants, and residencies, most recently from Creative Capital, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Public Library, the 18th Street Arts Center in Los Angeles, the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Ghani is known for projects that engage with places, ideas, issues and institutions over long periods of time, often as part of long-term collaborations. These include: critical, curatorial, conservation and creative work with the national film archive Afghan Films, since 2012, with support from the media archiving collective Pad.ma and a number of international art institutions; the video and performance series Performed Places, ongoing since 2006, in collaboration with choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly and composer Qasim Naqvi; and the experimental archive and discussion platform Index of the Disappeared, initiated with artist Chitra Ganesh in 2004, which has also become a vehicle for collaborations with other activists, archivists, artists, journalists, lawyers and scholars.

Ghani’s first feature-length film, the award-winning and critically-acclaimed documentary What We Left Unfinished, premiered at the 2019 Berlinale. She is currently in production on her second feature, Dis-Ease. In 2020, she had solo/collaborative museum exhibitions at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. Ghani teaches at Bennington College.


"A vision of the country filtered through longing and despair in a way, because for the entire time that I was growing up, Afghanistan was at war of one kind or another."

"I fell in love with Afghanistan immediately...It is a beautiful place...And there was a spirit in that moment that was really infectious of people rebuilding."

"There are today many people dreaming of many possible Afghanistans. There's not only two visions of Afghanistan that exist right now. There's hundreds."

"A lot of my work as an artist and a filmmaker has been concerned with this question of not only which parts of the past are available to us in the present, but also what of the present will be preserved for the future? History is a struggle."

Learn more about Mariam Ghani and topics covered in the episode: