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Grim and Beautiful

Learning to love complexity

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For photographer Beth Wald, traveling to Afghanistan (for "Rob Schultheis as "honored guests."

To reach the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, site of the magnificent Great Mosque of Hazrat Ali, Wald and Schultheis rode in a four-wheel drive SUV over pitted roads scarred by 23 years of war with the Soviet Union and occupation by the Taliban. But at the mosque itself, which Wald recalls as a "center of tranquillity and beauty," women wearing flowing white or blue burkas "glided past the glowing walls." Then, seeing her, "they would often throw back the burka covering their faces and, pressing my hand in theirs, ask in English for me to take their picture." One woman clasped Wald’s hand, removed a beautiful silver and ruby ring from her own finger and put it on Wald’s, motioning "from my heart to hers." (Wald plans to return to Afghanistan with a gift for the ring giver.)

Schultheis, who has reported on Afghanistan since 1984 for various publications and is the author of Night Letters: Inside Wartime Afghanistan, has decidedly less tranquil memories of the assignment. "What do you do when your driver swerves off the road and drives out into minefields to prove that signs warning of mines are too alarmist?" he asks. "No one obeys the traffic cops," he adds, "because several hundred of them are opportunistic entrepreneurs in fake uniforms out to shake down unsuspecting motorists."

Susan McGrath came away from reporting our story about man versus bird ("Henderson, New York (an hour’s drive north of Syracuse), and also sympathy for all sides in the conflict there: fishing guides, who believe emphatically that their livelihood is being torpedoed by cormorants; scientists, who she says have "withstood unrelenting pressure to please an unhappy public" by "taking the time to make sure the science supported whatever actions they took"; and not least, the large, fish-gobbling waterbirds themselves, whose numbers have multiplied 200-fold in the past 30 years, putting tremendous pressure on local fish—and human—communities.

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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