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Dispatches from Afghanistan Sam: The Fastest Girl in Kabul

One of the fastest people in Afghanistan runs like a girl -- and if everything works out, 19-year-old Mehbooba Andyar, the only Afghan woman scheduled to compete in this year's Olympics, will soon have the chance to prove she's one of the fastest in the world. But whether she wins or loses in Beijing, her biggest challenge lies not in the stadium but back home, where she faces fierce cultural disapproval -- and even death threats -- for stepping outside the traditional role of women in Afghan society to compete.

Sam French, our very own Man in Afghanistan, braved some cultural disapproval of his own -- including a truckload of angry cops wielding AK-47s -- to get the story. This is Sam's tale, and the terrific short documentary that he and French filmmakers Louis Meunier and Jerome Veyret made about it.

mehbooba.jpgOnly 19 years old, Mehbooba Andyar has always dreamed of representing Afghanistan at the Olympics. This year, in Beijing, her dreams will be realized when she competes in the 1500 meter and 800 meter track and field events at the 2008 Olympic games. Her story is remarkable in a country where women generally don't show their faces outside of the home, let alone attempt to compete on the world stage at the Olympics with billions of people watching. When she competes in Beijing, under the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules, she must wear clothes which cover her entire body, as well as a black headscarf. Needless to say, this will hamper her style a bit.

Her family has faced intimidation and even death threats over her decision to compete. She can barely step outside for fear she will be accosted, verbally abused, or worse. Because of such fierce cultural disapproval, she trains outside of her house, on a rutted mud street, at dusk, when her neighbors are all inside their houses watching the latest soap operas imported from India (in which, I might add, the women inevitably bare their bellies in revealing sarongs).

IMG_2467.JPG.jpgMehbooba's family, like most of the poor residents of Kabul, live on the hills which surround the city, in concrete or packed earth dwellings, where they can avoid the zoning laws. They are under constant threat by those who disapprove of Mehbooba's quest, and fearing for their lives, have been forced to move multiple times. But despite everything, her family wanted her story told.

Louis and I arrived late in the afternoon, our taxi taking us up muddy streets flowing with sewer water, past children playing pickup soccer and herds of sheep munching on trash. Mehbooba greeted us warmly, and ushered us into sit with the family for tea. Nothing is done in this country without tea -- it is the oil of social discourse. Mehbooba served us with grace, only a slight tremor while pouring betraying her nervousness.

We dared not film anything until the rituals had been observed. Afghans put great stock in hospitality. And so, while the light was rapidly disappearing, we left our cameras in their bags and made small talk, haltingly, through our translator. We finally managed to get some footage, but all too soon, it was time for dinner, and the light had nearly disappeared. Apparently, in addition to training for the Olympics, it's still Mehbooba's job to cook dinner for her family "“ father, mother, brother, and younger sister. I took the camera and filmed some b-roll of her stirring a vegetable soup, bent over a small gas camping stove, illuminated only by its tiny flame.

After serving her family, she left her food uneaten and stepped outside. It was time to train. At this point, the sun had set. Alone, lit by the sodium vapor light of a single streetlamp, she limbered up and prepared to run.

Suddenly, headlights pierced the darkness. A 4X4 lumbered up the dirt track and slid to a stop in a cloud of dust in front of us. It was the police. Another 4X4 appeared behind us. Six policemen, each carrying an AK-47, stepped out of the two vehicles and surrounded us. One of them grabbed our camera and threw it into the back of his vehicle as their leader started yelling at us in Dari. I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was that there were six angry men gesturing at us with guns.

Mehbooba's father ran out of the house and started yelling at the policemen. They gestured at Mehbooba, and one of them grabbed her and roughly dragged her back inside the house. One of them waved his gun and shouted a question at me. Our translator leaned close, whispering to me that they wanted to know why we were filming. We told him to tell them that we had authorization from Jekdalek, the president of the Afghan Olympic Committee. He relayed this, which provoked a more intense bout of yelling and waving of guns. The translator shook his head. They tell me that you are filming a porno, he said.

Apparently, one of the neighbors, in a righteous rage that Mehbooba was stepping outside of her place, had called the police, who were all too happy to believe that the only reason two foreigners with cameras would be in a woman's home was to film pornography. They yelled at us for two hours, standing on the dusty street, under the light of that single streetlamp. During the course of this barrage, none of which I understood, the neighbors had all finished dinner and come outside, ringing us with hostile faces. They all seemed to think that we were sex-addled foreign sickos, there to take advantage of their women. When the cops finally herded us to their vehicles, I was all too happy to get out of there.

At the station, the police chief asked to see ID. Louis pulled out his ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) press badge, which seemed to convince him that we were not pornographers. Our translator breathed a sigh of relief as we were unceremoniously shown the door. He said that if he had not been with us, he would have been beaten and thrown in jail.

In fact, to our great chagrin, we subsequently learned that the police returned the house, arrested Mehbooba's father, and did exactly that. He was in jail for three days before being released. Because of us, her family had to move once again.

But her father implored us to continue filming. He wanted the world to know that his daughter would not be beaten by threats and intimidation. And so, over the next few days, we filmed Mehbooba training at the stadium, eating lunch with her fellow athletes, and talking about her struggle to compete. She seemed eager to talk to us, and even though her family bore the brunt of the punishment for our transgression, she apologized profusely and often for what happened. I think she was ashamed of her countrymen, and more determined than ever to show the world that she deserved to be in Beijing.

Even though she will never win any medals (she is a full minute slower than the fastest time in the 1500 meters), Mehbooba has already won by choosing to compete in the face of such cultural pressure. I believe she is a tribute to her country, and as I watched her run around the track at Ghazi stadium, where the Taliban used to execute women for adultery, I felt a sense of hope surge inside of me. When she competes in August, I hope the world watches her and feels the way I do: that where there is oppression and bigotry, there will be people like Mehbooba Ahdyar, who illuminate the world with their courage.

UPDATE: on July 4, 2008, Mehbooba fled from her hotel room in Italy, where she was training in preparation for the Olympic games. She is currently seeking asylum in Norway, fearful that her family will be killed should she compete. In a cruel twist of fate, however, the Afghan Olympic Committee has threatened to imprison Mehbooba's family if she doesn't return to compete; an impossible choice.

This is their short documentary about Mehbooba.

Timeline: Afghanistan at the Olympics

1980: The US and other nations boycott the summer games in Moscow because of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Afghanistan sends a team which is handpicked by the Soviet forces. Most of the real athletes have joined the Mujahadeen, including the current Afghanistan Olympic Committee president, Jekdalek.

1984: Afghanistan, under Communist rule, boycotts the summer games in Los Angeles.

1988: Afghanistan competes in Seoul, but wins no medals.

1992: Afghanistan does not compete in Barcelona.

1996: Afghanistan sends two athletes to Atlanta. One, boxer Mohammad Aman, fails to appear at a mandatory weigh-in and is disqualified. The other, Marathoner Abdul Wasiqi, hurts his hamstring and finishes last.

2000: Afghanistan is banned by the IOC from competing in Sydney because the Taliban placed too many restrictions on the athletes "“ they could not wear shorts, they could not shave (which disqualified the boxers) and they did not allow women to compete.

2004: Afghanistan sends five athletes to compete in Athens. Among them are Robina Muqim Yaar (100 meter runner) and Friba Rezihi (judo), who are the first two women from Afghanistan ever sent to the Olympic games. Afghanistan wins no medals.

Check out Sam's first dispatch here, or email him at sam at samfrench dot com.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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