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TV Family Portraits: The Ranjbers

KQED Public TV 9 is producing portraits of five Bay Area families to air alongside the American Family TV series.

The Bay Area is home to the largest Afghan population in the United States. The thriving Afghan community, largely based in the East Bay suburbs of Fremont, Hayward and Concord, supports a thriving network of shops, community organizations and religious centers. Basheer Ranjber, his wife Swita and daughter Mahtop of Concord, CA are one such family. Like many of the Afghan immigrants that have arrived in the Bay Area in the last twenty five years, Basheer and his family left Kabul, Afghanistan to escape the war that has plagued their country. The family decided to leave after the Taliban came to the family home and demanded that Basheer's older brother, Saboor, join the army. Saboor refused, and the family left Kabul that night, before the army returned. The Ranjber family ended up in Concord, a suburb northeast of San Francisco. Like most new immigrant children, the thirteen-year-old Basheer attended public school, quickly learning the language and culture as he went along. He and his family soon grew to appreciate their new home, and the freedom it offered, but the Ranjbers still kept many aspects of their Afghan culture, especially the closeness of family and community and religious practices.

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The Ranjbers, like most Afghans, are Muslim. The filming of their American Family Portrait occurred in November and December, during the religious month of Ramadan, where all Muslim adults except pregnant women, those with illness and the elderly are required to fast. Muslims believe that during the month of Ramadan, Allah revealed the first verses of the Qur'an. The purpose of Ramadan is to foster self-control since Muslims fasting during the month of Ramadan can not eat,drink,smoke, or engage in sexual activity from dawn to dusk. It is also designed through the experience of thirst and hunger to teach humility and compassion to the poor and less fortunate who cannot or are unable to eat three meals a day.

At sundown each day during Ramadan, the fast is broken with a meal called iftar. Following the custom of Prophet Muhammad, the fast is often broken with dates and/or a drink of water, then followed by a sunset prayer (Maghrib) and dinner. Muslims also generally have a pre-fast meal, called suhoor before dawn.

Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid ul-Fitr. Literally the "Festival of Breaking the Fast," Eid ul-Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations. At Eid, people dress in their finest clothes, give gifts and treats to children, and visit friends and family. Charity or zakat has special significance at the end of Ramadan. At the monthÕs end, Muslims are required to share their blessings by feeding the poor, making donations to them and at mosques.

Basheer says that fewer people in his area attended Eid this year because of an attack on a Mosque in Concord a few days before. Those that did attend were given a message of peace. "At Eid," Basheer recalls, "the Mullah (Muslim religious teacher) reminded us how peaceful we are supposed to be and not to use violence against violence. Instead of retaliating or responding we will educate."

Basheer wants to educate Americans in other ways about his former country. For years he dreamed of returning to Afghanistan in hopes of finding family members he had lost touch with during the Taliban's regime. After months of planning, the family's visas came through on September 10, 2001, one day before the attacks on the World Trade Center. When President Bush announced that the United States was going to invade Afghanistan, Basheer felt it was time to return and document what was happening to his former home.

In October, Basheer and his wife and daughter traveled to Pakistan. Leaving them with relatives, Basheer snuck across the border, hiding a small movie camera in a sack of sugar. As he traveled to Kabul, he constantly pulled the camera out of the sack and quickly filmed what he was seeing. Some of the results appear in the Ranjber American Family Portrait.

One bit of footage is especially poignant. A group of women and children huddle against a stone wall, waiting for bread to be passed out. An old woman turns to Basheer and begins to speak. "May God help us, and may God stop this bloodshed that has been going on for so long in Afghanistan. We've lost our kids to this war. I wonder when this is going to be over. Whoever is in charge, may God put mercy in their heart. We've lost our homes. We've lost our lands. We've lost our husbands. Our brothers. We've had enough of this."

Basheer says that witnessing the human misery caused by the Taliban and the war was one of the hardest aspects of the trip: "Going to Pakistan and Afghanistan, you have to have guts to see people in such a horrible condition. Poverty. Sickness. Elderly without any kind of help. Women and children desperate and doing anything for money. You have to have guts to be able to take that and not have it affect you coming back home."

After a few weeks, Basheer ended up finding most of his family members except for his 105-year-old uncle. During January, 2002, Basheer returned alone to Afghanistan in another attempt to find his uncle and to again record the massive changes that continue to affect his birth country.

"23 years of war does funny things to a country" says Basheer. "I mean, you can't possibly imagine unless you are there. And even if you are there you are going to see only a day or two or an hour or two of the misery that they are going through. These people live there 24 hours, 7 days a week."

Music used in American Family Portraits: The Ranjber Family, Concord, CA
(in order in which they are used in the film):
Naghma I, Performed by Azi Herawi, Written by Mohammad Omar.
From the CD Soul Azi Herawi, Master of the Afghani Lutes (Arhoolie)

Naghma-Ye Klasik in Rag Pari, Performed and written by Azi Herawi.
From the CD The zi Herawi, Master of the Afghani Lutes (Arhoolie)

Shah Kokojan, Performed by Abdul Djabbar & Malang Nadjrabi.
From the CD Afghanistan Traditional Musicians: A Journey to an Unknown Musical World (WDR)

Sarinda Solo, Performed by Abdul Rashid & Ghol Alam.
From the CD Afghanistan Traditional Musicians: A Journey to an Unknown Musical World (WDR)

Naghma-Ye Klasik in Rag Pilu, Performed and written by Azi Herawi.
From the CD Azi Herawi, Master of the Afghani Lutes (Arhoolie)


This project was funded by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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