Hajer Al-Hamdan is a graduate of Second High School at Eastern Provence in Saudi Arabia. Her poetic, visceral, visual analysis of the iconic National Geographic image Afghan Girl won First Place, Jan Kiergaard Award in 2013, Vol. IV. 

There she was, in the middle of Nasir Bagh camp, apprehensive, astonished, and fearful, encompassed by terrified refugees who were compelled to venture out of their homes and flee before the Soviet troops executed them. Sharbat Gula, an Afghani girl whose picture made an enormous clamor when it was initially posted on the cover of The National Geographic magazine, was photographed by Steve McCurry in Pakistan in 1984. At first glance, her greenish eyes captivate viewers’ attention and force us to stare at her eyes to understand the diverse colors and how they mingle.

Her eyes are charming and the luminosity makes them sparkle and blaze like a fire. They are surrounded by black rims while the irises are green, and around the pupils are orange strata with golden beams. Sharbat has a deep gaze. Yet, this gaze is ambiguous, since the viewer has no idea what is behind such a look, whether she is scared, vengeful, malevolent, mischievous, furious, or just has a morose face. Her eyebrows are straight, neither quirked nor furrowed, and give Sharbat a mysterious look that is difficult to identify. She is pierced on the right side of her pointy nose, which is crooked over her copper and brown russet lips. The upper lip is thin while the lower is cracked, which might illustrate she is thirsty. Her chin has a medium size that stunningly shapes her gloriously high cheekbones.

The incongruity between her tanned skin and greenish eyes gives her sculpted and weather-beaten face a gorgeous quality. Her untidy, greasy chestnut-brown hair flows down over her ears, and the sun rays are reflected in the golden streaks in it. Sharbat’s red veil is draped gently over her head and shoulders; it is ripped apart, has some holes, and is splotched by white stains. Her under cloth is a green fabric that harmonizes with the dark green background to make her eyes glisten and scintillate.

Although this photo has been dazzling to many people around the world, Sharbat wasn’t able to see her ravishing picture until the photographer Steve McCurry took another photo of her after seventeen years. In January 2002, the second picture of the charming woman was taken and was revealed that April. Sharbat’s lineaments have changed over time, but she still has the same penetrating gaze that makes her alluring. As a thirty-year old woman, her eyes are surrounded by dark green rims; the irises are orange with yellow rays. The left eye has some black spots, which might be a sign of a disease or aging. “Her eyes are as haunting now as they were then,” Steve McCurry said. As a woman, Sharbat’s piercing gaze has a lot to do with life’s harshness. She looks grumpy, and her eyebrows demonstrate that, since they are straight, yet furrowed. This could mean it was an inconvenience for her to be photographed again because she wears a burka, and her face should not be shown to strangers.

Sharbat’s nose is long, pointy, and is still pierced on the right edge. Her lips are full, rosy, and somewhat small. Around her lips are some dark specks that are found on the beginning of her nasal bone, too. Her chin is a little wider than it used to be. Her cheeks are smudged by brownish-reddish spots that indicate she has been exposed to the sun’s rays a long time. Her hairy forehead is not completely conspicuous because she covers it with a purple veil.

The demure scarf she wears is stitched with a light purple color and decorated with a floral pattern. The veil can reveal her submission to God and shows her devotion to Him, respects the Islamic rules, and follows the holy Quran. According to the holy Quran, God states,

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their father their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, or their brothers’ sons or their sisters’ sons, or their women or the servants whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex, and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments” (Quran 24:31).

Overall, the two images are framed in such a way to directly pull the viewers’ attention directly. The theme is centered, and the light is focused on the subject to make it glint and glisten. The disparity between the background color and the red clothes of her childhood photo is deliberate, and it is meant to entice the viewers’ attention to her eyes without any distraction. Similarly, Sharbat’s later photo and the background have dark colors, and this is premeditated too. This will drive the viewer to concentrate on her eyes, which is what the photographer meant to achieve. Both photos have similar facial expressions, the keen glance, the closed lips, and the angle of the theme, and the unpretentious outfit Sharbat wears, shows her humility.

In sum, Sharbat really has stunning features, even if life obliges her to go under cruel circumstances, which are seen in her gaze and on her skin. Her photo has inspired many people to learn about her homeland generally and her story specifically. Shabbat looks like her life and her culture have been harsh toward her, and that could be seen from the changes as she grew up. Also, her brother added, “Sharbat has never known a happy day, except perhaps the day of her marriage.” From the story, we can conclude she is sturdy, a life confronter, and yet a pessimistic and melancholic person.


Published by Aaron Geiger

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