George Gittoes: 12/9/22 – Borderlessness Peshawar

Travelling back out to the Yellow House in Jalalabad via Peshawar after several months in Ukraine in early 2022, and a brief period spent back in Werri Beach, George Gittoes shares a dispatch on his travels, collaborators, and the progress of his current film projects.

I left for Islamabad knowing I was “going out on a limb” – that it could “all be for nothing,” and I may have to return to Australia not having been able to enter Afghanistan if I could not obtain a visa. The Afghan Embassy in Canberra had ceased giving visas without explanation and we were advised I would need a “no objection letter” from the Australian Government, something our Government is unable to give.

Waqar has worked on all my films for the last sixteen tears, starting with Miscreants of Taliwood and more recently on No Bad Guys, in South Side, Chicago. We woke early from our Islamabad guest house and headed to the Afghan Embassy. A large group of men with long beards and typical dress were already waiting in the garden for life to appear in any of the shoe-box-sized reception windows in the front wall. Good-humoured Pakistani security guards, in blue uniforms with two handguns stencilled in white on the back of their shirts and trouser legs, managed the crowd. As people were jostling for a position on the one window that was open, Waqar and I were directed to the fifth window which had a thick piece of Perspex covering it and roughly drilled holes to enable the exchange of conversation to be heard. A laughing, obviously Taliban, guy appeared with a big beard. I opened my palm and pressed it to the Perspex with a smile and he reciprocated with a laugh.

A large sliding metal door was pulled aside, and we were invited up to it and frisked for weapons, before entering. This was special treatment. We handed our phones to a desk clerk and were guided downstairs to the office of the Consul. We sat on comfortable lounge chairs in a cool air-conditioned space (outside had been insufferably hot). Waqar raised his eyebrows and said, “It seems we are going to meet the Consul, himself!”  Things were either looking up or we were about to be cross-examined and refused assistance.

The Consul was very bright and eye contact was everything. He is from Pincher which I know well from working with Medicines Sans Frontiers in Gulbahar. The other seven embassy staff who moved in and out of the meeting were all from Jalalabad, so I was able to validate my stories with the names of people they know. His first comment was that I looked like a Taliban and that they used to have long hair like mine as well as the beards. It was his way of saying “We feel comfortable with you.”

The Consul had everything about me on his phone, from my Wikipedia pages to his own internal intelligence files. It became clear very quickly that there was nothing worrying him, and he asked what kind of visa I would like. I explained that I will be needing to come and go over a long period of time and he had no problem with offering a multi-entry visa. He joked about me having a much younger and very beautiful wife when I handed him my business card with her picture on it. He knew from one of his reports that she was a singer and could speak Pashto. He said there would be no problem getting Hellen a similar visa. The meeting went for a couple of hours. The Consul was brilliant at what he does. While his manner was relaxed, I sensed he was building a complex and detailed picture of me and nothing would be confirmed until he was totally convinced. He was in constant conversation with the senior Taliban leader who is the Ambassador. The final decision would be between the two of them and his young and well-educated staff.  The tipping point came when he turned his head and said, “Can you hear that?” I could not hear anything – I am almost deaf – and asked him what. He said, “It is the sound of rain – the monsoon has broken, and this terrible heat will be over, at last.”

Then he looked intently into my eyes and said something wonderful that made my eyes well up with tears “Afghans do not forget those who have helped them, and we will always do all we can for true friends like you.” He told us to return at 4:00 p.m. and our visas would be ready.

Walking us to the door I was visibly ecstatic, and he could see how happy he had made me.

As we danced up the stairs Waqar and I were almost levitating with the surprise of this unexpected good fortune.

We drove to the biggest shopping mall in Islamabad and treated ourselves lunch at its upper-floor top restaurant.

Back at the Embassy there was a meeting going on which kept everyone anxiously waiting for their passports and visas for over one hour. Waqar got a text message from the Consul apologising for the delay and the big steel door was slid open for us again. This time it was a two-hour conversation with cups of Afghan tea and cakes. Our passports arrived and I watched as the Consul personally pressed the final raised stamp onto it with an ancient looking device that I had mistakenly thought was a microscope. The Consul and our new friends in his staff walked us to the street exit with hugs and kisses and many offers of support.

We will face a Jalalabad where girls are no longer allowed to attend school above year six, and life must conform to Sharia law. Our belief that art and creative collaboration can bring positive social change where the military fails will be tested to the limit. Our return will coincide with the anniversary of the first year since Taliban forces entered Kabul city during the chaotic American withdrawal.  

It was peak hour in Islamabad, as we left the Embassy, but the roads were uncharacteristically clear of traffic as we passed thousands of fluttering green and white flags being sold from roadside stalls, preparing for Pakistan’s national day which was the upcoming weekend.

The Yellow Submarine Peshawar is where Waqar and I based ourselves during the making of Miscreants of Taliwood in 2006–7 and it is still functioning as our studio .

My one, remaining, small worry was that the large Yellow Submarine mural I had painted when we created  a refuge for artists nervous about the Taliban take over, last year, could have been painted over or vandalised. It was painted on a public wall and is unprotected. I thought, if it is OK then I know this project will truly succeed and we will have nothing to worry about. My friend Martin Sharp once said to me, “Synchronicity is the way God speaks to us.” I have always followed the signs.

The Yellow Submarine studio is part of the SS Club. Over the last sixteen years, the location has deteriorated into a dirty and desperate-looking slum. Beggars and addicts occupy the rubble and uncollected garbage at the approach.

As we rounded into the corner off University Road and began weaving our way to the maze of lanes that leads to the SS Club, I began holding my breath and crossing my fingers in the hope the mural would be OK.

The car headlights illuminated the wall, and it was perfectly the way I had left it. Untouched and proudly brazen. 

My very close friend, the club manager Shahid, had gone home along with my other very close friend the receptionist Aktor. But all the staff love me as well, so there were many long hugs in a prolonged return embracing. This is part of my Peshawar family.

The SS Club has been my base since making Miscreants of Taliwood. I’ve lost track of the number of times we have been back. And there have been dangerous times here, such as when Hellen and I received death threats, including one offering to “remove my face from my body.”

Although I had let Shahid know in advance that I was arriving, our rooms looked like they had been kept locked since Hellen and I were here last year. Dirt had collected everywhere; the sheets were grimy and thousands of large ants were eating the wooden walls.

The story is that the SS Club was owned and run by the Nazis during the early days of WWII. There is a club room with a shooting range in the basement that is like a time capsule. Signed copies of Mein Kampf and gold-plated Mauser handguns in gift sets. The glass eyes of the stuffed animal trophies come alive with ferocious glares at you, as you enter.

My room has a large mirror over a fireplace in European-style carved wood, which Hellen believes has been exported from Bavaria. There are curtains concealing a huge one-way mirror. This makes it is possible to sit in the other room and view what is happening on the large double bed without being seen.


It is a perfect time to arrive in Pakistan. In a couple of days it will be 14 July – their national day – green and white flags flutter everywhere with the crescent moon and star. For the children it is like Christmas, they blow plastic trumpets and dress up with face paint or masks.

I’ve been out on the street taking stills of the children with face paint and masks, even green fairy wings. It is beautiful. Up to four kids on a motorbike with their dad at the handlebars and mum on the back. There is a street vendor selling these items on the corner outside the lane that leads to the SS Club. There is really magic in the air.

Many of the masks are the V for Vendetta masks normally used at protest rallies when people want to hide their identities (Hong Kong etc.), but here they are painted green and white, and it is simply a matter of recycling.

Motor bikes and cars have gigantic green and white flags, furling off poles, as they speed by, to the sound of trumpets and cheers from the passengers.

Needing to respond to events in Ukraine cut our work on the Afghan film short, but I am sure it is all part of the invisible plan.


The edit of Artist War Ukraine has picked up pace. Khuram pressed me to rethink the beginning. In typical Gittoes “shock style,” I had a farmer being dug up from a shallow grave after trying to stop Russians from raping his daughter. We now have Easter Mass inside St. Michael’s Cathedral at the beginning. It is mystical and sombre and rich with Ukrainian art and culture. We will to intercut the prayers and beautiful choir music with scenes of Russian destruction and death. But for now the Church is beautiful and unfractured by the war outside. 

It no longer feels strange to be editing Ukraine in Peshawar – doing it during these patriotic celebrations has, somehow, created an emotional bridge.

I just got the great news that our film No Bad Guys will be screened by the Sydney Underground Film Festival at Event Cinemas along with Hellen’s short film Haunted Burqa. Chicago and Jalalabad back-to-back on the big screen! As I will be in Afghanistan for the event, I have written a statement which Hellen will read before she does the Q&A:

Manifesto-Statement for Sydney Underground Film Fest Art Event 

I am in Peshawar editing the Ukraine film. I have stopped thinking of being an Australian or Ukrainian or American or Pakistani or Afghan. I have always belonged to another country, which is Art. Living in Art is much more real to me than Australia. Our films are a manifesto of borderlessness. Shooting in Ukraine with a Ukrainian, Kat Parunova on camera, co-directing with Hellen Rose and editing in Pakistan with Khuram Shebzad while shooting another film in Afghanistan with Waqar Alam and our Yellow House crew.  And our film No Bad Guys from South Side, Chicago is screening at Sydney Underground Film Festival while May Block Chicago is watching through live streaming. We are spread around the world but feel we are in one place, Planet Earth.

War between countries is getting suicidal with nuclear destruction being threatened daily. Artists are a community of people who have a common history, the history of art, making a single united tribe. The film we are editing in Peshawar is titled Artists War Ukraine and the film we are presently shooting is titled Yellow Submarine to Taliwood.

Let’s use art to end war and end divisions. 

 End of Rant

My room at the SS Club has no windows, so it is impossible to know if it is day or night. I have to go to the door and open it to check for sunlight. The heat outside is like an oven. Five minutes out there and my cloths are dripping wet like I have taken a shower in them – contradicting the temperature, a cold shiver goes up my spine with the slightest breeze. 

The walk to Khuram’s edit office has me passing dozens of beggars of different kinds. There is a bald mystic in the alleyway who has stopped putting his hand out for money from me. Ashad told him I am a Sufi – so I now get a nod, as a fellow traveller. He is like a character from Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha. Then there are the women who squat in a group with a dozen or more dirty babies. Sometimes they have a dead baby in swaddling cloth – hard to ignore and not give some paper money.

Then there is a nice man who sits cross-legged with two small girls and about sixteen eggs which he tries to sell. He has not sold a single egg in the four days I have been passing him. By now the heat would have sent them off. He has got my “number” and gives me a broad smile and wave each time I pass. 

Everyone on my walk either remembers me from the past or has gotten to know me now.

I have melded into the community and feel at no risk, although these are desperate times with starvation and many bandits and kidnappers forced into that life by the broken economy.

At least a dozen skeletally thin street cats live outside the edit room. One mother cat has four kittens. She is so emaciated I do not know how she can provide milk, but she does. Like the youngest of the street kids, the kittens, two ginger and two grey striped, are unaware of the life ahead and are playful and happy.

The edit “took off” yesterday. Regardless of all the distractions Khuram is fast and brilliant.


Editing stopped so everyone could attend Friday prayer. There is only one small mosque nearby which cannot contain the number of worshipers. As we round the lane into University Road there are, at least, a thousand men praying on the footpath and spilling out onto the road. The heat is extreme as I skirt around them on my way back to my Yellow Submarine studio.

The characters I mentioned earlier, the egg man with his two kids and the bald mystic beggar have gradually become friends. I have been drawing beggars and street people since 1968 when I took my pencils to Washington Square Park to sketch with my mentor, the great African American artist Joe Delaney. I can add these drawings to Legless Bike and Lot in Cambodia and Mirrow and Awliywa in Somalia and Gangster, Ghost Busters and Ice Cream boys of Jalalabad who featured in our film Snow Monkey.

My own precarious existence makes me feel closer to these people than I do with those who live a life of comfort. How they make enough to eat always fascinates and worries me.  Like little Gulmina, the recycler with her big bag of aluminium tins in Jalalabad, there are very young kids here who forage for bits of plastic in the garbage. They are too feral to have made friends with, yet, but they have been standing at a distance watching me draw the others, fascinated. With a day or two they will ask me to draw them, as well.

While the city is in prayer, I will be finishing these street drawings to add to the stack of art that has built up over the years.  My portrait of Shahid is hung proudly behind the SS Club reception and the view of the garden wall, at the front entrance, has my mural of a fox chasing a rabbit.

In a few days the edit will be sufficiently advanced for us to be able to head to Afghanistan. I am hoping for the art in and around our Yellow House Jalalabad will have remained protected and is OK.

Hellen and I dream of being able to afford to buy our Yellow House in Jalalabad and the Yellow Submarine in Peshawar and leave them to the people as functioning art centres with much of our artwork remaining here.

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