Why you should care
We’re stuck with each other whether we like it or not.
It’s Kabul in the late 1970s. Inside a 37-room villa with 11 servants, young Nahid hides behind a divan in one of the reception rooms while her father talks with his business partners. Abdul Hakim Shahalimi is a respected politician and a former ambassador who held several ministerial positions. Little Nahid doesn’t understand what the men are discussing, but she’s left with a lasting image of her father as a prudent, wise man in his 80s.
The 41-year-old now lives in Munich and works in a 1970s apartment building on the outskirts of the city. On the top floor there’s a bright workshop with an overflowing desk at one end and a huge sofa in the middle. Shahalimi sits down with a cup of steaming tea in her hand to talk about “Coexist,” her current art project.
Around six months ago, the artist and human rights activist painted the word “coexist” using different symbols of religion and peace: the crescent moon, the Star of David, the cross and the peace sign. Since then, Shahalimi has been traveling around the world to get well-known personalities to sign the picture — no matter their religion, skin color and nationality.
A series of 11 “Coexist” pictures is being transported around the globe to be signed by people from different walks of life. They include celebrities, heads of state, human rights activists and Nobel Prize winners, as well as ordinary men and women of all ages, religions and skin colors. Every signature is filmed, documented and spread via social media.
German soccer star Jérôme Boateng has already made his mark, as have the former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and British singer Lisa Stansfield. Once enough signatures have completed the picture, it will be auctioned for a good cause.
Shahalimi explains that she’s always strived for balance. She grew up with three sisters and no brothers. “My father never made me feel like I was ‘just’ a girl. I was his child who he treated with respect,” she says. But the world at large was a different story. “From the day of my birth, I had to coexist. I had to work harder and prove myself more just because I’m a woman,” she says. Shahalimi learned perseverance, as well as how to reach out to others and think in a broader context. “For me, coexistence means a world community, multiculturalism and respect. It means tolerance and acceptance of differences — regardless of gender, nationality, race, religion and skin color,” she explains.
“My dream: simply coexist.” The mother of two slips back into English from German whenever she gets agitated. She learned the language as a child when it became obvious that her family would have to leave the country. Two-thirds of her father’s fortune was seized when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s. He suddenly became a persona non grata in the country he’d helped to build.
After his death in 1981, life got hard for his wife and four daughters. They eventually decided to flee. The family left the country in a secret operation with the help of people who assisted escapees. They walked to Pakistan. It took five days to hike through the rugged mountains, passing the dead bodies of those who’d also undertaken the forced march but hadn’t survived. From Pakistan, the family’s escape took them as far as Canada, where their mother had relatives. They then tried to make a new start in Quebec. The last of their money went to the people who’d aided their flight.
The Shahalimi women got on with life. Nahid did her end-of-high-school exams and studied human rights, international politics and art. She played semi-professional volleyball for Canada’s national team. She met her now husband, another Afghan exile who lives in Munich, in Los Angeles in 1999. They got married and had two daughters. “All the stories that I’ve experienced have made me an expert in survival,” she says.
“Of course, there are also negative aspects. But the young generation in Afghanistan, my generation, at least knows they can choose and vote,” says Shahalimi, who’s also a UNICEF ambassador. “Knowledge” and “choice” are her buzzwords.
She’s convinced that the “Coexist” message can also reach people who think differently. “If my action means that those people stop and think for just a second — really think — and if just one percent changes their opinion, then it’s really achieved a lot,” the artist says.
This article has been edited and originally appeared in the German newspaper Die Welt.