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Amidst war, an Afghan renaissance

Arts can help build a nation

Published on 9 December 2011

Author(s): Foreign Policy/Esha Chhabra

Type:  Feature

Challenging the convention that the arts are only for aesthetics

We often see the arts as only fit for museums, galleries, and film festivals, cloistered in halls only for the intellectual elite. But the arts can help build a nation, or in the case of Afghanistan, are rebuilding a nation, employing its people, and recalling a history forgotten in recent decades of continuous conflict. And a small group of social scientists, architects, and entrepreneurs are using culture as a vehicle to restore Afghanistan, challenging the convention that the arts are only for aesthetics.

"Cultural conservation is directly linked to development and livelihoods here. The historic sites that we're rebuilding are functioning places, generating revue, providing jobs, and are self-sustaining," says Ajmal Maiwandi, an Afghan-American architect who returned to the country nearly a decade ago to take up a post with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to help rebuild Afghanistan's most historic sites. In that time, Maiwandi explains that AKTC has preserved nearly a 100 sites, even during tense periods of conflict.

For Washington D.C.-based Dr. Cheryl Benard, the desire to revive the arts in Afghanistan came out of seeing the destruction of Europe following WWII, where monuments were pillaged, destroying not only beautiful edifices but also erasing history with them. As a young child, growing up in post-war Germany and Austria, she then saw the resurrection of what had been knocked down and pillaged-- an experience she explains has made her more sympathetic to those living in conflict-ridden societies. Benard, who founded the Bamiyan Project, a non-profit dedicated to cultural preservation in Central Asia, wants to see that same movement in Afghanistan.


"[The arts] are not taken so seriously. It's something that people think about much later, when the tourists arrive. But they're fundamental to the process of reconciliation and reconstructing the nation," she says with urgency.

Maiwandi agrees. As CEO of the AKTC in Afghanistan, he's led numerous successful projects, such as the restoration of the gardens of the Mughal emperor Babur, the Mausoleum of Timur Shah, and urban regeneration initiatives in the Asheqan wa Arefan neighborhood of Kabul. In the old city of Herat, the Trust has revived five notable historic houses, seventeen public buildings, and the gravesite of the Sufi poet, Abdullah Ansari, in Gozarga.

This flurry of activity has created a local demand for labor. In Herat alone, the restoration has provided for 60,000 work days of employment. And the approach to restoration is "holistic," Maiwandi notes, meaning that not only are old, crumbling building attended to, but drainage systems are put into place, pavements are laid down, and waste is removed. In short, these efforts are not just about beautifying but also redeveloping neighborhoods, investments that have long-term impact, he explains.

AKTC couples this historical preservation with more hands-on training, offering courses in trades such as carpentry, teaching students how to craft doors, windows, wood carvings, items that go beyond the classroom and have local demand.

Turquoise Mountain, a social enterprise created by British author and parliamentarian Rory Stewart, takes the training a step further through a global market place for handmade Afghan crafts, having sold nearly $1 million worth within the country and abroad. While Turquoise also tends to urban regeneration in old Kabul, its Institute of Arts and Architectures gives students year-long lessons in calligraphy, woodworking, ceramics, jewelry, and gem cutting -- trades that give them employment in addition to carrying on age-old traditions.

Such pragmatic art is coupled with large-scale preservation, akin to AKTC's work on Bagh-e-Babur, which fuels tourism. Benard's non-profit, for instance, is restoring the legendary poet Rumi's birthplace in northern Afghanistan. The restoration process, Benard explains, has generated not just local employment during and post construction, but also created an oasis for locals and tourists that will be sustainable in years to come. And in remembrance of Rumi's poems, which often featured lyrical descriptions of nature, the site houses a number of gardens, something that will keep the locals coming after they've seen the touristy bits. Benard notes that the Rumi Gardens are located in one of Afghanistan's "safe pockets," and have never been attacked by militants; even if security deteriorates in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops in 2014, her NGO does not feel particularly concerned about security threats.

Benard originally started the non-profit in 2010 to help preserve an expansive site in Bamiyan province, one that once housed housing two colossal-sized Buddhas from the 6th century, remnants of the country's more pluralist past that were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Yet in the meantime, another threat arose, diverting her attention again.

In 2007, The Chinese Metallurgical Group Corp, backed by the Chinese government, leased one of the world's largest untapped copper mines, estimated at $3.5 billion, with intentions to begin mining in 2009. A profitable deal for the Chinese who aspire to tap into Afghanistan's rich minerals, it marks the largest foreign investment in the country, one that could reap nearly $1.2 billion from the mine and the jobs it creates. But the mine sits on another piece of Afghanistan's Buddhist history: Mes Aynak, home to a 5th century Buddhist monastery, whose crumbling statues dot the hilly landscape. To allow for excavation, which would remove the delicate ruins from the site to be placed in a nearby museum, the Chinese have delayed mining until the process is completed.

Though a reminder of the country's Buddhist past, Bernard says that she was impressed by how local Afghans have made an effort to preserve it. Being an Islamic nation hasn't stopped them from expressing their support for the preservation of the Buddhas, she says, illustrating that the arts can be a catalyst in redefining a country's story.

Benard continues, explaining that "one piece of the story that doesn't get covered is the risks that people go to save their cultural heritage. For example, earlier, when the locals realized that that Taliban were coming to destroy the [National Film Archives of Afghanistan], they erected walls to break up the collection and reduce the damage. In museums, the staff concealed so many items, taking a big risk on their own safety. This simply shows that the arts are important to locals -- even in war when more basic needs are at stake."

Benard is now collaborating with other preservationists to develop a plan for some of the Buddha statues to remain in their original form at Mes Aynek, and not be whisked away to museums, so that the site can be visited and admired in its native state. The Chinese will still be able to access the site for mining, though they may need to use a more "gentle technology" to extract the copper without damaging the Buddhas, Benard says.

Hamid Naweed, an Afghan art historian, has been working closely with Benard and recently traveled with her throughout the country, talking with locals on the Bamiyan Project, Mes Aynek, and the cultural heritage of Afghanistan more broadly.

"What amazed me was the response of the Afghan people," said Benard. "They were moved by the discussions, crying even, to hear their history presented in a coherent, positive way. The Afghans have a history rich with achievements as well. So, it's a real game changer for them to hear it first-hand."

With more preservation projects under way for Benard, Turquoise, and AKTC, the Afghans will not only be hearing it, but will see it unfold in front of them, as the arts becomes a means of employment and a way to reconstruct their nation.


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