Amidst war, an Afghan renaissance

We often see thearts as only fit for museums, galleries, and film festivals, cloistered inhalls only for the intellectual elite.  But the arts can help build anation, or in the case of Afghanistan, are rebuilding a nation, employing itspeople, and recalling a history forgotten in recent decades of continuousconflict. And a small group of social ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

We often see thearts as only fit for museums, galleries, and film festivals, cloistered inhalls only for the intellectual elite.  But the arts can help build anation, or in the case of Afghanistan, are rebuilding a nation, employing itspeople, and recalling a history forgotten in recent decades of continuousconflict. And a small group of social scientists, architects, and entrepreneursare using culture as a vehicle to restore Afghanistan, challenging theconvention that the arts are only for aesthetics.

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

We often see thearts as only fit for museums, galleries, and film festivals, cloistered inhalls only for the intellectual elite.  But the arts can help build anation, or in the case of Afghanistan, are rebuilding a nation, employing itspeople, and recalling a history forgotten in recent decades of continuousconflict. And a small group of social scientists, architects, and entrepreneursare using culture as a vehicle to restore Afghanistan, challenging theconvention that the arts are only for aesthetics.

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

For WashingtonD.C.-based Dr. Cheryl Benard, the desire to revive the arts in Afghanistan cameout of seeing the destruction of Europe following WWII, where monuments werepillaged, destroying not only beautiful edifices but also erasing history withthem.  As a young child, growing up in post-war Germany and Austria, shethen saw the resurrection of what had been knocked down and pillaged– anexperience she explains has made her more sympathetic to those living inconflict-ridden societies.  Benard, who founded the Bamiyan Project, anon-profit dedicated to cultural preservation in Central Asia, wants to seethat same movement in Afghanistan.

"[The arts] arenot taken so seriously. It’s something that people think about much later, whenthe tourists arrive.  But they’re fundamental to the process ofreconciliation and reconstructing the nation," she says with urgency.

Maiwandiagrees. As CEO of the AKTC in Afghanistan, he’s led numerous successfulprojects, 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 Trusthas revived five notable historic houses, seventeen public buildings, and thegravesite of the Sufi poet, Abdullah Ansari, in Gozarga.

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

AKTC couples thishistorical preservation with more hands-on training, offering courses in tradessuch as carpentry, teaching students how to craft doors, windows, woodcarvings, items that go beyond the classroom and have local demand.

Turquoise Mountain, a social enterprise created by Britishauthor and parliamentarian Rory Stewart, takes the training a step furtherthrough a global market place for handmade Afghan crafts, having sold nearly $1million worth within the country and abroad. While Turquoise also tends tourban regeneration in old Kabul, its Institute of Arts and Architectures givesstudents year-long lessons in calligraphy, woodworking, ceramics, jewelry, andgem cutting — trades that give them employment in addition to carrying onage-old traditions.

Such pragmaticart 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 thelegendary poet Rumi’s birthplace in northern Afghanistan.  The restorationprocess, Benard explains, has generated not just local employment during andpost construction, but also created an oasis for locals and tourists that willbe sustainable in years to come. And in remembrance of Rumi’s poems, whichoften featured lyrical descriptions of nature, the site houses a number ofgardens, something that will keep the locals coming after they’ve seen thetouristy bits. Benard notes that the Rumi Gardens are located in one ofAfghanistan’s "safe pockets," and have never been attacked by militants; evenif security deteriorates in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops in 2014,her NGO does not feel particularly concerned about security threats.

Benard originallystarted the non-profit in 2010 to help preserve an expansive site in Bamiyanprovince, one that once housed housing two colossal-sized Buddhas from the 6thcentury, remnants of the country’s more pluralist past that were destroyed bythe Taliban in March 2001. Yet in the meantime, another threat arose,diverting her attention again.

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

Though a reminderof the country’s Buddhist past, Bernard says that she was impressed by howlocal Afghans have made an effort to preserve it.  Being an Islamic nationhasn’t stopped them from expressing their support for the preservation of theBuddhas, she says, illustrating that the arts can be a catalyst in redefining acountry’s story.

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

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

Hamid Naweed, anAfghan art historian, has been working closely with Benard and recentlytraveled with her throughout the country, talking with locals on the BamiyanProject, Mes Aynek, and the cultural heritage of Afghanistan more broadly.

"What amazed mewas the response of the Afghan people," said Benard. "They were moved bythe 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 morepreservation projects under way for Benard, Turquoise, and AKTC, the Afghanswill not only be hearing it, but will see it unfold in front of them, as thearts becomes a means of employment and a way to reconstruct their nation.

Esha Chhabra is a writer who focuses onsocial innovation and social enterprises. She was recently the RotaryAmbassadorial Scholar at the London School of Economics, where she specializedin Global Politics and Social Enterprise. This piece was completed in partnershipwith Dowser.org.

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