Afghans fix crumbling history, one shovel full at a time
Canada is the biggest single donor to a project to unbury the ancient heart of old Kabul, writes Graham Thomson
Canwest News Service
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
KABUL – One of the more promising signs for Afghanistan’s future lies, perhaps, in its past, in the heart of old Kabul — buried under decades of filth, garbage and neglect. Two metres underneath, to be precise.
In the ancient commercial district of Murad Khane — in a project in which Canada is the biggest single donor — more than 200 workers are digging away dirt and debris in this labyrinth of mud-walled alleys and boxlike buildings. At places, the accumulated earth is two metres deep, choking old passageways and raising the floor level of aged courtyards so high that people had to stoop through doorways.
In a technique that would make recyclers smile in Canada, workers are using the recovered earth as the main ingredient in a traditional cement to rebuild crumbling walls of the district’s historic buildings. Murad Khane is rising like a phoenix from its own ashes.
Equally exceptional is that this program, supported by western donations, has no guards, no guns, no checkpoints. In a country where many westerners wouldn’t go out without a helmet and body armour, Murad Khane’s security is remarkably slim. The only protective gear is hard hats.
The project’s security might lie in the fact it is so discreet. In a country suspicious of outsiders, the project doesn’t look remotely western. Its heart might be foreign money, but its face is Afghan. The workers are mainly Afghan. Even the head architect, who was born in Germany and has an office in London, is of Afghan descent.
To help solidify support among the people who live in this rundown neighbourhood, the project operates an emergency repair program to help fix up homes that share the decrepit state of the historic buildings.
“The mission is to regenerate Afghanistan’s historic areas and revive the traditional economy,” said John Elliott, a spokesman for the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which runs the project. “We’re working in the middle of Kabul, the very centre of the centre and there’s just a chance that if you can give some kind of economic underpinning to Murad Khane — an economic purpose, an educational purpose — it might act as a catalyst for the rest of the city and the rest of Afghanistan.”
That sounds like a lofty goal for a program with a yearly budget of just $4 million, compared with billions being spent by western countries and aid groups. Turquoise Mountain thinks modest projects are the way to go.
“What we need is a patient approach to development here,” said Mr. Elliott. “I think it has to do with having smaller, more discreet projects. And if you could replicate that across the board, rather than having huge programs which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, having smaller, lower risk projects, then you might achieve something.”
Turquoise Mountain started out as something of an experiment in 2006 under the leadership of former British diplomat and author Rory Stewart. Since then, it has attracted attention, accolades and an increasingly long list of donors, including the Canadian government, which is providing $3 million over four years — making Canada the largest single financial supporter.
While Murad Khane is the most visible sign of Turquoise Mountain’s work, the core is a school tucked away in a corner of Kabul where master craftsmen teach apprentices the arts of Afghan woodworking, ceramics, calligraphy and jewelry making.
The Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture has 100 students who spend three years learning their craft along with English and the fundamentals of running a business.
The goal is to graduate not only skilled workers, but entrepreneurs. Students are already turning out intricately carved support columns and decorative panels as part of the restoration work on the historic buildings. By doing so, they are also helping to build a new home for themselves. The centre plans to relocate to the refurbished Murad Khane district, making the Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts a prominent showpiece.
“If you look at this neighbourhood and other parts of the old city, it is absolutely important to keep and preserve these buildings, not just because they’re beautiful buildings, but there’s a connection between the people now and the people in (the) past,” said Sayed Majidi, the head of architecture at the Murad Khane site. “If you look at the history of Afghanistan, if you look at the culture that still exists and is expressed in these neighbourhoods, it is a quite important and serious project for all Afghanistan, not just for Kabul.”
The five-year project is halfway done and is proving to be symbolic of the country’s struggle to dig itself out of three decades of war, destruction and neglect. The work is done slowly, laboriously, by hand, one shovel at a time.
“We’re not taking on the whole world and not trying to change the world overnight,” said Mr. Elliott. “The only prudent thing to do is (to) take it one step at a time.”
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008