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Old Kabul reborn: Art, culture, and a rare ray of light

path to progress

A British charity's rehabilitation of one of Kabul's poorest historic districts is doing more than restoring buildings and training traditional artisans. It is 'preserving the soul of the country.'

Nathan Stroupe, Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain, stands in the courtyard on Sept. 24 of one of the 112 buildings the British charity has restored so far to create an institute for Afghan artisans to revitalize their heritage, in Kabul's historical Murad Khani district. More than 500 artisans have graduated from Turquoise Mountain specializing in traditional crafts such as woodworking, jewelry-making and gem cutting, ceramics, and elaborate calligraphy.
Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
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In her heart, Ramzia Sarwary-Khorami always wanted to make jewelry. But the path to success in Afghanistan is narrow, especially for a woman, no matter how intrepid or ambitious.

Then on the radio a decade ago, she heard about a new urban reclamation project in Murad Khani, one of Kabul’s poorest historic neighborhoods, backed by a charity called Turquoise Mountain.

The project also aimed to resurrect the disappearing arts of Afghan culture. Jewelry and gem cutting were on the list.

Ms. Sarwary-Khorami signed up with Turquoise Mountain and learned soldering, sandpapering metals and stones, and the secrets of the six cultures of Afghan jewelry making.

“I found my dreams,” says Sarwary-Khorami, who now works as a teacher and quality controller for the charity and sells her own creations through high-end jewelry designers in London – a pathway established by Turquoise Mountain for its graduate artisans.

“Every year we have more students, I tell them: ‘Come to Turquoise Mountain, we can support you,’ ” she says.

Rays of hope are rare in Afghanistan, where 16 years of Taliban insurgency and deteriorating security in the capital – defined by Taliban and Islamic State attacks and mass-casualty truck bombs – have caused waves of migration and a brain drain.

But Turquoise Mountain is not a typical charity, and its aim of training Afghan artists while restoring the nation’s cultural and architectural heritage has expanded far beyond initial expectations. In the process of revitalizing Murad Khani, which dates back to the 18th century, the organization has created a model now being applied in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and soon in Jordan with Syrian refugee artisans.

At the same time, high-profile interactive exhibitions the charity has curated, such as “Artists Transforming Afghanistan” at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington – which ends this month after a popular 1-1/2-year run – and at Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, have helped change perceptions about Afghanistan. Rather than exclusively a war zone, it’s a place with its own worthy and productive culture.

Jewelry makers work in a space created by the British charity Turquoise Mountain, which has restored 112 buildings so far in Kabul, Afghanistan, to create an institute for Afghan artisans to revitalize their heritage.
Courtesy of Lama El Desouky/Turquoise Mountain
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“It’s a different sort of thing, and you wouldn’t want every charity to abandon health care and education and all focus on traditional crafts and culture,” says Richard Stagg, a former British ambassador to Afghanistan now on the Turquoise Mountain board.

“But I think it does have a place, and a more important and central one than it initially appears, because it is about preserving the soul of the country, which has been very nearly destroyed by this ghastly period of decades of conflict and destruction,” says Ambassador Stagg.

Reclamation project

At the start of the reclamation project, Murad Khani was “basically a waste dump” with a failing economy, a dour refuge for Afghans displaced by the war to Kabul, says Nathan Stroupe, country director for Turquoise Mountain. Indeed, the historic neighborhood was due to be demolished in 2008, and was added to the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List.

“The whole bazaar area was a shambles,” says Mr. Stroupe. “Now hundreds of thousands of people a year visit the bazaar and shrine.”

What started in Kabul in 2006 by hiring 1,000 workers to remove 36,000 cubic meters of accumulated layers of trash from atop the dilapidated Murad Khani district – a frontline in Kabul heavily pummeled during the intra-mujahideen civil war in the mid-1990s – has so far renovated 112 buildings to create an art institute, primary school, and a clinic that sees 2,000 patients a month.

Before-and-after photos tell the story, with refuse initially piled two or three yards high blocking the ground-floor entrances of decrepit buildings, some with traditional jali latticed wood screens, on the verge of disintegration.

Today those same buildings, rescued from the ravages of war and time, are in active daily use. In the classrooms, 130 students are handed down the secrets of ancient Afghan crafts: wood-working with walnut and cedar; ceramics with deep turquoise glaze; jewelry making and gem-stone cutting, and miniature painting and elaborate calligraphy.

The insecurity from insurgent Taliban and Islamic State attacks has not affected Turquoise Mountain’s work, though some bombings have turned out to be close.

“The fundamental issue is we are celebrating what is amazing about Afghanistan, and it is not particularly controversial for most people,” says Stroupe. “We are saying, ‘This is what’s incredible, we want to preserve it so future generations can have it.’ ”

Jewelry created by Afghan artisans is displayed at Turquoise Mountain in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Courtesy of Lama El Desouky/Turquoise Mountain
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Still, such work is not without risk. One of artist Sarwary-Khorami’s relatives, who was not connected to Turquoise Mountain, was fingered by Taliban spies for selling his own jewelry creations to Western clients, including Americans. In 2015, he was kidnapped by the Taliban for four days, and came home bruised from severe beatings.

They told him: “Don’t work with Americans!” These days he resides abroad.

Such setbacks may be typical in Afghanistan. But the Turquoise Mountain institute has produced 500 graduates so far, some 80 percent of whom have continued in their field or gone on to advanced study. The aim is self-sustainability for the artists and their crafts, by developing expertise and high-quality standards for export.

The institute also offers “tool kit training” and support for three years after graduation for artists to create international markets. Artists learn how to get licensed and brand and price their work.

Changing views of Afghanistan

The brainchild of British writer, adventurer, and politician Rory Stewart, Turquoise Mountain began with high-profile celebrity status, as a joint project of Britain’s Prince Charles and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

But on the ground it keeps a low profile for foreign staff, who work with substantial funding from the British Council, the US Agency for International Development, and Persian Gulf donors, among others.

The starting point was the “strong likelihood that the Old City would quickly be turned into a series of supermarkets and multi-story car parks by ‘businessmen’ – quote, unquote – unless something was done,” says former diplomat Stagg. In the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation, the area had been set aside for residential apartments that were never built.

Besides helping to restore pride among Afghans in their own culture and art, the work has changed views of Afghanistan abroad. The Smithsonian exhibit has received 350,000 visitors, for example, and an assessment of before-and-after views points to an evolution in thinking.

“People’s view of Afghanistan goes through quite a fundamental change because they, understandably, think of it as a battlefield pitted with the dead and the wounded, and not much more,” says Stagg, about the exhibition results. “Suddenly they see there are people of talent and passion who are producing beautiful things.”

The experience is now being applied by Turquoise Mountain in Myanmar, where it is restoring its second historic building. It is also being used in Saudi Arabia, and first steps are now being explored among Syrian refugee artisans in Jordan refugee camps, to keep alive their expertise until the seven-year war abates and they can return home.

'Intangible heritage'

Yet Afghanistan remains the most ambitious program, where Turquoise Mountain is helping the government make a national inventory of “intangible heritage,” in keeping with its obligations under UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, signed in 2003.

“Tangible heritage” refers to buildings and items that sometimes can be replaced, even if destroyed, based on photographs and new technologies.

“But when intangible heritage disappears, it is because the few people who were the stewards of this knowledge passed away. And it happens all the time, with languages, with crafts,” says Bastien Varoutsikos, the cultural heritage adviser for Turquoise Mountain.

“Why is this important? The answer to me, as we go to a more globalized world, is it is important to keep track of how diverse the human experience is,” says Mr. Varoutsikos.

Turquoise Mountain’s work preserving intangible heritage is funded by a specific £2.5 million British grant ($3.3 million) from the Cultural Protection Fund, and the charity is documenting 15 crafts and ensuring that knowledge of them is passed on to 200 artisans, academics, and other specialists.

The result will be presented to Afghans through exhibitions and outreach programs.

“No private organization should be stewards of the Afghan inventory list; this should be the goal of the government, so we have some capacity building to do,” says Varoutsikos, describing a 10-year plan.

“It’s a marathon, and we are really at the beginning of it.”

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