Repairing A Broken Culture

In the basement of Afghanistan's culture ministry, a statue's broken foot and part of a skirt lie discarded in the corner. A lion's paw peeks out of a pile of rubble; a small rock turns out to be part of an elephant head. They are all that's left of the thousands of sculptures smashed to bits by the Taliban. And as workers frantically sort and label the surviving fragments, they inadvertently crunch more shattered remains underfoot. Wearing thick eyeglasses and sporting a dusty, gray turban, 63-year-old Mirgolam Nabi, a museum archivist, works at breakneck speed, cataloging the relics. "When the Taliban came here they had guns; how could we stop them?" he asks. "I suffered through this as if I were watching my father be killed. This was our history."

Now that the Taliban have fled northern and central Afghanistan, the true extent of the cultural destruction they wrought is becoming apparent. They were particularly offended by anything resembling the human form, and there are few human statues or frescoes of people remaining intact anywhere in the country. They also hastened the exodus of the country's cultural elite, the flood of departing artists, writers and historians that began in the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion. Indeed, few countries have ever seen their cultural heritage decimated as rapidly as Afghanistan. And yet a small but determined cadre of preserva-tionists is emerging to rebuild it. They are painstakingly collecting broken fragments for reconstruction and trying to track down artifacts that have been removed from the country for safekeeping. They are also carefully preserving those that remain intact, many of which were saved by museum workers who tricked the Taliban by holding works upside down or detaching panels so they would not be recognizable as human or animal forms. And the country is making a concerted effort to lure the cultural refugees back home. "We are trying to call back all the artists who escaped over the past five years," says Sidikulah Towhidi, of the Ministry for Information and Culture. "But it is still quite early. We are working on it."

The first step is facing up to the devastation. In addition to destroying the well-known giant Bamiyan Buddhas, the Taliban fired their rockets on the Minar-i-Chakri Buddhist pillar (first to second centuries), once a landmark for traders along the Silk Road. The more contemporary Mausoleum of Amir Abdur Rahman (who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901) is falling apart due to neglect and what preservationists call "inappropriate use by military personnel." What had been the easternmost Greek city of Ai Khanoum (fourth to second centuries B.C.) has been plundered by illegal diggers. Nighttime looters have excavated holy shrines searching for gold and antiques. And locals, desperate to stay warm, hacked away at intricate wooden engravings in the windows of 19th-century homes for firewood.

Perhaps no institution has suffered more than the Kabul Museum. Once home to 100,000 works of art--including statues, paintings, armaments and pottery from as far back as prehistoric times, as well as one of the world's oldest and largest coin collections--the museum has been almost completely destroyed by looting, rockets and fire over the past nine years. "In 1993 a rocket came through the top floor and burned the entire area," says former deputy director Omarakhan Massoudi, who left his post in despair last year. By 1995, 70 percent of the museum's remaining items had been looted. "It was not ordinary people or small commanders that did the looting," says Massoudi. "These were big commanders who had the ability to transport the art." (Much of it later wound up in New York, London, Tokyo and Geneva.) Museum workers then photographed and cataloged the remaining items and hid them in various locations--including the basement of the Culture Ministry and the Kabul Hotel. "We had just finished our work when the Taliban came," says Yahya Mohedzada, a museum staffer. "They ordered the museum workers to hand over an inventory of all statues."

When the staff refused, the Taliban Ministry of Vice and Virtue sent eight armed men to the museum. Using axes and hammers, the soldiers attacked the second-century limestone statue of the Afghan King Kanishka, located right at the museum's entrance. "It felt like the axes were hitting me," says Mohedzada. "They were laughing at the statue while they were smashing it." Three days later they went to the Culture Ministry basement and destroyed the hundreds of statues hidden there, which ranged in age from prehistoric to modern. "We can try to make repairs, but we've lost the historical importance. Maybe we can build new museums," says Mohedzada. "But we'll never find these lost pieces."

In addition to the artifacts, the country has lost some of its most valuable people. "The best singers, artists and writers have all left Afghanistan," says Prof. Rasul Amin, a historian, political scientist and poet who has spent the past 21 years traveling between Peshawar, Pakistan, and Sydney. "The whole period starting from 1992 I call the era of the destruction of our culture. We were very tolerant." When he went back to visit Kabul University in 1997, he says, "I was shocked. We once had such highly qualified people there. They were all gone."

Those who stayed, like publisher Sardar Muhammad, paid a high price for their patriotism. One of Muhammad's two bookstores, located in downtown Kabul, was "burned with bullets," he says. His family was harassed by the Taliban because he published "un-Islamic" material. "They tortured my brother," he says. As a small form of symbolic revenge, Muhammad published anti-Taliban postcards in Pakistan, including one of a woman in a burqa with a caged bird balanced on her head.

The hostility that many Muslims in the West felt following September 11 may drive the cultural elite back home, Muhammad says. "The social circumstances at present do not support Muslim refugees [abroad]," he says. Yet for some exiles, the political atmosphere in Afghanistan is still too uncertain. Poet and artist Parween Pazhwak and her husband, cartoonist Homayoon Shinwari, fled Kabul for Peshawar, then Ontario, nine years ago. They say they are eager to return to Afghanistan--as soon as it is safe for their children. They are especially concerned with restoring the country's literacy rate, which some put at 15 percent. From Canada they have sent books of poetry, illustrated children's books and audiotapes of Afghan history and stories. "For the past 22 years, people have not been as familiar with poems or books as they used to be," says Pazhwak. "This is an important part of our culture that we need to work on once again."

The cultural elite may trickle back, but much of the art and history is lost forever. Even so, says Mirhaidar Mutahari, of the Culture Ministry, he and his staff have learned a valuable lesson. Suspicious of assurances that peace has come to Afghanistan, they have finally found a safe hiding place for some of their remaining artifacts. Where is that? "Under the sky," he says vaguely. He's not giving anything away.

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