After decades of upheaval, Afghanistan today finds itself unable to remember its cultural past.
Bollywood songs blare from taxis and street corners. In wedding halls, guests sit glued to the next episode of “Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi” dubbed into Dari, the main language in Afghanistan. In shops selling pirated CDs and DVDs in Kabul’s busy Flower Street, young Afghans walk in to ask for the latest Hollywood action movie, the music of a hot new Tajik singer or the most recent Iranian soap opera. The removal of the Taliban has been celebrated as the end of cultural censorship in Afghanistan, and the easy availability of imported pop culture touted as evidence of new freedoms. But the tragedy of the years of conflict in Afghanistan runs much deeper. What remains after years of violence and fighting, displacement and censorship, is a void. Built over years of absence of art and culture, what echoes today is the lack of an audience where once existed a deep appreciation of arts and music. This is an emptiness – as opposed to a simple tug of war between cultural freedoms and censorship, which could be resolved by lifting the arbitrary restrictions of the Taliban regime. It is also a void that is being filled too quickly and indiscriminately with whatever is at hand.
Contrary to the oft-repeated mantra that equates all censorship with the Taliban, the advent of cultural restrictions in Afghanistan goes back much farther. While the Soviet-sponsored regimes saw a chance for propaganda in art and music, the subsequent mujahideen government had senior leaders whose conservative interpretation of Islam did not encourage music and the arts. What space remained was squeezed in the last years of the Taliban, when its leaders turned more brutal and censorious, systematically destroying the art and culture that they had earlier permitted to exist. The purge culminated in the infamous destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, an act that turned the Taliban into pariahs. But Bamiyan residents still talk of how, in earlier years, the mujahideen soldiers would amuse themselves by taking pot shots at the Buddha statues.
Omara Khan Masoudi is the director of the national museum in Kabul, which he joined 30 years ago. He was forced to leave the country in 2000 because of the growing pressure of the Taliban, but remembers that the destruction of the national treasures did not begin and end with them. Masoudi says most of the losses of the artefacts in the museum took place during the civil war of the mid-1990s, before the Taliban came to power. “When power changed from communist to mujahideen hands [in 1992], there was a security vacuum,” he recalls. “The museum was looted.” The area where the national museum is situated became a frontline in the civil war, and could not be accessed by the staff. “For two years, this area was cut off and we could not reach the museum,” he says. “Rocket attacks set the museum building on fire, destroying a large part of it.” Today the museum is undergoing refurbishment, but the Darul Aman Palace, right opposite it, stands shattered and pockmarked with the brunt of many attacks, a mute testimony to what took place in the area.
In the initial years after the Taliban took over power in Kabul, its members actually helped to rebuild the museum and to safeguard the remaining artefacts. Edicts were also issued by Taliban chief Mullah Omar calling for the safeguarding of the Bamiyan Buddhas. However, as the regime came under increasing pressure of al-Qaeda, it took an increasingly stronger stance against ‘un-Islamic’ activity, eventually desecrating the museum that it had until then worked to preserve. While al-Qaeda’s hardline ideology does not tolerate the more liberal arts, political analysts have said that its leadership pushed the Taliban to adopt a more intolerant attitude. The idea, some suggest, was to make the Taliban more isolated from the international community and, hence, more dependent on al-Qaeda.
Reflection and regeneration
With the Taliban completing the process of emaciating Afghan art and culture, a new generation of Afghans grew up under the shadow of conflict, completely oblivious to the world of art and music. What remained from earlier years was lost as families migrated and were torn apart, losing the thread of continuity that had helped generations to pass on their knowledge, including that of art appreciation. While the removal of the Taliban has allowed art to flourish, most of what was produced in the initial post-Taliban years has been reproductions of postcard kitsch – the burqa-clad woman, the Bactrian camel, the old man in a turban. At its worst, this art recreated the stereotypes of Afghans and Afghanistan; at best, it was well executed but simplistic real-life representations.
With no link to the organic growth of art and the movements in art and culture in other parts of the globe, it has been difficult to shake the Afghan art scene out of its static limitations. One man trying to do this so, and who can testify to the difficulties, is Rahraw Omarzad, a teacher in Kabul University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, a department that was set up in 1976, just three years before the country began to explode with violence. Though Omarzad continues to teach at the Faculty, his real initiative has been in setting up the Centre for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, where he has been trying to teach young men and women artists interested in exploring contemporary and abstract art. (For samples of works from the Centre’s artists, see Himal commentary sections for July-December 2008.) “I found that by the time students reached the last semester, where they learn about contemporary art, they had already forgotten how to think out of the box,” Omarzad says. “When they come to the Centre, I do not teach them theory or any ‘ism’. I just ask them to create art from what is inside them. It is only when they themselves have started expressing themselves, and are confident, that we go to theory.”
The first-ever exhibition of contemporary women artists, held early last year, bore testimony to this confidence. The young women artists who displayed their works appeared to follow no set pattern of painting, and many of them produced works that varied greatly in technique, style and subject. Sheenkai Alam Stanikzai is a multimedia artist who works in paint, collage, video installations and photography. She says that for her, the conceptual clarity of her work is more important than the technique. “Some think that to paint they should possess innate skills,” she says. “But I believe that possessing good knowledge, open vision and awareness is of no less value than innate talents and skills.”
Many of the artists have been nurturing their talent for years, through trying circumstances. Another artist, 21-year-old Ommolbanin Shamsia, says she has been painting for as long as she can remember, as a child and refugee in Iran and, later, after her family returned home to Afghanistan. One of her paintings depicts a woman with a layer of gold jewellery covering her eyes. “I tried to show a woman who cannot see the way because of the gold,” Shamsia says. “She is in a golden cage.” Another of Shamsia’s paintings shows a woman standing at the edge of a pool of water. Instead of her own reflection, she looks at a young, green tree. “This represents woman as life, as regeneration,” she says.
This year, Stanikzai won the first prize in a contemporary-arts competition organised by the Turquoise Mountain, an organisation that is working to promote the revival of traditional arts and crafts of Afghanistan. In October 2008, Turquoise Mountain organised a first-of-its-kind three-nation contemporary-art exhibition, bringing together artists from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The exhibition recently travelled to the Venice Biennale, where it received rave reviews. But perhaps its greatest contribution was in bringing this art to an audience never previously exposed to it. Explaining the rationale, the curator of the Living Traditions exhibition, Jemima Montagu, who formerly worked at the Tate Gallery in London, says, “The three countries share a strong bond, particularly in art and in the way Islamic calligraphy and painting evolved. These traditions can and need to be adapted if they are to survive.”
In order to organise the exhibition, Montagu had to insure the paintings against potential acts of war and violence, and face the doubts of painters who were too anxious to send their paintings into a conflict zone – as well as the scepticism of those who felt Afghanistan lacked the necessary audience for such a show. Eventually, the exhibition opened to a packed audience comprised of both Afghans and international workers in Afghanistan. But for Montagu, the real audience was in those who had never seen such art before. “This is not a project for expatriates,” she says. “There is no existing audience for arts and culture here. You have to create it.”
As a result, an important component of the exhibition was school visits. During these, schoolchildren were exposed to a specially prepared package of materials that not only explained the exhibition, but also challenged them to ask questions and express themselves. Eventually, 7000 Afghans visited the exhibition, a third of them schoolchildren. Visiting Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi gave a lecture at Kabul University, after which he expressed his excitement about the initiative. “This is historic; it is important,” he said. “Things may be primitive here after the impact of years of war, but they will not remain the same. We cannot control things, but we can make efforts to change it.”
Culture of nothingness
Meanwhile, at the national museum, Masoudi wants more visitors. “This country has an ancient civilisation,” he says. “We have to be proud of it, about the pre-Islamic history.” Masoudi feels that it was a lack of education that led to the past looting, and he is keen to ensure that exposure to the museum now starts at a young age. “I hope some donors can provide us with one or two buses, then we could arrange to bring schoolchildren here and show them around for free. We could do this every day – we can host as many as 300 to 400 children at one time!” he says, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “We can show them our country’s rich past.”
Creating a receptive audience is also a challenge faced by Mirwaiss Sidiqi, the programme coordinator for the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia in Afghanistan. The programme teaches classical music to young Afghans, with classes conducted in vocal music and the traditional instruments of Afghanistan – the dilruba, rubab, tabla and sarinda. Initially, it was hard to find students to come and even harder to make them stay. As such, the classes remain free in order to encourage families to send their children, and students even get a small stipend as travel expenses so as to remove any disincentive.
The biggest challenge, however, has been creating a new appreciation for traditional music. Speaking painfully of the 5000-year-old cultural identity of Afghanistan, Sidiqi bemoans “the culture of nothingness” that has replaced it. What Afghanistan has now in the way of musical culture “does not belong to us,” he says. “It is imported in a nasty way to Afghanistan. It doesn’t have depth. It is a bad copy, a dark copy of Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, Tajik and European pop and rap music – a mixture of all these things trying to become a culture.” Sidiqi emphasises that he is not against pop culture, but says that it also should not be allowed to wipe out Afghanistan’s own traditions. “There is space for everyone, for everything,” he says. “But right now, we need to create a foundation, to build what we lost in the last thirty years. After that, it is their wish what they put on top of it.” Sidiqi is also concerned about the passage of time, and about what could be lost before the skills are transferred from one generation to the other. The generation that possessed the traditional cultural skills is today old and dying. One of those who teaches at the music school is Ustad Amruddin, the only skilled exponent of the lute-like rubab. “If we lose his knowledge,” says Sidiqi, “we can bury the rubab.”
It is not just through students that the Aga Khan programme seeks to rebuild the musical tradition. It is also trying to create an audience that can appreciate such music through public concerts, radio and television broadcasts, by talking about these issues through the media and preserving the knowledge. Sidiqi had just returned from a visit to the remote northeastern corner of the country, in the province of Badakhshan, as part of a project to document and record the country’s myriad musical traditions. These first important steps, however, also emphasise the long distance that has yet to be travelled. Traditional Afghan music cannot be accessed quite as easily as the cheap copies of Bollywood and Hollywood. There is no funding for a recording studio, and no means of making or disseminating the music in easily accessible ways such as CDs.
More heart than money
Still, the Aga Khan Foundation is one of the lucky ones, as others struggle just to keep their initiatives afloat. When Montagu organised the three-nation exhibition, she faced the timeless question of arts versus bread: Why, in a country of so many urgent and competing needs, should anyone spend money on art? Likewise, at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Omarzad has had to reduce the time he can keep the Centre open to just two days a week. Though there is widespread appreciation for his work, the enthusiasm has not been matched by funding. While the notion of young women artists creating unusual art has caught on in some circles, funding has only come through project-specific grants. The Centre has been funded repeatedly for exhibitions abroad, since these are visible, popular and help the donor nation to ‘preen’ itself. However, there has been no funding for the institution that could actually help young local artists learn, grow and instil a wider culture of art appreciation. The international community’s constant complaint that ‘good’ news stories from Afghanistan are ignored appears to apply to itself – and the Centre and others like it end up suffering from neglect, despite the billions spent in Afghanistan.
The bazaars of Istalif are evidence of the challenge of sustaining traditional crafts. Istalif, famous for its pottery, had been bombed into smithereens during the war. Yet when the families returned, the main demand was for gaudy artefacts, copies of the cheap, mass-produced objects sold in the bazaars in Pakistan and China. In an attempt to regain and preserve the tradition, Turquoise Mountain established a pottery school that has worked with potters helping them regain traditional skills and use new techniques. A year later, however, funding for the project has run out.
Those involved in arts and music also know they are up against more than one challenge. Though they are all loath to talk about it, Afghanistan has recently seen a resurgence of conservative culture and power of the Taliban – both attempting to assert themselves by defining the boundaries of Afghan identity and culture. It is against these odds that the younger generation is seizing upon the small spaces available to it, pushing against the boundaries and questioning both the conservative ideology and the pop culture that has been imported to fill the void. One of young Stanikzai’s paintings, called “Introvert”, shows the figure of a man crouching with his head held in his hands, depicted on a background of an array of geometric shapes of different colours that end in the shimmer of reflective glass. “He is an Afghan trying to find himself in the mirror of history,” she says. “He has returned home and is searching for himself – and wondering why he can’t find himself.”