The Picture Show
Visiting Kabul's Old City
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:37 am
Venturing deep into the corners and warrens of Kabul's Old City, we stepped over gullies of exposed sewer pipes and tip-toed around an open swath of earth where men were laying the foundation for a new building.
Airborne sawdust coated my microphones. The sounds of hard work were everywhere: iron hammers, the roll of rusty wheelbarrows, the shouts of men, the trickle of a water pump, the pull of mud on boots and sandals.
There in a small part of Kabul's Old City called Murad Khane, centuries-old homes and courtyards were being restored. Long ago, craftsmen had carved these structures out of wood. Years of war and poverty and neglect had left the place all-but-withered and full of trash.
New builders were there now, backed by the non-profit Turquoise Mountain Foundation. The effort is trying -- quickly -- to restore this portion of Kabul's dignity and history before it is lost forever.
We were in awe of their astonishingly well-crafted work.
Until we met Haidarab.
He supervises a portion of a renovation project -- and as soon as he told us his family had been living in Murad Khane for generations, the art of the old wood around us became a lot less interesting.
Haidarab's ancestors were the very ones who came to this city centuries before. They were the jewelers and tailors and others who'd been imported from Afghanistan's hinterlands to serve an early king. The Old City had been built for them so they'd be close to the king's beck and call.
Haidarab's forebears had been among those servants of the ancient court.
And -- yet again in Afghanistan -- I was learning about the country's ancient history from the face (and the smile) of a man standing before me.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a catastrophe for Afghans but did have a few side effects. For one thing, it contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. For another, the city fathers of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, were never able to carry out their master plan for redesigning the old city. Ironically, that plan was approved just before the invasion and it was an exercise in Soviet-style central planning. It would have swept away old mud brick homes in favor of a worker's utopia of cement high rises. As it turned out, the Soviet invasion and the chaos of more than 30 years of war left no time to carry out that plan, and now Kabul's old city is being reborn in its original style.
On her most recent trip to Afghanistan, our Renee Montagne paid a visit.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
You can't tell by the din of cars and street vendors or the dirty Kabul River beyond its walls, but the district at the heart of Kabul's old city has quite a romantic past. In the 1700s it was here that the founding king of Afghanistan built ornate compounds and shady courtyards for his royal guard and others in his court: royal jewelers, royal tailors.
In the 1800s, their prosperous the descendents built homes famed for their exquisitely carved wood. By the 1900s the once elegant buildings had fallen into disrepair and many were abandoned. Drug addicts leaned against the walls of its winding allies. The endless wars had done in this old city quarter. Not so much the rockets but rather the refuse, created by decades of neglect.
Ms. SHOSHANA COBURN (Managing Director, Turquoise Mountain): Basically this entire area was covered in about three to nine feet of garbage.
MONTAGNE: That's Shoshana Coburn, who's overseeing a restoration that began nearly five years ago. At the time, residents were literally tunneling through the garbage or entering their homes on the second floor. Coburn's workers figured the trash had been collecting for...
Mr. COBURN: About 70 years. The only reason we know that is because when we first started clearing the garbage, all we had was a bit of paper from the president saying we're supposed to restore this area. And the municipality came in and said stop what you're doing, this is the municipality's job. And we were all ready with our piece of papers to stand up and say no, no, no, we have permission. Instead, a guy stands up in the back of the room, one of the older Shura members, and said, who are you to tell them to stop clearing the garbage? The last time you cleared the garbage was when I was four years old. The guy is 74, so...
MONTAGNE: The garbage was still piled high when President Karzai took an interest in this place. It was during a state visit to Great Britain back in 2004, when Prince Charles regaled Karzai with stories of how he's fostered Britain's traditional art. That led to the president and the prince becoming patrons of a charitable trust devoted to reviving Afghanistan's own arts and architecture. It's called Turquoise Mountain, after a fabled city along the Silk Road. And Shoshana Coburn says the revival by Turquoise Mountain of this quarter of the old city is just about complete.
Ms. COBURN: This is the Peacock House, which is the first building that we restored. We couldn't walk in the upper storey, actually, because it was going to fall down. So what we've done is put the entire thing up on hydraulic jacks and made it structurally sound and then...
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Ms. COBURN: We have these safe hatadis(ph), these three panels that move up into the ceiling.
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Ms. COBURN: Which basically means that this entire thing gets opened up, it's an open colonnade. So this building was originally a full courtyard. When you walk in, all you see from the outside is a blank mud fa�ade. But you get in the inside and it's four walls of this really elaborately carved and decorated timber screen.
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MONTAGNE: Here at Peacock House it's nearly impossible to tell where the antique ends and the new begins, which is just what Turquoise Mountain intends.
Mr. HEDAYATULLAH AHMADZAI (Engineer, Turquoise Mountain): My name is Hedayatullah Ahmadzai.
MONTAGNE: Known to everyone here simply as engineer Hedaya, the man who is overseeing this entire restoration. He waves his arms to indicate the mud walls held together by the fibers of bulrushes, creating rooms that stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. From the beginning, he says, the project rejected modern materials like concrete in favor of traditional ones.
Mr. AHMADZAI: And we start our work in that area, the material, they use 100 or 200 years ago. Our boss emphasized, please, use the same material which they have done in the past. Don't change anything.
MONTAGNE: Well, except one thing.
Ms. CORBURN: What you're stepping over is a channel that's being dug for a water supply pipe.
MONTAGNE: Running water is one modern touch everyone, residents and artisans, approved of. The Turquoise Mountain project has brought something this neglected community had never enjoyed - infrastructure.
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MONTAGNE: Drainage, sewage pipes, electricity, paving stones. And engineer Hedaya says it's brought something else in short supply - jobs.
Mr. AHMADZAI: It was a good opportunity for this community. Now they have a skill, like mason or carpenter, and they can maintain or help their family.
MONTAGNE: There is now a school for the children here, and opened to all Afghans, schools of the traditional arts - wood carving, ceramics, jewelry-making and calligraphy.
These days, Turquoise Mountain is putting the final touches on where, come January, the Afghan Institute of Art and Architecture will be housed. It's a complex of buildings known as the Great Serai, the grandest of the caravan stations, where traders once stopped with their camels and horses and unloaded the treasures of their travels.
Ms. COBURN: A three courtyard caravan Serai, one of the most beautiful bits of traditional architecture that you'll see in the old city. There's not a courtyard of this size and intricacy anywhere in the city. But it was just being used for the storage of sheep and bananas and was falling down.
MONTAGNE: Shoshana Colburn emphasizes that the Great Serai was abandoned because families who lived here, she says, stayed, even as their homes were returned to their former glory. That suits one white-haired gentleman called Haidarab. Though his ancestors had shops, he was working as a laborer until he became a supervisor on this project.
What was the shape of your own house, your own family's house, when this started?
HAIDARAB: (Through translator) My house was ruined. But luckily they rebuilt it for me and everything they refurbished, it's amazing.
MONTAGNE: Which brings us back to that master plan. One important sign of local pride in the city's heritage is that Kabul now has a new master plan and it designates this neighborhood an historic area.
The city is behind us now. This is not a place that is subject to demolition in 15 or 20 years.
Ms. COBURN: It doesn't mean there isn't still a real threat of bulldozing, because the rule of law is a difficult thing in Afghanistan. And so if somebody comes in with enough money, there is always the threat that something can be bought. And so for us there is legal protections which we've gotten in place. But the best way to protect this for us was to just make things as beautiful as we could as fast as we could, to make sure that people didn't want to knock it down and that the community would protect it.
MONTAGNE: And that others will come: tourists, Afghans and foreigners, to shop here or just wander through, and perhaps bring to this one corner of Kabul a happy ever after.
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INSKEEP: You can tour these buildings for yourself. They are amazing photos of Kabul's old city here at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.