Medieval Kabul rises from ashes after 30 years of war

Kabul, January 12, 2008 (Toronto Star): For a city befuddled by the mystery of where all its development dollars have gone, there is a certain comfort in seeing the bones of Old Kabul starting to shine through the rubble. Here in the medieval ruins of Murad Khane, a project that is simplicity itself, yet immensely ambitious, is taking shape one hand-hewn timber at a time.

What the Turquoise Mountain Foundation wants in a few years is nothing less than medieval Kabul reborn – a process that involves reviving a riverside neighbourhood studded with nearly collapsed examples of traditional Afghan architecture and the near-extinct Afghan craftsmanship that first created it.

With the growing list of donors – Canada's own foreign aid branch recently added $3.5 million to the kitty – it may yet come to pass, thanks primarily to the vision of British diplomat-turned-author Rory Stewart, best-known for The Places In Between, the startling 2006 account of his walkabout across Afghanistan after the fall of the Islamist Taliban.

Stewart enlisted the backing of old chum Prince Charles for his notion of reviving a dilapidated patch of the capital's Old City. By June 2006, with start-up funding in place and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on side, they began to break ground.

One-and-a-half years along, the scene just beyond the north bank of the Kabul River is impressive. A fleet of more than 50 wheelbarrows criss-crosses constantly, hacking through and carting away decades of chest-high waste from the last of four traditional courtyard houses targeted for renewal.

In their wake, aging craftsman lead teams of young men newly schooled in Afghan joinery in restoring the skeletal timber-frame buildings. A few of these homes remain diamonds in the rough, but one, known as The Peacock House for its distinctive feathered Nuristani marquetry panels, is already a shining jewel.

Part of Turquoise Mountain's success stems from careful consultation with all levels of Afghan authority. Even so, not everyone got the memo right off the bat, according to site manager Andre Ullal.

"One day, the Kabul building inspector came down and he was shocked to see people working with timbers. `Why aren't you using concrete?' he wanted to know," said Ullal.

"But now he gets it, like everyone else. One of the keys is that we are showing results quickly, with high visibility. We want this to be a site of constant activity ... to build confidence in the work. Because the goal is to make this a living area – an area that hopefully will be a destination for foreign travellers, once Kabul becomes a safe destination to visit."

Ahmad Fawad, an Afghan engineer overseeing elements of the restoration, said the project already is a kind of soothing medicine for Afghan eyes.

"The young Afghans who come to see what we are doing are shocked to see these carvings and beautiful old windows. But some the older people recognize it from their childhood, before Kabul was destroyed.

"Just seeing the reaction in a child's face, you realize the value," Fawad said. "We are saying to them: `This is your country. This is your history. This is the beauty of Afghanistan.'"

Journeyman carpenter Abdul Baqi and an apprentice join the talk, momentarily pausing in the task of replacing rotted window frames.

"I'm really not that old – I just look old because of all the fighting," laughs Baqi, 66. "My father taught me joinery but, for many years, it was impossible to pass these skills to others. But now, finally, we are training the youngsters. Already, a few of them are as good as me."

Twenty minutes by car from the site, the training arm of the Turquoise Mountain project is every bit as active. Nestled in an old fort alongside the former British embassy, master classes are underway in calligraphy, ceramics and the two primary schools of Afghan woodcarving, classical and Nuristani. With classes in session, work crews expand the site, baking mud bricks in the midday sun that will extend a courtyard into a marketplace for the traditional wares now in production.

Rory Stewart himself is here on this day, busily attending to a tour of potential donors. He has more good news. Commissions are rolling in – a London hotel is ready to pay hard cash for carvings and ceramics and several Arab collectors are in a frenzy of excitement over the quality of Turquoise Mountain calligraphy shown recently at a trade fair in Dubai.

"We expected maybe 60 applications. We got 600," said Anna Woodiwiss, a staff assistant with Turquoise Mountain, who describes the ceramics, calligraphy and woodcarving streams as "three-year programs with an apprenticeship model.

"The goal at the end of three years is to revitalize these crafts, and to prepare the graduates to make a living. We are very confident that livelihoods are in the making, particularly because of the response from donors, especially in the Middle East.

"Handcrafted products from Afghanistan are an interesting selling point. But it is (working) because the school is producing good work, not because it is a charity case."

A handful of women are involved in the woodcarving program but school officials shelter them from attention, both for their own safety and so as not to disturb the across-the-board Afghan acceptance of the project.

Turquoise Mountain's Ullal said Canada's $3.5 million contribution "is a real shot in the arm. It is the single most significant contribution right now, and we hope to stage it over three or four years for maximum effect."

By the end of the three years, Stewart's team hopes to integrate the two sites into one by relocating the Turquoise Mountain school to the newly restored ruins of Murad Khane.

Ultimately, a fuller revival of the historic neighbourhood will be up to its Afghan property owners, who retain title to the restored buildings, having agreed not to raze them in exchange for free restoration. One courtyard house being revived has 16 different owners from the same family, according to Turquoise Mountain staff. They must agree on how to use the building when it's done.

"It is very ambitious, because the neighbourhood is bigger than the pieces we are working on. What we want to see is momentum that will spread ... and become something greater," said engineer Fawad.

"But when you consider that the Russians wanted to completely destroy this neighbourhood – and when the Russians left, the warlords made an even bigger mess of it with their bombs and rockets – it is a victory already to be where we are today. Whatever other pieces of our history have been lost, these pieces are protected. They are here to stay."