AYŞE KARABAT

Embedded tourist

I am writing this letter from Kabul, Afghanistan. I think I am one of the very first »»

I am writing this letter from Kabul, Afghanistan. I think I am one of the very first tourists here at least in this century, although I am just a tourist embedded in a US Embassy tour.

Together with an Italian and British colleagues I am participating in a “cultural heritage” tour organized by the US Embassy here in cooperation with the US Embassy in Ankara.

We have been to wonderful historical sites in Kabul, Ghazni, Herat and Logar. I met very nice people. As I have not been to Afghanistan before, this trip was eye opening for me and I am hoping to share more when I get back to Turkey.

There was an image hovering in my mind throughout the whole trip. It was from Baghdad in 2003, when the manager of the National Museum was crying tearfully after the museum had been looted, saying, “This is our national heritage.” He could not believe what he saw and the damage that had been done.

I went to this museum in 1996. It was breathtaking, so beautiful with its huge collection. Many experts are saying that it would have been possible to prevent the looting but little had been done to achieve it. Not just the destruction of human life, but the looting of the museum is a crime against humanity. The National Museum in Baghdad reopened in 2009, but many items are still missing.

Wars not only affect human beings and cause much pain, they also harm countries’ heritage. The items in museums all over the world belong not only to the nation that has them, but to humanity, just like in Afghanistan.

We went to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. During these longs wars, it has been severely damaged and looted many times, but there are some projects to recover the lost items, which will serve humanity. According to the information we were given, 70 percent of its items are still missing.

We have been told that the museum lacks the physical capacity to protect its items, such as proper heating and cooling. This is why a new one will be constructed, hopefully with the addition of new items from new excavations that have already started.

There were many devoted people at the museum eager to preserve what they had left and get back what is missing. I will call them real patriots.

One of these is Ajmal Maiwandi, one of the architects working on the restoration of the Herat citadel, which dates back to Alexander the Great. Maiwandi was born in Afghanistan and educated in Europe and the US, but returned to his home country to take part in this project, which is a joint effort of the US government and the Aga Khan Foundation. He told me that the expats of Afghanistan can contribute much to reconstructing their country. Some of them are trying but either they are just coming up with ideas for the situation on the ground or they are burned out in a short time. He is rightfully proud of what he has done and hopes that restoration of the historical sites would serve the unity of the country.

We have been told that the Afghan people’s awareness of their cultural heritage is relatively strong among educated Afghans but, due to a lack of qualified teachers in schools, history is not being taught for the time being. This is a why a pilot project will be implemented for Ghazni with the cooperation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the US. According to the project, two different types of books will be printed, one will be a coloring book for younger students, in which they will be able to color pictures of the historical sites, and the other one, for teenagers, will give information about cultural heritage. The peace massage of Ghazni Governor Musa Khan will be in the books as well.

We were able to meet with him, too. Apart from saying that he distributed 10,000 leaflets emphasizing that Islam actually teaches tolerance every Friday, he said that his province does not get that much support from Islamic countries, especially in regard to cultural projects, although Ghazni was declared the Asian capital of Islamic civilization for the year 2013 by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) under the Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC). He was telling us that the funds for the city’s infrastructure and cultural heritage come from Western countries, as well as experts. We have been to the old city of Ghazni and its citadel, which will be restored by the Germans; the Islamic Art Museum, which will be reconstructed by the Italians and the famous minarets of Ghazni, whose pictures frequently appear in Turkish history textbooks, which will be preserved by the Americans.

On a stone placard at the entrance to the National Museum it was written that “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” That is completely right but it reminds me of something else, all of these projects are very nice but like all the projects done for Afghanistan, they need Afghan ownership. Without it, it is impossible for them to be fruitful.

Very soon I will be back to Turkey with wonderful pictures in my mind and the hope that one day I will be able to return here, not as an embedded tourist but as a real one.

2011-05-29

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Columnist:: AYŞE KARABAT