Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Perils of Development: Afghanistan’s Threatened Treasures --- Armed conflict devastates a country, straining its institutions to their limits and beyond, shattering the foundations of its economy, and causing immeasurable human suffering and loss. It also calls into question the country’s very ability to exist, posing fundamental questions about its worth and capabilities. Why is this happening to us? Will we survive this? How will we ever go forward after such a blow? These are questions that inevitably accompany a losing war or even one with an ambiguous outcome. -- If the conflict does not last too long, if the damage does not exceed the capacity of the country to repair itself, and if the population can maintain its cohesion and some sense of hope, then a country can reemerge even from significant devastation. Once the dust has settled, it might even learn a productive lesson from what has happened and emerge stronger than it was before the conflict. Such an outcome will depend on many factors, but key among them is one that we often ignore, take for granted, or underestimate: culture. -- All would-be nation-builders know that a country emerging from conflict needs an army, a police force, schools, a constitution and laws, elections and a new government. But to get traction and become part of a new and healthy national fabric, these elements can’t just float in space as good ideas imported from the outside and funded by the benign victor or a generous international community. They have to be grafted onto something with durability and longevity, and that something is the country’s culture. Culture says: “Our ancestors have survived this and more, and so can we.” It says: “However demolished and lowly we may appear at this moment, we have something of value to contribute to the world.” And it says: “We belong together, and jointly we must overcome what happened and move forward in a better way.” -- The problem is that culture itself does not emerge unscathed from a conflict. Quite the opposite: war inflicts heavy damage both to tangible symbols of heritage such as historic buildings or monuments and to the intangible expressions such as traditions, ethical norms, literature, and art. -- During extreme moments, when basic physical survival is at risk and people are dying in the streets, culture can seem a luxury item. But it is more than opera tickets and reading groups; it is the totality of qualities, beliefs, values, symbols, and practices, large and small, that together add up to a unique way of life, to the collective being and personality of a group, country, or population. For social entities, culture represents survival in linear time, a link to the past, a vision for the future, and a compelling reason to continue to walk that path together. -- As the physical manifestations of culture, heritage sites particularly are often targeted during war precisely because of their psychological, religious, and economic saliency, and because of the demoralization caused by their destruction. Bomb a mosque, cathedral, medieval fortress, or Renaissance theater that holds pride of place in someone’s history, and you strike a killing blow. --- It follows that the importance of culture and its related artifacts should be better recognized, and should become more intrinsic to the nation-building enterprises of the modern era. Post-conflict reconstruction efforts would in all likelihood be more effective if they took into account the significant ways in which a country’s culture—including its heritage sites—impacts its ability to get back on its feet. There are at least three strong reasons for this connection. --- The struggle between the traditional and the new continues in the country today, on many levels. In Kabul, renowned anthropologist Nancy Dupree has fought a losing battle against the replacement of the city’s traditional, classic architecture with the opulent, Pakistani-style luxe mansions of drug lords, warlords, and other nouveaux riches. If England’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation had not rescued one small neighborhood in Kabul for preservation and restoration, nothing would be left of the Old City. -- A violent insurgency, along with decades of warfare, has made Afghanistan a minefield that visitors now wisely avoid. But along with trade and agriculture, tourism—and its earlier manifestation, pilgrimage—has historically been one of the pillars of this nation’s economy. In the seventh century, the traveling monk Xuanzang composed one of the earliest “tour guides” to the country. It included colorful descriptions of the clothing, food, and manners of the people of Bamiyan and Kapisa provinces, as well as a depiction of their outstanding monuments and religious sites. When the Arab scholar Ibn al-Nadim visited during the tenth century, he found this stream of religious tourism to be continuing uninterrupted, and reported that “the people of India [he meant the Buddhists] go on pilgrimages to these two idols, bearing offerings of incense and fragrant woods.” -- The steady stream of visitors who traveled across Afghanistan during the early 1970s along the “hippie trail” are evidence that subsets of tourists will come even if the infrastructure is rudimentary and travel is hazardous. Today, despite the absence of safe roads and a functioning airport, and with the constant possibility of sudden violence, and without the earlier religious or flower-power mystique, well over one hundred thousand Afghan tourists visit Bamiyan Province every year. Other hardy groups are braving the suicide bombs and roadside firefights to view the spectacular landscape of Afghanistan’s first national park, Band-e-Amir, to ski in the Bamiyan Valley, or to purchase the distinctive pottery of the hillside town of Istalif, outside Kabul. Catering to this dauntless crew, Lonely Planet has published an up-to-date travel guide that includes security advice. -- But if this cultural heritage holds out some fragile promise for Afghanistan if and when conflict ceases, some of the nation-building efforts already taking place, such as the one at Mes Aynak, remain insensitive to cultural heritage and threaten the Afghan future. --- Nowhere is the importance of culture and cultural heritage to nation building more clear than in Afghanistan—a country with a rich and diverse past that is currently beset by corruption, weak institutions, insecurity, and deadly violence. To date, little has been done to give Afghans hope for the future through a positive narrative that lauds their rich history and wealth of cultural sites. -- This is not an academic issue. With the US military drawdown accelerating and presidential elections looming, Afghanistan risks relapse to civil war if Afghan society does not come together and unite behind a hope for a better future. Culture is far from a panacea to Afghanistan’s myriad challenges, but as events at Mes Aynak suggest, it is a critical piece of the nation-building puzzle that demands immediate attention. -- Afghanistan would be wise to learn from the examples of the Balkans. In 1996, when the brutal genocidal war there finally came to an end, the city of Sarajevo had suffered immense losses. The cease-fire was announced in the middle of the winter; fuel had run out long ago, and people were freezing and starving. Life would not get better for some time, and nothing would bring back the many dead. In that hour, the city decided to hold a concert. A third of the orchestra’s musicians had been killed, and their seats remained empty. The audience wore coats and blankets against the chill of the unheated building. A Serb conductor stood before the Bosnian, Croat, and Serb players, to mark the moment when the city once again could hear music instead of gunfire. -- Read More, Cheryl Benard and Eli Sugarman,


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