FROM THE FIELD Knowing Nancy: An Interview with Afghanistan’s Grandmother, Nancy Hatch Dupree

In a country where news typically conjures images of warlords and Talib fighters, ambassadors and international forces, the 85 year old Nancy Hatch Dupree, has stood as an emblem of the country’s rich and ancient cultural heritage.  A force in her own right, her strength has been cemented in her singular, unwavering commitment to the culture of Afghanistan before, during, and after the more than thirty years of war.

Arriving in Afghanistan from the US in the 1960s she fell deeply in love with the country, and not long after, the renowned Harvard archaeologist, Louis Dupree. Together they worked side by side, him studying pre-historic sites and her writing numerous guidebooks. With the great loss of Louis in 1989, Nancy re-doubled her commitment to their work. She expanded the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), a rich source of regional information, which Louis had established in Pakistan before his death and which she moved to Kabul University in 2006. In 1994, Nancy founded the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) in Islamabad in order to organize international efforts to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan during the Mujahideen Civil War.

Today, Nancy Hatch Dupree is affectionately known as “Afghanistan’s grandmother” for her decades of dedication. Never one to withhold her opinions, the following interview is a candid conversation about her experiences and insights into preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. It is by listening and learning from these lessons – along with those of her colleagues interviewed for the Untold Stories series – that we may hope to ensure the country’s heritage for the next generation.

Q: For the sake of the film, could you just introduce yourself?
NHD:
My name is Nancy Hatch Dupree and I am working with the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. It is a collection of 60,000 documents related to Afghanistan.

Q: What brought you here? You have been working here for many years.
NHD:
Well, I came first with the American Embassy, but that was many years ago. And then I married Louis Dupree who was an archaeologist and we spent many years here going to various places in Kandahar, and also in Balkh province, and also in Badakshan province, excavating pre-historic caves. Louis Dupree, my husband at the time, was the only one who was primarily interested in the prehistory of Afghanistan.

You have here the extremely rich cultural heritage; it goes from very early ages: beautiful things from the Kushan period and the Islamic periods. These are your spectacular periods. But if you want to understand the history of man in this area, then you start from the beginning, which is in pre-history. So he was primarily interested in pre-history and found that there was a very active association of peoples primarily in the north during the very, very early times, during the Upper-Paleolithic. And then in the Dasht-e Nawar we found Lower-Paleolithic, and this is a whole new period which has to be studied in greater depth.

Q: What was your own first project on Afghanistan?
NHD:
I was working with the Garzandoi (Afghan Tours). I went to Bamiyan and this was when there was no paper guides, no two-legged guides. And this is now of the wonders of the world, so I spoke to Wahab Tarzi, who was then the first president of the Garzandoi, which had just been established.

And I said, “You know what? This is a scandal. You are trying to attract tourists but you don’t have any information about the most important tourist site in Afghanistan.”

So he smiled, and he said, “Well, you do something about it.”

I said, “Well, I will not write anything unless I see it, so you send me back to Bamiyan. So I spent a good part of a month in Bamiyan going to all the caves and studying everything. And then I wrote the guide to Bamiyan.

After that I became a guide writer. I wrote not only on Bamiyan but on Kabul and then the next one was on Herat and then the next one was on the north, the provinces in the north. And then finally, I published a general guide to all of Afghanistan.”

Nancy Hatch Dupree Nancy Hatch Dupree
Jake Simkin

Q: For me as an Afghan woman who lives now in Afghanistan and finds it very difficult to travel on her own, it is very interesting to see that you traveled to all these places at that time. How was it? How did people behave?
NHD: People, you know, the Afghans, they respect Harijis, foreigners, number one. Or they used to. They respect women also. And, so, I had no trouble travelling alone. People were always very, very hospitable and they wanted to help me.

And then much of the time I was traveling and getting my information for the guide books. I was traveling with my husband after I married him here and he was looking for pre-historic caves. I was looking for interesting material for the guide book, so we worked together. It was a very nice, cooperative relationship. And also he was my photographer. And that was, I think, it was very solidifying as far as the relationship was concerned. It brought us closer together because we were working on things together.

Q: Were you able to continue your work once the civil war began with the Soviet invasion?
NHD:
I was thrown out before the Soviets came, when Taraki (Nur Muhammad Taraki) came. During the Taraki regime we were thrown out and my husband was put in jail. By then we were living in Peshawar. He was coming back with the Mujahideen. I didn’t come with the Mujahideen. I thought it was not fair because, again, the Afghan character, they respected an old lady, and if there was a helicopter coming he would stay in order to help me. And I was endangering his life and I had no right to do that.

So my husband, he was like a goat with the Mujahideen. They could find shelter. But, so, he was covering the Mujahideen. I was covering the growth of the refugees in Peshawar. You know, it grew from nothing. We have a picture; I have a picture, of one of the largest refugee camps when it had one tent.

And it became a big city, you know, hundreds and hundreds of houses. But we were there from the beginning. I was studying the development of the refugees and while he was travelling with the Mujahideen.

Q: Were you doing some preservation work as well when you were in Pakistan?
NHD:
Well there wasn’t much preservation except for the preservation of information. Now this is very important because it’s not very well developed here. And that’s one of the reasons for ACKU, my center. I’m collecting the things that everybody is working on, all the research that is being done now. Because usually what happens, with these big agencies, they bring a reporter or a consultant, pay them big money, and they write a report and they circulate it for a short time and then it disappears. So all that information is wasted. So we collect, or try to collect, all the reporting that is being generated by the NGOs, by the bilateral governments, by the UN agencies, anything that describes what is going on, and what is the situation here in Afghanistan. And the reason we do this is because I am convinced that if you give the people of Afghanistan access to the information they need, that they themselves will do 80% of all this specific development.

People seem to think that just because people in the rural areas can’t read and write, they’re stupid. They’re not! They’re very, very bright and they showed that during their time in exile. They learned a great deal. Their minds were open and they are thirsting for things. They will pick up what they think is useful for them. If you give them information they don’t think is useful they won’t take it. But if it’s useful they’ll take it.

I had a recent experience with this. I’m profoundly bleak that this is true, because one time I was living in a village in northern Afghanistan next to my husband’s excavations. Two ladies came with a baby and the eyes were all stuck-up. They wanted penicillin and I said, “you go home, make some very, very strong tea and I will come. And they were laughing at me.”

They said, “ha, ha. We come, we ask this woman for help, and she said go make tea.”

Shaharzad interviewing Nancy Hatch Dupree Shaharzad interviewing Nancy Hatch Dupree

So, they were laughing at me and off they went. So when I got there they had the tea and we washed the baby’s eyes with the tea. And about two days later they came back, and this baby with these big beautiful eyes wide-open. There is nothing more beautiful than Afghan eyes.

They said, “Look at this!”

I said, “Yes, you see, the tea was better medicine than the penicillin. There is tannic acid.”

So then about a month later I was at a fatia, and we were all crammed into this room, and suddenly a woman with a baby with all stuck-up eyes, she began crawling towards me. And the women sitting around, they could see she was coming to me, they knew what was going to happen. And immediately, before she got to me, all the ladies were saying, “tannic acid, tannic acid, tannic acid! Go home and make tea!”

So, you know, this was learning. Not learning in a dull way, just learning practically, learning with good humor. And this is why I have a program where I publish books that are made for new literates. It is very simple but with very strong messages, not only about health, but about geography, about history, about home management. We have a hundred and twenty-two – oh no, now we have more – two hundred and seven titles in something called the ABLE box library extension, which goes into a district high schools and into village communities.

And this is part of what I do here at ACKU, because ACKU, they’ve got 60,000 documents. OK. They’re all catalogued. That takes a long time. And they are also all digitized. They’ll be coming, but they’re not all done. But anyway, about three-quarters of them are digitized. And the reason for digitizing is to preserve them, right? But also, you know, it’s very nice to have them on the shelves. I’m very proud and they’re very neat and everything. You can find what you want. You can search for it and you can go and find it.

That’s all very good, but actually, those documents are no use unless somebody takes them off the shelves and reads. So in order to distribute more widely, we’ll put all of this digitized material on DVDs, and we send them to Herat, Mazar, Kandahar, Khost, wherever there is a university, wherever there is the facilities to use it.

We will share this information with the whole of Afghanistan. The motto of ACKU is “sharing information for nation building,” because you can take this information and build on the livelihoods of the people. And I’m convinced that this is very, very important: access, access to knowledge.

What Afghanistan needs is a national information network, because there is lots of information here.  And we know, for instance, one very interesting thing. You know, Afghanistan is very high in child mortality, very, very high. And the mothers, the maternal mortality rate is also very high. And you know 87% of that high rate is caused by the fact that the people don’t know they are preventable. You can prevent the causes of that high mortality rate. Prevent by giving them information about what causes disease, what are germs, where they lurk in your house, and how to avoid them. Simple things like washing your hands. So we have books on that.

And also, we don’t like to work in isolation. We like to work in a parallel with the government ministries. For instance, on health: they are lowering the mortality rate – one of the accomplishments, achievements of this government. And they are doing it through community health workers. They bring the community health workers for training and they send them home. But they don’t give them anything in their hand. So, when the community health workers think, “my god, was I supposed to put one teaspoon or two teaspoons of salt in this medicine?” Can’t remember and there’s nothing to tell. So we write a book that goes exactly according to the messages that the Ministry of Public Health are teaching. Nothing else, just reinforcing the same messages. But it is something that they can have in their hand. So we do this for veterinarians, we do this for agriculture, we do this in addition to the history, which they like very much.

Q: How long has the center been in place and how many people work for you? Are these Afghans?
NHD:
All are Afghans, except me. And I’m going to be replaced very soon with a very superior Afghan who will be joining us in October. So I’m very happy about that. I have about 23 people who are working: the digitizers, the catalogers, and there’s the finance, and there’s the IT. And we have a reading room also in the library. You can take pictures of the reading room if you like, where the students and the professors, they can access our documents. And now we are building because we have very little space here, because there is more to sharing information than just cataloging books: exhibitions, lectures, films, all of kinds of events.

And, as I say, I look about this as one step, one step towards the establishment of a national information network, which we should have, because there is a lot of information here. But there is no way to get it out. It is really concentrated here. For instance, we have the boxed libraries, the ABLE libraries; we have in the provincial councils.

You know, the basis of democracy is your provincial councils. And I went to Charikar and I saw the provincial council. They didn’t even have a copy of the constitution. Now how can you be an effective provincial council if you don’t even know what your rights are?

So, initially we were only sending books to the community. And the community, they manage these. We don’t – we deliver the box and the community selects who is to be the custodian. They decide where they are going to put it. Some of our ABLE boxes are mobile boxes. Some of them are in schools and some of them are in clinics. The mullah’s like them very much. They’re in the mosque and sometimes in the shop because, you know, they’re lending libraries. So when somebody comes to return a book and take a new book, they see something to buy, so the shopkeepers like them also. So it depends, if the community makes the decision and manages it.

Q: What do you think about the ongoing preservation projects that are going on in Ghazni, Herat, Mes Aynak and the groups working there?
NHD:
Well I’ve been working with the museum for…I don’t like to say for how many years because it makes me look very old. But the Kabul museum is very dear to my heart, and to see it being looted the way it was during the war was very disturbing. But the soil of Afghanistan is so rich that we now have Mes Aynak, which we didn’t know anything about then.

The video, “Who is the Historian?,” is available on YouTube and Kabul at Work.

Joanie Meharry is director of Untold Stories: The Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage with grants from the Hollings Center in 2011-12.  She has conducted fieldwork on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage with fellowships from the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University in 2012 and the Global Heritage Fund in 2011, and an oral history project on the National Museum of Afghanistan with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2009. She writes often on Afghanistan’s culture and politics. Joanie holds a double-master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and International and Comparative Legal Studies.

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. Reporting for the book, she traveled across Afghanistan to meet and interview active Afghan women in all sectors. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

FROM THE FIELD: Change of Time, An Interview with Abdul Wasay Najimi, Conservation Architect for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Professor at Kabul University

In the summertime, thousands of visitors flock to Bagh-e Babur, “Babur’s Garden”, an historic park in the heart of Kabul. Presiding over the garden is the entombed 16th-century Emperor Babur the Conqueror, founder of the Moghul Empire in India, for whom the garden is named. In the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he praises the location for its scenery, gardens, orchards, and semi-arid climate. “Within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where snow never falls,” he observes. “But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.”

Five centuries later, the public enjoys this same ambiance. Enclosed by perimeter walls, fertile rows of cypress, hawthorn, and cherry trees adorn the cascading terraces of the garden. Groups congregate on the pavilions. Couples stroll lazily along the water channels. Families picnic beneath the shade of the trees, eating kebabs, chatting, and resting in the dry heat.

Babur’s Garden did not always paint so splendid a picture. By the end of the Mujahideen civil war (1992-95) much of the garden was destroyed. It lingered in this state of disrepair through the Taliban regime (1996-2001).  And it was not until 2003 that restoration work was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), joined by Dr. Abdul Wasay Najimi, a conservation architect. Most of the work was completed by 2007 with facilities for cultural and recreational activities, including a caravanserai (inn with large courtyard and area for caravans), garden pavilion, swimming-pool, and Queen’s Palace complex.

It was at the garden that we filmed an interview with Dr. Najimi about his work as a conservation architect as part of the series, Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage. The interview can be watched in the short video, Who is the Conservation Architect?, which showcases Dr. Najimi’s work for AKTC, including conservation of the eighteenth-century Timur Shah Mausoleum. Today, Dr. Najimi is instructing in the history of the architecture of Afghanistan full-time at Kabul University, teaching a younger generation to appreciate their cultural heritage, so that in time, more of Afghanistan’s remarkable architecture may be preserved.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work experience with the Babur’s Garden project?

AWN: The first time I saw Babur’s Garden was in the Taliban’s time. It was in 2000. One of my former students was involved in the project. He had some funds from HABITAT to plant some trees that you can see at the lower part of Babur’s Garden. He also wanted to build a door for the garden.

Generally, the garden was completely destroyed. All its old trees were cut down. The place we are sitting at was destroyed. The structure was in place. The garden was ruined and there were no windows or doors or anything. All the surrounding houses were in ruins. I came with him to see what his plans were and what he was doing. For the second time, when I came in 2002, we started a deep survey and study of Babur’s Garden. Naturally, it was as I described before. Slowly we surveyed and developed a design and we implemented the plans. Now you see the results.

Q: When you were abroad (working towards your PhD), were you following the issues related to Afghanistan?

AWN: Since 1986, I have had direct working relations with Afghanistan. But not all my activities were related to historical sites and buildings. There were no such projects then, and also, there was no funding or budget for this kind of work. To earn a living, I worked with other organizations working in Afghanistan, organizations for development of cities and rural areas and such. But throughout this period, there were projects and missions once in a while from UNESCO or something organized by myself, where I traveled and studied historical sites closely, and wrote on them.

From 1991 or even 1990, I became more involved and I went to Bamiyan on behalf of UNESCO once or twice. Once, I went to Munar-e Jam. From ’93 onwards I was in Herat for two years with a Danish organization. We reconstructed some of the significant sites there. For a while after that, I was not very involved. But since 2002, after AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) opened an office in Kabul, we identified some sites/projects for reconstruction in Kabul. After 2005, I also got involved with Herat. Since then (2002), I have been directly involved in different projects.

Q: How many important projects did you work on at this time?

AWN: In Kabul, one of the most important projects was the revival and reconstruction of Bagh-e-Babur. Others were repairing, strengthening, and restoring the Timur Shah Mausoleum and garden, and reviving and repairing a residential area known as Ashiqan wa Arifan, in the old city of Kabul.

We further developed to include [restoring] a series of historical mosques, historical public baths, fixing roads and streams, and helping provide drinking water. Similarly in Herat, our important projects included reconstruction of an area in Herat, close to the center of the city; we reconstructed some of the houses as a sample.

Q: What role did Afghans have in reconstruction of the garden?

AWN: Generally, all we have done has been done through Afghans. To the extent possible, Afghans have also done the expert and technical work. AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) is an international organization and naturally wants to work with international standards. For this reason, we occasionally had international observers or experts whom we consulted with in case of need and asked for advice… Thus, it was both satisfactory and enjoyable. During these talks, my colleagues and I learned a lot academically and they (the international experts) also admired the restoration of old building material, the style, and the way of old work. They would see how to reuse the material that had been used before, again, and get a good result out of it.

Q: What are the plans for the future of Babur’s Garden?

AWN: Babur’s Garden, after its reconstruction was completed in 2006, I think towards the end of 2006, found a new administration. We tried to form a trust or administrative organization for the garden. It would be run by an executive board with help from the municipality, which used to run the garden, and the Ministry of Information and Culture, which is responsible for preservation of historical sites and buildings. The executive board members are representatives of AKF, the Kabul municipality, and the Ministry of Information and Culture.  The day to day management of the garden is conducted by the trust or organization called “Organization for Protection and Preservation of Babur’s Garden”.  The organization is registered with the Ministry of Economics and is run according to regulations of NGOs.

Q: And the idea is that the garden will be independent in future?

AWN: No. The idea is that in the past, many years ago, the garden was run by the municipality, and they sold tickets for entrance to the garden. Now, the garden is at the beginning of its reconstruction, and it has some expenses to be paid occasionally for its preservation and protection. The decision was made that the garden can have revenue from selling entrance tickets, from renting out for cultural events, and if there is a shortage of money/budget, it will ask for help from aid organizations so that it can manage its own expenses. According to government regulations, the municipality did the same thing. So it is permitted. The organization/trust is a non-profit. They need to manage all their expenses and income themselves. At the end of each year, their accounts are audited by auditors that have so far been international auditors and a report is made on their expenses.

Q: Was the team from Babur’s Garden involved in the restoration of Timur Shah Mausoleum as well?

AWN: Our team was really big. One team worked with Babur’s Garden. The other worked on Timur Shah Mausoleum and then on the walls and the gardens there. We had another team that was working in the old city. Some of the engineers, who gained work experience here, went and worked with other organizations, or made their own companies. Some of them went to Herat with me. We had the same program there regarding training of young people and such. For now, our work has decreased in Kabul, and we try to go and work in some other provinces where we didn’t have access before.

Q: How has the collaboration from local people been? How much do they know about historical sites?

AWN: Local people know about the value of historical sites and buildings… Unfortunately, during the war, there were many limitations. Poverty was increasing and roads were closed. Many people started to think that if they dig the historical sites, and find some historical or antique artifacts, and sell them, they can earn a living. Unfortunately, this led us to lose some of our important and historical artifacts.

When there is no specific responsible organization, the local people also slowly become careless, especially when it comes to buildings and such. In some places, historical buildings and locations have been misused, and that may have caused their destruction. In other places, lack of any preservation efforts and existence of snow and rain has led to destruction. Sometimes, it has been a case of military use or buildings being employed in some manner during the fighting. Or the government has used the structures for military purposes. The people have often used buildings as shelters. The important point is that there is little public knowledge about historical artifacts of our country. And the officials, even if they are responsible, they are not fully active and accountable on raising awareness. We still have the problem that on one front, we need to raise public awareness through radios and TVs and through schools and teaching, and on the other front we need to work to improve the organizations that are responsible for this job of preservation.

Q: What was the worst period for cultural heritage in Afghanistan?

AWN: It is now and it was in the past 30 years of war. The main reason is that it was hard to preserve historical sites, traveling was difficult, there were few professionals and experts of historical artifacts in the country, everyone was on the move, everyone was a migrant. But the problem still continues.

Q: What is the impact of security on preservation work?

AWN: Security impacts everything. If there is fear and worry somewhere, there is lack of certainty. Any work, from business to personal and governmental activities, will be harmed. Luckily, since we have so far worked in Kabul and Herat, and also, the way we worked, we had very close relations with the public. We also occasionally have consulted the government offices that were responsible for preservation. We have never had any (security) problems. If you are working in a place that is hard to access, and is not safe and secure, sending professional staff and required material and equipment would be difficult. I have to say this, that the history has proved that civilization will grow in a place where there is security. Where there is peace among a community or in an area, the civilization has grown, progress has happened and economy has grown. During the war, all decisions are quick decisions, and while taking quick decisions, one can’t make useful decisions for the future.

Q: How do you see the future in three or four years?

AWN: Well, God knows better about the future. We can’t predict. But, from a personal and professional commitment viewpoint, I can only say that for me, it has been proved that in implementing such projects, we need to educate the youth. So that, we can train architects that are interested in the profession, have an understanding of the profession, and can work for the future, so that we can offer these people to our society.

It is for this reason that since 2009 we have had a more serious collaboration with Kabul University. I have gone there regularly on behalf of AKF and have taught there in the section related to history of architecture for Afghanistan, specifically regarding conservation and preservation. Also, this year we will invite some people from abroad to hold short term, expert classes for students in Polytechnic University Kabul and Kabul University simultaneously to restore the motivation for professional work, the style of professional work.

This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/

Joanie Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a 2012 John F. Richards Fellow for the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and is directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She also holds an MSc in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

FROM THE FIELD: Speaking with Omara Khan Massoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan

Omara Khan Massoudi is more of a permanent feature at the National Museum of Afghanistan than many of the collections that are housed there. Now the director, he has worked at the Kabul museum for more than three decades: a tumultuous period that bore witness to the Soviet occupation, Mujahideen civil war, and Taliban regime, when irreplaceable collections were relocated for safekeeping, damaged, or destroyed.

These days, Mr. Massoudi is overseeing a period of progress. Stunning relics from the current excavation at Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist complex located in Logar province, are on display in a new exhibition, Mes Aynak: Recent excavations along the Silk Road. Plans are also underway to erect a new National Museum building with state of the art equipment on the lot next door with funding from the United States Embassy and the World Bank.

The director has given countless interviews in English about the history and future of the museum. But this time around my Afghan colleague, Shaharzad Akbar, interviewed Massoudi in his native tongue of Dari, so that little was lost in the conversation. What follows is Massoudi’s beautifully told account of his experiences in his own words. The interview can also be watched in the short video, Who is the Museum Director?, which includes rarely seen historical footage of the museum.

 

Q: When did you become interested in the cultural heritage of Afghanistan?

OKM: Thanks. When I joined Kabul University, the faculty of literature and human sciences, I studied the history and geography that is closely linked to museums and archaeology. In 1973, when I graduated, I worked as a teacher in Ibn-e-Sina for four years. Afterwards, I came to the Ministry of Information and Culture. For four months, I worked on Kushani international research. Then I came to the National Museum of Afghanistan (also known as the Kabul Museum) and I have been working in different parts of the museum since. It is closely linked to my field of study. You know museums are linked to history and geography both, and fortunately, I have been working in a small part of the museum since.

 

Q: When you came to the Kabul Museum, what was the situation?

OKM: The museum was in a good place then. The museum was exhibiting 10% of the artifacts from the collection of the artifacts stored in the museum. Storage was full of historical objects. There were lots of viewers and the exhibition was designed very gloriously. Until 1992, this museum was open to the viewers. In that time, not only Afghans, but also some foreigner friends visited the museum, and as days passed, the museum was making more progress.

 

Q: When did things change for the museum?

OKM: You know that in May 1988 (Afghan calendar: 1367), when the Russian troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan, rebels in Kabul’s surrounding areas began firing rockets on Kabul through the summer and fall of that year. The authorities decided to end the museum’s exhibition, because there was fear that rockets may hit the museum. The possibility of fire was also predicted.

One year later, we not only withdrew the exhibition of the objects, but we also proposed a plan to the Ministry of Information and Culture to move some of the important objects belonging to different historical areas to the center of the city for protection. Power was shifting from the communist government to the Mujahideen. And, naturally, it was predicted that transfer of power would create a power vacuum. And with a power vacuum, we predicted that some dangers or risks may face the museum. Fortunately, the Minister of Information and Culture accepted this proposal, and he shared it with the president, Dr. Najibullah, who also accepted it.

President Najibullah instructed the members of the museum to indicate a place that they deemed appropriate and safe for preserving the objects. Members of the museum studied all of the government buildings in the center of the city. At our last analysis, we chose an appropriate place, where in that small area; they specified two cabins for us. According to the capacity of the space, we chose important and unique objects from different historical parts or different historical areas. Then we packed them.

In the presence of a delegation of authorities, consisting of members of the museum and some individuals from the honorable Institute of Archeology, we moved it in 1368 (February-March, 1989). The purpose was that if there are any incidents or problems in one area, the second or third area may stay safe. Fortunately, this decision led to some very good and pleasant results for us. But unfortunately, for the objects that were mostly in the National Museum, which is in Darulaman area (southwestern Kabul), they were really damaged. Especially when the civil wars started during early 1992 until the end of 1994, many horrible battles happened here, and the objects from the museum were looted. Also, due to a rocket, on May 12, 1993, the upper level of the building was set on fire. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the lower level. Most of our storage was in the ground floor.

Jake Simkin
Omara Khan Massoudi

The objects that were looted from the National Museum found their way to the black markets here. But the very unique objects, fortunately, did not come to the market. The looters were always looking, they always asked, ‘what happened to the Bactrian treasure?’ Because in 1357-58, these objects were excavated by Afghan and Russian archaeologists. When Viktor Sarianidi submitted these objects to the museum, there was instant attention. And it is worth mentioning that in 1980, we put some of these objects on display in the National Museum. Due to security issues, we collected these objects and put them in storage.

In this time, what I think is important is that when national and international journalists asked about the Bactrian treasure, museum staff decided not to give any information about the objects to the media. The concern was to keep it safe. Because we predicted that if, god forbid, any information about these objects gets out, they will face danger. This decision ensured protection of the objects that were placed in two locations inside the city, and they were safe till 2003. At that time, when H.E. President was visiting the central bank of the Presidential Palace, he was visiting the bank storage, I think the bank staff told him that the Bactrian treasure is safe; it is here. The president, who was extremely happy, shared with the media that the Bactrian treasure is still safe. At that point, we didn’t have any other option.

Several countries showed interest in having an international exhibition of these saved objects in their countries. Finally, I remember, in 2005, H.E. President had an official trip to France. Mr. Chirac, President of France, asked him to send an exhibition to France, based on previous relations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. During the kingdom of Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) and in the period of Zahir Shah (1933-1973), we had very friendly relations with France. You might know that after 1923, based on an agreement signed between the governments of Afghanistan and France, French and Afghan archeologists had excavations in various parts of Afghanistan. Thus, H.E. President agreed to Mr. Chirac’s suggestions.

President Karzai instructed for a selection of some of the saved objects by experts from both the Guimet Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan. We selected 231 saved objects that belonged to the following four historical periods: objects from the Fullol hill that belong to the Bronze Age, Ai-Khanoum objects that belong to the 3rd or 4th Centuries BC, objects from the Bactrian treasure that belong to around the 1st Century BC through the 1st Century AD and also objects from the Bagram treasure that belongs to the 1st-2nd Century AD. We chose 231 objects that consisted of 1,441 individual pieces. Before the objects were sent there, we created inventories. We computerized the details and created documentations for them in both Dari and English, and in international standards. First, these objects were restored here for three weeks. French experts came. They were restored, fixed, and were made ready to be transferred. Then for more than two months in the Guimet Museum in France, they were cleaned by experts of both museums: the Guimet Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan. They were made ready for exhibition, which was opened at the Guimet Museum in October 2006. Several countries put in requests (for future exhibitions), for example: Italy, Holland, Germany, and the USA. The Ministry of Information and Culture signed contracts with each museum.

I think this is a good message to the whole world. Especially to Afghans who are immigrants in a different world, in different countries. Afghanistan is always in the media. Reports are published that lead people to know Afghanistan as a country of terror, murder, bombs, explosions, and these things. But I think this exhibition at the National Museum of Afghanistan is a good message to the world, that Afghanistan is not only a country in war. Three decades of war have destroyed different aspects of people’s lives. It is a good message for the world that Afghanistan is a country with past civilizations, rich history, and also was and is rich with artifacts. This message introduces another face of Afghan people, and Afghan culture to people. Many countries have requested (the exhibition) so far and we are hopeful that it can show the authentic face of Afghanistan’s long living culture to the world. It is very effective in introducing our culture.

 

Q: This exhibition increases interest in Afghanistan.

OKM: Certainly. This exhibition, as I mentioned before, is not only a good message, but it also allows the international community to also learn about our history. And fortunately, I am very happy, that until now, more than one and a half million people have visited this exhibition. Good publicity has been done.

One of the advantages of this exhibition for us is that in addition to generating some income for the Afghan side, we have tried to get each country to print a catalogue. We have requested 1,000 catalogues from each country, translated in our national languages, in Pashtu and Dari. The Ministry of Information and Culture sends these free catalogues to all the public libraries of Afghanistan, and to libraries of all universities. We have sent them so that our youth access the research done about objects of Afghanistan in their national language, Pashtu or Dari. We have even distributed some in English for friends who know the language. We have another catalogue that we plan to officially send to libraries of all teacher-training institutions and to centers of education for teachers so that they can learn about their history and culture in their own national language.

Many books written by international archaeologists about the history and culture of Afghanistan have been published in their own language. Unfortunately, as you know, Afghan people, particularly youth, can not access all foreign languages. Russians have written in Russian, Japanese have conducted research in Japanese, Germans in German and British or American experts or archaeologists have published in English. We send these (Pashtu and Dari) catalogues to libraries as donations, to encourage young people to become interested and read. In future, if we had the capacity, we plan to send these to libraries of high schools not only in the capital but also in the provinces so that our people know that their country has had a valuable history and precious objects, and it still has them. This should become clear and comprehensive for them, and they should study. I think this is another advantage of this exhibition.

 

Q: When can we bring the objects from this exhibition to Afghanistan? Is the security situation ready for this? And are you optimistic about the future of Afghanistan in this area?

OKM: The objects were here. They were sent for exhibition in 2005. Fortunately, they were saved. Today, it is every Afghan’s wish to have real security in the country. One of the main responsibilities is also to put our objects on display for our own Afghans. And now, these objects are in an international exhibition. We hope that this tour will end after all the countries send their requests. Naturally, it will return to Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Information and Culture aims to construct a new building on the west side of the National Museum, for the National Museum. This building will meet all the requirements of a modern museum that is standard globally. These requirements are security signals, humidity control system, and heating system, as well as good lightening, good storages, and good display halls. Naturally, we will display these objects in here so that all our countrymen learn about their rich history.

The current building of the museum is, unfortunately, not built for a museum. It is a historical building that was built simultaneously with Darul-aman Palace in H.E. King Amanullah Khan’s period. It was used as a municipality building. The objects of the museum were transferred here in 1931, or 1309 solar year, from the city center to here. We use this building as a museum since then. The requirements I mentioned earlier do not exist in this building and it is a historical building. Even if we bring the humidity control system, strong security signals, and also heaters and such to this building, I don’t think it can respond to needs of the National Museum in future. It was based on this need that the Ministry of Information and Culture and Islamic government of the Republic of Afghanistan decided to have a new building, a bigger building that would be a model for the whole region. We hope that these objects will be exhibited for Afghans who are interested as well. We will wait for these facilities to be put in place, so that these objects are preserved in the best possible way in the National Museum.

 

The Director of the National Museum, Omara Khan Massoudi, overseeing restoration of a statue

Q: What was the situation of the museum in the aforementioned crisis periods in Afghanistan? Was the museum closed during the Taliban-controlled period?

OKM: Unfortunately, when the civil wars started, the museum building burnt down and its objects were looted. The museum was in bad shape, but it was not closed. It was always open for visitors. At least our countrymen could come and see the destroyed museum.

During the Taliban period as well, only a few objects were on display, but visitors would come. After the fall of the Taliban, the Ministry of Information and Culture decided to reconstruct the museum as soon as possible to reconstruct the National Museum of Afghanistan. Not only the National Museum, but all of our cultural aspects had been greatly damaged. Most of our historical buildings have been destroyed during the war. Our historical sites have been looted.

I am very happy that in May 2002, the Ministry of Information and Culture took an initiative and invited an international conference with financial support from UNESCO. It was for two days. More than a hundred Afghan and foreign experts attended the conference. This seminar studied issues in all aspects of Afghanistan’s culture. The participants in the seminar visited the National Museum of Afghanistan, the destroyed museum, and fortunately, this drew considerable attention to the reconstruction of the museum. Reconstruction was financially supported by friend country Greece, the US Embassy and also UNESCO. Reconstruction work started in 2003 and ended in September 2004.

At the same time, we tried to establish departments for the National Museum from scratch. We especially paid attention to the Restoration Department, the Photography Department, and other things. The objects that were left from war were mostly damaged. They needed serious restoration. They needed to be restored, cleaned, fixed. The destroyed objects needed to be reconstructed. We took positive steps in this regard. And I am happy that staff of the museum worked and worked seriously with courage and a sense of responsibility and dedication. More than 3,000 objects needed serious restoration, and were fixed and restored. From the destroyed objects, we reconstructed 300, and some of it is put on display.

But the work is on-going. We still have big responsibilities in front of us. The objects that were left from war generally need restoration, cleaning, and reconstruction. But we have limited facilities. Our efforts have continued and, fortunately, the National Museum has been able to expand its exhibition now. We have put some objects on display and the museum is open every day to visitors.

I am especially pleased that our visitors increase every year. The majority of our visitors are school and university students. I can provide you with a small statistic. In 2002, we had 2,000 visitors for the whole year, but last year in 1389, we had more than 24,000 visitors. This year, in the first three months, we have had more than 9,000 visitors. We are hoping to have more than 30,000 visitors by end of year. I think this is still insignificant.

Our services are also limited. I hope we can offer more services one day. And I hope there will be a time when the National Museum of Afghanistan has visitors in the same proportions as advanced countries. I hope that our youth take interest. Although, we do understand the problems of our people, the problems of our school students, that they have many problems. They do not have the financial means to come from provinces to center to visit and to come to the museum. But I am optimistic that a bright future awaits us. Our youth will take interest. Our people will take interest. They will even come with their families. They will visit the National Museum. The museum is open to visitors every day, especially on Fridays, when our people can come and visit the museum without a ticket. There is lots of hope.

 

Q: Do you have any agreements with the Ministry of Education to encourage the students (to visit)?

OKM: As I indicated earlier, the doors of the museum are open to everyone. My expectation from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education is to bring school and university students here. We do not require them to buy tickets. Not only do we not distribute tickets to them, but also our guide is there for them to serve them in our national languages, Pashtu and Dari. I understand that, unfortunately, the Ministry of Education also has some economic problems to provide transport. But, still our education system is improving. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education are slowly overcoming problems. They have international support. I hope that in future there will be an opportunity for school students to visit regularly. Every day, in every moment, the National Museum is ready to host 200-300 visitors with several breaks. We are ready to provide any service to our visitors, to our countrymen. One of the important functions of a museum is education. We are ready to provide these services.

 

Q: What were the difficult moments in the history of the museum? Have you ever lost hope in future of the museum?

OKM: Unfortunately, in the history of Afghanistan, these instances have repeated themselves. I am very disappointed when cultural issues are overshadowed by medium or big political policies. Unfortunately, there has been damage. During the earliest unrest, as you know, the National Museum of Afghanistan was in Koti Baghcha, the Presidential Palace. In 1308, it was damaged. The objects were looted. During the civil wars in years 1992-1995, and also in the unfortunate incident in 2001, the objects in the museum were destroyed.

The National Museum of Afghanistan has seen many ups and downs. I personally, serving the museum for 33 years, have witnessed these up and downs. But the sacred religion of Islam always promotes hope to individuals. One has to be hopeful. Our people should try. They should face every problem and struggle with it. Having hope is essential for life. We witnessed very difficult moments at the museum. We saw its destruction. But we did not lose hope. One has to be hopeful to serve his countrymen in all circumstances. One has to take steps with determination. They say that if you feel compassion, a blind eye also sheds tears. We did not lose hope. The big problems that were facing us are fortunately being solved slowly and day by day. And I am optimistic that in future, real peace will come to this country. The mistakes Afghan people made must not be repeated. They should beware that war does not bring happiness to any nation. War has no outcomes but destruction.

In a peaceful environment, one can focus on knowledge, on education, and serve one’s people. I am hopeful that our culture can play a big role in creating peace. It can restore national unity. We have the best examples in the National Museum. The objects of the museum, if one pays proper attention, are storytellers of different aspects of lives of Afghan people, be it political, social, economic, and cultural in different periods. We have great examples in this country. This country has seen up and downs in the period when it was great Ariana, or in the period of Khorasan, when this country was called Khorasan for 1,500 years, or when it was named Afghanistan. Fortunately, this country has offered artists to society. It has been influenced by all different civilizations. It has used them positively and has merged the influences within its own culture.

The product of this, when offered to the world, is very beautiful. It has amazing power. The objects in the National Museum tell us about all aspects of social, political, culture, and even religious aspects of life in different periods of Afghanistan’s history. We hope that in future our people hang on to their past culture, that they go back and search their past, that they pay attention to the present, and predict the future and that this long-lived Afghan culture plays its appropriate role in the national unity of Afghanistan.

 

Q: Do you have anything else to say? Any messages?

OKM: My wish, and my message to the nation of Afghanistan and to international friends, is to not forget Afghanistan’s past culture, that they help us with reviving it, that they help us with all hardships and problems we face, and help us with reconstruction. My wish from Afghans is that they pay attention to themselves. They should make an effort to preserve their objects as their national pride and national wealth. They shouldn’t cause the destruction and ruin of these objects, because the identity of a country is made of its history. We wrote a small slogan at the front of the museum, it is encrypted on a stone: a nation stays alive only when it can keep its history and culture alive. This seems like a small sentence but it has wider meanings. They should hang on to this and pay more attention to preserving their cultural wealth that is a source of pride for every Afghan.

This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/

Jake Simkin

Joanie Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. This summer she lived in Kabul while researching the archaeological site of Mes Aynak with a Global Heritage Fund Fellowship and a Connecticut Ceramics Study Circle Grant, and directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She writes often on Afghanistan’s culture and politics. Joanie also holds an MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Jake Simkin

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. Reporting for the book, she traveled across Afghanistan to meet and interview active Afghan women in all sectors. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.