“The dust of Kabul’s blowing soil smarts lightly in my eyes,
But I love her, for knowledge and love both come from her dust.”
– Kabul, by 17th century Persian poet Sa’ib-I-Tabrizi.
KABUL – Was it a vision, or a waking nightmare? The Taliban’s grip on power in Kabul (1996-2001) may have simply melted away. They are ghosts from a recent and tragic past. But their legacy as an “administration” remains – nothing less than a terrifying picture of desolation, devastation and nothingness.
“All the people hate the US. They cannot get close to us. Like cowards, you want to strike us from afar.” The graffiti, in black, is written over the white exterior wall of one of the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and repression of Vice buildings in central Kabul. Hated or not, the fact is that the US did get as close as it could to the dreaded V&V; – the Taliban religious police, answerable only to “Amir-ul Momineen” Mullah Omar. Everybody scurried out of the building in the first few days of the American bombing. Now, nothing except rubble and junk paper remains of an “Islamic school for prisoners,” run “under the guidance of Muhamad Nasir.”
Sifting through the rubble, it is still possible to find some fascinating stuff – printed versions of fatwas (religious orders); plastic car licenses; “Let us go on jihad” stickers (in Pashto and in English); a copy of the diploma of one M Z Sha Mushtaq (with photo), certifying that he was an Islamic ulema (teacher) approved by the Education Minister and Chief of Islamic Madrassas (schools); English books for Taliban children; and most of all all sorts of compromising evidence about the evangelizing work of the seven detainees from the US-based Shelter Now International (SNI): books on the Power of Jesus, and very basic ABCs of Christianity. This once again proves that the Taliban intelligence was not a contradiction in terms. The SNI workers seemed to be doing what the Taliban said that they were doing. They were detained for almost two months in a few rooms in this building. In one of the rooms, the Taliban visibly compiled all the evidence and went through all the SNI workers’ belongings, including holiday photos and postcards.
This was one of the main V&V; headquarters in Afghanistan. Prisoners were kept here for all sorts of un-Islamic offenses. Like the poor man who did not perform his Islamically-correct prayers one day and so his shop in the bazaar was closed by the V&V.; The offenses were all recorded and signed on official Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan paper. One of the printed fatwas says, among other things, “Try to be careful about the Islamic Emirate. Try to find the enemies of Islam. Try to promote Islam to all the world. It will be very difficult, but bring the people closer to Islam. This will give you merit in paradise.” The fatwa is signed by Mullah Omar himself, and it concerns “all the people of Afghanistan.”
Scenes of utter devastation in Badanbagh garrison, in Kabul – bombed out buildings, tanks upside down, like in a conceptual art installation in a European art show – are reproduced in a much grander scale in Rishkhor, a mere half hour drive from Kabul. The delightful “Historical Guide to Kabul,” published in 1972 by the Afghan Tourist Organization, describes “the public gardens of Gulbagh where you may picnic in perfectly delightful surroundings on the banks of the river,” and mentions “a military area where entrance is forbidden.”
Entrance remained forbidden as Al-Qaeda turned the military area into a training camp – set up in idyllic scenery, totally surrounded by hills: this proves among other things that the Arabs had a certain aesthetic, apart from military sense. The camp even included a palace built by Sarder Shar Ghazi: the palace gardens, according to the Historical Guide, “are amongst the loveliest in Kabul.”
Rishkhor satisfied all Al-Qaeda conditions in terms of perfect location – but it had a fatal flaw: it could not be protected from aerial ballistic might. It was bombed twice in one night, a 2,000-pound bomb left an enormous crater right in front of the main building, bedside another building that looked like an Italian villa. Reportedly 80 Arabs died in the bombing. Pakistanis were also being trained, and arch in one of the buildings bears the inscription “Bravery” in Urdu.
In an interview last year with the then minister of information and culture in Kandahar, Abdul Haiy Mutmain, he imparted to this correspondent the Taliban’s definition of culture, “People here are Muslims. This is a religious culture. We are against the customs that go against Islam. We protect Islamic and Afghan culture.” He refused to elaborate. Last march, the Taliban leadership elaborated by bombing the Bamiyan Buddhas, which had withstood absolutely everything for 1,500 years. For the Taliban, the National Museum was one of Kabul’s prime embodiments of sin.
But now the museum has been opened for the first time since the Taliban took power in Kabul. A banner above the entrance, beside a portrait of Ahmed Shah Masoud, reads in English and in Dari, ” A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” The first museum in Afghanistan was set up in 1919. The original collection has been especially enriched since 1922 following the first excavations of a French archeological delegation and the museum has been in the same building since 1931. The collection – before the Taliban cultural holocaust – spanned many millennium: prehistoric, classical, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic.
As we enter, we see two of the few preserved pieces of the collection: a 15th century black marble basin from Kandahar, and a 2nd century limestone inscription in Greek from Surkh Kotal. But nobody has been able to see the legacy of Taliban art destruction until now.
In the vault of the museum, one of the curators was showing the remains of a 2nd century Kushan statue of a king, discovered by accident by engineers 10 miles from Mazar-e-Sharif. The limestone statue was smashed to pieces last April. Showing a fragment, the curator said “maybe” the statue could be restored, “because it was reduced on purpose to powder.” He also talked about how he was able to rescue an 8th century fresco of a Buddha from Kakrak, near Bamiyan, from the Taliban’s destructive fury.
The museum was systematically looted and vandalized by the Taliban. The archive rooms were reduced to sorrowful piles of rubble. In one of the rooms some restoration materials imported from France can still be found. A few faded black-and-white photos document part of the collection – friezes from Bamiyan, Ghandara Buddhas, Indian sculpture, marble Buddha feet. The collection, according to another guidebook, published by the Afghan Tourist Organization in 1974, was absolutely splendid: it included 4th century clay Boddhisattvas, a fabulous painted and gilded clay 7th century Boddhisattava, Buddha stucco heads from the 2nd to the 7th centuries, a 1st century relief of Aphrodite, from Bagram, a 1st century bust of Mars from Bagram that would have driven Italian Renaissance master Benvenutto Cellini green with envy, an 11th century marble relief of Turkish dancers from Ghanzi, and carved wooden figures from Nuristan, among other extremely precious items.
Mir Ghulam Nabi and Muhamad Tahir Niazi, specialists in sculpture restoration, were at the museum when the Taliban destroyers arrived: they describe a working party of 10, all armed with hammers, under the orders of nothing less than a Mullah Omar delegation, comprising the minister of culture and the minister of finance, all of them solemnly supervising the destruction. Nabi and Niaz were helpless, “They said that if you try to do something we will kill you.”
Nabi and Niaz say that the Taliban came for 10 days in a row, “Everything that looked like a person was destroyed, like Buddhas. Our history and culture was destroyed.” They are eager to stress that “our culture was never un-Islamic.” Even under such trauma, they have managed to save “many” statues from destruction, storing them in safe places. But they are unable to say how many of the museum pieces had been stolen and sold for collectors in the West in the past five years.
Their only consolation for the moment is that “we will try to restore everything.” According to Said Mutahar, an official of the newly set up ministry of culture, the Northern Alliance is apparently in favor. It is possible that the Taliban in the end won’t have succeeded in reducing Afghanistan to culture’s ground zero.