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An Awakening From the Nightmare of the Taliban

The Afghans, with their rich culture largely destroyed, are hungry now for the arts.

National Gallery of Afghanistan. Photo: 	Michal Hvorecky. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

National Gallery of Afghanistan. Photo: Michal Hvorecky. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The reopening of the National Gallery in Kabul in February took place in the dark. The electricity was out again, a casualty of war, and no one could get the gallery’s generator to work. A certain grimness lingered in the air. More striking than much of the art was a special display of the ripped-up drawings and broken frames left by the Taliban, lest anyone forget.

And yet the mood was hopeful, victorious, even joyful. Presiding over the ceremony, Hamid Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan’s interim government, spoke emotionally of the gallery as the locus of “great hope and brightness,” where Afghan culture could emerge out of hiding.

“This is more, so much more, than the reopening of a museum,” he declared, toasting the moment with a cup of tea.

Then, with great delight, he watched Dr. Yousof Asefi perform an act of sweet triumph.

Dr. Asefi is an artist who, at great personal risk, had disguised the figures of human beings in 80 oil paintings at the gallery by applying a veneer of watercolor paint over them. He had thus saved the pictures from destruction at the hands of the Taliban, who had forbidden representations of the human form as sacrilege. Now, as an assortment of ministers, journalists, artists and local intellectuals looked on, Dr. Asefi, scrubbed up in a starchy new suit, approached a painting, dipped a cloth in water and began washing the watercolor away, revealing the original figures beneath, still intact.

There was applause all around.

I had come to Afghanistan to see what remained of the country’s culture after the depredations of the Taliban and the devastation of war. And I was astonished to find, amid the bombed-out ruins of Kabul, an artistic community that was not only optimistic but exuberant. Everyone I talked to had extraordinary stories to tell about the Taliban era, but they had survived that time surprisingly well, and were taking up much where they had left off. You would think from the Western news reports that Kabul is populated only by desperate peasants, many of them warlike, and government bureaucrats and soldiers. In fact, Kabul also has a population of cultured, soigné Afghans, some of whom stayed through the Taliban years, some of whom have flooded back into the country from self-imposed exile.

But the beginning of a renaissance is not taking place only among a small elite. The Union of Artists, closed by the Taliban, quietly reopened three months ago and has already attracted more than 3,000 members countrywide, including 200 women.

“Our future depends on these people,” Mr. Karzai told me. “We need to save our culture and bring it forward, make a new culture of Afghanistan. This is at the top of our agenda.”

Afghan women have been slow to give up the enshrouding burka, to Westerners the most potent symbol of the Taliban’s oppression. During a two-week visit to Kabul in mid-February, I spotted no more than a dozen women showing their faces on the streets despite the lifting of the ban. Their clinging to the garment points to a deep cultural basis for this concealment.

But while the emergence of women has been slow and ambivalent, the recent proliferation of art — high, low, traditional, new, Western, Eastern — shows how suddenly free urban Afghans now are.

Contrary to the Taliban’s propaganda, the prohibitions against art were never based in Islam. “The very idea is ridiculous,” said the minister of information and culture, Said Makhtoum Rahim. “There is no religious justification for such laws.”

Nancy Hatch Dupree, a leading Western expert on Afghan culture, calls the restrictions “total claptrap, entirely political.” Abdul Mansour, director of Afghanistan television and former president of the cultural ministry, said, “They said it was religion, but it was just a combination of thuggery, profiteering and fulfilling the agenda of the I.S.I.” He was referring to Pakistan’s secret service, then underwriting the Taliban. The I.S.I., he said, “wanted to see the weakest possible Afghanistan.”

He continued: “And Pakistan is jealous. Pakistan is a new country, a fake country, with no history. While we — we have a splendid history.”

Mr. Rahim said: “Afghan culture has been destroyed many times. By Alexander the Great. By the British army. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan attacked Herat and killed everyone. Sixteen people were out of town for various reasons, and they returned to find that their city no longer existed. First, they wept. But then they decided to rebuild, and though they were just 16, Herat rose from the ashes. We will do it again. We want to export a message of love and cooperation for all the world, and to show our great art, so that people understand this is not just a country of warlords and battle.”

It is striking that in its early days, the Taliban supported art and was involved in programs of cultural preservation. It was only later in the regime, when the terrorist group al Qaeda and foreign agents had begun to wield most of the power, that the anti-art policies were established and many of the most beautiful things in the country, some 2,000 national treasures, were wantonly destroyed. The Taliban’s purpose was to wipe out Afghan identity so that nationalist resistance to them would be weak. Unlike Soviets or Maoist Chinese, who interfered with the arts in an effort to eliminate whatever history could not be used to construct patriotic propaganda, the Taliban worked toward annihilation. The whole idea of being an Afghan was to be eradicated.

This program required interference not only with intellectuals and artists but also with ordinary people and their ordinary pleasures. “They succeeded in destroying about 80 percent of our cultural identity,” Mr. Rahim says. “The Soviets had already done their damage; they wanted to turn a thousand years of history into 19th-century Marxism. But the Taliban wanted to destroy everything.”

Gathering Round TV’s

Television, illegal under the Taliban but reborn in recent months, is of course the most popular means of disseminating new ideas and values, though the station’s equipment is dilapidated and many shows have to be shot several times because of poor quality video and cameras that fail. Mr. Mansour has brought in history professors for programs about the history of Afghanistan stretching back to 1000 B.C. There are also music and art programs, showings of old Afghan films and recitations of new Afghan poetry. Afghans are hungry for this material; after five years without television, large groups of viewers in Kabul gather around sets that are often hooked up to car batteries when power fails, as it does most nights.

Guardians of Art

Many of Afghanistan’s best artists use traditional media, like painted miniatures, which originated in Afghanistan and are central in the country’s artistic history. The leading miniaturist, Hafiz Meherzad, encloses figurative scenes within exquisite borders of gold leaf and ground rock pigments. Mr. Meherzad said he had been “too tired to emigrate” after the mujahedeen, the forces who entered the post-Soviet power vacuum, and thought that he could continue his work quietly during the Taliban’s reign so long as he didn’t show it publicly. But when his neighbors cried out that the Taliban were searching everyone’s houses, he panicked and buried all his work. It was largely destroyed by the earth’s moisture.

His sense of cultural responsibility is acute. “I do not believe in innovation in this field,” Mr. Meherzad said. “If you make changes in this work, you will destroy even the past. You in America can innovate because your past is safe. Here in Afghanistan, we need to secure our past before we begin to create a future.”

It was hard for the Taliban to attack calligraphers, whose work was holy; but it held them in considerable suspicion, and men like Ismail Sediqi kept a low profile. He stopped making beautiful images of his own poems, with lines like “I am a treasure within a ruin.” Instead, he became “a simple scribe” who wrote verses from the Koran. Even here, however, there was room for sedition: he often copied out the opening verse of the holy book, which announces — contrary to the restrictive practices of the Taliban — that God is the God of all men. “Innovation?” he said. “Well, I sometimes put modern makeup on the beautiful face of the classic forms.”

Dr. Asefi, who has become a potent symbol of cultural rebirth in Kabul, was unable to leave Afghanistan during the Taliban period, starting in 1996, because of family obligations, and he made only landscapes, bare of human or animal figures, and “unrepresentative in any way of life in Afghanistan.” The pressure and the fear gave him psychiatric problems that continue to haunt him. Now he is returning to those works and adding the figures he always envisioned. “If the Taliban had lasted five more years, they might have destroyed our culture,” he said. He is grateful for the American military intervention. “By liberating us, you saved our history as well as our present lives,” he said.

Underground Poets

Afghanistan is a country of poets. Shir Mohammed Khara ran an underground poetry movement under the Taliban. He met with other poets who had memorized their poems so that they could discuss them without running the risk of being found carrying them. Whenever they gathered, they carried copies of the Koran so they could tell Taliban agents that they were having a prayer meeting. A number of poets have allied themselves with the newspaper Arman (Hope).

“We could not mirror our Taliban-era society,” the poet Mohammed Yasin Niazi said. His colleague Abdul Raqib Jahid added, “Under the Taliban, I tried simply to write poems that would relieve people of their tension.” Their new poetry is enthusiastically nationalist.

Mr. Niazi wrote:

We saw the results of the work of the ignorant.
Now we should be rational.
It is time for open windows
Through which the sun shines.

Mr. Jahid wrote:

Communism and terrorism wanted to swallow Afghanistan
But the knife of liberty cut their throat . . .
I just want to tell you the story of liberty
As politely as possible.

Other poets, however, express deep bitterness. Achmed Shekib Santyar wrote:

On the biggest escarpment,
On the sharpest peak,
With bold letters,
Etch this,
The message of a futureless generation:
That in childhood, instead of mothers’ mercy, we received the rough talk of soldiers;
And in youth, instead of pens, we got guns in our hands;
And in age, instead of rest, we went out begging.
Don’t blame us.
We could do nothing for you.

Close Call for Filmmakers

In 1968, with support from Hollywood, Afghan Films was established. It made a dozen or so films a year — documentaries and features — until the mujahedeen, when things slowed down. Under the Taliban, they stopped entirely. The Taliban burned more than 1,000 reels of stock when they took Kabul.

“They started doing it here in the office,” said Timur Hakimian, head of the company, waving a hand in front of his face. “You can’t imagine the smell. Since it was asphyxiating them as well as the rest of us, they went to the stadium and made a public spectacle of their bonfire.”

Fortunately, Taliban censors didn’t know the difference between prints and negatives; what they burned was mostly replaceable, and the negatives, hidden elsewhere, survived. “Unfortunately, we were unable not only to use our equipment during these years, but also to clean or maintain it,” Mr. Hakimian said. “Much has been destroyed not by abuse, but by neglect. If we could get the equipment, we’re ready to roll again.”

Mr. Hakimian is a dryly humorous and sophisticated man who has traveled to film festivals around the world. He served for many years as president of the Union of Artists, a position he has now reclaimed. Because he had made a film whose narrator accuses the Taliban of being against culture and Islam, he went into hiding during their ascendancy.

“There was good reason to be afraid!” he told me. “If these people could blow up your World Trade Center, they could blow up little me! I feel lucky to be alive at all.”

He got a friend who worked as a cleaner in the security department of the Taliban to remove and burn his file, and he attributes his survival to this act.

Dozens of men and three women have approached Mr. Hakimian about playing in films again. The great actress of pre-Taliban films was Zamzama Shakila, usually just called Zamzama, a gorgeous woman whose physical presence was particularly alarming to the Taliban. She wanted to stay in Afghanistan despite the Taliban; she gave up acting, and her husband (also an actor) sold clothes in the street. But Taliban agents hunted them down and in one attack by fundamentalists she took five bullets and he took seven, one of which is still embedded in his skull. They fled to Pakistan. For years she survived by singing for weddings in Peshawar. The day Kabul was taken, they came back.

“I was so thirsty for my country,” she said.

She wore the burka for her trip back into Afghanistan; when she arrived in Kabul, she took it off and burned it in the street. She is one of the few women to go without cover today. “I hear women talking as they pass me, saying they admire my shedding my burka,” she said. “I confront them and say: ‘Take yours off. Nothing terrible will happen.’ Sometimes they throw off their burkas there, and we walk in the street together. Someone has to start this tendency.”

Zamzama complains that while Afghan men stare, American soldiers in the special forces units are the ones who are obnoxiously aggressive. “I say to them: ‘You are worse than the terrorists. You are making life impossible for Afghan women. Cut it out.’ “

In the dilapidated offices of Afghan Films, Zamzama explained, “The old crowd is coming together. Of course, actors are more liberal than others, and in these offices we meet each other and shake hands.” She became emotional, held my arm. “In our happiest dreams we didn’t see this.”

Since Afghan Films has no equipment, Zamzama keeps her family going by acting in two weekly television programs. “I’m ready to do comedy now,” she said. “Romantic comedy.”

Mr. Hakimian is skeptical. “The women newscasters on TV still wear head scarves; the country barely accepts that they show their faces,” he said. “If you can’t show a woman’s hair, how can you show her in a boy’s arms?”

But Zamzama countered: “No fighting films. We’ve seen enough guns in our real lives. People should enjoy the new Afghan films.” She gestured extravagantly. “It’s time for fun, fun, fun.”

Music Breaks a Silence

Afghan musicians. Source: Afghanistan Online.

Afghan musicians. Source: Afghanistan Online.

While cultural resurgence in all the arts is strong, the place where it is most striking is in music. A long-silenced country, where women could be arrested for humming to their babies, where it was illegal even to clap your hands, is suddenly full of every kind of music in every place.

I went to a wedding where the band was playing in a very un-Western “Western style” — what for Afghanistan would have been Top 40 if anyone had been counting. A member of the groom’s family had died a short time earlier, and there is supposed to be no music after such a death; but the bride protested that there had been enough years of silence to cover 1,000 family deaths. The band included an electric guitar, a drum machine and a Soviet-era synthesizer; the irregular electricity meant that all the instruments kept going on and off, and the performance was undistinguished, but people were overjoyed by the music. They spoke of little else. My particular favorite song had these lyrics:

Sweetheart, put on your makeup and perfume.
Be beautiful.
Your eyes are like a deer
Your lips, like a pomegranate flower,
And your height, like a tree.
Oh, I am going to my sweetheart
And I don’t know whether to go
In a Datsun, a minivan or a Land Rover.

The progenitors of up-to-the-minute Afghan pop are somewhat more urbane. Baktash Komran is as close to a pop star as you’ll find in Afghanistan — good looking, 23 years old, a bodybuilder, a reinterpreter of music from the 70’s and creator of new material. On the several occasions when I met him, he wore a leather jacket with an American flag on the back. During the time of the Taliban, he dug out a secret underground basement room, where he practiced music, far enough down so that they couldn’t hear him. He was an adolescent and a provocateur who was jailed four times: for keeping his beard too well-trimmed on one occasion and for having an electric piano on another. He claims he was singing as he escaped.

The first singer to have his own concert on Afghan television after it was re-established, Mr. Komran showed off his pride and joy, a super-new, very high-tech Yamaha synthesizer, which he brought into the country from Pakistan at a time when the Taliban still controlled the south. “I couldn’t bring it across the legal checkpoints,” he explained, “so I tied it to a donkey and he and I climbed the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan together. Then I wrapped it in a shawl and carried it to Kabul in a taxi.”

Asked about relations between the sexes, the subject of his songs, he said they were getting closer, but added that he had never felt excluded by the burka. “It’s easy to fall in love with a pair of shoes,” he told me. “Or the way someone’s fabric moves.” He has written songs about that.

While this scene is brewing, music is also re-entering the lives of people for whom it is a more profound enterprise. On Thursdays, the eve of the sabbath, the Cheshti Sufi people of Afghanistan, Islamic mystics, are gathering once again for the ritual that the Taliban so long denied them. I went to a recently re-established Khanaqah in Kabul. The ceremony took place in the poorest part of the city, down a long alley of bombed-out buildings. I climbed a small staircase of mud bricks into a hidden upper story where about 80 men were seated on old carpets strewn across the floor. The walls were graffitied with phrases from the Koran, and the light came from candles and one electric light, which went on and off according to its whim.

The men had faces from outside of time: craggy and bearded, though some were quite young, and aflame with the ceremony. They wore traditional Afghan dress, heavy woolen shawls wrapped completely around them. On a raised platform, about a half dozen instrumentalists were playing strange lyrical music and incanting verses, repetitive and mesmeric. Periodically one would stop, and someone else would take his place. The crowd swayed and shifted to the music, and some intoned nasally with the singers. A young man with a battered teapot crawled around serving everyone tea from the same eight cups.

The ceremony went on all night. It was dizzying; time lost its meaning. Sometimes someone would get up and dance or sway ecstatically. The voices would rise and grow thick in the air. Then the tune would grow increasingly rapid, the rhythms more urgent, until it broke, and a new tune would make its slow way forward. It felt sacred and as ancient as the 700 years that it has been practiced by Sufis in Afghanistan.

I had the fortune to meet Afghanistan’s most distinguished classical musicians, who have been brought together by the enterprising director of music for Afghan television, Aziz Ghaznavi, himself a popular singer of the pre-mujahedeen period who has toured in the United States. “Of course, practice makes perfect,” Mr. Ghaznavi said, “and during the Taliban period none of us could practice. We lost so much. After five years of not singing at all, I was afraid to hear my own voice, and it was a very scary moment, to sing again for the first time.”

To an untrained ear, classical Afghan music sounds somewhat like Indian classical music, but it uses instruments that are indigenous to Afghanistan — the sarinda, the rabab and the richak — as well as the tabla and sitar and harmonium. The Taliban insisted that musical instruments be destroyed, so only those that people managed to hide have survived. One man I met had kept his sarinda in the middle of his woodpile, where it passed for fuel, throughout the Taliban period.

“In recent months, we have been starting over with these warped, broken instruments,” Mr. Gaznavi explained. “There is only one instrument maker in Afghanistan, and he is now fixing all the broken instruments; he has no time yet for new ones.”

For family reasons, Mr. Gaznavi could not flee Afghanistan during the Taliban rule. Life was incredibly difficult for anyone whose whole life was music, and he became depressed because of unsatisfied yearnings. He went to a doctor and said he would go crazy without music in his life. The doctor suggested that he listen to the one kind of song that even the Taliban couldn’t make illegal. So he bought his first birds, and fell in love with them. He now has more than 50 pigeons in a coop behind his house. When I went there one afternoon, I was ushered into his light-purple living room to sit crosslegged on the floor and eat candy while Mr. Ghaznavi and a friend tried out some new harmoniums they had just acquired. The sound of the multiple harmoniums playing in this lavender room in which many pigeons were flying around was surreal, and the weirdness was not mitigated by the presence of Mr. Ghaznavi’s son, the all-Afghanistan weight-lifting champion, who sat in his shalwar kameez, traditional tunic and trousers, flexing his stupefying biceps when he was not refilling our teacups.

The practice rooms at the television station are always full, despite being unheated and without amenities. When I went there the first time, Mr. Gaznavi directed me to some particularly talented musicians. A few had recently returned from Pakistan and Iran, but others had spent the Taliban years in Kabul. One, Abdul Rashin Mashinee, caught by the Taliban playing a sarinda, was told that they would cut off his hands if they ever found him playing again. He spent the dark years working as a butcher, but, he says, “I practiced my instrument diligently, every night in my dreams.”

The group kept breaking off to apologize to me for the cold and for the fact that their full ensemble wasn’t together. “There should be 11 of us, not 6,” they said. And then they said that I seemed to appreciate music and could they find their friends and get together so I could hear them all? I said I’d be delighted and invited them for the next afternoon at 5 to the warm house where I was staying, and told them to stay for supper.

I mentioned the plan to the people with whom I was sharing the house — journalists from other publications — and then I invited a few friends, and my housemates did the same, and I asked our cook to make a big feast to thank the musicians. Everyone brought friends, and there were in the end about 50 guests — half Afghans and half foreigners. My plan had been to hear the musicians for an hour or so, but they were so happy to have an occasion and an audience that they played on and on and on. We all danced to this exotic music and ate and danced and ate. Mr. Ghaznavi sang for us.

There is a 10 p.m. curfew in Kabul, and so the party guests began filing out at 9:30, but the musicians lived too far away to make the curfew and so stayed over. They played and played, and at 2 a.m. we were all still sitting together, and the sitar and the tabla were diverting us with gentle lyrical late-night music. Our little concert at home was in the end more than 10 hours long.

There is a kind of joy that can be known only by people who have grieved deeply; happiness is not only a quality of its own but also an effect of contrast. This playing was magical and in its own way as ecstatic as the Sufi ceremony. Every note was swollen with fulfilled longing. I have never heard anything like it.