I have said many times, far too many times, that it was time for me to look for new geographies, to leave Kabul and go somewhere else. Instead here I am, writing again from Kabul where I moved back full time, the reason being a request that was impossible to say no to.
I have been asked to work as Acting Director of the Afghan Institute of Arts and Architecture in Turquoise Mountain.
The Institute is a little corner of paradise in the heart of the old city of Kabul, a modern structure built in mud and wood according to traditional techniques.
The school was founded ten years ago to respond to the risk that traditional crafts would disappear because of war, migrations and carelessness. At the onset of the Taliban regime, in fact, many traditional masters left the country for fear or lack of opportunities thus interrupting the cycle of knowledge transmission and creating a void that was difficult to fill. Those who had stayed back in Afghanistan were struggling to survive – Ustad Hadi, for example, who once was a woodcarver at the king’s court had ended up selling bananas in a wheelbarrow on the street to feed his family.
The initial mandate of the Institute was to gather the threads of a story that risked to be forgotten; today we have one hundred students who are learning the arts of calligraphy and miniature painting, jewellery and gem cutting, woodwork and pottery with the blue glazing coming from a local plant. They are girls and boys, between fifteen and twenty years of age, who are learning a craft and a trade, while contributing to the active conservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.
Working in a school like this, preserving the stories from the past while looking at the future, is a serious challenge and a great responsibility. It is also a unique opportunity to think about the role of traditional knowledge – slowly sedimented across generations – in relation to the fast pace of contemporary society; to think about how to keep it relevant and sustainable without anachronisms or the romanticisation of an ideal past.