The things that I don’t know

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Yesterday the cousin of one of our teachers has been killed in a targeted assassination. It felt like one of those stories that you read on the newspaper and you think they will never be part of your life because they belong to a foreign elsewhere. One of those stories that are beyond the ordinary and have nothing to do with the normality of the everyday.

I am here to run a school. Before I started, my idea of what my routine would look like included the revision of teaching methods, the achievement of artistic excellence, grades and disciplinary notes. What turned out to be a part of my ordinary administration is also the management of situations that are extraordinary, alien and emotionally destabilising – which, however, in a country at war are sadly integral to daily life.

Impermanence and transience are difficult to conceive as some of the inevitable ingredients of our life; they are difficult to digest as a force that roots you in the present rather than as a windstorm that erases any sense of direction.

The concept of resilience is often abused and quoted far too frequently and light-hardheartedly. But it is moments like this, when all the things that I don’t know lay bare, that reveal the mysterious strength that we have inside and we’re often not aware of. It is an immense force that helps keeping things together; that helps continuing to look ahead; a silent strength that protects the desire – as Vittorio Arrigoni used to say – to stay human.

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Make Hope

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At the Institute we are going through a period of transformation. Before we can start building new things, we have to do a lot of cleaning up and should not forget the bigger picture in spite of the frustration coming from tons of banal daily tasks.

Fear is often the first response to change along with great diffidence for those who want or have to promote alternatives.

Yesterday I was talking to my colleague, the real cornerstone of the Institute, about this complicated period: about what we are doing, what is expected of us and about how we need to keep focusing on the vision we are striving to realise. My colleague is a very serious person, a man of few words; discussions with him don’t divert from what is essential neither do they indulge in gossip or self-celebration.

The problem in this country – he told me – is that nobody looks at the future; people are not even sure that a future exists. That’s why we are all here holding on to the present, trying to get the most out of it for ourselves, for our own personal interest, without even thinking of a greater good.

I replied that such an attitude is an enormous obstacle for those who are working in education as they build in the present with an eye to the future.

It is a matter of bad habits – he continued. People are happy with what they have now, the little privileges they have accumulated and close off against anyone who tries to question them.

A bit discouraged, I asked: What are we doing here then?

Before averting his eyes and going back to work, he answered: We are here to make hope.

I just can’t stop thinking about this conversation. These two words – make hope – have completely changed the way I look at things. I have always thought of hope as a dimension of the heart and the soul; as a beautiful feeling, a source of optimism that may however run the risk to turn into a passive waiting for a better future to come. And now I discover that hope is something you can make.

I think this is the beginning of a small revolution. I came to the Institute thinking that I was here to revive the educational offer and now, all of a sudden, I find myself to be here to make hope. The weight of such responsibility terrifies me, but at least now I know that I am in a domain that is familiar: whether I succeed or not is a different story, but at least I can try – at least there is plenty to get my hands dirty.

 

A new adventure

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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.

Una nuova avventura

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Ho detto tante volte, fin troppe, che era ora di cercare nuove geografie, lasciare Kabul e andare altrove. Invece eccomi qua a scrivere ancora da Kabul, dove sono tornata a vivere a tempo pieno. La ragione è un’opportunità a cui è stato impossibile dire di no.

Mi hanno chiesto di fare il direttore dell’Istituto Afgano di Arte e Architettura presso Turquoise Mountain.

L’istituto è un piccolo angolo di paradiso nella città vecchia di Kabul, una struttura moderna, ma costruita con legno e fango secondo le tecniche tradizionali. La scuola è nata dieci anni fa, per rispondere al rischio che le forme di artigianato tradizionali scomparissero per colpa della guerra, delle migrazioni e dell’incuria.

All’arrivo dei Talebani molti dei mastri tradizionali avevano lasciato il paese per paura o per mancanza di lavoro, interrompendo così il ciclo del trapasso delle nozioni e creando un vuoto difficile da colmare. I pochi maestri rimasti nel paese vivevano di stenti – Ustad Hadi, per esempio, che per anni era stato l’intagliatore del re era finito a vendere banane in una carriola per strada per poter sfamare la famiglia.

Il mandato iniziale dell’istituto era quello di raccogliere le fila di una storia che rischiava di essere dimenticata; oggi abbiamo cento studenti che imparano l’arte della miniatura e della calligrafia, la gioielleria e il taglio delle pietre dure, l’intaglio e l’intarsio del legno e la ceramica con l’invetriatura blu derivata da una pianta locale. Sono ragazze e ragazzi dai quindici ai vent’anni che, mentre imparano un mestiere, contribuiscono alla conservazione attiva del patrimonio culturale dell’Afghanistan.

Essere alla guida di una scuola del genere, preservando le storie del passato, ma mantenendo un occhio al futuro è una sfida seria e una responsabilità importante. E’ anche un’occasione unica per pensare al ruolo dei saperi tradizionali, sedimentati lentamente nel corso delle generazioni, in relazione al passo affrettato del mondo contemporaneo; per capire come mantenerli rilevanti e sostenibili senza anacronismi o fantasie romantiche su un passato ideale.

The synagogue of Kabul

IMG-1266There are places that seem to be made of the stuff of legend: you know that they exist, that they are there somewhere, but their physical dimension remains abstract and mysterious.

The synagogue of Kabul is one of those places: over these past years it has been a place that almost only existed in an imaginary space– until recently.

I had read a number of articles about “the last remaining Jew of Kabul”; about his bad temper, his passion for whiskey and about the dispute with another Jew – who died in the meanwhile – to claim the right to be called the last Jew. Many colourful stories, but nothing specific about the synagogue itself.

A few days ago, without too much planning and almost by chance, we manage to visit the synagogue with three of my colleagues. As if following a script, Mr Simantov – the last Jew – answers to our desire to go for a visit with the request of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. We don’t obviously have any bottle with us on a random Saturday afternoon so we try to negotiate only to hear in return that he does not do things on credit for anyone. We go away a bit disappointed for the missed opportunity. Loneliness, however, must have won Mr Simantov over as he calls us back within a few minutes and says that instead of a bottle, for this one time, he could make do with some cash.

While a lot, or maybe too much, has been written about him, too little has been written about the synagogue.

From the outside the signs of a place of worship are almost non existent; only the eye that already knows where to look will find the stars of David carved out in the windows or decorating the battered turquoise metal gate. At first sight, the door seems to be ajar; it is instead curved up and a bit stuck for being so rarely used. As we look around a bit perplexed, the local cigarette sellers directs us to the back door: you need to go through a bright orange restaurant selling chips and kebabs to reach it. Once you go through the kitchen and cross the building’s threshold the brightness of the neon tubes is replaced by dim light and the stale smell of old fried oil. The turquoise stair railing is an intricate embroidery of iron stars. Hardly anyone climbs up the stairs, the layer of dust is thick and homogeneous.

We spend some time talking to Mr Simantov, who now lives in what used to be the women’s prayer room. It is painted bright green and has a maroon moquette; the gas stove leaks slightly, it makes me cough. Simantov tells us that the synagogue was built in 1966 with the donations from the Jewish community in Herat; he says that in the good old times there used to be hundred and fifty Jewish families living in Kabul. He says it is not because of the Taliban that they left, but because they migrated to Israel and the state of Israel doesn’t give a piss (verbatim) to restore the synagogue that has been damaged by years of conflict. The community itself has never been a target, war has no preference.

We finally get to see the synagogue. Just outside the door there is an old toilet covered in dust and the glass of many windows is broken. We enter and, as we cross the room, our steps leave footprints in the dust. The synagogue doesn’t have a copy of the Torah, but in a cupboard there are old papers and documents eaten up by time and moths. The lamps on the walls are fixed on small plaques that carry the names of the dead.

It is a silent, desolate place. It is abandoned. It is memory’s cemetery, a memento mori, a monument to time.

For those who, like me, work for the preservation of heritage, places like these speak directly to the heart: they are both an accusation and an invite, a request to stop and think. You can’t fight against time, you can’t save every place, every stone, every monument. You need to learn to chose, to let go, to accept that abandon itself has a message to communicate. But then we can, and possibly should, keep telling stories so that these wonderful memory’s cemeteries can continue to survive.

The smell of Kabul

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I have just landed in Kabul after almost four months, it is the longest I have been away in these five years.

I remember that once my friend Ty, who at that point had not been in Kabul for quite some time, asked me to write him about the smell of Kabul as it would hit me as soon as I arrived. It has been a few years since, but never got around doing it. So here I am, better later than never.

The first thing that reaches the nostrils, “in body and spirit,” is dust: as it rubs against the asphalt, as it covers rose bushes, as it creates an opaque patina that makes everything blurry. And then there is the smell of melting plastic: it is the rubber frames of car windows that wait for hours under the sun, either because of traffic or for the lack of trees. Speaking of traffic, the exhaust of old, battered Toyota Corolla heavily contributes to the mix. Besides the actual smells, there are those you build in your head: like the one that may come from the watermelons stored in the truck that crossed the road; or that of sweat and youth of the school bus full of little girls driving before us with closed windows despite the heat. They kept me company for a good part of the road pulling faces and laughing together across the windshields. There is the smell of the end of summer, with wafts of humidity announcing the coming of autumn and the forecast of the sting of the black smoke coming from sawdust stoves in winter. Above all, is the smell of return that, in spite of doubts and hesitations, welcomes you like the hug of an old friend.

Mondana Bashid

A concert in Manchester; an ice cream parlour in Baghdad; a fun Saturday evening in the heart of London; a busy crossroad, a demonstration and a funeral in Kabul. Tens if not hundreds of people dead or wounded. And all this without considering what happens in Syria, in the rest of Iraq, in Nigeria as it doesn’t make the news any longer.

These are days full of fear and exhaustion. Rejection and suspicion seem to be the easiest solution: closing all the doors; building walls, turning our backs to everyone who’s other than us. It is in fact the worst choice because it means to fall in the trap, to play by the rules of terror, to accept to be blackmailed.

Manchester, Baghdad, Kabul and London are shouting back at the peril of slipping into bigotry.

This morning on a signboard on the London tube it was written: “Anyone can give up, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that’s true strength.” And in the ice cream parlour in Baghdad, they went back to work five days after being hit. And Kabul – where people queued to give blood and appealed to unity and doctors worked with no rest and journalists stayed strong on the frontline to tell their story – reminds us the immense value of humanity.

In Afghanistan, where a courteous culture still gives value to the ritual of exchanging greetings, I learnt one of the most beautiful wishes: Mondana Bashid – may you never be tired.

I don’t thing there is anything better we can wish each other in a time like this when tiredness, fear, exhaustion and helplessness risk to take over.

Mondana Bashid to the citizens of Kabul, to emergency‘s doctors, to my Afghan friends who still believe in the future. Mondana Bashid to each one of us and to all those, no matter where they are in the world, who still have the courage to hope and to make things a little better.

Who cleans the city?

After the IS attack at a demonstration in Kabul on the 23rd of July 2016, I wrote a tribute to those who clean the city afterwords and allow us to move on with dignity. We all thought that it was worst attack since 2001 – until yesterday when Kabul was hit again. The figures of the attack are mind-numbing: 93 killed and more than 450 injured.

Today, sadly, my thoughts go again to those who clean the city.

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The day after is always difficult.

Yesterday’s suicide attack has been the worst in Kabul since 2001–the victims were all civilians, all young: a terrible blast for the already fragile heart of the city.

With the sombering and heavy attitude that characterizes a national day of mourning, the city this morning woke up and went on with its business as usual. Kabul is a strong city, a city that reacts and doesn’t break. Her formidable resilience is one of the first things one discovers and falls in love with upon moving here. Life goes on no matter what, you roll your sleeves and move on–this is a way of looking at the world that is a profound source of inspiration.

This morning I woke up with a thought that I still can’t get out of my head: I keep thinking about those who clean the city, about those who work before day breaks to remove all the traces of a horror such as yesterday’s.

It is well known that Kabul’s strength is in her ability to start afresh every time, but we don’t know anything about those who make it possible, about those who scrub the blood off the asphalt, who collect what remains, who hose away all that has to disappear.

We probably owe them the fact that we can move on, to these silent restorers of normalcy; to those who, in Kabul or Baghdad or Srinagar, have the task of disguising smells, of remodelling the facade of the ordinary, of hiding the traces of traumas that are too difficult even to imagine.

I don’t know who they are, I don’t know their faces and I wonder what they may think – a prayer or a curse–while they clean up surrounded by the night. I thought, however, it was important to write about them – to exorcise that obsessive thought, but also to pay my respects to those who, probably without knowing, allow us to look ahead into the future.

 

A good person

The last few weeks have been quite difficult and emotionally exhausting. I went through a rough patch and ended up being face to face with the tangible risk of becoming the person I don’t want to be: impatient, detached and surrounded by a big, black cloud of bad mood.

However trite it may sound, it proved to be true that you need to be confronted by darkness in order to recognise the light.

The result of the exhaustion of the past days has been in fact that I finally understood that my main objective in life is to be a good person. It may sound naive, but in this historical conjuncture I believe it may turn into a radical political choice: not giving in to fear and suspicion, keeping a curious, open and allowing attitude.

I think such a choice may represent the sole root to cultivate in order to transform our social dimension and contribute in a constructive manner to rethinking the sphere of the collective. This is perhaps the only way to emancipate ourselves from economic and political models that channel us towards a grey and faceless uniformity.

I am thinking about my parents’ decision to retreat to a simple life, I am thinking about my sister’s professional choices based on respect and inclusiveness irrespective of visible and invisible differences.

The investment on integrity, both at the level of the person and that of the practice, is the only way to survive these terrible times and to resist the vulgarity of shoutings, spitted hate and violence.

We were discussing it last night with Sandi Hilal in one of our very special transoceanic conversations. The great challenge for our future is to keep cultivating the courage to leave the doors of our houses open, to keep investing on hospitality and exchange. The difficult step is to realise that this personal choice becomes a civic responsibility, that the way we choose to live our today has immense political repercussions.

The biggest ambition is therefore to be a good person – while regaining the courage not to worry about being out of fashion.

(Dedicated to Sandi Hilal)

In search for words

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Photo by Kevin Frayer / AP

Yesterday Afghanistan has lived through yet another bloody day: three attacks in three cities (Lashkar Gah, Kabul, Kandahar) and tens of casualties. We had barely managed to process the horror of one event that another followed. It has been a difficult time and our thoughts were once again with those whose only fault is to work in the wrong place.

At a personal level, days like these add doubts to the emotional tiredness of being an indirect witness of a war that never seems to end. On days like yesterday it seems more difficult to give myself a convincing answer on why not only is it important but also necessary to work on art and cultural production in a country like Afghanistan in a moment like this. The uneasiness that this hesitation generates is difficult to manage both for myself and for those who are close to me. Silence in these circumstances is never productive neither is indulging in the malaise. The frustration, however, is there and needs an outlet.

Yet, I’ll never cease to be surprised by the fact that answers always come when you least expected them.

I met an old friend, K., who told me a story. Last November I organised a training for 120 artists from various disciplines coming from different corners of Afghanistan. K. took part in the training and since then he has been telling me what a unique opportunity of exchange and encounters it was. I really don’t like flattery so more than once I told him that he was exaggerating and was being so kind only because we are friends.

Sipping his tea, he told me that, without me knowing, one of the artists participating in the seminar was illiterate: a musician who can play wonderfully, but cannot read and write. The participatory and inclusive method that characterised the seminar, as well as the fact that it was conducted in local languages rather than in English as it is generally the case, allowed him to take part in it and draw from it great motivation.

In order not to waste the possible fruits that could come from this achievement, K. told that he made a deal with the musician since for the first time his work could be promoted and supported irrespective of the fact that he cannot read and write.

The deal is this: K. offered to help the musician to fill the form to apply for the grants that my project offers on the condition that he would enrol in an evening school.

The musician, whose name I don’t know, has started attending a literacy class at the beginning of January.

Moments of hope like this one give me strength and are an unexpected gift that provides me with the words to give an answer, however temporary, to my doubts and questions.