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 Kabul la resistenza si fa arte

trainingcraftsmenUn viaggio nella capitale afgana tra teatri occupati, tele in cemento e spazi restaurati. A cui registi, poeti e altri artisti, decisi a combattere contro ingiustizie e pregiudizi, ridanno vita.

Grazie Giuliano Battiston per questo bell’articolo che parla anche del nostro lavoro e dell’Istituto Afgano di Arte e Architettura.

Qui il link all’articolo.

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.