Guns and glory
WE DECLARE war. We bomb. We conquer. We then pretend to rebuild. But there is no rebuilding, just collateral damage. In Belgrade, Baghdad and Kabul, the last three cities assaulted by Britain in war, millions may be spent on aid, but buildings are left as piles of rubble.
KABUL - Central Kabul was, until the 1970s, an ethereal place of baked mud houses and gardens nestling among the foothills of the Hindu Kush, "the light garden of the angel king". It then spent a quartercentury being bombed and shelled by, successively, Russians, the Taleban, Afghan tribes and western jets.
Eventually the old place sighed and sank to its knees in despair, its heart reduced to acres of dust-blown filth, like Rome’s forum in the middle ages. Fragments of crumbling walls still loom from the ruins, like pictures of Dresden after the war. Inhabitants crawl into basement hovels or squat on the bed of the once-blue Kabul river, now little more than a trickle of sewage.
My guidebook remarks that the best advice for a visitor to Afghanistan is "to get out of the capital as soon as you can". Any appealing charms are on the outskirts: the restored burial garden of Babur, the first Mughal emperor; the royal mausoleum; the ruins of the great fortress of Bala Hissar; and the old Timurid pottery village of Istalif, now reviving after being flattened by Taleban shells. Nobody mentions the old city in central Kabul.
Historic quarters form the emotional focus of all great cities. That is why they are treasured, in places as diverse as Warsaw, Barcelona, Cairo and Delhi. It is in such quarters that citizens find their identity and visitors glimpse the uniqueness of a country and its culture. Enough remains of old Kabul to be worth repairing or reconstructing. It requires only an effort of will and persuasion.
A myth of modern Afghanistan is that the Russian occupation ended in 1988 and that, after 13 years of civil war and Taleban rule, a western democracy was installed. The truth is that communist authoritarianism survived. On the wall of the Kabul mayor’s office hangs the still-existing Russian plan for a new city, modelled on the Soviet satellite states to the north. The old city is scheduled to be flattened and replaced by the blocks familiar from Minsk to Tashkent, albeit with concrete replaced by glass.
Kabul city centre is already dotted with pastiche western office blocks, like things from outer space, many built speculatively to launder opium money and covered in sheet glass, fiercely expensive to air condition. Beyond lies the suburb of Microrayon, where acres of rectangular workers’ housing ignore the climatic virtues of mud walls and inner courtyards. Traditional building is not taught in the architecture department of Kabul university.
Two efforts are now being made to rescue the old city from the planners’ final solution (both supported by the president, Hamid Karzai). One, financed by the Aga Khan Foundation, is restoring lanes, houses and shops in the old town south of the river. In the alleys beyond the bird market of Ka Farushi (where you buy fighting quails), mud buildings have been restored with jutting upper storeys and intricate wooden screens. Dirt streets have been paved. Courtyards, shrines and playgrounds grace what is still a poor district. Here it is possible to feel Afghanistan.
More challenging is the neighbourhood on the opposite bank of the river, Murad Khane. Behind a quarter crammed with metal and craft workshops, the land is two-thirds flattened and supposedly expropriated by the city for clearance. Aerial photographs of Murad Khane in 1980 and 2004 are like those of Coventry before and after the blitz. Remaining houses and mosques are like temples on the moon, with exotic names such as the Great Serai, the House of Columns, the House of Peacocks and the Blue House. Faces peer from the depths, as if wondering whether a visitor presages a gun or a bulldozer.
A British charity run by an energetic former diplomat, Rory Stewart, is struggling to help Kabul avoid Coventry’s mistake in destroying whatever the bombs left standing. Under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, his Turquoise Mountain Foundation is trying to persuade the owners of some 30 surviving buildings to accept free restoration. The remaining sites would then be rebuilt in traditional style. Such conservation would not be ersatz antiquarianism but merely use appropriate materials to rescue a neighbourhood whose character should be as critical to old Kabul as saving Covent Garden was to London’s West End. Murad Khane is on the brink of total disaster or exhilarating renewal.
Stewart’s project hopes to make use of a school he has set up in an old fort, already employing retired Afghan craftsmen to teach apprentices traditional building, wood carving and decorative calligraphy. In the face of some of the world’s most unscrupulous property sharks, he is trying to show Afghans that there is a soul to their capital of which they should be proud and which is worth rebuilding for the world to see. The Aga Khan and Turquoise Mountain are the best things that could happen to Kabul. The occupying powers should be down on their knees pleading with them to join hands over the Kabul river, to embrace what used to be one of the great bazaars of central Asia. Towering behind them runs the ancient city wall along a mountain ridge. At its foot stands the fortress of Bala Hissar, as dramatic as Syria’s Crac des Chevaliers. Both await restoration. This could yet be a thrilling place.
Does anyone care? Modern Kabul is in thrall to tens of thousands of frightened UN officials, NGO expatriates and foreign soldiers, few of whom stray from their compounds, either into the old city or out into the wild surrounding country. Some do good work in medicine and education, but most commune with each other in heavily guarded villas and armoured Land Cruisers. The NGO "swarm" is now the cultural aftershock of modern war. (I am told that the going rate to supply Britain’s gullible aid officials with a one-day Afghan "gender awareness" course is £40,000, including T-shirts.)
The west is spending obscene amounts of money on the ineffective military occupation of Afghanistan, including Britain’s £1bn on a base in Helmand province. Spending is no less obscene on trying (and failing) to suppress the country’s one valuable crop, opium, which Britain consumes in vast quantities. For a fraction of this money, Kabul could have restored to it some of the dignity it has lost over the past quarter-century. For a smaller fraction London could at least restore the magnificent old British legation, rotting and derelict in its park while diplomats cower in buildings rented from Bulgarians.
Curzon’s greatest legacy to India was not pomp or civil service. It was saving the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and a hundred palaces, castles and temples that are today India’s glory and its most precious tourist asset. Even Nehru later said of Curzon that he would be remembered most among viceroys because he saved "all that is beautiful in India". It was Curzon’s proudest boast. Will the same ever be said of his successors across the North-West Frontier?Simon Jenkins is a veteran British journalist and Guardian columnist
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