Funnily enough, I was in New York when it happened. It was a short breather after several months in Kabul — a treat for my children, whom I hadn’t seen for so long. We’d been out all day — MoMA, Harlem for lunch, Yankees tickets, a cruise past the Statue of Liberty. There was a reflection on the water of the development at ground zero as we steered by. “That’s why you’re in Kabul?” my kids asked.
That night we ate in. They wanted to do “the New York thing” – eat Chinese takeout in white cardboard boxes. Strange, the detail of a cultural attaché’s life – white cardboard boxes and a conjunction of China, the United States and my Indo-British children’s wacky assumptions about the world. Then, my Kabul mobile rang.
The ambassador’s call pulled me from Union Square directly into that “safe room” at my office, and home, in Kabul. Three British colleagues were hemmed in by gunfire and grenades, after the largest car bomb that ravaged city had ever seen. For eight hours, I paced through the night in that Manhattan apartment. Just 36 hours later, I was pacing the scene itself, a place of educational and cultural hope reduced to a charred ruin, the remains of detonated attackers still visible.
A pile of English teaching texts smoldered on the lawn. Remnants of video equipment for a cinematography class for 50 young Afghan filmmakers lay smashed. A United Kingdom map hung diagonally from one corner nail, and there were bullet holes through my Sufi watercolors.
Two hours later, there was a memorial service on the scrap of embassy lawn for the Afghan officers who died that night. Two hundred diplomats, soldiers, drivers, cleaners and bereaved family members. One little boy, 8 or 9, had a frozen expression as he heard how his father had died, protecting the staff of the British Council, protecting culture.
What could this ever mean to him? What culture can be so worth protecting as to justify the death of a little boy’s dad, that little boy’s dad, the dad who, weeks later, is still dead and always will be?
The manifestos that direct international aid to Afghanistan invariably herald three motives: governance, stability and development. But there’s a fourth, which is the only one that can animate the other three into a credible nationhood. It is culture. Not just singing and dancing (well yes, actually, the culture of singing and dancing, too) but the culture that will inspire the many peoples of Afghanistan to say: “This is who we are; this is who we want to be. We are no longer the construct of others. A country at a crossroads, yes; but a place where people meet, rather than where they part ways or transit.”
What is happening here in Afghanistan? Essentially, diverse groups of people who share the same country are reasserting their common sense of cultural identity after centuries of ravaging invasion, ravaging intervention, and even ravaging goodwill. Over the past 30 years, external imposition and internal revolt have destroyed infrastructure, leaving Afghanistan one of the poorest, least-developed countries in the world. But in 2001, the government and people of Afghanistan started to climb back to self-reliant democratic nationhood, resisting extremist interference. They were determined to achieve stability and security.
This is not just about economic development. Reinforcing Afghanistan’s cultural identity and strengthening the professional and educational capacity of its peoples are critical. Despite war and dereliction, Afghanistan remains a vibrant conflux of ethnic identities. It is a country of 30 million ordinary men, women and children who live for their families, their friends and their faith and who are proud of their vibrant ethnic diversity, their mature social identity and their astounding cultural legacy. Afghans have learned over millennium to sustain their values, despite living at the geographical nexus of other peoples’ imperial ambitions.
Militarism is only the surface wave, compared with the deeper swells of the Afghan cultural story. Of course, strengthening Afghanistan’s national culture is no easy task. This is a multilingual, tribal society. The extraordinary cultural diversity that is one of this country’s greatest riches can all too easily become a source of ethnic bitterness, of long-held grudges and feuds. Gender equality presents another tough challenge. Traditionally, Afghan culture is male-dominated. Making equal room for the women of Afghanistan to take their place on their nation’s stage will be difficult.
Afghanistan is the child running with her kite, the young woman hurrying to work concerned for the sick parent at home, the exuberant dancers at the family wedding. Here in Afghanistan, as anywhere else, the abiding story is that politics is people; culture is people. I can think of no place where it is more important to strengthen the authenticity and potential liberation of cultural relations.
The Afghan people quietly and adamantly know that it is they who will fight and win their own battles. It is their creative voices and their legacy of meanings and understandings that will reassert the identity that is uniquely Afghan, and that will evolve their new and old, old, old Afghanistan. Reclaiming independent and defiant nationhood is the most important mission – harnessing the critical mass of cultural and community cohesion that is needed to achieve self-reliance and take back command.
Three weeks after the vicious Aug. 19 attack on the British Council in Kabul, there was another bombardment on the NATO headquarters and American Embassy. We heard the gunshots from our temporary office in the “green zone.” My colleagues looked tired and sickened, not so much at the immediate danger, but at the persistent bullying of their values.
But there’s a stone-carved sign outside the National Museum in Kabul that states with pride: “A nation stays alive when it’s culture stays alive.” (Yes, that incorrect apostrophe is endearingly carved in, too.) It’s something, just something, for the future life of that little boy and the memory of his father, who, like too many Afghans, put his head above the parapet to keep Afghanistan alive.