Letter from Kabul – Part 2 of 2
This is the final part of a two-part guest post by Paul Smith, Director of the British Council in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Thank you to Paul for taking the time to share insights from such a remarkable position and place. The image below is one taken from the Kabul Museum.
Afghanistan is again the child running her kite, is the young woman hurrying to work concerned for the sick parent at home, is 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 geo-cultural, not just geo-political, perspective – than in Afghanistan today.
And however much the weight of the developmental superstructure currently imposes itself on this land, and however many dollars flood the Hindu Kush passes en route to do good, the Afghan people quietly and adamantly know that it they that 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 which 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 which is needed to achieve self-reliance and to take back command.
The usual punditry would have it that what I’m going on about here is culture with a big “C”, rather than small “c” culture as evidenced through the classic artforms of visuality, literature, film and performance. Most gut reaction would reckon that small “c” culture, in conflict zones, should still be banished beyond the peripheries as an almost bourgeois and trivialising insult to the deathly seriousness of core development, stabilisation and security.
Yes, justifying big “C” culture is easy. Culture as it describes and re-explores ethnic identity, concepts of civilisation (always too grand a word), conflicting value systems, faith, multiculturalism, concepts of homeland, sociological legacies and currencies – these, now, are clearly inherent to making the journey to nation building and the asserting of due position amongst the international community.
But it is in recognising small “c” culture – aah the aarts! – as liberating opportunity rather than as achieved product that redeems small “c” culture and places it at the energetic centring of reconstruction and rehabilitation and the reclamation of countrywide integrity.
It only takes a simple unadorned arts event in Kabul today to authenticate the necessity of cultural impact on restoring national pride. A few days ago I joined a mostly Afghan expat audience for a performance and recital by Ahmad Walid, the great Afghan ghazal singer, on his return to Kabul after a forced absence of over 25 years. I was compelled by the music from Ahmad and from the accompanying harmonia, tabla, rubab and tula but, like all responsible cultural attaches, I spent more time watching the audience than the stage. That experience was equally compelling, moving indeed. Here was the visible evidence of a people re-saturating themselves with their lost legacy, their suppressed cultural entitlement and thus their identity, distinct meaning and sense of self. For years musical performance was banned; the sounds and tones that coloured a nation and made its most vibrant legacy current were stilled. Even the chirrups of the natural environment fell silent as popular pet birds were forbidden in Afghan homes.
Now, listening to Ahmad Walid, I witnessed more than an audience thrilled by excellence. Here was a true homecoming, a homecoming of the mind and spirit, a reclamation of who and what one is and is destined, by cultural evolution, to be. These were parched people soaking in freshly released water, reconstituting themselves.
Music does it, the lyric legacy does it, the whirls of calligraphy do it, the artisanship of gemstone, wood and ceramic does it, film does it and, above all, the outcry of human performance does it.
A national state is not intrinsically recreated by devising an official constitution under a posture of governance and a contrived willing of popular process. Nor is it only social development and economic restructuring that kindles patriotism and inflates the lungs of new nationhood.
Afghanistan is a nation stuttering along a trajectory from denial to release, from a cultural identity formed only of threat, resistance and dislocation to one of opportunity, acclamation and reintegration. The will towards the many in one, which will be Afghanistan’s federated culture, will emerge as much through the reclamation of the sound of music and the potency of performance as it will through the strained debates of politically engineered national jirgas.
Not everything in Afghanistan needs development provided by donors. Some things are already developed, indeed intensified by suppression. Spirit, will, human dignity, culture, creativity, arts need not development but release and all the donors need to do is to listen out for the miracle of the new heartbeat.