| Issam Ahmed |
KABUL (AFP) – When workers began renovating Murad Khane district, a jewel of Old Kabul that breaks up the city’s otherwise bland facade of concrete high-rises and blast-walls, it was hidden under piles of garbage.
Now the teeming quarter is home to bustling bazaars, a revitalised calligraphy and woodwork school and a courtyard that won a UNESCO conservation award last year.
In the 1700s and 1800s the area was home to the city’s administrators, but fell into disrepair in the 20th century and had been scheduled for demolition.
The restoration project, undertaken by a British NGO, is arguably a rare success story for international aid in Afghanistan, with its role as a broker for local artisans to global clients seen as a particular positive.
Tommy Wide, country director of the Turquoise Mountain project, explained: “Over the second half of the 20th century the idea emerged among the Afghan ruling classes that this kind of area was backward, dirty, everything that they were trying to move away from.
“For outward-looking Afghans, what they were looking for was skyscrapers, concrete, cement, big factories. And so these small intricate alleys, higgledy piggledy houses and courtyards didn’t really fit into their vision of what it was to be modern in Afghanistan.”
The project was founded by former diplomat Rory Stewart and grew out of a conversation between Prince Charles and outgoing President Hamid Karzai in 2002.
It involved the renovation of more than 60 houses with the help of members of the local community who were paid to lift out the rubbish.
Some buildings had goats living upstairs and others had been transformed into banana store rooms. The delicate woodwork had been destroyed and the flooring was a mud bath.
By 2006 the area, which overlooks the Kabul River, had taken on the shape it retains today – with stalls selling arts and crafts, metal workers, a shrine, school and playground.
Turquoise Mountain has set aside some buildings to teach students calligraphy, ceramics and woodwork, under the watchful eye of 85-year-old Abd-ul-Hadi, who once worked for the last king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah.
“The Soviet period was good too, I was a teacher with a lot of students. But the Taleban period was a very tough time,” he said.
“This was my father’s craft and it’s extremely important for me that I’ve been able to hand this on to new students.”
The development sector has come under criticism the world over for high profile failures, but in Afghanistan the problem is particularly acute.
High profile white elephants include the ghost town of Aliceghan outside Kabul, USAID funded hospital projects in Kabul and energy and dam projects.
The United States alone has spent around $100 billion to rebuild Afghanistan over the past decade, but the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction has said only a fraction of the money can be accounted for.
Turquoise Mountain believes its model – of connecting local artisans to foreign buyers – could pave the way for a more sustainable approach that is tailored to needs on the ground.
Hadayatullah Ahmadzai, the head engineer of the renovation project, said the key was getting the local community deeply involved.
“Before starting our work we had a meeting with the community. We received a pledge from the community.”
They hired dozens of labourers from the area and the work began. After years of toil, they found original architecture undisturbed and untouched, with the garbage acting as a protective shield.
Among the NGO’s notable successes is a $650,000 interior design order for a five-star hotel in Mecca. A recent female graduate also received an $80,000 calligraphy order. The NGO accepts a two per cent brokerage fee.
Wide believes the recent success befits the quarter’s rich heritage that had come to fall on hard times.
It was home to a Turkic ethnic minority called the “Qizilbash” who were administrators and bureaucrats for the Afghan royal family – in keeping with long time Islamic traditions of using outsiders less likely to try to effect a takeover.
Ordinary residents see more practical benefits too.
“People’s living conditions here have improved – we did not have a hospital and now we have one. There was no school and they built a school,” said Sayed Sharif, a fortune teller and purveyor of aphrodisiacs.