Sunday, August 28, 2005


Temporarily removed

(removed for reasons of proffessional delicacy, hopefully to be replaced very soon)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


The rape of the past

It is a sad thing to talk to the champions of architectural heritage in Afghanistan. The archaeologists, historians and architects that I have happened to meet and talk to about the great richness of Afghanistan’s past are as different as personalities can be, but they all have an indefinable common something. A deep and weary vein of sadness vein runs through them. A distant and controlled expression of discontent lingers as they describe the things they love. And it is hard indeed not to be sad. Since the well-publicised destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001 by the Taliban, the rape of Afghan architectural and archaeology has gone on. All archaeological sites of interest are covered with unofficial excavations of casual booty-hunters. The fort of old Balkh, the Balay Hissar is pockmarked with hundreds of such scars. In the bazaar in Mazar-i Sharif you can buy Bactrian silver coins - Drachmas written in Greek script. Non-portable finds are discovered by the archaeologists, smashed for no particular reason, as was a Buddhist stupa near Balkh only days after its excavation.

In Kabul there lives a cantankerous Englishman - a curmudgeonly heroic historian and archaeological enthusiast. When I met him, he was painfully, passionately depressed about the looting and destruction of beautiful and significant things over the years. He has been in Afghanistan, on and off, since the 70s. If you prompt him, he flies into a rage of melancholy and frustration at the steady degradation and destruction eating away at Afghanistan’s architectural riches. Old buildings are being replaced by garish concrete and glass cookers in the desire, as he puts it “to dump all that is 'old' and hence nasty, dirty and not modern, in favour of pink and lurid green edifices which are like some Disney movie on LSD.” He cries of the need to “stop this holocaust before everything is swamped in a desert of concrete and marble.”

Another woeful lover - a recent returnee from Iran, and obsessive amateur scholar of his country’s past, took us round on a sightseeing trip of old Balkh last weekend, and his commentary at each site turned inevitably into an elegy for the disappeared and the disappearing. Of the Khwaja Abu Parsa mosque:

‘Last time, I was here - a month ago - this inscription could still be read. Now it is gone forever.’

(Not only that, but the ruined madrasa that faces the mosque has been turned into an extemporised public toilet, littered with human dung – the not-so-desirable relics of Balkh’s current inhabitants and visitors.)

Of the Nogombad mosque, the oldest in Afghanistan, and unique in the Islamic world:

‘Each time it rains, more of the building is washed away… 20 years ago, 2 of the nine original domes were intact – now there are none. Nobody took a photo before they were destroyed.’

Of the Takhti Pul mosque, one of the best examples in Mazar of the 19th century architecture of the time of Amanullah Khan  – two beautiful biscuit-brown egg-shaped earth domes, possessed of stunning Bukharan plasterwork and painting on the interior:

‘The rain comes in the roof here – the drain pipes used to carry the water off the roof, but now it all collects and seeps down into the structure. Without protection, the roof will soon be destroyed.’

And you can see how it is difficult to attract attention for this kind of thing. Many parts of Afghanistan are still desperately poor. But still… there is something terrible about the destruction of heritage which strikes you in a different way to the terrible suffering of the present generation. When the reconstruction process has done its job, and Afghanistan is able to get by as a prosperous and self-sufficient state (inshallah) how will the Afghan people be able to position themselves in history and relate to their past and their future, if all traces of the glorious past are gone?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Sweaty dreams of Lord Butler

I slept fitfully last night. I am normally OK at night, as have one last shower, shut myself up in my bedroom, strip my clothes off and pass out covered in a thin film of moisture. Last night though I kept on waking up, and I had strange dreams in between.

I dreamt that I had lunch with Bill Clinton and the Master of my College at University, Robin Lord Butler. We were in a plush, rather 18th Century style room, with a lot of green and gold in the décor, light but not garish. All was going rather well, though Lord Butler seemed a little uneasy. I am not sure that I was supposed to be there, but I was being chummy and friendly, so I was tolerated. At one point Bill told us how he loved to take his yacht and sail with his family off the coast of Maine (I have no idea if Maine even has a coast, but this is a dream…OK?) and Nantucket. I expressed myself warmly, saying how I would love to try sailing sometime, but to go sailing you either have to own your own boat or you have to work as a crew member – thinking I would be happy to work as crew on somebody’s boat. Then, I did not want it to seem as if I was angling for an invitation to sail with Bill Clinton on his yacht, so I turned to Lord Butler and said

‘Do you have any friends with boats?’

But Lord Butler looked at me with his craggy grey face and said

‘I did not think you would be so low.’

I looked at Bill, and he seemed disappointed in me too, though his face was not clear in the foggy depths at the other side of the room. I was on the sofa next to Lord Butler and I leant over to him, so that my chest was against his, and took him by the shoulder, my fingers sinking into the soft corduroy of his shoulder pad, and I said in an impassioned and rather theatrical manner,

‘You do not understand. I speak from the heart. It has always been my desire to go away to sea… ever since I was a little boy.’

So – I am not sure what that is all about. Anxiety about fitting in? Yearning for the sea? Something I ate? Answers please, on a postcard…

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Feelin' hot, hot, hot

It is HOT in Mazar, in more ways that one.

There was a rocket attack in Mazar the night before last. The first time in two years. It’s down to the forthcoming parliamentary elections, the security update tells us. Luckily no one was hurt, but it puts dampers on things a bit. The Afghans are very nonchalant about it. As a woman in a recent IWPR report put it, “These bombs are like potatoes to us”.

My young bride and I, however, might take the weekend off and pop across the border to Uzbekistan. We have been looking for places to swim, and there is a choice of hotel swimming pools and limpid springs within easy reach of Mazar, but we are not entirely sure about a foreign lady stripping off and diving in yet, but I am told that close to Termez in southern Uzbekistan, there is a nice reservoir we can plunge into. It is very enticing. Last weekend we spent a fair amount of the time underwater anyway – in this weather you wake up and have a shower to cool down, then by the time you have finished your breakfast, you say to yourself, I will just have a quick hose-down before I do anything else, and the pattern is set for the day.

The hotel pool we found looks very inviting indeed. We have been a couple of times – to Hotel Kifayat (or Hotel ‘Enough’) to have a look. The first time we were with a potential employer for my young bride, and the place was filled with little chaps splashing and chattering. The management offered to throw them out to allow us to have a dip, but we left them to it, and carried on sipping our tinned banana juice. The last time we went, a couple of days ago, we brought our bathing suits, but it was shut up for some reason. Still, we sat down in the brightly lit bambi-style park that remained open to the public, had a pair of bubblegum-flavoured pakistani ice-creams on the cool grass and watched the illuminations.

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