An Afghan man rides his motorcycle past the remains of a giant Buddha carving destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001 in central Bamian province. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

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By Philip Kennicott
Art and architecture critic
August 30, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT60

As the clock ticks to Tuesday’s deadline for American forces to leave Afghanistan, the arts and culture sector faces a sobering new reality. After the Americans leave, what will happen to Afghan artists and performers, cultural workers, and nongovernmental organization staffers engaged with heritage, traditional crafts and preservation? There are no answers, but their future depends not just on what the Taliban does, but how deeply civil society has taken root in Afghanistan over the past two decades.

There is panic, but also resignation, measured pragmatism and even some hope. Ashley Tucker, program and operations manager for the Brooklyn-based Artistic Freedom Initiative, hears from those who are the most vulnerable. “At this point, we have had hundreds of inquiries and requests for assistance and relocation,” she said, only hours after a suicide bomber killed dozens of people outside the Kabul airport on Thursday. Among other programs, AFI offers pro-bono legal services for at-risk artists.

Afghans reaching out to her include artists and artisans who have worked closely with Western governments or organizations, and some who have taken prominent political or social positions that could endanger them with the new Taliban regime. When a Taliban spokesman said on Wednesday that music may once again be banned under Taliban law, she began to hear from more musicians.

Tucker’s organization engages with only a fraction of those who may want to leave — those with access to the Internet, email, computers and cellphones. “I can only imagine the number of people who might not have those opportunities,” she said.

By Wednesday, even before the airport bombing, advocates for Afghan artists were near despair. Mariam Ghani, a New York-based artist and filmmaker and the daughter of former Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani, was helping circulate a petition calling for the United States to give urgent priority for evacuation to a broad range of cultural workers. “It is looking pretty grim for anyone who didn’t get out yet,” said Ghani in an email to The Washington Post. “Effectively we are now preparing for the long term. How to sustain people while they hide for a month or more? How to get people out through other routes? How to help those who did make it to third countries get their paperwork processed?”

But even as the situation seems dire, some prominent international development groups and NGOs are continuing with their mission.

“We are committed to stay, and even reinforce our work for the Afghan people,” said Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO assistant director general for culture, in an emailed statement.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Afghanistan closed for about a week after the Taliban took over Kabul, but has restarted some long-running projects, including a major restoration and development project of historical buildings along the Kabul River that employs some 900 people. “We are cautiously optimistic,” said Ajmal Maiwandi, who leads the international group’s efforts in Afghanistan. That optimism is based on promises the Taliban has made and, so far, mostly kept to respect historical and cultural heritage sites, and on their recent behavior in Kabul. “There were a lot of doomsday scenarios prior to the events of the last 10 days, but the most drastic of those predictions have not materialized,” he said.

The Aga Khan Trust is among the most prominent groups to continue work in Kabul, and there are others still active, which did not want to be identified. The head of another international cultural NGO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said the group was aware of anecdotal accounts of Taliban abuse but had decided not to shut down. “We have not had any of our artisans sought out and attacked yet, but we are in an anecdotal world at the moment,” said the executive. “It will vary by region, and no matter what happens, the Taliban is not a single body, and can act differently in different places with different commanders and different leaders.”

An industrial site in Kabul that is being converted into a cultural space is part of a project led by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The organization is continuing its work in the city despite the Taliban takeover. (Simon Norfolk/AKTC)

Taliban behavior is the leading indicator for everyone making hard decisions today about how to proceed in Afghanistan. Sahraa Karimi, head of the state-run Afghan Film Organization, left the country as soon as she heard the Taliban had come to Kabul. “I am filmmaker, and I am very outspoken, and I am famously anti-Taliban. During the peace negotiation, everybody kept silent, but I didn’t keep silent,” said Karimi, from Ukraine, where she fled with her family.

As the first woman to lead Afghan Film, Karimi had just finished an experimental film festival a few weeks earlier, and was instituting a five-year plan to bring greater exposure, technological sophistication and wider circulation for Afghan cinema. She had little doubt that she would be a Taliban target. As the Taliban advanced through the country, she began backing up her film archives digitally, though they now sit on a hidden hard drive to which she no longer has access.

Afghans with a lower profile in the culture sector may have more options, though few of them are risk-free. A young man who leads the local offices for an international cultural heritage organization said he was determined to stay in Afghanistan. “I am checking every day, and right now, things are normal and safe,” he said. Among the positive signs that he and several others cited was the Taliban decision to defend the National Museum in Kabul, which was looted several times during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. The Taliban reportedly destroyed thousands of museum objects in 2001. But the NGO staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting Taliban attention, was also cautious: “Trust is not a good option, so we are all looking forward to what they do after a formal government is established.”

A head of Buddha is exhibited in the National Museum in Kabul in 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)

The number of people in the cultural sector is hard to determine, and it depends on how one defines the arts and culture. Karimi said in her milieu, which includes documentary makers and artists whose careers gave them access to international festivals and galleries, there were perhaps 200 to 300 people, most of whom had already left the country. But she estimated there were 5,000 to 10,000 others who are artists by a wider definition, including many without international exposure or access to travel outside the country.

Even among the broader class of artisans and crafts people, the danger from the Taliban exists on a spectrum. Some arts, including ceramics and woodwork, are passed on through a deeply conservative master-apprentice system which is embedded in traditional Afghan culture. Miniature painting, which has roots in Persian culture, too, is more fraught because it includes representational imagery and the human figure. During the Soviet occupation that began in 1979, rug-making — one of the most pervasive and revered Afghan crafts — morphed from an abstract craft to a field of resistance, with individual craftsmen making “war rugs” that recorded the brutality of the Russian war effort.

Although President Biden and other U.S. politicians may refer derisively to the idea of “nation building,” something even more resilient happened even as the United States failed to attain its political objectives. A vibrant, educated, outward-looking civil society formed, and many Afghans facing Taliban 2.0 have no memory of the shockingly brutal Taliban regime that fell in 2001. Kabul may not be governable by the old Taliban methods.

The cultural sector could also become an area of significant resistance. But that depends on how much remains of the civil society that coalesced in the past two decades. While Americans are relieved to hear the administration announce new figures for the evacuation effort — more than 105,000 by Friday — others look at those departures and measure the loss to Afghanistan’s future.

“What is clear is that Afghanistan today is not what it was in 2001,” said Ottone, UNESCO’s assistant director general for culture. “Culture, education, even science have been nurtured and supported, in spite of all the challenges. This has certainly not been done in vain. The question is how much of this will stay.”

Irina Bokova, former director general of UNESCO, said: “This network of cultural institutions and experts and knowledge was built, and I am afraid may be lost. This is a huge, huge loss, both for Afghanistan and for all of us.”

“First we took out all the English and foreign-language speakers and that is the group that could have been the background for foreign investment,” said Cheryl Benard, head of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, a group originally founded after the Taliban demolition of the Bamian Buddhas in 2001. “Then we took out the people who worked with foreign NGOs and media, so what are you leaving behind? There is an enormous humanitarian crisis looming there.”

Benard, who is the wife of Zalmay Khalilzad (who negotiated the agreement with the Taliban that led to the U.S. departure), advocates caution and engagement with the Taliban. It was her organization that helped elicit a commitment from the group to protect antiquities and cultural heritage sites.

Another leader of an organization that does cultural work in Afghanistan said that even as the West mourns all that has been lost, two decades of investment in Afghan culture give some measure for hope.

“Was everything we did for nothing?” she asked, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she didn’t want her organization to be targeted. “You can think of it like a building, a Jenga tower, and it all just fell down. But this is also about human capital. Millions of people got 20 years of relative stability, and freedom, and perhaps they will do something for their country. Maybe they will come back.”

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