This article was published by MediaGlobal News on March 8, 2012 but is no longer available on their website. It has been copied below.
UNITED NATIONS - Afghanistan in the decade since 9/11 conjures images of the Taliban fighters, US-led coalition forces, competing warlords, corrupt government officials, and the international community’s failed attempts at “nation-building.” Often overlooked amidst this chaos is Afghanistan’s cultural vibrancy, a legacy of its rich ancient civilization at the crossroads of various Greek, Indian, Persian, and central Asian empires. One organization is striving to harness Afghanistan’s artistic traditions in order to spur sustainable development.
Named for the fabled medieval capital of Afghanistan and evoking a proud but lost history, Turquoise Mountain in Kabul works to regenerate historic urban areas and to preserve traditional craftsmanship for posterity. Executive Director Rory Stewart, a Scottish-born former diplomat with intimate knowledge of Afghan history and culture, founded Turquoise Mountain at the request of Prince Charles of Wales and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
Today, the organization stands out amongst the myriad Western NGOs struggling to develop Afghanistan, in part because, Stewart tells MediaGlobal, it follows the examples of the Aga Khan Development Network and Save the Children, which “have a deep and textured relationship with specific communities going back over many years.”
Stewart considers art and culture among the casualties of war in Afghanistan, and believes revitalizing this sector to be an instrumental aspect of rehabilitating the country as a whole. “Recognizing that Afghans have made and still make some of the most beautiful things in the world, contributes to a sense of pride and national identity, and is a reminder that Afghanistan has roots that go much deeper and broader than the roots of sectarian conflict,” he explains.
Turquoise Mountain has grown organically, responding to the community’s demands. Initially, limited seed money provided by Prince Charles’ charities and proceeds from Stewart's book chronicling his 32-day walk across Afghanistan in 2002, necessitated undertaking relatively cheap projects. Nonetheless, within a year they managed to start work on an ambitious plan to restore the historic architecture and improve living standards in Murad Khane, the artistic quarter of Kabul’s old city.
Employing close to 600 Afghans at its peak in 2007, the Murad Khane revival project entailed clearing 17,000 cubic meters of garbage, faithfully restoring 65 traditional mud-brick houses that were on the verge of collapse, and supplying the neighborhood with electricity, running water, sanitation, and paved roads. It included a primary school and a health clinic, which are now completely run by the local community.
The once-decrepit area had been slated for demolition, and throughout the renovation process no one knew if the government would send bulldozers to kill the project. Yet Stewart took a gamble, creating an attractive oasis in Kabul and then literally daring the city to knock it down. His audacity paid off. The project not only won official Afghan approval, it also secured a government grant to restore and preserve seven historic buildings in the neighborhood.
“The key behind our success is that everything is rooted in what is beautiful and prideful about Afghanistan,” Shoshana Clark, Managing Director of Turquoise Mountain tells MediaGlobal.
Turquoise Mountain’s other signature contribution has been the establishment of the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture. Afghanistan’s only internationally accredited vocational institution, what began as a small apprentice workshop has grown into 3-year programs in woodcutting, painting, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry, and gem-cutting. Taught by a 30-member all-Afghan faculty, the Institute also offers additional classes in Dari literacy, English, art history, drawing, design, information technology, and business.
About 80 percent are now employed in their fields of study and the rest are either teaching or continuing their education. To date, graduates have sold over $1.5 million in commissions to domestic clients as well as to prestigious international customers such as London’s Connaught hotel, which commissioned elaborate woodcarvings for one of its suites.
In 2007, Turquoise Mountain established Turquoise Mountain Arts, a business development program to facilitate production and distribution for students and graduates of the Institute. It provides artisans access to a Design & Production studio equipped to produce large-scale commissions and markets their products through gift catalogues, a woodwork portfolio, aswell as trade fair exhibitions around the world. As of last week, it sells items through the newly-launched Turquoise Mountain Arts website. Now that the Institute is under Afghan leadership and the Murad Khane neighborhood is self-sufficient, the business development program is the mainstay of Turquoise Mountain.
Stewart expresses wariness of Western aid organizations operating in places like Afghanistan, which often succumb to the pitfalls of “abstraction, jargon, isolation, and excessive optimism.” In his former roles as a British Foreign Officer and deputy governor of two southern Iraqi provinces under the auspices of the Coalition Provisional Authority, he witnessed the ineffectiveness of many well-intended development initiatives.
Yet, Stewart insists that Turquoise Mountain is different because it resists “the temptation to spread itself too thin,” and refrains from working off a checklist of democracy-building and gender equality initiatives. Rather, acting on Stewart’s conviction that “ignoring culture limits the potential of countries to survive and prosper,” Turquoise Mountain focuses on the modest goals of preserving age-old crafts-making skills and renewing appreciation for traditional arts and architecture.
“If we manage to pass on traditions in wood-working, ceramics, gem-cutting,and jewelry-making for the next generation and we manage to preserve historic buildings,” says Clark. “That is making a real contribution to the society.”