Update: Afghanistan

Update: Afghanistan

The Taliban may be gone, burkas scarcer, and goods more plentiful. But what, asks Pankaj Mishra, would Afghanistan want with a tourism minister?

The American bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7 last year, almost a month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The capital city of Kabul fell to the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance in mid-November, and by December the rout of the Taliban was complete. Things finally appeared to be looking up for Afghanistan when in January the interim government of Hamid Karzai took charge, and began to secure promises of assistance and reconstruction from Western countries. One of Karzai's first acts as prime minister was to appoint Abdul Rahman, a senior member of the Northern Alliance, as minister for tourism.

This seemed, on the face of it, an odd decision. Twenty years of war have made Afghanistan one of the most extensively land mined countries in the world. The Taliban official in Tony Kushner's play, Homebody Kabul, which is set in 1998, has no doubt that Afghanistan is "not a place for sightseeing." In 2001, it faced what aid agencies repeatedly called a "humanitarian catastrophe" in the form of famine, epidemics, and a massive exodus to Iran and Pakistan. While in Afghanistan in April of last year, I was often interrogated by Afghans about what seemed to them the "white people's" peculiarly inordinate interest in the Buddha statues of Bamiyan. They couldn't square the Western concern for art and cultural heritage with the wretchedness of contemporary Afghanistan. Perhaps Karzai, in setting up a tourism ministry, was attempting to open up another channel through which both foreign aid and sympathy could flow into the country.

In the interviews Rahman gave to foreign journalists, the tourism minister appeared busy. He asked his foreign patrons for the rather steep sum of $1 billion to repair the damage to the tourist industry. He wanted to upgrade hotels, he said, and organize history and culture tours and trekking expeditions. He was already planning advertising campaigns in Europe, Japan, and the United States. But he wanted to get his act together first. "I do not want the tourist to face lots of problems," he told USA Today. "Give me two months," he said. "We will have set up travel and tour guides and brochures, and the country will be ready. Also, the weather will be better."

The weather did improve. Some representatives of Western tourist agencies visited Kabul. Few of them could have ventured out into the countryside, which is still under the control of various warlords, or, more simply, men with guns. But most of them did experience the rigors of the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, which has not been affiliated with the hotel chain for 15 years. Some tourist agencies in Pakistan and America even began to offer package tours to Afghanistan.

It couldn't have required much insight on their part to see that the lack of infrastructure—roads, airports, hotels— was a problem. As it turned out, that lack was felt most acutely not by the few foreign visitors but by Afghanistan's hajj pilgrims, who apparently lynched Rahman at Kabul airport in February as he, exercising his VIP prerogatives, was about to commandeer the only available plane and fly his family to a vacation in India. Karzai later said, without providing any details, and adding considerably to Afghanistan's atmosphere of intrigue, that the murder of the minister, far from being spontaneous, was the result of a conspiracy.


In the 1960's and 70's, tourism in Afghanistan was a much less perilous business. For travelers on the overland route from Europe to Asia, Kabul offered a tantalizing curtain- raiser to such Oriental capitals of hedonism as Goa and Kathmandu. The sex was necessarily furtive—out of deference to local Muslim sensibilities—but the hashish was cheap and easily available. In Afghanistan a few months before September 11, I ran into a middle-aged Australian who said he "did it" with his companion—"smoked hash," he quickly clarified—sitting on top of the tallest Buddha statue at Bamiyan, which, built during the third or fourth century a.d., was 174 feet high. He couldn't recall how he got up there or, more important, how he had gotten down. Everything he saw or did in Afghanistan in those days had passed for him in a happy daze.

The Australian had forgotten about the statues until he heard that they'd been destroyed by the Taliban. And, no, the news hadn't upset him much. He now traveled to Afghanistan as an exporter of carpets, and saw the country with the eyes of a businessman. He was worried about the infrastructure; he didn't care particularly who was in charge, or whether the Taliban were much more oppressive than the country's previous rulers. He was concerned about the hotels, particularly the Inter-Continental in Kabul, where the Taliban required all foreign visitors to stay. The damp walls and surly waiters and non-flushing flush toilets were a poor return for the $100 per night you had to shell out. You got better service, he said, at the flea-infested chaikhanas, or teahouses, he stayed at in the smaller cities.

The Australian was unexpectedly passionate about the need to keep up standards at the Kabul hotel. However ugly its concrete bulk and, at times, uncertain its purpose, the hotel, which was built in the seventies, marked a stage in Afghanistan's long-delayed tryst with modernity. It had an aura that even rival warlords respected during two decades of vicious war, when much of downtown Kabul was damaged. It was no use saying that human needs were minimal in Afghanistan, and that the idea of luxury for many Afghans was a roof, however leaky, over their heads. The country had to attract more foreign visitors like him and join the world economy. There was no other way. He told me that he urged the same message upon the Taliban leaders he met on his business trips.

In a country where you paid children in rags to fill the potholes in the roads, the Australian appeared absurdly incongruous, and I half-wondered if he was a spy. But perhaps the leaders of the Taliban didn't entirely ignore the views of the unsentimental foreign businessmen they encountered. In April of last year, the Taliban announced the reopening of the swimming pool at the Kabul Inter-Continental. This was part of an effort by a few moderate ministers to attract tourists to Afghanistan. It got a fair bit of publicity. I remember seeing a photo in a Pakistani newspaper of young Afghans splashing about in the newly filled pool, trailing long Taliban-style beards in the azure water.

The vigorous Afghans might have seemed inviting to a certain kind of male tourist, who usually lurks on the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka, even if they deterred tourists looking for more conventional pleasures. Nevertheless, the reopened pool offered hope: it hinted that the more sensible among the Taliban might yet tire of the austerities of radical Islam and embark upon the pursuit of happiness.


But they had first to reckon with the devastation of Afghanistan. And then there was Mullah Omar in Kandahar. Omar's views on such American means to happiness as swimming pools were never clearly expressed. But they could be inferred from his fatwas against "American hairstyles" and pop music and his distaste for Kabul, whose foreign aid workers and seventies-style hotel spoke to him of unbridled vice and depravity.

It is perhaps safe to say that happiness wasn't Mullah Omar's dish. Nor was serenity, as once embodied by the Bamiyan Buddhas and the remaining Indo-Greek statues at the Kabul Museum, all of which Omar's henchmen vandalized with some relish. As Mullah Omar saw it, both happiness and serenity were unworthy goals for his band of virtuous Muslim soldiers.

Not that the pious Omar was any more respectful of the traditionally Islamic routes to well-being. The gardens of Islam, the oases of green that feature so prominently in the Koran's visions of paradise, once had no more glorious specimen in Afghanistan than Baghi Babur, which lies on a hillside overlooking Kabul. It was designed by Babur, the descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and the first Moghul emperor of India. Babur, who seized Kabul in 1504, liked the place for its views and peacefulness; he often sat among the mulberry and plane trees and dreamed his old dream of conquering Tamerlane's capital of Samarkand. He died in 1530 in Agra, India, a homesick old man thousands of miles from his beloved Central Asia. His family carried out his wish and brought his body to Kabul. The emperors who followed him—even greater connoisseurs of art, creators of the Taj Mahal and the terraced gardens of Kashmir—honored his memory by building a tomb and mosque in what they called "the theater of heaven, the light garden of the angel king."

For centuries Babur's garden and tomb quietly watched the steady procession of Afghanistan's unlamented rulers. Such adjectives as "beautiful" and "magnificent" were showered on them as late as 1976, in what must be the world's most melancholy guidebook, Nancy Hatch Dupree's An Historical Guide to Afghanistan. They even survived the decade-long war between the Soviets and the American proxies that began in 1979. The civil war that concluded with the Taliban's triumph in 1996 finally broke the peace of the angel-king's garden. The tomb itself miraculously survived the shelling that turned the mosque into a ruin; Taliban soldiers desperate for firewood later ravaged the garden.

The civil war also signaled the end of the National Museum in Kabul, which was first hit by a rocket in 1993. A second rocket followed not long afterward and then the looting began. The Greek coins excavated in Ai Khanoum, the site of the Greek colonies established by Alexander the Great; the many statues of the Buddha; the idols of Hindu gods—all of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage was systematically carted off by rival warlords. Some of it was smuggled to Pakistan, from where it trickled out to greedy antiques collectors in Europe, America, and Japan. Once again, religious faith played little part here. That the cities of Herat and Ghazni had once belonged to a glorious phase of Islamic civilization did not make them immune to looters and smugglers.


This cultural suicide was of course the least of the disasters that overtook the Afghans. With millions of refugees still in Pakistan and Iran, disease and death stalking many drought-affected areas, and the warlords pretty much running the show outside Kabul, it may seem frivolous to talk of making Afghanistan safe for tourism. But, as the Australian businessman would have told me, the task of rebuilding Afghanistan cannot overlook what is in many countries the greatest source of national income.

In this regard, the news from UNESCO and other organizations committed to preserving Afghanistan's cultural legacy has been slightly better. Offers of financial aid have come in from around the world. Plans to restore Babur's garden in Kabul are already in place. Karzai has appointed a new tourism minister, Zalmay Rassoul, in place of the unfortunate Rahman. Karzai has also vowed to rebuild the Bamiyan Buddhas "as soon as possible."

This seems a rather rash commitment, given Afghanistan's other urgencies, the cost of reconstructing Bamiyan— $30 million to $50 million—and the niggardliness of Karzai's Western sponsors. There is more merit in the suggestion made by an expert at UNESCO that an archaeological park be created around the defaced statues: apparently, the Bamiyan area has yet to be sufficiently explored by archaeologists and is expected to yield more treasures. As Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter, a scholar of Afghan and Western Himalayan art, told the New York Times recently, "I can't imagine that in 1227 anybody was sitting around discussing how to go about reconstructing everything that Genghis Khan had destroyed."

It is clear that the stability and resources required to retrieve or re-create Afghanistan's heritage may not exist for years to come. But this won't stop people from doing, in the meantime, what they can do. Workers at the Kabul Museum have managed to reassemble a few statues shattered by the Taliban. "Break a vase," Derek Walcott once wrote, "and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole." It is not clear whether the glue will hold the pieces together at the Kabul Museum. But the love is unmistakable. And perhaps when the news gets worse, such small, poignant triumphs are what will help the new tourism minister of Afghanistan live up to the most optimistic job description in the world.

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