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Update: Afghanistan

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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