Restoring Past Glory in Old Kabul

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 6, 2008

KABUL -- The road that rings the old city district of Murad Khane is thick with smoke from the hearths of a row of blacksmiths. Until recently, few people in the Afghan capital had much reason to venture beyond the plumes of black smoke into the district.

For decades, Murad Khane has been crushed beneath tons of garbage, a monumental wasteland to the conflict that has gripped Afghanistan for 30 years. The trash heaps made the homes there so inaccessible in places that residents had to burrow through the refuse to enter their front doors.

These days, however, many of those who walk the warren of residences and tumbledown Silk Road inns that make up Murad Khane are there to rebuild the district in what some have billed one the most ambitious efforts yet to pump new life into the long-ailing city.

Work to restore Murad Khane began in 2006 under the auspices of the Kabul-based Turquoise Mountain Foundation. The development organization was born of a meeting of minds between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Britain's Prince Charles when they met during a state visit in Britain in 2004.

Turquoise Mountain is run out of an old fort a few miles from Murad Khane by Rory Stewart, an Oxford-pedigreed Scottish writer and diplomat. Seed money for the group came from Prince Charles and proceeds from Stewart's book, "The Places in Between," a chronicle of his 600-mile walk across Afghanistan in 2002, three months after the fall of the Taliban.

In a country where aid workers like to talk of "capacity building" and "local empowerment," Turquoise Mountain stands out as one of the few groups that is actually transforming trash into treasure. Since the project started in August 2006, workers have hauled away an estimated 10,500 cubic yards of garbage. About 50 homes that were awash in refuse have been restored or received emergency repairs.

Once a nest of seedy entertainment halls, Murad Khane was known for years as one of Kabul's most notorious red-light districts. Located in the center of the city near the Kabul River, it was developed in the 18th century by Afghanistan's founding ruler, Ahmad Shah Durrani. Durrani built several ornate structures to house members of his court from the Qizilbash tribe, an ethnic group that predominates in Murad Khane today. In the 1920s, dozens of buildings with elaborate wood carvings were erected in Murad Khane's 20-acre maze of stone-paved alleys and more modest mud-brick homes. Many of those buildings were demolished as part of a Soviet master plan to modernize Kabul; others were destroyed by decades of neglect and by the civil wars of the 1990s.

The hope is that using traditional Afghan techniques to rebuild the district in the heart of old Kabul will inspire other similar projects in the city and across Afghanistan, said John Elliott, a spokesman for Turquoise Mountain. "We believed that these things -- like culture, like traditional architecture, like history, like identity -- are really, really important for Afghanistan's future," Elliott said. "They're something that all Afghans can unite around, regardless of ethnicity."

Turquoise Mountain employs about 350 local people, many of them women, who work both at Murad Khane and at the organization's current headquarters. It operates three schools for woodwork, calligraphy and traditional pottery and will soon open another for jewelry making. The schools will eventually move from the headquarters to Murad Khane, where there is now also a literacy center and a women's clinic.

There is work yet to be done in Murad Khane, however, before the move. In the courtyard of the once-crumbling building called the Great Serai, a remnant of the neighborhood's status as a Silk Road stop for merchants and tradesmen, a dozen men use long cedar branches to stir mud for the building's new walls. There are sprinklings of straw in the heaping mud pit. The straw strengthens the mud, making it impervious to the ravages of Kabul's harsh environment for many more years than cheap Pakistani concrete, the false coin of postwar reconstruction that inevitably seems to crack within months or years of being laid.

Turquoise Mountain staff members sound almost evangelical when they talk about the organization's use of traditional methods in rebuilding the district. The approach represents in some ways the organization's philosophy: Take the raw elements of Afghan culture, and use them to rebuild what has been lost after years of violent conflict.

The buzzword for this is "sustainability," but Turquoise Mountain workers are wary of using the term. The rebuilding of Murad Khane is more like helping an amnesiac slowly regain his memory, Elliott said. Each newly carved panel of Himalayan cedar installed in an old building, each freshly cut flagstone laid along the narrow alleys recalls another Afghanistan. It is an Afghanistan of a grander era, before the Soviets, before the mujaheddin, before the Taliban, before U.S. soldiers came looking for Osama bin Laden.

A few hundred yards from the Great Serai, a dozen men are seated on the floor of a small courtyard chiseling mountain stone into neat, thin rectangles beneath the shade of a partially thatched roof. One of the men, Mohammed Maruf, 60, gives a clanging whack to a stone as he talks about the changes the restoration project has already wrought. "Before the wars, this handiwork had a lot of value. But during the mujaheddin time and Taliban time, it was lost," he said. "After Karzai came and this project started, the handiwork was valued again. This is why we're here."

But convincing skeptical Afghans of the value of the project is not an easy task in a city where an influx of international aid workers and contractors has fueled a highly speculative real estate market and fast-paced construction. Under the city's master rebuilding plan, Murad Khane is one of several historic districts that was supposed to be razed to make room for the boxy new buildings springing up like concrete mushrooms.

Yet even some of the early naysayers have become converts. At the outer edge of Murad Khane, some merchants who work in the neighborhood's dense cluster of blacksmith and tire shops say also benefited. Qari Mohammed, a 55-year-old blacksmith who has worked in Murad Khane for 20 years, said he's become a fan of the resurrected traditional architecture.

"We are happy about this restoration," Mohammed said. "As these houses are being built, our country is being rebuilt. I'm only unlucky that I don't live here in Murad Khane but in another neighborhood."

Reconstruction of Murad Khane is expected to be completed by late this year or early in 2009.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company