<<Les fruits dépassent les promesses des fleurs.>> . . . . . <<The fruits surpass the promises of the flowers.>>
The van pulled up in front of a big wooden gate set in a long mud wall. To one side a small metal door opened slowly as a guard stepped out with a rifle hanging from his shoulder carrying a long metal stick with a mirror attached to the end in one hand. He walked around the car examining the underside of the van presumably for car bombs. After he was satisfied he gave the clear sign to another guard who opened the gate for us to enter.
We entered the front court of a restored 19th century fortress which was perched on the slope of a hill overlooking the city. This oasis housed not only the NGOs offices, but also the extensive lodgings for all international staff, overnight accommodation for some local staff, as well as a number of workshops and classrooms for traditional Afghan woodworks, ceramics, jewellery,textiles and calligraphy.
The classes are run by Ustads, who in some cases come from 200 years of lineage in their area of expertise. At the time these masters had been approached to come and teach their skills, some of them were selling fruits in the market trying to make ends meet. The struggles of the last three decades, which had forced them to abandon their crafts and opt for menial work, meant that with them centuries of knowledge and valuable skills would die for ever.
One of the main aims of the educational component of the foundation is to ensure the continuation of Afghan traditional skills by training the next generation of artisans and increasing the income of the craftsmen by marketing high quality artefacts to an elite cliental. Hopefully this will help rebuild their cultural pride and national identity as well.
As soon as I got off the van and my suitcases were unloaded, a middle-aged man in a kaki outfit and a baseball cap approached to greet me. He shook my hand and after exchanging pleasantries directed the porter to take my suitcases to my room and me to an office where I would be meeting the operating manager of the foundation. I had spoken with the operating manager several times on the telephone from London.
A few minutes later I met a young lean and soft-spoken Englishman in his mid 30s who reminded me Christopher Robin. He greeted me warmly before we set out for a tour of the institute. During the tour I found out that he spoke an immaculate Dari and was very much in tune with the Afghan culture. I was impressed to hear a very European looking man speak perfect Dari. I had to smile.
Walking through the grounds and visiting various workshops, where different groups of students were hard at work, completely rejuvenated me. In one of the courtyards a couple of artisans were putting the finishing touches on a carved wooden column with lapis inlays. The beautiful piece, along with a number of other pieces of furniture were due to be shipped to an international interior design fair in Dubai. It didn’t take me long to realise that the international staff are a very ambitious, energetic and young bunch. They had already accomplished an impressive amount of work since the set up of the foundation three years ago. It felt good to be amongst them, but I still had not seen where I would be working.
I was given a couple of hours to rest and freshen up before lunch. All meals are taken communally in the spirit of the Afghan culture. A number of in-house cooks prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner, which are normally taken in a cosy communal kitchen off the main courtyard of the Qala.
After lunch one of the drivers drove us to Kabul’s old city, where I would meet my other colleagues. During my stay I would be joining a team of five international architects and engineers working along side of local architects, structural and civil engineers as well as hundreds of local labourers to restore the medieval city. I would be the only female in the team on the ‘ground’.
The bumpy car ride with the managing director and the operations manager was short, but it was long enough for me to be briefed on the extent and the political sensitivities of the restoration projects. Upon our arrival, one of the architects gave me a tour of the construction sites and the completed buildings. In its first year of operation, the foundation cleared 8000 cubic meter of rubbish from the streets and alleyways of this old quarter of the city. In some areas people had to climb over piles of garbage onto mud walls to enter their houses.
The courtyards of once lavish merchant’s homes or abandoned serais in whose rooms once business and politics were conducted were left to decay in neglect. These amazingly beautiful courtyard buildings with their traditional intricate carved wood panels are some of the most enchanting structures I have ever seen. To think that all these beautiful jewels could very easily have been lost for ever, left to rot in piles of rubbish, gives me the chills.
The team has already done a lot for the community by clearing the streets, restoring historic buildings, saving old private dwellings from collapse, providing a community health centre, an elementary school and a playground for the children, as well as providing employment for every body in the area who is willing to work.
The work doesn’t stop there. One of the largest serais is being restored and redesigned to house the first accredited Higher Institute for traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture. On an even larger scale, work is underway to provide this community with the first central sewage and water treatment facilities in Kabul and thereby the whole of the country!
All this work has only been possible because of a tight link between the local community and the development team. We share offices with local colleagues and community leaders. We all eat our mid-day meals together and when a security situation arises, the community provides advice and protection. The significance of a strong connection to the local community became apparent as many people stopped by to chat and introduce themselves during my walk around the sites .
With security being as it is in Kabul, we are not allowed to wander anywhere outside the neighbourhood without having a local community member accompany us. We are neither allowed to drive nor take taxis when we want to move about the city, instead at any given time the foundation has an number of drivers to take us around, be it for meetings, shopping or socialising. As an avid walker who equally enjoys walking in the countryside and wandering through strange cities, I imagine this lack of independence and the inability to go anywhere on foot by myself can quickly feel immensely restricting.
Since I have arrived here, every morning my colleagues and I pile up in a van and are driven to work. The driver waits there for us all day while we are working to then drive us back home in the evening. This is to ensure that if a situation arises we can immediately be evacuated from the site.
Shortly before dusk we were all driven back to the fortress in order to be home before it gets dark. After dinner I excused myself to go take a hot bath. I crashed into bed by 8 pm. Despite the fatigue my sleep was interrupted twice. Once, by the barking Palawan, a good natured milky coloured Labrador, getting excited by the neighbourhood kite runners who pursue their hobbies late at night; a second time by the howling of the wind and rainstorms which freshened and cleared the night air for a new day to come.
Normally the team leaves for work very early in the morning, but as I was jet-lagged and knackered, I was supposed to be driven to the site a bit later at 9 am. By 7 o’clock, shortly before the guys arrived at the site I was woken up by the ringing on my mobile. Our security adviser shared the news of an attack to a UN guesthouse about 1.5 miles from us. A ‘lock down’ was declared. All movement of international staff was frozen until further notice. On my first day at work in Kabul, I was trapped in a fortress while my colleagues were stuck at the other end of the city unable to move. We were all extremely anxious following every bit of security briefings, wondering if we could get the guys back home safely before the day was over.
Hours after the attackers were killed and clearer information about what had really happened started trickle in, finally the guys were driven home in the dark. We were all very happy and relieved to see them safe and sound. They recounted that while they were working on site a couple of missiles destined for the presidential palace had passed over their heads. Then some of the Afghan colleagues rounded them up and took them indoors pretending to need a meeting, while the rest of the crew carried on working.
Later that night as I got up and said good night to go to my room, one of my colleagues shouted behind me: “Welcome to Afghanistan.“ I thought to myself, yes, and what a welcome, indeed!
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