Blurred Re­flec­tions

De­struc­tion of old arte­fects hardly serves the cause of peace.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sa’adia Reza

When the Tal­iban de­stroyed the two stat­ues of Bud­dha in 2001in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, the ac­tion served as an apt sym­bol for the cul­tural de­struc­tion that the war-rav­aged coun­try had suf­fered in the past few decades. De­spite the in­ter­na­tional furor that ex­ploded af­ter dy­na­mit­ing of the stat­ues, a sys­tem­atic and re­morse­less crip­pling of the her­itage con­tin­ued – to the ex­tent that the re­cov­ery process now seems a steep up­hill task, if not an im­pos­si­ble one.

Once upon a time, not very long ago, this piece of land ly­ing to the west of Pak­istan was home to a rich and di­verse civ­i­liza­tions that dated back to the an­cient times. Afghanistan’s strate­gic lo­ca­tion en­sured that it be­came cross­road to many a race, as

they trav­elled across its rugged ter­rains from East to the West and vice versa. Each civ­i­liza­tion left its foot­prints gift­ing the re­gion with var­ied cus­toms and tra­di­tional largesse.

This is where Ai Khanum – the his­tor­i­cal Alexan­dria on the Oxus – lay sprawled deep down. Founded in the 4th cen­tury BC and dis­cov­ered in the early part of the last cen­tury, the civ­i­liza­tion man­i­fests the rule of Alexander the Great. Sadly, to­day, this amaz­ing site sits pock­marked with craters – a vic­tim of war bomb­ings. This is the land that wit­nessed the glo­ries of the Achaemenid and Mace­do­nian em­pires, saw the likes of Kushans and Ghaz­navi dy­nas­ties rise to power and buried in its heart is the largest de­posit of coins known in the his­tory of cur­ren­cies. Yet, to­day, there are few relics pre­served to re­flect th­ese glo­ri­ous facts. The Afghans have not only been robbed of their cul­tural iden­tity, but fi­nan­cially too, the loss of her­itage amounts to bil­lions of dol­lars.

The pil­lag­ing of Afghanistan’s his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts has been a prac­tice ever since the re­gion took up arms against the erst­while Soviet Union. Re­ports doc­u­ment that il­licit ex­ca­va­tion and trade of ar­ti­facts were ram­pant across Afghan bor­ders even dur­ing the 1990s and ev­ery­thing from or­na­ments to coins to an­i­mal fig­urines was smug­gled. What the Tal­iban did was sim­ply an ex­ten­sion of the de­struc­tion, the state of war an­ar­chy fur­ther wreck­ing the sys­tem. "All we are break­ing are stones," was Tal­iban’s mili­tia leader Mul­lah Omar’s in­fa­mous re­sponse to in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of the cul­tural massacre. But the world knew that the de­struc­tion of th­ese relics was ir­re­versible. Ab­dul Wasey Ferozi, for­mer Direc­tor Gen­eral of The Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ar­chae­ol­ogy, Afghanistan, rightly pointed out that it is easy to re­pair in­fra­struc­ture such as roads, bridges and schools, but “cul­tural her­itage can never be re­ha­bil­i­tated nor ren­o­vated.”

Ef­forts of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, how­ever, got un­der­way as soon as pos­si­ble. In 2002 UNESCO was handed the job of sal­vaging the mas­sa­cred cul­tural her­itage of Afghanistan. At the be­hest of the gov­ern­ment, the or­ga­ni­za­tion co­or­di­nates var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional ef­forts aimed at pro­tect­ing the her­itage. At present, dif­fer­ent global cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions are striv­ing to in­cul­cate a sense of own­er­ship of cul­tural her­itage among the Afghan peo­ple. Other or­ga­ni­za­tions, too, are also mak­ing ef­forts to re­turn and pre­serve the coun­try’s lost glory back to its for­mer self.

This is not an easy job, how­ever. The ques­tion of re­con­struct­ing the smaller statue of Bud­dha, for ex­am­ple, has come un­der fire since many cul­tural ex­perts be­lieve that the de­struc­tion should be pre­served as a re­minder of the tragic war. How­ever, those who sup­port the re­assem­bling of the statue are per­suad­ing au­thor­i­ties to go for­ward with the ven­ture. Un­for­tu­nately, work on the res­ur­rect­ing has hit yet an­other snag: the United Na­tion’s Venice char­ter for the con­ser­va­tion and restora­tion of mon­u­ments and sites, 1964, states that the ma­te­rial to be used in the process should be orig­i­nal. This has posed a few prob­lems since the 2001 de­mo­li­tion left just scat­tered rub­ble with less than half of the smaller Bud­dha re­main­ing in­tact. As per an ar­ti­cle that ap­peared in the Guardian Weekly in Jan­uary this year, the ad hoc ex­pert com­mit­tee has warned that the re­con­struc­tion would re­quire a “thor­ough tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tific study”.

In a re­cent in­ter­view pub­lished in Asia To­day, Paul Bucherer, Direc­tor of the Afghanistan In­sti­tute and Mu­seum (Bi­b­lio­theca Afghan­ica), Switzer­land, dis­cussed the ground re­al­i­ties and the road­blocks that the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion process faces. The Bi­b­lio­theca Afghan­ica is a ‘de­pot’ of sorts, where Bucherer has been en­trusted with safe­keep­ing of ar­ti­facts loaned by Afghans for a tem­po­rary pe­riod. To begin with, says Bucherer, a size­able num­ber of ar­ti­facts have been sold in the black mar­ket and trav­elled to all cor­ners of the world. This makes trac­ing them par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult. In the cases where the ar­ti­facts have been traced and iden­ti­fied, the ex­or­bi­tant cost serves as a de­ter­rent in re­triev­ing them. Some­times, the pieces are dis­man­tled and sold separately for higher gains.

Bucherer gives the ex­am­ple of a dealer he met who was de­mand­ing $40,000 for an ex­quis­ite and rare Gand­ha­ran piece which the lat­ter had pur­chased for $30,000. How­ever, he could not find a suit­able buyer and even­tu­ally broke the rather large ar­ti­fact into in­di­vid­ual fig­ures which he planned to sell and cover his loss. Sim­i­larly, a news re­port pub­lished three years ago claimed that an in­creas­ing num­ber of Afghans were smug­gling relics – par­tic­u­larly Bud­dha stat­ues – which were be­ing sold in Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa with lit­tle or no doc­u­mented record of the sales. The laws con­cern­ing im­port are an­other tricky is­sue that Bucherer raised. With no im­port pa­pers of the ar­ti­facts, it be­comes very dif­fi­cult to bring them back to Afghanistan.

There is also the ar­gu­ment of peo­ple vs. cul­ture. Ex­perts, fo­cused on re­build­ing the Afghan cul­tural scene have been ac­cused of rob­bing the coun­try of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid. This was par­tic­u­larly di­rected to­wards res­ur­rect­ing the Bud­dha statue in Bamiyan, es­ti­mated to cost $40 mil­lion to $50 mil­lion. Bucherer coun­ters the crit­i­cism by ar­gu­ing that the cap­i­tal that will come for the pur­pose will be funded by sources which will prob­a­bly never pro­vide hu­man­i­tar­ian aid.

In her book, Art and Arche­ol­ogy of Afghanistan: its fall and sur­vival: a multi-dis­ci­plinary ap­proach, Juliette Van Krieken-Pi­eters in­sists that given its tu­mul­tuous war his­tory, cul­tural iden­tity is an an­ti­dote that will help the Afghans to re­turn to nor­malcy. The road, how­ever, is long and twist­ing, de­mand­ing from its trav­el­ers un­stinted com­mit­ment. Even then, com­plete re­ver­sal is prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble; what Afghanistan may even­tu­ally wit­ness is the blurred re­flec­tion of its mag­nif­i­cent past.

The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Karachi. She writes on top­ics re­lated to hu­man in­ter­est and civic is­sues.

Ex­perts, fo­cused on re­build­ing the Afghan cul­tural scene have been ac­cused of rob­bing the coun­try of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid.

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