Monday, April 20, 2009

In Vancouver Review: Taqunya In Kabul - The People, Coming From The Shadows.

There are seven gates that lead into the narrow and winding passageways of the Murad Khane, the 18th-century walled quarter within the old city of Kabul. It is hidden away inside a hive of narrow streets and alleys bustling with fruit and vegetable sellers, blacksmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers holding aloft glistening strands of lapis lazuli. There are naan bakers and gem cutters, potters and leathermakers, seamstresses, tailors, almond hawkers and spice merchants. There’s one long and winding alleyway taken up entirely by peddlers selling caged songbirds.

Down the Murad Khane’s busy flagstone passageways you will still find old, richly filigreed window frames, door screens and facades in the Nuristani and Kabuli styles. There are still “hammams,” the old domed-roof bath houses, and relics of ornate Simgili plasterwork in walls that surround cool and quiet courtyards. Some of the old houses still tilt and groan against elaborately-carved Kandankari verandah posts, and there are still faint echoes of the grand Mughal style in the great serai, the central gathering place.

Not for nothing was Kabul once called the Paris of the East.

There, the grand home of a long-forgotten khan. Here, the remains of several buildings demolished by bombs, their ancient timbers plundered for firewood during the Mujahedeen wars. There, at least 20 structures that collapsed during an earthquake in 2006. And here, from this rooftop, look, you can see the old king’s place, and the famous brick bridge across the Kabul River. From just about any of the flat roofs of the Murad Khane you can also see the ugly concrete office and apartment blocks that steadily encroached upon the neighbourhood during the Soviet era.

Of the 600 residents, about a third are from the old families, the people who have been here for countless generations. There are roughly 120 children in the school. Average depth of the garbage and detritus removed to excavate the courtyards and passageways down to street level – two meters. Number of dump truck loads it took to haul it all away – 12,000. The restoration project’s largest backer - the Canadian International Development Agency, with $3 million over four years. Number of buildings identified for special protection or restoration - 65. Carpenters and other tradesmen are now busy working on 22 of them.

Civilization springs from the people themselves, and from the cities. Rebuild its wellspring, and civilization will flourish and triumph across the land. When you turn to Kabul for this, and to Kabulis themselves, you will find yourself in the old city.

In the Murad Khane, you turn to the dwindling brigades of Afghanistan’s traditional master craftsmen, and what was only recently a decrepit slum is now an emerging centre of art and learning and commerce. The place is now alive with seasoned artisans and young apprentices, carpenters, ceramicists, calligraphers, sculptors, plasterers and jewelers. There are literacy courses and embroidery classes and the clattering and clunking of hammers and chisels in the work of rebuilding old guest houses for visiting scholars.

All of this unfolds down Murad Khane’s alleyways in the shadow of the Abul Fazl minaret, a defiant testament to all those things that for so long had been forced to hide here from the angry world outside. The “hidden places” where certain stories, prayers and songs are sung are known as taqunya. This is an idea in the Islamic tradition, a word in the Dari language, and in the Murad Khane it is a tradition that came to mean those places that only the local people know, where customs might persist without hindrance, where toleration and everyday decency might thrive. . .

That's from my essay in the current issue of Vancouver Review, on newsstands right about now. Better yet, treat yourself to a subscription.

Elsewhere, a fine report in the Globe and Mail about the way prominent Canadian women think about recent developments on the women's rights front in Afghanistan, with the views of the brave Sally Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, Farah Mohamed, and Margaret MacMillan. There is one completely wrong and point-missing anomaly, and it comes from Judy Rebick, former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Rebick actually said life is worse for women now than during the Taliban era. Then there is this worthless piety: “Never have women achieved equality by somebody coming in and giving it to them. We can't bomb our way into equality.” Rather than sending in troops to intervene in a society “that doesn't want them,” Rebick says Canada should instead support (the completely irrelevant and now sadly ridiculous) Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. “We should never have gone into Afghanistan in the first place, and we should leave.”

As the Afghan progressives Nader Nadery and Haseeb Humayoon patiently explained to New York Times readers yesterday: "These assumptions are wrong. In our first democratic elections, in October 2004, 11 million Afghans — 41 percent of them women — registered to vote. In a 2008 survey by the Asia Foundation, 76 percent of Afghans responded that democracy was the best form of government. . .As for women’s rights, the troubles that brewed in Afghanistan during the 1990s — civil war, followed by the Taliban’s totalitarianism and harboring of Al Qaeda — were in great part the result of the female half of our population being deprived of social and political participation. Like everyone else, Afghans crave security, justice, accountability, educational and employment opportunities, and a promise of a future."

Meanwhile, Habibi Sorabi, Governor of Bamiyan Province, states the obvious: Despite setbacks, women's rights are steadily improving in Afghanistan. She cited last week's women's protest in Kabul against an Iranian-inspired marriage law, aimed at keeping Afghan Shia women in their place.

Also, Mohammed Esan Zia: "The tide is still in favour of our people. This is my strong belief. It is based upon what I see in rural Afghanistan where the population speaks confidently about tomorrow and does not think the war is lost."


Blogger RadicalOmnivore said...

Good piece in the G&M. Very pertinent comments from McMillan; I'm enjoying her use and abuse of history as my current bedside read.
One of the few other places where lais Azuli is found is on South Baffin just south of chez moi.

1:03 PM  

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