2012
06.11

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT THE LONG OVERDUE VISIT TO THE KABUL MUSEUM, THE NATIONAL GALLERY, THE SULTANI MUSEUM , THE ZOO, AND ABOUT MEETING THE DONORS OF THE GARDEN OF LOVE AND HOPE.

The final two days are starting.  I am on my own, just as I was 16 days ago.  But now I feel a bit more comfortable with my environment and I tested the waters of my newly-won freedom today.

The ALT driver took me to the Kabul Museum late morning.  As you may know, its fate has not been kind.  I am surprised that there still is a museum after that area was the prime battle ground between the Soviets and the mujahideen (who thoroughly rated the museum for the best pieces to sell), and after the Taliban had their field days here smashing and slicing anything that looked un-islamic to them.  Unfortunately, I was not able to get close to any of the higher up museum officials since two important looking British ladies were roaming the facilities occupying many of them.

Some photographs on display indicated the state of affairs after the latest destruction.  Some rooms looked rather shabby with dusty floors, empty walls and a few dimly lit glass cases full of pottery or metal objects – some actually quite fine.  But the Buddhist section had been nicely restored with a still sizable number of objects on display.  And a special exhibition documented the progress at a new excavation site just 40 km South of Kabul.  Arya Mesa claimed to be on par with Buddhist Sites such as Hadda and Bamiyan once excavations would conclude.  The objects on display and some of the giant Buddha figures shown in photographs looked indeed promising.

Since the day was still young, I decided to proceed to another museum in my book, the National Gallery of Kabul situated right next to the Sultani Museum, a small private collection of artifacts.  Since my driver did not know the way, we made a quick stop for him to find out.  It happened to be near the zoo, so I asked for a 15 minute break to quickly see what the Kabul Zoo would have to offer.  First, I really had not thought there would be a zoo at all in this country.   If you have an image of any zoo in your mind, it would likely not live up to that.  The most popular attraction was a small Ferris-Wheel and an ancient, squeaky, electric swing in the shape of a boat which held about 10 screaming Afghanis.

Birds far outnumbered anything in the zoo:  Pheasants,  vultures, owls, and kites among them.  But there were also wolves, gazelles, camels, an ice bear (!) and a brown bear.  The cages were spacious enough but looked in general neglected.  For a display of fish there was an extra charge and since foreigners always pay ten times as much as locals, I skipped that display and got ice cream for the driver and myself instead.

He had tracked down the addresses for our next location and so I arrived at the Sultani Museum and the National Gallery in plenty of time.  At the Sultani, the security guard had to wake up the door keeper who in turn had to disable the alarm and turn on the lights just for me, his lonely visitor.  Three rooms were filled with an astonishing range of objects, mainly tiles, coins, a miserably displayed huge Koran, manuscripts, and lots of unlabeled ancient oddities, like stone balls which had markings that indicated the use in soccer or some such game about 3000 years ago.  A small gold mask was interesting and seemed completely out of place – strikingly similar to masks found by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae, but about 1/3 of the size.  There were no labels and the gatekeeper spoke no English, so I left a bit bewildered.  I understand that this is a private collection and that the origin of many objects is rather questionable.  But the collection seems to have found an unchallenged niche here.

The National Gallery did not quite live up to its lofty name, but there were some curiosities nonetheless.  It pretty much is housed in the same building as the Sultani but under government control.  European trained Afghani artists of the last century have their oils on display featuring mostly landscapes or portraits.  An interesting tidbid is that the ravaging Taliban was stopped by a few quick-minded artists who painted over about 120 paintings turning people into mountains and horses into trees, etc.  and therefore saved them from destruction.  About 15 second-rate, contemporary French artists are also on display with abstract works of the last 2 decades.  How they got in there is anyone’s guess.  Photography was an extra charge and I am seriously running out of cash, so I skipped that.  But I bonded with my minder, a middle-aged woman who followed me through the entire museum – again, I was the only visitor.   She slowly warmed up to me and allowed me all of three pictures for free – enough for me at least to remember the place.   I chose to photograph a copy of the notoriously famous picture about the single man returning  from an otherwise completely destroyed British Army by Lady Elizabeth Butler.  I amused myself with information like:  Title:  Fruit.  Artist:  Foreign.  And I chose a typical Romantic, western looking landscape which sported a Burka-clad woman walking through the woods.  Talk about culture-clash!

The collection is housed in a stately building which must have been an emir’s residence or some such thing at one point.  Two floors are open to the public with some rooms also featuring period furniture. All in all – the museums were the expected disappointment.  But now I know what there is and that counts for something.

Behind the museum there was a landscaped garden and as I strolled through it, I came to a door with a sign:  Garden of Love and Peace.  That sounded like an invitation.  Rose bushes were planted in a four-square layout with a fountain in the middle and ponds in the center of each of the four paths.  An older man greeted me, like I was an expected friend and it turned out, I was meeting Donald, the designer and sponsor of the garden from Italy and a US expat.  He told me the most remarkable story of the garden which sprang from a vision he had in a dream!  His wife Nora was present as well and she and I sat for a long time chatting while all kinds of people got busy in the nearby house, preparing for a big dedication ceremony on Saturday.  What a shame that I will be gone by then.

After sponsoring this garden, Nora and Donald are getting busy trying to ignite some music programs in Kabul.  For that, they had an Italian conductor in tow who was checking out the music department at the Kabul University, and a Music Institute teaching traditional and western music to highschoolers.  Afghanistan’s recent history has not treated music kindly.  Especially under the Taliban, music was banned completely.   The younger generation has little encouragement to start up with real instruments since electronic devices provide such easy substitutes and their parents are typically ignorant about music.  I am not sure how Afghani music differs in comparison with Indian or Central Asian traditions; I suspect quite a bit of overlap.

This encounter was such a delight and completely unexpected.  It also filled in some questions I had tried to answer about music in this country.  It was around 5:30 PM and rush hour traffic.   I could have called the ALT driver to pick me up – I had already prepaid for all these trips, but I decided to see if I could find my way home in this jungle of streets and intersections.  I just wanted to see how it felt to walk through Kabul.  No guide, no gun at my heels.  I had no map and no clue where I was.

First, I had to find an English speaking person who knew the landmark I knew was near the ALT compound:  Chicken Street.  I had him write this down for me in Dari (Farsi) and give me an estimate of about a 30-45 minute walk.  Equipped with that paper, I double-checked my direction once in a while until I came closer and closer to buildings I recognized from our many car trips.  The difference between walking and driving boils down to two main items:  In the car you can turn on the air conditioner and protect yourself from the gusty dust clouds which come your way ever couple of minutes.  And in the car you can lock the door and drive by all the beggars and gypsies; here called kuchies; I had to face and fight both.  At the famous Chelsea Supermarket (I  kid you not!), I did some essential grocery shopping as all food, except for breakfast (which still boils down to dry bread and tea and most recently a few slices of pasteurized cheese) are now my own responsibility.

To the amazement of the ALT guards and drivers, I knocked on the door of the compound by around 6:30 PM. I was proud of myself.

This was a good day.  Good night.