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Kabul's Old City Gets A Face-Lift, And An Injection Of Cash

The 1920s Peacock House in Kabul's Murad Khane neighborhood, before renovation (see below for the "after" photo)
The 1920s Peacock House in Kabul's Murad Khane neighborhood, before renovation (see below for the "after" photo)
KABUL -- Kabul has been so damaged by wars and pell-mell rebuilding that it's hard to remember this was once a pretty city with elegant mud-brick mansions, elaborate carved-wood lattices, and shady courtyards.

But some of the old neighborhoods still exist, hidden away in what today are the poorest parts of town.

To find them means going to the very center of Kabul, where a bazaar the locals call "Titanic" appears each summer in the dry gulch of the Kabul River, then disappears again with the spring floods.

There, you have to duck behind the Soviet-era buildings and concrete-box shops surrounding the bazaar and plunge into a labyrinth of smoky, noisy lanes. As the smoke from the blacksmiths' forges stings your eyes and the hammering rings in your ears, you reach the neighborhood of Murad Khane.

For decades, this neighborhood of once-grand homes was so neglected that it literally fell into ruin. The mud-brick homes crumbled around the residents as they became too destitute to repair them. Some of the largest homes turned into cheap warehouse space for the nearby bazaar and their courtyards became dumping sites for trash from other parts of Kabul.

But now, Murad Khane is reviving. Since 2006, it has been the focus of a major renovation effort funded mostly by private international donors. And as its buildings return to view, the neighborhood is becoming one of the city's most charming historical treasures.

Taking Out The Trash

Rory Brown, the development officer for the project, says the task of just digging out the trash has been prodigious. "Since 2006, we have removed almost 20,000 cubic meters of rubbish from the streets, courtyards, and sites of collapsed buildings in Murad Khane," he says. "In places, that has meant the street level has dropped by up to 2 meters."

The Peacock House after its extensive restoration, part of a $25 million project

The recovery is part of a $25 million effort by the Kabul-based Turquoise Mountain project and the brainchild of two well-known British personalities.

One is the Prince of Wales, who famously dislikes modern architecture, and the other is Rory Stewart, Turquoise Mountain's founder. Stewart walked across Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban to write the best-selling book "The Places In Between" and, like Prince Charles, admires Afghanistan's cultural and artistic traditions and wants to help revive them.

Among the renovated buildings is the Peacock House, named for the motif of peacocks that appears on its carved wood facade. Like many of the other landmark buildings in Murad Khane, it dates to the 1920s, when dozens of buildings with elaborate wood carvings were erected by rich families.

The district itself was long associated with the royal palace that stands nearby. Afghanistan's founding ruler, Ahmad Shah Durrani, built several buildings there in the 18th century to house members of his court and it remained a prestigious address for centuries afterward.

New Generations Of Artisans

The aim in restoring Murad Khane now is both to save the centrally located district from being bulldozed to make room for new buildings and to find a new life for some of the finest structures as a crafts school. Fifteen of the buildings will provide the campus of the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, which will not only teach new generations of artisans but also help provide a sustainable economy for the rest of the district.

A student at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture practices calligraphy.

At the same time, the urban-renewal project has built a primary school in Murad Khane, provided the neighborhood with electricity, water, sewerage, emergency repairs on private houses, and now is completing a women's community center. All the work has created near full employment in the neighborhood.

In one of the restored buildings, the institute's ceramic school is already up and running. Its teacher and headmaster is Abdul Matin, who graduated from the school last year.

Matin says one of the most difficult things for the students to master is the traditional glaze that gives Afghan ceramics their characteristic blue-green coloring. The glaze is based on a plant that grows in northern Afghanistan called "gaz" and which requires many steps to process before it delivers a rich range of colors from yellow to green.

"Actually, we don't burn the [plants] ourselves, but the people of Hairaton in [northern] Balkh Province collect them, ignite them, and collect their coal," Matin says. "We purchase the coal, then we heat it by adding some special products and next crush the coal into powder in a special machine. Once we have the powder, we can use it as a glaze."

Too Many Applicants

Matin, a native of the nearby village of Istalif, which is traditionally famous for its ceramics, operates his own pottery business in addition to teaching. His studies at the school prepared him to do that by including not just pottery classes in the three-year curriculum but also general art history and design classes, business classes, and even English-language lessons.

A teacher at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, which will not only teach new generations of artisans but also help provide a sustainable economy for the district

The comprehensive education the school offers has made it a magnet for would-be artisans across the country, despite its small size. The total student body is only 120 students, with some 30 places in each of the four craft areas of ceramics, woodworking, jewelry-making, and miniature-painting.

Khan Etebari, a spokesman for Turquoise Mountain, says each year the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture gets hundreds more applicants than it has places.

"Each year we announce the process of institute enrollment and on the average we receive between 800 up to 1,200 applications for 30 seats," Etebari says.

Unlike traditional apprenticeship programs in Afghanistan, where a student begins to study under a master at 12 and completes his training with almost no other education by 18, the new art institute only takes students who already have graduated from high school. The arts-and-crafts education at the institute is so complete that it has received Britain's demanding City and Guilds Accreditation, which certifies the quality of the students' work.

For now, as reconstruction in Murad Khane continues, the institute's three other schools remain housed in an old fort the Turquoise Mountain renovated elsewhere in Kabul as a temporary quarters. The older students there may or may not ever see the new campus being prepared for them before they graduate.

But the teachers say that all the students of the new art institute have one thing in common that previous generations of artisans in Afghanistan lacked. That is, the possibility of making a successful commercial living in their own country when previously many had to flee to find work elsewhere.

Home Hit By A Rocket

Haji Aslam, the head of the school of jewelry and gem-cutting, was trained by his father, who was a jeweler to the Afghan court. But he spent much of his own professional life as a refugee in Pakistan because of Afghanistan's recent decades of turmoil.

"[The economy] wasn't good, it was collapsing, and then all of us became refugees and headed toward the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran because there was a big fight here," Aslam says. "Our own home got hit with a rocket; my kids were injured and we couldn't live here."

Aslam says that today the jewelry business is good in Kabul, for both modern and traditional styles, and he believes his students will not have to live as he did.

It is an optimistic thought in a country still struggling with an insurgency and major economic problems. But such optimism seems fully at home in the newly awakened neighborhood of Murad Khane.

One of the buildings in Murad Khane that will serve as part of the new campus of the arts school