Before I even arrived in Afghanistan I had read about Turquoise Mountain’s regeneration project in Murad Khane, which is in the heart of Kabul’s old city, a historic quarter of Kabul on the banks of the Kabul River. It is home to a multi-ethnic community and a thriving bazaar that attracts 100,000 visitors a week. Before Turquoise Mountain began its work, the area was buried under two metres of rubbish, it had no running water, drainage or electricity, and the community’s homes were collapsing. Now historic buildings are being restored and infrastructure is being installed as part of a comprehensive regeneration programme in collaboration with the local community and the Ministry of Education, creating an educational complex of international standing for Afghanistan. The heart of this complex will be the three courtyards of the Great Serai, once home to Afghanistan’s first school.
During my first few days here I had spoken over meals, and on my journey from the airport, with engineers and architects that had travelled to Afghanistan to work on this project. So when I heard that some teachers and staff from the Institute were taking a trip there I jumped at the chance to go. I must have had about 20 to 30 minutes to speak with the Chief Operating Officer to ask his permission to go and to clear my travel with security. Luckily for me he allowed me to go with the caveat that I was to remain close to the Head and Deputy Head of the Institute. Off I went in the bus with 8 teachers and staff from the Institute, all Afghan. I have been told that in some ways I am lucky because once I have my headscarf on I am not so obviously foreign, i.e. I could ‘pass’ as an Afghan. (The downside of this is that there is a higher likelihood of being kidnapped as an Afghan woman then as a foreign international woman here…) On the journey there I chatted with the business studies teacher, Maria, who was the other female on the trip and she pointed out places of interest along the way. We had met previously to discuss the business studies curriculum here, so I could learn about what the students were covering in terms of business skills and for me to get some information about how it is for the jewellery students to start their own business here.
I had high expectations for Murad Khane after hearing such great things about it and Murad Khane exceeded these by leaps and bounds. It was great to see this amazing development and how it is integrated into the local community there. The architectural conservation project encompasses where the Institute will be moving early next year, a primary school, a medical clinic for the community and places for meeting for example a women’s courtyard and Peacock house where elders from the community meet to discuss issues and living quarters for students from the regions who want to study at the Institute. While I was there I visited the Ceramics dept., which has been located there since Feb. 2009, and I met with the Ustad who teaches tile making. A fascinating feature of this department is that they have adapted a traditional underfloor heating system for the use of firing ceramics. Fab!
It was very interesting to see the conservation process and how contemporary buildings using traditional methods of construction are integrated effectively with restored buildings in this area. It was explained to me how the students would be using the facilities, how careful consideration was made in using traditional approaches to architecture, finishing, and colour palettes for decoration, and that where decoration was new older examples were used as a reference. I heard how students would be involved in projects to provide plaques, murals and tile decoration throughout the Institute. Some projects in particular were designed to be interdisciplinary; to bring the different disciplines together to work on a singular design and follow through to the finished piece.
To me it is just a fantastic, almost magical place and I am sure the students will find it an inspirational place to carry out their studies.
After the tour, as we were about to leave to head back to the Institute, Maria invited me to her home as she lived nearby. As touched as I was by the gesture unfortunately I had to politely decline…. I could just imagine what the COO and security would say if I didn’t return back with the rest of the group on my first trip away from Turquoise Mountain’s premises! I would probably not be trusted out again!! It is very awkward and often you feel rude or ungrateful to decline such offers but you also don’t want to put someone who lives here and will be here long after you are gone at risk. Just as I was feeling uneasy about having to decline Maria’s offer, Hedi, one of the Architects working in Murad Khane appeared, she was hoping to catch a ride back to Turquoise Mountain and as we were chatting about her day and preparing to get into the bus to head back the Deputy Head arrived with some chocolate coated ice cream bars (similar to a Magnum ice cream bar but from Herat!). Now if that isn’t a pick me up on a hot day in Kabul, I don’t know what is! So we all enjoyed a very tasty, and well-timed ice cream on the bus ride back! Nice!