Regenerating Afghanistan: saving part of historic Kabul by establishing a craft school.

At the beginning of 2006 I found myself sitting in the front room of a tailoring shop in Kabul containing a frayed pink Bokhara carpet, a safe, a feather duster, six glasses and a Thermos of green tea. A laminated brochure on the safe promised that I would conserve a section of the medieval city, improve living conditions, restore ancient buildings and create an academy for traditional crafts. I was listed as the chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. There was, however, no other employee and I was not quite sure what I was doing.

My life to date had been more institutional: a brief period as an infantry officer in the Black Watch, and then service with the Foreign Office in Indonesia, the Balkans and as the coalition deputy governor of two provinces in southern Iraq. The only two years that I had spent outside government were from 2000 to 2002, when I took unpaid leave to walk from Turkey to Bangladesh. I had fallen in love with Afghanistan on that journey, and written a book about it.

When I returned in 2003 to work for the coalition in Iraq I often dreamt, while dodging mortars or emails from Washington, of moving back to a mud fortress in the Afghan mountains. In Iraq I had been given $10 million a month to spend, delivered in vacuum-sealed packets. Every day Iraqis had demanded to know what we had done for them.

‘We have restored 240 schools.’ ‘Apart from that, what have you done?’ ‘All the clinics and hospitals.’ ‘Apart from that…’

I had become used to crowds carrying banners that said death to the deputy governor. In 2004 the Prince of Wales had written to me suggesting that I establish a carpentry school to train street children and find them jobs. It was the only project I did that really appealed to Iraqi imaginations. Suddenly, we had the mayor and the police chief competing to give speeches to the students and all the Arab television stations filming the school.


The following year the Prince had suggested that I go to Afghanistan to establish a school to train Afghans in traditional crafts. I thought I could combine his interest in craft training with my own desire to save a poor community in Kabul. The Prince had raised seed money for the first six months of operations. Thereafter, I would largely be on my own. My first act had been to rent the room in the tailoring shop, and buy the Thermos and feather duster. Now I needed to start work.The area I hoped to save was called Murad Khane and the man whom I had first met there was called Kaka (Uncle) Khalil. I called on him, the day after my arrival. He was wearing an old dark shalwar kameez, muddy white gym-shoes and a tweed jacket and, because he was a pigeon-master, his hands were scarred by beak marks and by the sharp thread with which he pinioned his birds’ wings.


Khalil was from the Qizilbash Shia minority, which had been persecuted for centuries, but like most of his neighbours he was a house-owner. All but one of the houses in the district had been passed down, father to son, for more than 100 years. This was the northern edge of the old city, the houses were built of mud brick and their courtyard walls were panelled in carved cedar wood. It was impossible to tell how many centuries people had lived in Murad Khane but Kabul was around before the visit of Alexander the Great.   We followed some children chasing a dog through the wasteland that formed the centre of Murad Khane. Two old men squatted in the open to relieve themselves. Nearby, three cooks were peeling onions. I watched a woman in a burqa clamber over a heap of rubbish into her courtyard because the garbage had submerged her entrance. Four acres of Murad Khane were covered in rubbish. There was no electricity, no water, no sewerage. One in five children died before they were five; most of the population could not read or write and life expectancy was about 40. Around the edge of the central landfill site ran a narrow bazaar, a couple of mosques, some bath-houses and about 60 mud-brick courtyard houses, crammed between the river and shabby six-storey 1970s shopping arcades.

In the bazaar I was introduced to Abdul-Hadi, one of the greatest carpenters in Afghanistan. He was 76 years old and had been selling fruit in the market for 15 years. War, material costs, declining quality and lack of contact with the outside world had all combined to destroy the market for Afghan woodwork. He had no students to whom he could pass on his skills. I explained to Khalil that my dream was to build a craft school in the centre of Murad Khane and use it as a catalyst to regenerate the neighbourhood. He suggested that I talk to the government and try to get international support.


It was now four years since the US-led invasion. The coalition was angry at the corruption, the heroin production, the violence in rural areas and the lack of economic growth and governmental control. They had decided to send more troops. Three thousand British soldiers were deploying to Helmand to replace 200 American soldiers. Soon, there would be more than 7,000. Meanwhile, the Taliban were re-emerging. It was already too dangerous to travel on the main road to the south. Kidnapping was increasing, bombs were beginning to go off in Kabul itself. The international community had prepared a $20 billion aid package. The military wanted it to go to the unstable areas of the south and east, the European Community wanted programmes only in ‘gender, rural development and governance’, and the Afghan government demanded that all funds be placed in the central budget of the ministry of finance. Kabul was in ruins and its population had ballooned from a million to more than five million in four years, but no one wanted to support projects such as ours.


Officials from seven Afghan ministries, eight foreign embassies and four charities told me that my plans were unwise and possibly illegal. It was illegal to demolish a building in the old city; it was also illegal to rebuild there. Only charities could export tax-free traditional crafts, but charities were not permitted an export licence. The best craftsmen were semi-literate descendants of traditional craft families, but vocational qualifications could be given only to people who had graduated in Persian literature from high school. There was demand abroad for carved cedar and replicas of Afghan jewellery but the interior ministry banned the purchase of cedar and the culture ministry banned replicas.


A senior Pashtun lawyer confided that the real problem with Murad Khane was the inhabitants: ‘dirty, illiterate, superstitious Shia criminals, who would be better pushed out’. He called them foreigners, because ‘they only moved to Kabul in the early 18th century’. The new mayor had also been the mayor of Kabul in the 1970s. He had spent 15 years in Canada but had not learnt English. One of his first initiatives was to try to stop the women’s hour at the municipal swimming-pool on the grounds that women could not swim. When I mentioned Murad Khane he pointed to a map behind his desk, inscribed in Cyrillic master plan for kabul 1976. This 30-year-old scheme, drawn up by Soviet and East German planners, remained his dream for the old city. He wanted to demolish the ancient streets and courtyard mansions and replace them with concrete blocks.


The next official I met was equally determined to flatten the historic site. His resolve was apparently strengthened by understandings with property developers eager to launder their new, often heroin-derived wealth through the construction of skyscrapers. But Kaka Khalil and the people of Murad Khane still seemed to share my belief that traditional Afghan art and architecture were beautiful, worthy of international admiration and could create jobs. I was determined to continue, even if the project seemed contrary to public policy, private interest and municipal regulations. The only way to do so was to rely on the community, make rapid improvements, and dare the government to demolish what we were rebuilding.


Many charities are founded with feasibility studies and seminars, strategy papers and grant proposals. Ours really began with a wrestler. Aziz had won the Afghan national wrestling championship in 1963, gaining a broken nose, cauliflower ears, damaged knees and the title ‘Pahlawan’ or ‘wrestler’. When I was not making much progress with the government, Khalil suggested I should talk to Wrestler Aziz. ‘I am the sub-district chief, the keeper of the shrine,’ Aziz roared on our first encounter. ‘I defend this area with my arms. I will make your project work. I challenge anyone to say I have ever taken a bribe.’ He paused and added in a stage whisper, ‘But I am a bandit.’


I had seen a 200-year-old mud-brick mansion, where three goats browsed a courtyard littered with crates of bananas. The wooden shutters were carved with Mughal stars and floral arabesques, framed with delicate latticework. The wood was unpainted, and the plaster patterns lightly washed with lime. I explained that I wanted to rent the mansion and to restore it as our craft school. Aziz told me instead that I should rent two other houses. ‘I will place you – the foreigner – at each corner, so the government will not send in the bulldozers. If you take the centre, the government will demolish the edges.’ The owner of the mansion would not rent to me, without agreement from the wrestler, so I had to follow the wrestler’s plan.   Next, I recruited staff. Even an uneducated Afghan who had attended a development training course and could speak passable English could earn $1,000 a month in Kabul. I could not afford those salaries.


My first employee, also called Aziz, had worked as a salesman in a Pakistani carpet shop and in the ‘informal export sector’ during the Taliban period, which seemed to involve carrying semi-precious stones across mountain passes. But an old friend had employed him as a driver and said that he had once risked his life to save her from kidnapping. Within a week I had added an Afghan woman, a young radio operator from the north, a 50-year-old white-bearded engineer, a one-legged horseman, a high school literature teacher, a woodworker and a physically disabled academic administrator. Thus, respectively, I had appointed my logistics manager, office administrator, finance director, chief engineer, guard, calligraphy master, woodwork master and office manager.


One of them explained that he was working for me because ‘other charities tell us we live in the wrong kind of houses, have the wrong breed of sheep, are unhealthy and uneducated; your project says traditional Afghan art and architecture is beautiful, worth preserving, will find admirers around the world and can generate incomes.’ Another confessed he just wanted a job.


None had had senior jobs in an international organisation; none spoke fluent English; the majority had not completed a high school education and I suspect they would not have been employed in any formal recruitment process. But I believed I could trust them.   Each employee built their own team. Within three weeks we had 40 staff and could no longer fit in the tailoring shop. An English businessman called David suggested that I could occupy and restore a 19th-century fortress, set above two acres of gardens. The owner now lived in Delhi, and David and his friends lived in the only occupied wing. We replaced ceilings, installed lavatories and repaired the underfloor heating system of the 19th-century bath-house so that we could bathe in the winter. In the garden we set up the first campus of our Institute of Afghan Arts, to train craftsmen, find them jobs and sell their products. This was a temporary home, while we were restoring the two houses recommended by the wrestler.   The early staff came from different social classes and from ethnic groups that had recently been at war. Each favoured their own: the manager from the persecuted Hazara minority hired a Hazara cook and translator, while Panshiri Tajiks came to dominate the driving pool. My personal relations with each, stretching back from my time walking across Afghanistan or through mutual friends, made it almost impossible for me to fire anyone.   I had to spend a great deal of time at weddings, lending money, trying to help their relatives and paying medical bills from my own pocket. But it proved a wonderful team: each was bound to me by some form of personal loyalty. Their eight separate origins meant that they kept an often jealous eye on each other, ensuring that as the organisation grew it could never be dominated by a single cabal.


I had reservations about appointing my landlord the tailor’s brother, Engineer Hidayat, to oversee restoration work, not only because he had little formal education or knowledge of architectural conservation but also because he came from a different ethnic group and a different sect of Islam from that of the community of Murad Khane. But when he walked over the rutted mud lanes of Murad Khane and met Pahlawan Aziz he seized him by the biceps and began a mock re-enactment of a wrestling match, laced with jokes and elaborate compliments. It was he who negotiated with the wrestler and who convinced me to follow the wrestler’s housing plans. We were rewarded with a petition signed by the 50 most senior members of the community asking us to work in the area. Henceforth, community support was our greatest defence against the municipality and the mayor, international policy shifts and greedy developers.


We decided it would be strategic to begin by shifting rubbish. The engineer conjured up a work-force and began. At this point the municipality director, wearing a lilac suit, appeared with police and a document ordering us to stop. Here then was the first test of our model. The police advanced with Kalashnikovs; the labourers fell back; I rummaged for dog-eared registration documents and the municipality director wrote in bold strokes on a clipboard. Behind me, I sensed a gathering crowd. An old man, whom I had not met before, stepped forward and shouted, ‘How dare you stop these men? I remember when you last cleared the garbage: I was 10 years old and it was 1947.’ The wrestler shook the hands of the now-smiling police. The engineer put his arm around the lilac-clad director’s shoulders and walked him out of Murad Khane. The next day we received a letter from the municipality authorising us to proceed.


Foreigners had told me that Afghans were slow and inefficient. That was not my experience. Over the next 18 months, the engineer cleared more than 15,000 trucks of rubbish, dropping the street level by over seven feet and creating near-total employment. Then he levelled the streets, dug drainage and wells and laid paving, and began emergency repairs on 50 houses, making them watertight, propping walls, installing lavatories. This was not expensive work, since the materials were recycled mud – all the cost was in the labour – and I could initially cover that from the seed-funding money raised by the Prince of Wales.Afghan shoppers began to come back into the area and the drug peddlers, who had long made Murad Khane one of their central markets, moved elsewhere, perhaps because clean, well-lit and populated streets were not a fitting environment for their customers. But the engineer’s real genius was political, in defusing the conflicts over jobs for relatives, wages and which properties should be repaired first. He dealt with things in his own style, grabbing an angry mullah by the beard after we had accidentally brought down the mosque wall. Astonishingly, the mullah laughed and forgave us.


Meanwhile, in order to cope with demands, our lack of funding and the shortage of professionals, I brought in more than 100 international volunteers, who came for a few months at a time, over a period of two years. A 22-year-old Dari-speaking American and a Dutch ceramicist in his seventies worked with a curator from the Tate and a Cuban urban planner. Many lived three to a room and we all ate at a common table. Sometimes we were woken by gunfire; a volunteer was walking 50 yards from a bomb that scattered body parts across the pavement; gunmen broke into a hotel and shot men in a locker-room that many of us used. But we were able to travel by yak in the High Pamirs, ski in the Hindu Kush and listen to old men hold forth in tea-houses in the old city.


Where we had no expertise we had to make things up. I had started with a few prejudices: in the absence of conservation architects on our team, I wanted the repairs to buildings to be visible but not too obvious. But that was hardly a coherent conservation philosophy. I thought the high temperatures in electric kilns eliminated all that was intriguing in the low-fired pots, but that didn’t help us win contracts from Trust House Forte, which wanted less fragile glazes. I didn’t think we should pay too much for international volunteers, but what about providing life insurance? Should the financial year start in January or April? Should we have a substantial document detailing our plans for urban regeneration and who should lead it: an architect? A planner? A property developer? Me?


It was clear that we needed to work quickly to prove to the government that the area and crafts were worth saving and to the community that we were serious, competent and helpful to them. Our initiatives multiplied, responding to sudden crises or the shifting expertise of our volunteers or the community’s demands.


Within a year we produced a traffic plan for Murad Khane, largely to placate the ministry; took an exhibition of calligraphy to a museum in Bahrain; built different designs of self-composting lavatories (one under a Nubian vault); and fitted earth buildings with new types of mud brick, solar panels and elaborately carved calligraphic doors. We created factory management systems around new carpentry equipment; launched IT and business courses for students; developed partnerships with Pakistani art schools; opened a rural museum for potters; and sold an Afghan carved suite to a client in London. Anna, our extraordinary young American development director, who had been working with Coventry Cathedral, recorded the recipes of the old city and designed a restaurant in a historic building that would provide employment and draw Afghan visitors back to the old city with good, affordable food. We wanted to start with Afghan tourists, since the security situation would not attract foreigners.


Some of the best ideas came from the community itself – such as the primary school, which we opened last year. Education is bad in Afghanistan: perhaps a quarter of teachers are illiterate and as recently as 2001 girls were not permitted to attend. There was no school and a great deal of domestic violence and drug abuse in some of the poor homes in Murad Khane, and a school would provide children not only with education but also with a safe haven during the day. But we were over-stretched and I was reluctant to launch something new. We argued and then we compromised: the community providing the land and the building while we focused on the teaching.


Within an hour of opening the doors we had 160 boys and girls, most of whom had never been to school before. Their smiles alone made me feel our project was worthwhile. Yet it was no easier than anything else in Afghanistan. The school would have remained second-rate if we had not hired better teachers, negotiated with the ministry of education, built new classrooms and introduced local history and art classes, city tours, adult literacy classes and extra mathematics. And much of this depended on foreign staff. The curriculum was reformed and the teachers were trained, for example, by the head of science from an inner-city school in Boston, Massachusetts.


The Institute for Traditional Afghan Arts began as an apprentice workshop for carpenters, calligraphers and potters with people huddled on rough benches, watching Master Abdul Hadi. A year later, there was a full timetable for the students including IT, English, business studies, Islamic art history and design. Our new business development section, whose aim was to generate income to sustain the institute into the future, launched catalogues and websites, won commissions from embassies, represented us at international trade fairs, sold coasters in Canada and a wooden library to Japan. The fashion chain Monsoon gave us money to train women in embroidery to sell in its stores. We began to sell Turquoise Mountain products through our website, We planted trees to make our timber source sustainable. We built a girls’ school near the potters’ community of Istalif (in addition to the primary school) for a fraction of the cost of a concrete building. At the start of the second year we had 650 applicants for 33 places.


It was only after a year’s work and once we had shown visible results that the relevant Afghan ministries began to support us. A new minister of education recognised the degree certificates from our school and registered us as a national higher education institute. Two decrees were issued to register the area as a protected historical site. Our architects trained engineers from the ministry of urban development and they in turn worked with us on land-use plans. Flattering profiles appeared. We were often on the Afghan evening news.


I was the only person aware that we were dangerously short of cash. I needed to raise thousands of dollars a day. I was able to support myself from income from my book sales, and I began to lend more of my own money to try to keep things going. Many had trusted us: donating land for our schools, working long hours, enrolling to learn complex skills in traditional crafts and architecture. But we had to slow the building projects, which meant laying people off at the onset of winter. I began to wonder what might be raised by selling our minivan or carpets.


By November 2006 I was only two weeks from having to give everyone a month’s notice and shut the charity down. I woke at three in the morning and felt very afraid. No one was used to supporting a brand-new organisation that was operating on this scale. Most donors required two years of audited accounts. As I walked to work, I was greeted by people – the gate-guard who had lost his leg to a landmine; the receptionist who needed a heart operation; and the driver who had been the first to leave his job to join us – and when they thanked me, I felt like a fraud. An objective examination of the costs and probabilities suggested that we should close. I continued through stubbornness, not reason. I flew back to Britain and left behind the conversations and the crises that I had loved in the old courtyards of Kabul for a life of fundraising. I made it a rule to return every fortnight, but I was on almost 300 flights over the next two years.


In countries I had never visited I waited for meetings that never happened. Once, when I made it past a secretary in a Gulf state, I was accused of terrorist financing and shown the door. Some of the wealthy would support us only if we changed what we were doing: to advocacy for women, or schools for the blind. If by luck they would support something we were doing, they could change their mind and suggest something that we were not. One boasted to me that after an exhaustive analysis of proposals he had ignored us and instead allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to an Afghan woman who was running thousands of girls’ schools. I knew these schools did not exist.


I was hopeful about our chances with foundations created by young dotcom leaders and dedicated to ‘social entrepreneurs’. They should not have been bound by the paperwork of government aid bureaucracies; it was their own money and they should have been able to take risk. But they wanted synergies and income streams and compared us on cost-per-unit metrics. They did not want to be distracted from their ‘core mission’.


But we didn’t just do one core activity. We believed, for example, that to regenerate the bazaar we had to develop attractive sites for visitors; we had to train craftsmen to manufacture products to sell, teach the shopkeepers to read and write and count, give incomes to women, provide shelter, water and electricity. Our strength was our local knowledge: we had been in every house, employed someone from every family, worked alongside them, negotiated, shaped their aspirations and were shaped in turn. But there was no universal model: what worked for us might not work elsewhere.


The only way to convey our work is to get donors to visit because it is almost impossible to imagine the environment of the old city, or grasp how our many different activities come together without being on the ground. One of our best supporters was an 84-year-old American woman who immediately on arrival called on senior ministers and generals and forced them to act, establishing an orphanage, and bringing equipment to eliminate water-borne diseases. She clambered up stairs, over dangerous gaps in the roof, trudged through mud, interrogated our female students, and watched the customers buy the products that provided the income to sustain the project and listened to the community itself. But few people dared to come.


In the end we were saved by private generosity. An Afghan nightclub owner crossed a street in Washington, DC, to give me $1,000 because he had heard about us from his family in Kabul, a Swedish woman cycled up to our office to give us $50, our English volunteer did a skip-a-thon with an Afghan friend in Dorset. And the Prince of Wales was in touch weekly, writing to people on our behalf, arranging dinners and meetings, advocating Afghan government legislation and providing advice. It had been his idea in the first place, and it couldn’t have happened without his support.


Our largest donors gave from their private accounts, because their foundation bureaucracies were too restricted to be able to support us. Some had heard of us, others gave randomly with no prior contact. A lady talked to me about Afghanistan for 20 minutes over lunch in California, and later sent $1 million. Then she visited us and sent another million. The Canadian government became our first and most generous public donor. Finally, after three years and $12 million from donors, the Afghan government is now putting its own money behind us.


Last week, I stood in the central square of Murad Khane for the spring kite festival. For once I could move without sinking into the mud because the drainage and stone-paving has worked. We had grown in two years from one to 350 employees.


I noticed that the carving on the windows of the upper gallery of the great mansion needed to be redone: the Nubian vault had been removed from the lavatory of the jewellery school because of a rumour we were building a pagan temple. There was a new community donation box, outside the clinic that we had established for women who could not leave the area and did not want to see a male doctor. People had put in $30, which would cover prescriptions for the next two months. Three streets had agreed to take over the cost of rubbish clearance from us with each household contributing 30 cents a month; one had not. I noted that the students at the primary school had new uniforms.


The structures of government bureaucracies and philanthropic foundations often seem to exist to stop this kind of project. If it succeeds, it will not be a neat lesson in ‘social entrepreneurship’, in management, or a new model for international development. And it seems surreally distanced from the ambitions and priorities of my former colleagues in the Army or the Foreign Office.


Rather, it is a story of sudden expressions of faith, acts of grand generosity and amateur flair. Ours was a local project in a mud city spun by an ageing wrestler, teased by volunteers, tugged by a grey-bearded engineer, deconstructed in conversations around a table at mealtimes.


After three years in Afghanistan, I am now dividing my time between Kabul and teaching human rights at Harvard. My hope is that I will continue to steer the project until it is completed and that I will be able to return in 30 years to admire the old city’s arts and architecture, and encounter a community whose lives are more just, prosperous and humane. But I cannot guarantee we will succeed. I have never had a more satisfying job. But I am not sure whether I would have the energy to do something like this again.

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