Paul Smith, former British Council Country Director of Afghanistan, discusses why cultural protection is so vital for humanity. 

The past is never dead. It's not even past

This was an heroic act of material cultural protection: the hiding away of Afghanistan’s greatest sculptural, ceramic and geological legacy in hideouts which, 15 years later, are still undisclosed, lest this painful punctuation of history repeat itself. It has become an iconic story of protecting heritage through wily human courage.

In the same historical domain are the events of August 2011, when 17 people died in the suicide bombing and eight – hour siege of the British Council in Kabul. It was the darkest of days in the organisation’s 80 year history. But one positive understanding emerged. If people will kill themselves to stop you doing something then that ‘something’ must be of paramount importance. Central to the British Council’s ethos is cultural protection, cultural rapprochement, cultural relations. Perhaps the Taliban recognised the geopolitical significance of this even more than we did. It was a day when the cliché became true – they heard the word ‘culture’ and they reached for their gun.

If people will kill themselves to stop you doing something then that ‘something’ must be of paramount importance

Cultural relations, of which protecting cultural heritage is a critical constituent, is the mature, long-term version of short term public diplomacy and soft power. Since the 21st century broke, culture has been increasingly understood as the deeper undertow beneath the frothy surface waves of world politics. Culture’s major arenas of identity and diversity, religion and social values, inclusion and exclusion, are now seen to be more defining of our times than anything else. What the Taliban tried, and failed, to destroy that day were collaborations to get girls back into Afghan schools, improve the language skills of the Afghan security forces, grow an indigenous Afghan civil society sector, stimulate social enterprise and social action skills amongst young Afghans, and – in the arts – stimulate the re-blooding of Afghanistan’s cultural legacy into the daily life of its people.

To live in a country which has had its culture denied, suppressed, even dynamited, to live in a country where whistling on the street or keeping songbirds was forbidden, where children weren’t allowed to fly kites, where film is banned, where the world’s largest Buddhist statues are blasted to rubble, is to live in a country which has no communal identity. Forging a country of disparate peoples is a will of the people: an intrinsically cultural act. Without its diversity of socially defining, legacy bearing cultures, the nation is a mere constitutional formality. Hence the clarion call of that “it’s”. 

A cultural blood transfusion

Cultural protection, the saving and restoring of buildings, monuments, and treasures, must not be a singular exercise. The securing and celebration of visible culture must become one with the securing and celebration of the invisible cultures which invest our material world with human meaning. And the other embracing virtue of cultural protection must be the re-engagement of the community who will live and breathe these places as the loci of their current life and not just as archaeological wraparounds with tourist potential.

So the protection of music, performance, literature, painting, film, and all the indigenous craft traditions, must be as vital to the tenets of Cultural Protection as the securing of buildings, monuments and archaeological sites. Anyone who has sat in a concert of Afghan music in recent years and witnessed a local audience reclaim with tears and applause the music of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations newly on the Kabul air (with the whistling and the budgies) will have experienced a cultural blood transfusion and a reclamation of identity, nationalism, and decent human pride. This is to realise afresh that tradition is a contemporary living concept that fills out and colours the meaning of our present. Tradition wills communities to be uniquely themselves. Tradition implores us to share and sanctify those values and rights that humanity must assert in common, and then mutually to celebrate all difference, diversity, plurality. Contemplate the contemporary essentiality of culture and tradition and William Faulkner’s famous apothegm becomes even more resounding – The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Photograph of some ruins
'Figuring the nature of the times deceased'. Ruins of the Darul Aman Palace in Kabul. Photo ©

Elizabeth Cameron.

Back in August 2011, when the Taliban destroyed a haven of cultural relations in Kabul, a group of Afghan actors and actresses (treasure that word ‘actresses’) were spending their afternoons on the British Council lawn workshopping and researching a new Farsi translation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Fortunately the company were not gathered at the time of the attack, but further rehearsals had to be transferred to the Nrityagram Dance School in Bangalore. The production eventually premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the first time that an Afghan production of a Western classic had ever appeared outside Kabul. 

The Globe that day was packed to the rafters with an audience that included just about the whole of the Afghan diaspora in London. It was a comedy (with extraordinary Afghan resonance), but tears were in profusion. Here were Afghan performers helping protect a 500-year old British cultural artefact: an early Shakespearean drama. The headscarved actresses poignantly held the hands of their stage husbands, remembering that one of their real husbands had been shot dead outside his Kabul home for the blasphemy of having an actress wife. The play unfolded the chaotic mis-rendering of familial relationships – a story of migration and lost identity. It concluded with the restoration of community and sacramental unifying. That night, through cultural exploration and affirmation, Afghanistan knew itself again to be Afghanistan. Its culture was alive. 

The process of cultural protection, certainly in Afghanistan, in fact everywhere, is nothing less than the process determinedly to create and sustain community to the levels of village, province, nation, and beyond. It is cultural affirmation and ambition, protecting and restoring legacy into new life that will create the Afghanistan of the future. There is nothing inevitable about those national boundaries; Afghanistan can only be a collective and cultural will of its peoples saying: ‘we will be one and we will stay alive’.

Now that Kabul has happily appropriated him, let Shakespeare have a final word about protecting the treasure of our past to ensure the vivacity of our future: 

There is a history in all men’s lives,

Figuring the nature of the times deceased,

The which observed, a man may prophesy

With a near aim, of the main chance of things

As yet not come to life, which in their seeds

And weak beginnings lie intreasured

It is often said that the healthy future of Afghanistan rests upon soundly erecting the three legged stool of governance, development, and security. But that nation will topple unless their fourth leg of culture is carpentered in

It is often said that the healthy future of Afghanistan rests upon soundly erecting the three legged stool of governance, development, and security. But that nation will topple unless their fourth leg of culture is carpentered in. So let us recognise the core ambitions for protecting and securing the nation – dig its archaeology before the copper and iron extraction industries ravage it, stimulate the NGO sector, get all girls into school, re-create the Buddhas of Bamiyan, teach young kids saxophone, tour an Afghan Chekhov to Russia, train the photojournalists, nourish the poets, teach ceramics and calligraphy, restore the art galleries. Let us keep Afghanistan and “it’s” culture alive.

In Harm’s Way: Aspects of cultural heritage protection is a brief introduction to current thinking within the field of cultural protection, by expert authors commissioned by the British Council. 

Paul Smith was the British Council’s Country Director in Afghanistan when its offices were attacked by the Taliban in 2011.