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.