Afghanistan's National Museum begins life under the Taliban

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Afghanistan's National Museum begins life under the Taliban
Installation view. Photo: National Museum of Afghanistan.

by Anna P. Kambhampaty

KABUL.- Under the watchful eyes of Islamic Emirate soldiers, the galleries of the newly reopened National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul are often quiet these days, the antiquities and other treasures inside safe from the sort of looting that overwhelmed the museum the last time the Taliban seized power there.

But visitors, the lifeblood of any museum, have dwindled.

Many of the educated people who were regular patrons of the museum have fled the country, some schools have shut down and there are not many tourists sightseeing in Kabul.

The museum, which closed in August, when the Taliban seized control, reopened in late November, a positive sign to some who hope restrictions will be looser this time and that rampant destruction won’t recur.

When the Taliban were last in power, from 1996 to 2001, an estimated 70% of the Kabul museum’s collection of 100,000 pieces was ransacked or looted. The Taliban also notoriously blew up the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, the colossal statues carved into a cliff in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley.

Omaid Sharifi, an Afghan artist and activist now based in Virginia, said the news of the museum’s reopening brought a smile to his face. “Opening the museum gives an opportunity for the residents of Kabul and people who are traveling to Kabul to have the chance to learn about the artifacts, about their history, about their culture,” he added.

“The history of Taliban with art and culture is dark,” he said. “When I heard that the Kabul museum is not looted again, that was a sigh of relief. I said, ‘Thank God it’s not happening all over again.’”

Still, music in public areas has been banned, street murals have been painted over and what’s aired on radio and television is limited, so some express concern that the decision to reopen the museum is simply the Taliban’s attempt at projecting a less harsh image.

Samiullah Nabipour, former head of the cinema department at Kabul University, said the reopening “is more a political move” than one out of concern for art and culture. “Taliban are an ideological movement, and they oppose the art and artistic values ideologically,” he said.

In its heyday, the museum was a gem of Afghan culture, open six days a week and filled with visitors eager to behold its invaluable collection of artifacts. The museum, established in 1919, has been in its current building since the 1930s. The collection contains artifacts from the prehistoric, classical, Islamic and Buddhist eras, including manuscripts, weapons and sculptures, but it focuses largely on Afghanistan’s past and does not exhibit contemporary paintings or sculpture.

Now, the museum is open only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and there are frequent power outages. The museum staffers haven’t been receiving their salaries, and visitors are required to show a permission letter from the Islamic Emirate for admission.

In interviews this week, the museum guards said that they had been treating the visitors very well, and that nothing inside the museum had been stolen or damaged. But during a two-hour visit Wednesday morning, there were no visitors to the museum and it suffered a blackout. Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported that the museum was averaging 50 to 100 visitors a day.

Fabio Colombo, a conservator who led a restoration project at the museum in the years after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, remembered how back then attendance at the museum grew bit by bit.

But by 2019, the last full year that he was there, he said the museum “was absolutely full of people.” For many of the museum’s visitors, Colombo said, it was their first time learning about the country’s history and culture that was not affiliated with Islam.

Colombo also recalls thousands of fragments and shattered pieces of artifacts being scattered across the museum’s floors. “We tried to recombine and put so many sculptures back together,” he said.

Sharifi described having to destroy, more recently, his own sculptures and hide his paintings when the Taliban arrived in Kabul in August, remembering what happened the last time they were in power. “Any expression of art was banned,” he said. “My daily routine walking anywhere in Kabul was seeing all these cassettes, tapes, TVs all broken on every square and road.”

“There is no positive news for artists or for art and culture,” Sharifi said, reflecting on how the Taliban painted over murals made by his artists group, ArtLords, and how artists were forced to flee the country this August. But the museum reopening is “a very small step in the most dire of situations. It’s a candle lit. We’re not sure how this will go beyond this moment, but it is a positive gesture.”

Nabipour added that he doesn’t have many positive memories of visiting the museum in the past. He said he was always worried about its fate.

“Instead of enjoying to see the priceless artifacts of the different and glorious history of my country, I was worrying about losing them when I, along with students of the art school, visited the national museum or national archives,” he said. “I thought to myself, what would happen if an explosion targeted this place? What would the Taliban do with these artifacts if they win?”

Gil Stein, a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago and the director of the Chicago Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, said it’s a good sign that the Taliban allowed the director of the museum, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, to remain in his position. In September, Rahimi told The National, a publication focusing on coverage of the Middle East, that he “felt the responsibility for the museum: that I should take care of it, and that I should not leave it. I was ready to give my life for it.” Rahimi did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement released in February, the Taliban vowed to protect cultural heritage and stop people from looting. “As Afghanistan is a country replete with ancient artifacts and antiquity, and that such relics form a part of our country’s history, identity and rich culture, therefore all have an obligation to robustly protect, monitor and preserve these artifacts,” it read. “All Mujahedeen must prevent excavation of antiquities and preserve all historic sites like old fortresses, minarets, towers and other similar sites.”

The Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam includes a rejection of art that is not Islamic or portrays living beings, and people are concerned that view hasn’t changed between last time and now.

“I don’t think that their ideology has changed at all, but I think that they’ve gotten much more savvy about the public perceptions of their regime,” Stein said. “They’re very desperate to have a more neutral stance with the international community.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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