Walking Afghanistan, rebuilding Kabul – Rory Stewart

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Walking Afghanistan, rebuilding Kabul – Rory Stewart

An exquisite exhibition of Afghan arts and crafts formed the backdrop to intrepid Scot Rory Stewart’s reflections on his solo walk across Afghanistan and subsequent work to restore old Kabul.

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The magnificently renovated Linlithgow Burgh Halls was an especially appropriate setting for Rory Stewart’s wonderfully uplifting account of how the Scottish arts charity he established—Turquoise Mountain Foundation—has restored 92 traditional buildings in the historic centre of Kabul and set up the first National Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, as well as a primary school and health centre.

As part of our expanding programme of cultural events, we were delighted to celebrate this Afghan-Scottish success story in association with Turquoise Mountain, The Prince’s Charities and Linlithgow Burgh Halls.

The exhibition, the first ever in Britain showcasing the work of the artisans of Turquoise Mountain, features beautiful traditional woodworking, carving, intricate parquetry, calligraphy and miniature paintings. It is a unique opportunity to see some truly world-class artistry and runs until October 27.

Stewart enthralled the full house with a vivid, thoughtful photographic account of his 45-day trek from Herat to Kabul in the winter of 2001/2002, following the coalition invasion and collapse of the Taliban regime.

Covering 25-30 miles a day, relying entirely on Afghan villagers for food and shelter, he and his adopted Afghan dog encountered minefields and opium mule trains, deserted villages razed by the Taliban and the remnants of a once-great city sacked by Genghis Khan.

But he focused above all on the people he met: the 12-year old boy who had memorized the entire Koran in Arabic; the vet who dropped everything to walk with him for three days; the gangster who tried to shoot him for a bet.

What stood out was the extraordinary hospitality of the Afghans who sheltered and protected a stranger, a Westerner, with $3000 in his money belt. Despite their poverty, they refused payment so Stewart resorted to hiding money in their homes when he departed.

“I travelled completely safely because even though there was no government it was densely governed because for every village chief it was a matter of great pride that they got me through their territory safely,” he explained. “It put into perspective that every one of these villages is a world unto itself.” That reality habitually frustrates attempts to impose rule from Kabul.

Four years later, Stewart embarked on another epic effort: transforming the crumbling Murad Khane artisans’ district of Old Kabul into the centre of excellence for traditional Afghan arts and crafts which has since sold over $2m worth of products worldwide.

Flicking through a series of astonishing before-and-after photographs, he recounted how Turquoise Mountain cleared decades-worth of rubbish and debris, installed sanitation and drainage, and employed traditional craftspeople to restore over 90 buildings, establish an Institute to train the next generations of artisans, and set up a school and health clinic that now serves 2000 patients a month.

“What an inspirational story of perseverance and hope against seemingly insurmountable odds,” commented Asia Scotland Institute Chairman Roddy Gow in his closing remarks.

By reviving the arts and culture, Turquoise Mountain has reinvigorated a city by “reinforcing historical pride” said Stewart. He noted that traditional craft industries “have completely turned around a country like Morocco” and suggested that there is room in many other countries for such a model of regeneration. Looking at what Turquoise Mountain has achieved, it’s hard to disagree.

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Asia Scotland Institute