DUBAI: Ten days after the Taliban seized Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman and acting minister of information and culture, told The New York Times the militants wanted to draw a line under the five years of brutality that marked their previous reign.
Although Mujahid said the new Taliban administration has learnt from its previous excesses, there will still be some restrictions imposed in accordance with the group’s strict interpretation of Shariah law, including a ban on playing music in public.
However, few are convinced that the Taliban have turned over a new leaf or that the rank and file will follow the orders of the central leadership. During their previous rule, repressive policies, mistreatment of women and a harsh brand of justice earned Afghanistan something of an international pariah status.
Between 1996 and 2001, cultural expression in Afghanistan was tightly controlled by the Taliban regime. Music, television and artistic depictions of gods, humans and animals were all strictly forbidden. Anyone caught breaking these rules could suffer cruel and humiliating punishment.
Predictably, as the Taliban approached Kabul in the first half of August, heritage experts raced against the clock to protect the city’s priceless collections from being destroyed by the militants.
Mohammed Fahim Rahimi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, moved the entire collection to the basement for safekeeping. He then met on Aug. 18 with Taliban officials, who reportedly agreed to post guards outside the museum to ward off criminal “opportunists.”
Comprising thousands of artifacts spanning some 50,000 years of history, from prehistoric relics to Islamic art, the museum’s collection has survived decades of conflict throughout its 89-year history, including the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and the 1990s rise of the Taliban, when the group smashed thousands of objects.
Located next to Kabul’s iconic Darul Aman royal palace, the museum was built in the 1920s during the reign of Amanullah Khan, the Afghan sovereign who led his country to full independence from British rule.
Cheryl Benard, president of ARCH International, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, confirmed “there are no reports of looting anywhere in Afghanistan” thus far.
“We were getting panicked messages from Rahimi, who was more worried about a situation of lawlessness and looting than Taliban forces,” she told Arab News from Washington. “Mujahid personally went to the museum and met with Rahimi and assured him that they would protect the museum.”
For what it is worth, the Taliban did sign a pledge in February 2020, at ARCH’s request, to protect artifacts and antiquities in areas under its control.
It states that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan “instructs all officials, commissions and department chiefs, provincial and district governors, military unit and group commanders, the Mujahideen and all compatriots to take into consideration the following vis-a-vis ancient artifacts found around the country: 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.”
No one is permitted to “excavate, transport and sell historic artifacts anywhere, nor to move it outside the country under some other name,” the pledge states, adding: “All Mujahideen must prevent excavation of antiquities and preserve all historic sites like old fortresses, minarets, towers and other similar sites so to safeguard them from damage, destruction and decay.”
While the words are fine, it is the Taliban’s actions that will count.
Afghanistan is home to a veritable treasure trove of antiquities and architectural wonders, including the breathtaking 62-meter-high Minaret of Jam, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the western city of Herat, a center of Islamic art in the 14th century. Few of the historical treasures, though, compare with two monumental sculptures that the Taliban destroyed in early 2001.
Once among the tallest statues in the world, the Buddha figures were carved into the sandstone cliffs of central Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley between 570 and 618 A.D., when it was an important center of pilgrimage.
After initially pledging to protect the Buddhas, Taliban founder and then-leader Mohammed Omar demanded their demolition, branding the statues symbols of idolatry and contrary to the group’s fundamentalist viewpoint.
Following the Taliban’s removal from power by a US-led coalition in October 2001, the cavernous niches where the statues once stood and the surrounding network of richly decorated caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The destruction of the Buddhas represented a turning point for the international community, highlighting its responsibility to protect vulnerable antiquities from deliberate harm — a tragedy that has nevertheless been repeated since in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other conflict zones.
Now, some 20 years after the Buddhas were destroyed, Western forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Taliban is once again in control of Afghanistan, raising fears of a fresh wave of vandalism and looting of the area’s precious artifacts.
On Aug. 19, Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, issued a statement calling “for the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in its diversity, in full respect of international law, and for taking all necessary precautions to spare and protect cultural heritage from damage and looting.”
Philippe Marquis, director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, which has been working in the country since 1922, told Arab News it is not the first time the organization has encountered “a difficult situation” in the country.
“We have been working on cultural heritage in Afghanistan and finding the best way to protect it,” Marquis said. “We have no choice but to learn to work with the Taliban in order to continue our projects.”
Although the Taliban have pledged to safeguard Afghanistan’s heritage and antiquities, this offers little comfort to others in the cultural sector, including actors, artists and musicians, who fear persecution.
“They fear for their lives,” Gazelle Samizay of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association told Arab News. “We have already heard of one theater artist being beaten outside his home and a female painter and professor beaten.
“Some of these artists’ work was critical of the Taliban and they fear they will be killed because of this. Even if they are not killed, they do not think they will have a job and do not know how they will support themselves financially.”
Many artists had already fled the country, anticipating the return of the Taliban.
“We have an Afghan miniature painter working for us who had both his knees broken by the Taliban for his painting,” the director of one cultural organization in Afghanistan told Arab News on condition of anonymity. “Fearing the Taliban’s takeover, he fled the country four months ago.”
As for those who chose to stay or who were unable to escape, there is little doubt that continued cultural expression could cost them dearly.
“They were able to practice more freely over the past 20 years,” the anonymous director said. “But now they will not be able to do so safely.”