A tour of Asheqan wa Arefan.
BY ANN MARLOWE
Afghanistan is not quite ready for tourists. But when it is they will stand here, at the edge of Kabul’s Old City, preparing to explore the area of a couple of square miles known as Asheqan wa Arefan. Though from a distance Asheqan wa Arefan looks downtrodden, on closer inspection it contains many lovely 18th- and 19th- century wooden houses, sensitively renovated over the last seven years by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Home to about 22,000 mainly poor Afghans, the neighborhood in central Kabul, like much of the city, has ancient roots. It bears the name of two brothers whose grave dates from the ninth century. On the steep hillside above is an old Islamic period mausoleum and, higher still, the remnants of a Buddhist stupa.
“The municipality thinks it is a slum,” says Jolyon Leslie, the head of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). In the absence of tourism in the Old City, the AKTC, a nonprofit founded by a hereditary leader of one of the largest Shia Muslim sects, is working to preserve Afghanistan’s heritage for those who live among it. Afghan architects have done the design work, supervising Afghan artisans.
The AKTC is best known for its restoration of Baghe-Babur, or Babur’s Gardens, now once again a popular Kabuli park with as many as 60,000 visitors monthly in the summer. This high-profile project provided one million man days of labor and trained 100 skilled workers.
But the AKTC has been working quietly south of the Kabul River on projects that few besides the residents of the neighborhood see. After the artisans finish, the houses are simply returned to their owners, with the stipulation that they take care of them. This is more radical than it sounds, for Afghanistan is a low-trust society where no one gives—or expects—something for nothing.