A Humane Afghan City?



The 21st-Century City
A Humane Afghan City?

Ann Marlowe, 09.02.09, 6:00 PM ET

For the cities of Afghanistan, the 21st century may be the road to dystopia. Like many million-plus cities of the Islamic world, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, and to a lesser extent, Herat, have already joined the worst of East and West, traditional and modern. They have the stifling, impractical concrete and glass buildings that read as “modern” in the developing world, but none of the elements of contemporary civil society. Meanwhile, charming old houses and historic monuments are bulldozed or ignored, while ancient superstitions and ignorance persist.

There’s a popular notion that most Afghans live in tiny villages, but the population may be as much as 50% urban now, due to the push-pull of years of drought and superior urban job opportunities created by rapid economic growth. Farming is still the livelihood of most Afghans, but other activities are now contributing more to GDP. According to Ministry of Finance adviser Dallas Newby, the share of agriculture in the overall economy is just 30%, while industry provides 28% and services 39%.

The cities swollen by these changes seem to have been designed as an illustration of the tragedy of the commons. Some families live in comfort, even luxury, behind high walls, but the streets are filled with trash, unlit at night and often unpaved outside the main business district. An influx of uneducated villagers living in shantytowns or illegal construction strains the electrical grid and water supply, raises the price of housing and introduces a de-civilizing element. Even cities as advanced as Istanbul are experiencing a similar re-population, and this will likely continue over the next 20 years.

Today, Afghan cities have almost no public amenities. Sidewalks are broken and potholed. The scant parks are mainly derelict and given over to single men. Children’s playgrounds are a rarity, and liable to have been built by foreign donors. Women do not attend movie theaters, and besides an occasional appearance of a music star in Kabul, public musical performances are almost unheard of. The few museums serve foreigners and schoolchildren’s annual visits.

Even the bazaar is more a place to hurry through rather than to savor. Afghans do not use shopping as a social occasion, and customer-merchant interactions rarely have even the superficial civility of those in Western Europe. The ritual greetings are for the foreigners at the antique and carpet shops; in a clothing store, there’s no pretense of any relationship between customer and shopkeeper. Food shopping is done exclusively by men, and women’s visits to the clothing bazaars have a furtive tinge.

Gender apartheid means families must dine behind curtains in the most stifling sections of restaurants, so restaurants are unattractive, dirty and mainly filled with tables of men. Alcohol is of course forbidden, so restaurants aren’t a place to enjoy and linger, but grim canteens acknowledging the necessity of sometimes filling one’s stomach away from home.

Until gender apartheid ends, and a substantial middle class develops, these traits will probably continue. The per-capita GDP of Afghanistan is around $450 and growing at around 10% a year. But even at this rate, it will be a long time before living standards in Afghanistan catch up with even neighboring Pakistan. Given the poverty and mania about the seclusion of women, there is nowhere for “civil society” to happen, where both genders appear in public and unrelated people meet for pleasure. Cities are crowded masses of inward-looking extended families separated by a shabby public realm.

If you ask an average Afghan what he’d like to see his city look like in 20 years, the answer is likely to be “Dubai.” Less kindly, Dubai and the other Gulf cities are just richer, more comfortable versions of Kabul. They combine the same lack of civil society with dystopic traffic jams and high-rise buildings that would be uninhabitable without air conditioning. Yes, there are grand museums–but one can be nearly alone in them–and occasional cultural spectacles–but the Sharjah Biennial is a bad joke, given that the main shopping district features stores where female mannequins’ heads are covered with stockings.

The problem is the deadly combination of gender apartheid, poverty and a lack of democratic institutions. Is this the fault exclusively of Islam? Because there are no controlled experiments in history, we don’t know what would have happened in the Middle East if Mohammad had fallen off his camel before receiving his revelation.

Germaine Tillion has made a compelling case that many of the elements of Muslim culture predate Islam by thousands of years. “Muslim” civilization is really southern Mediterranean civilization, characterized by male circumcision, avoidance of pork and the seclusion of women combined with close-cousin marriage. This latter isn’t the problem in and of itself; ancient Athens and Rome practiced gender apartheid while providing flourishing civil societies for men.

One of the reasons was democracy. There was a public realm in many places in Europe before there were cities in the sense of Athens or Rome. Even in the first century B.C., a remote area like Gaul had “annually elected magistrates and popular assemblies” (per Adrian Goldsworthy, historian). The Gauls had an abstract understanding of civic participation long before they joined the Romans in having literature or art or places to enjoy them. The Afghans have been conquered time and again, and tyrannized by a succession of local and invading rulers.

Yet looking forward to the next 100 years, there are a few rays of sunshine. One is the wonderful conservation work being done on an austere budget, and without fanfare, by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Afghanistan. With just one foreign architect on staff, Jolyon Leslie, skilled Afghan architects and craftsmen have renovated properties in an area of Kabul that is home to more than 20,000 people. A typical project, renovating an 18th-century home, costs just $60,000 to $100,000. Thanks to the fine work of the AKTC, the Afghanistan of 2109 will still have access to its heritage.

The second is Khaled Amiri’s “New Town” in the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif. Today, what the public sees is the best park in Afghanistan, deservedly popular among upscale Mazar families, and a vision of what civil society here could look like as the country’s fragile democracy stabilizes. On summer nights that are stifling in the city center, the park is a cool, clean, green retreat. Visitors–mainly those well-off enough to have a car–seem to be relaxing here in a way they don’t anywhere else I’ve seen in Afghanistan. The beginnings of civil society are visible here: kids playing with kids who aren’t their relatives, women and men eating together in public, groups of young girls strolling and perhaps looking at the groups of young boys nearby.

Amiri, 48, a former logistics chief for Ahmad Shah Massoud, has turned his skills toward transforming Afghan society–with a gated community. The gates and guard, normal here at the homes of the wealthy, are necessary to reassure Afghans that they can relax here–an interesting angle for Westerners to consider. As Amiri says, “Creating a new culture takes a long time and a lot of work.”

Built on 648 acres between the airport and the town center, the new town is planned to incorporate six sections, each with its own schools, market, mosque, clinic and park. It will be the only neighborhood in Mazar to have 24-hour electricity, a central water supply, septic tanks for each house and regular trash pickup. This is a stark contrast to Mazar’s open sewers, litter and one-day-off, one-day-on electric supply. Right now, one section is finished and Amiri has started work on a second.

New Town, Mazar-i-Sharif

He plans a stadium larger than Kabul’s Ghazni Stadium for professional sports events (Mazar currently has no stadium) as well as soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts and men’s and women’s gyms for the residents.

The town will eventually hold 2,500 single-family homes and 4,500 apartments, a new appearance in Mazar. Currently, just 60 homes have been finished, and Amiri has sold the home sites at a loss when he factors in the development costs. The eventual population will be 30,000, he plans–a drop in the bucket compared with Mazar’s estimated 1.2 million (there’s been no census in Afghanistan in decades). But its impact will likely be much larger than its size. Amiri Park will have a trickle-down influence on less affluent, less educated Mazaris, much as the swimming pools and ranch houses of rich Los Angelenos influenced the entire U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s.

Amiri is acutely aware that most people in Afghanistan have little to do in their leisure time; his park is designed to remedy that. He is trying to provide alternatives to purely commercial ways of thought; he rejected suggestions that he charge admission for non-residents. “That would give the wrong message to the children. Later, when we have a middle class, I will charge.” If there are enough Afghans who understand his vision, Mazar will have at least a few humane neighborhoods in the next generation, with children who grow up envisioning still wider horizons. And if there are enough Amiris in Afghanistan, there’s some hope for its other cities.

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