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Joint Project Seeks to Revitalize Kabul's Art Community

The neighborhood of Murad Khane in Kabul's Old City was once a wealthy area of merchants and members of the royal family. But after 25 years of war, most of the homes have been abandoned and left to ruin. A new project begun by President Hamid Karzai and Britain's Prince Charles seeks to renovate the area and make it a cornerstone for Afghanistan's revitalized arts community.

Deep in the market of Murad Khane a radio crackles through the streets while silver workers sell their wares, fortunetellers leaf through astrological books and pilgrims line up outside a Muslim shrine. Murad Khane is rich in culture and full of elaborate houses, but it has seen better days.

A few hundred yards away, laborers are busy digging up 25 years of dirt and garbage that has piled in the streets. This is the first stage of a renovation project to breathe life back into Murad Khane, which has been devastated by almost continuous war since 1979. So far the workers have removed 350 trucks full of rubble, dropping the level of the street by almost two meters.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Britain's Prince Charles dreamed up the project last year, when Mr. Karzai visited Britain.

The work is being done by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation - an Afghan organization dedicated to preserving the country's unique architecture and arts, with funds from the prince's School of Traditional Arts in London, and from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and from a Jordanian group.

Former British diplomat Rory Stewart heads the project, and he has gathered together Afghanistan's best artists to train craftsmen who could renovate the damaged structures.

Walking through Murad Khane, Stewart describes its vitality and importance.

"Murad Khane is first historic settlement on the north bank of the Kabul River. It was founded in the mid-18th century, it is a classic miniature Islamic city. We have here two mosques a public bathhouse, two shrines, and a lot of trades and shops," said Stewart. "This is a classic Central Asian combination of religious institutions, civic institutions and commercial institutions working together."

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation pays half the rebuilding costs for a house and the homeowner the rest. By the end of the project, as many as 55 homes could be renovated, with some buildings used as artists' workshops and art galleries.

But renovating these old structures is no easy task in a country so recently consumed by war. Engineer Rahmattullah Oryakhel says much effort was taken in finding artists who remember the old designs.

"Restoration of old buildings is difficult and time-consuming," said Oryakhel. "The biggest challenge is how to keep the original condition of the building. This requires skilled craftsmen, knowledge of materials and good supervision."

The restoration of the Old City is just one part of a plan to revitalize the arts in Afghanistan. Besides woodworkers and engineers, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation also employs calligraphers and pottery experts. Eventually their works will be sold at art exhibitions and in galleries. The organizers see the plan as a way to generate income for the artists and boost Afghan culture.

At the workshop where the craftsmen are putting together shutters and window frames for the homes in Murad Khane, Turquoise Mountain administrator Ben Gauss talks about the project.

"This is a really good project because it gives skills and jobs to people that previously didn't have them while at the same time rebuilding the city, in a way that can help Afghans connect with their past and make them proud of it," said Gauss. "It would be a shame if their culture was lost."

In the craft market in Murad Khane, residents say that rebuilding the neighborhood will be good for their heritage and tourism.

"These buildings were constructed long ago, even before there were maps of the city," said one resident. "They are rebuilding them to help local people and promote tourism. During the Taleban time most were destroyed. But when they come back the tourists will also return. I think this will help us."

Three decades ago Murad Khane was scheduled for demolition by the Soviets. Age and war left it a crumbling ruin, likely to be torn down and replaced with Western-style villas. But with some help from President Karzai and Prince Charles, the embattled neighborhood stands a chance of surviving another century.