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Saving an Afghan symbol, with Afghans only

As an exercise in national pride, the project to rebuild the Darulaman Palace — ruined by four decades of war — is currently under way, with no foreign help

  • Staff members of the reconstruction project, 25% of whom are women, work in a makeshift office in the palaceImage Credit: NYT
  • The abandoned Darulaman Palace lies on the southern outskirts of Kabul.Image Credit: NYT
  • The goal is to get the palace ready for the centenary of Afghanistan’s independence from Britain in 1919.Image Credit: NYT
Gulf News

Nothing symbolises the wrack and ruin of Afghanistan and its four decades of war better than Darulaman Palace, a once-magnificent edifice visible on its hillock perch for miles around.

The palace has been pummelled and pockmarked by every conceivable calibre of weapon fired by nearly every faction in the country’s recent wars, with the possible exception of the Americans and their allies, because it was too damaged by the time they arrived to provide much useful cover.

Yet, like Afghanistan itself, the palace never quite totally collapsed, its four domed towers still in place, although the building beneath was so ruined it seemingly defied gravity.

Now much of Darulaman Palace is obscured behind scaffolding and green netting, its mangled trusses and battered Corinthian columns visible only in snatches. Huge lettering hangs from the scaffolds, in Dari and Pashto, reading, “We Can Do It.”

Significantly, there is no such sign in English. Not only is Afghanistan restoring its most emblematic building, it is doing so entirely by itself. Funding is Afghan, and so are its architects, engineers and workers — even its technical advisers. Moreover, a surprising percentage of the professional staff are women, 25 per cent, despite the lack of any gender quotas imposed by international donors — of which there are none.

The price tag, too, is Afghan: $20 million has been budgeted for the four-year project to rebuild the three-storey, 107-foot-high palace. A few years ago, according to Omara Khan Masoudi, the former head of the National Museum, the United States carried out a feasibility study that calculated a $200 million cost for rebuilding the 150-room building, using foreign contractors, and the idea was rejected as impossibly costly.

When the project got under way in 2016, according to Nilofar Langar, spokeswoman for the ministry of urban development, the first job was cleaning 600 tonnes of debris from the vast building, everything from human and animal waste to bullet and artillery casings. A foreign company bid $1 million to do the initial cleanup; a gang of Afghan labourers, led by women employed by the ministry, did it for $30,000, Langar said. “We saved $970,000.”

President Ashraf Gani has championed the project as an exercise in national pride, visiting the site three times to check on its progress. He has pointedly refused any international help — although some donors may well note that because they underwrite most of Afghanistan’s budget, it is arguably international money in the end.

The idea to restore the palace has been one of Gani’s most popular initiatives. In a fractious coalition government that took two years to agree on a defense minister, the Darulaman project has enjoyed an unusual level of multipartisan support.

“I’m very happy to see the president pay attention to the reconstruction of this palace,” Masoudi said. “It’s really important. The media now is celebrating this as the land of terrorism, Al Qaida and Taliban. This is something different.”

The goal is to get the palace ready for the centenary of Afghanistan’s independence from Britain in 1919. Darulaman Palace is a lot more than an unpretty face, a result of its past four dissolute decades: It encompasses the sweep of almost nine decades of Afghan history.

The palace never actually served as a palace, for any king or head of state. King Amanullah, who ordered its construction, was deposed before it was finished, by a revolt led by conservative mullahs against his modernising rule in 1929. (He introduced girls’ schools and discouraged the wearing of burqas, among other efforts not seen again for a half-century.)

Designed by French and German architects, mixing neoclassical European styles with Moghul and Eastern influences, the palace was not only possibly Afghanistan’s biggest building, it was also one of its first to get central heating and running water.

In the years to come, it was everything but what it had been built to be, serving as the medical school for Kabul University, a warehouse for raisins (a lot of raisins), the seat of various ministries and finally the Ministry of Defence.

It burned down and was rebuilt by King Mohammad Zahir Shah in the 1960s. During the civil war years of the 1980s and 1990s it became a base for various mujahedeen factions, was set afire again by the Taliban, then became a refugee settlement and a nomad camp (with goats residing in the grandiose Oval Room). In the past decade it was a battalion headquarters for the Afghan National Army.

During those decades of civil conflict, it was much prized for its massive walls and commanding position on a hill controlling approaches to the city from the south. The consequences are only too evident.

In just one typical square yard of wall on the northeast tower, for instance, it is possible to count 105 bullet, shrapnel and artillery holes. That wall is about 150 square yards in area, and it is one of four such walls on each of four towers, all of which are dwarfed by the rest of the palace’s expanse.

Do the math: An estimate in the millions of holes would not be unreasonable. “If there’s one thing you can’t count in Afghanistan, it’s war and bullet fire,” said Zabihullah Rahimi, the deputy site manager. “No one can count the bullet holes. They’re countless.”

Even interior rooms are shot full of holes and covered in graffiti by various factions, in an assortment of dialects and alphabets. In one such room, the reconstruction project’s professional staff members work at banks of laptops as they monitor the state of the work, which at the moment mostly consists of stripping off several square miles of plaster and concrete from brick walls and pillars, entirely with hand picks and hammers.

Masouma Delijam, 28, a senior architect on the project, went from a job for a private contractor to her job here for the Afghan government, at half the pay. “We are all very proud to be part of this,” she said. “Our salary is not much, but it is worth it to be part of this project.”

That is especially true, she said, because it is being done by Afghans themselves. “It is so good that we have been able to find the capacity in ourselves for this,” she said.

That should come as no surprise, said Ajmal Maiwandi, head of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which provides technical advice on the project (from its Afghan experts). “It’s been more than a decade and a half. If the capacity doesn’t exist to deal with a project of this nature, it would be surprising all around.”

For Delijam’s entire life, the ruined Darulaman Palace was a reminder of what had become of the country. “It affected us. We saw it every day. And now people will see us rebuilding it, and they will get hopeful about the future of Afghanistan.”

Not everything is rosy about the project’s future. Some of the labourers complained they had not been paid their $150-a-month salaries in four months.

“I admit there was a delay,” said Langar, attributing it to administrative problems, not financial ones, and vowing that all salaries will soon be up-to-date. She also said the project was already a year behind schedule, although there is still hope of making it in time for the centenary.

Cost overruns and repeated delays have long been a feature of Afghanistan’s many foreign-run projects, sometimes with disastrous results (the Kajaki Dam is still unfinished after a half-billion-dollar US investment). This time, Delijam said, Afghans will have no one to blame — or to thank — but themselves.

–New York Times News Service

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