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Multimedia: Afghan Treasures Come to the Bay Area

5 December 2008 No Comment

By Karen Weise  —

In a room twinkling with thousand of small gold pieces, the message behind the Asian Art Museum’s exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” was unmistakable.

“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” the final wall of the exhibit read.

For Dr. Mohammad “Mo” Qayoumi, president of California State University East Bay and the first Afghan president of a major U.S. university, that statement could not be more true.

Qayoumi said aside from the beauty and importance of the artifacts themselves, the dramatic story of safekeeping the treasures through war and crisis is enough cause for jubilation. Qayoumi and others said they are working to connect the East Bay’s Afghan community with the celebrated exhibition before it leaves San Francisco in the end of January.

Protecting heritage through times of war: Secret vaults, sealed lips

As a central hub in the Silk Road, Afghanistan has 15,000 known archaeological sites, charting millennia of trade, invasions, settlements and dynasties. Since 1922, as artifacts were excavated, Afghanistan preserved their national treasures in the National Museum in Kabul, growing the collection to 100,000 artworks and artifacts.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 to the ensuing decade of civil war threatened the museum’s collection, with war lords selling artifacts on the black market and eventually, the shelling of the building. Starting in 2001, the Taliban systematically destroyed 2,500 works of art, according to the exhibition.

Fearing the complete destruction of the national treasure, in 1988, a small group of museum staff hid crates with the most precious artifacts in a vault in the presidential palace in an attempt to protect the treasures. The handful of staff, known as key holders or tahilwidars, kept quiet about the secret vaults.

In Oct. 2003, two years after war ousted in the Taliban, the museum’s director, Omara Khan Massoudi, decided conditions were finally safe enough to reveal the treasured pieces. Afghan archeologists and National Geographic staff opened the crates to find the artifacts intact. The pieces were first shown at the National Gallery in D.C., and are at the Asian Art museum in San Francisco until Jan. 25. The show will stop at Houston and New York before returning to Afghanistan.

CSU’s Qayoumi said the Afghan community’s response to the exhibition was a sense of “jubilation.” The complex, cosmopolitan artifacts countered decades of pessimism. “You look at what they have heard about Afghanistan for the last 25 and 30 years, and it has been the war, destruction, refugees, misery,” he said.

CSU’s Qayoumi said the “sense of stewardship and custodianship” the keyholders showed is an aspect of Afghan culture he homes becomes noted. “When you are trusted with something, you have to protect it with your life,” he said. Qayoumi cited several other instances of unsung “heroes,” such as a corps of guards who protected the American Embassy for close to twenty years without payment.

Qayoumi said he believed the custodianship over nearly two decades should quiet naysayers who question whether the current Afghan government can protect the exhibit when it returns to Afghanistan. “My belief is that all of these artifacts were protected because of the people, not the government,” he said.

Connecting to the East Bay Afghan community

To get the word out, Qayoumi said he did interviews on several Afghan television stations, including Fremont’s Le Mar TV, as well as presented at local organizations such as the Hayward Rotary Club. The museum translated the exhibition brochure into both Dari and Pashtu.

For Saturday, Dec. 6, Rev. Bruce Green, an interfaith facilitator at Centerville Presbyterian Church, said he is organizing buses and free admission for the Afghan community, particularly the poorer and elderly members. Using buses donated by Fremont’s Bridges Community Church and free admission provided by the museum, Green expects 200 people to make the journey from the East Bay. One pick-up was scheduled for the Afghan Coalition office in Fremont, and another likely will be in the Concord area.

“It’s too good for any afghan to miss,” said Green. “It’s their national treasure. Anyone would be really inspired about it.”

For more information, visit: Asian Art Museum, the National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art.

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