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Sunday, January 20, 2008 - Page updated at 10:11 PM

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Kabul's Old City Gets Major Renovation

Associated Press Writer

Last year the streets in parts of the old city dropped by nine feet.

The reason? A massive garbage haul. Just about every unemployed man in Murad Khane was recruited to clean up years of litter and mud piled on top of the streets. By the time they were done, the streets and alleys were lower.

The garbage project is part of an effort to clean up and restore old Kabul, after six years of relative peace and with millions of dollars from foreign donors.

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which is dedicated to traditional Afghan arts and architecture, has spent $1 million on conservation and clean-up in the Murad Khane neighborhood since last year. The Kabul organization is financed by both Western and Middle East donors.

The lower street level at first left Abdul Salaam's door looking oddly out of place, perched three feet higher than the square in front of it. So Turquoise Mountain had to fix his door, too, with fresh mud scars showing where it used to be. The frayed edges of plastic bags still stick out of the wall.

"It looks much nicer," Salaam said about the cleaned-up neighborhood. "And it doesn't smell bad anymore."

Next door to Salaam's house, Turquoise Mountain has just completed its first full restoration, the 130-year-old Peacock House _ so called because of the carved wooden peacocks at the corners of the wooden window screens.

Similar houses are tucked away in the narrow alleys of the old city in this war-torn capital. Walk through a wooden portal and a covered walkway, and a visitor emerges in an intimate courtyard, surrounded on all sides by carved screens _ as if encased in a wooden jewelry box. The screens lift in warm weather, opening the house to the courtyard.

These intricate, 19th century homes barely survived bombardment in the 1990s, when Kabul became the front line of Afghanistan's bloody civil war, and earlier plans to raze them for apartments. But rocket shells and earthquakes have left most teetering in rickety ruin.

Now the mud and timber homes are being restored to their former splendor, instilling a newfound pride among the mostly working-class residents of the old city.

"It used to be so beautiful, but during the fighting, a couple of rockets landed on the house," said Aminullah, a 63-year-old carpenter whose family has lived in the same two-story wooden structure for nearly two centuries.

The roof has been repaired and the courtyard repaved with bricks.


"The houses in the old city are so old," said Aminullah, who uses only one name. "They were handed down to us from our forefathers. If someone asked me to exchange it (for a modern one), I would not trade it because I'm very attached to this house."

His home is one of 11 restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has spent more than $8 million on historic conservation in Kabul since 2002, just after the U.S. invasion drove out the Taliban regime.

The Geneva-based organization, which does charitable work mainly in Muslim countries, has focused on the densely populated Asheqan wa Arefan neighborhood. With about 100 residents per acre, it is at least 10 times more cramped than New York, although still less so than Mumbai, India.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has also undertaken two large restorations in Kabul: the late 18th century brick-domed tomb of the ruler Timur Shah, next to the old city bazaar, and a 27-acre terraced garden laid out in the 16th century outside the old city.

But it is the smaller-scale projects _ the homes, a public bathhouse, several shrines and smaller mosques _ that have had the most impact on people.

The old city is a maze of narrow alleys, houses and shrines woven deep behind Kabul's main arteries. Some of the old homes are squalid, with mud piled high in the courtyard and chickens clucking around murky puddles left from hand washing clothes. Just next door, freshly restored wooden houses almost glow in contrast.

A 1979 master plan to raze Asheqan wa Arefan to make room for multistory, concrete apartment buildings was shelved in 2002.

"There were some businessmen who wanted to put up big buildings here, but this area has been passed on to us from our forefathers for many generations, and we have to respect it," said Sayed Hassan Parwisi, a community leader in the old city. "The mud of this area is like a shrine to us. We're proud of these mud and wood houses that we have because this is our history."

Streets that were once muddy puddles of open sewage have been paved with stones. Mothers told the Aga Khan Trust for Culture that the most important improvement is the drainage installed to keep the neighborhood _ and their children _ clean and healthy.

Rather than bringing in international experts, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture used local craftsmen to do the restoration work, honing their skills while keeping costs down.

"In a city of billion-dollar (development) programs, it's quite nice to be a bit more modest," said Jolyon Leslie, who manages the organization's program in Afghanistan.

It has not been easy to convince old city residents of the value of their wooden houses, as wealthier Afghans construct enormous cement houses adorned with mirrors and colorful cement flowers. But as residents see the improvements around them, they are chipping in manpower to help, said Parwisi, the old city community leader.

"We would all love to have cement houses, big buildings, beautiful houses, but if it does not have history, then it's useless," he said. "Our main interest in this area is its history. We want these houses because our forefathers have been living here for generations."


On the Net:

Aga Khan Trust for Culture:

Turquoise Mountain Foundation:

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