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Originally published Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 3:40 PM

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Balloons bring smiles in war-weary Afghan capital

When it comes to the ephemeral, the meaningless and the just plain silly, “We Believe in Balloons” has plenty of competition in Afghanistan.

The New York Times

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The organizer, Arboleda, said he had originally considered passing the balloons out at... MORE

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Braving jeers and provoking smiles, volunteers spread through Kabul on Saturday, giving away 10,000 pink balloons as part of a performance-art project, “We Believe in Balloons.”

Aimed at “creating a stream of shared instances of unexpected happiness” in a war-torn land, the project is the idea of New York-based artist Yazmany Arboleda, who said he had the support of the minister of culture and some internationally financed aid groups.

One volunteer gave a street vendor, Sayif Rahman, 27, a balloon and said, “This is for peace.”

“Where is this peace?” Rahman asked. “Day and night we are enduring attacks in Kabul.”

Speaking of the project, Arboleda quoted his critics as saying, “It’s plain silly, what a waste of time and money and resources.”

His previous claim to fame was a New York City installation that some thought advocated the assassination of then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, which got him hauled in for questioning by the Secret Service.

“I get emails saying, ‘Why not give away food or health care or things that are, quote-unquote, more meaningful, substantial or lasting?’ ”

Many international organizations, public and private, try to do just that. But when it comes to the ephemeral, the meaningless and the just plain silly, “We Believe in Balloons” has plenty of competition.

In 2011, Travis Beard, an Australian musician, put on what he described as the world’s first “stealth rock concert,” aimed at teaching Afghan young people to “rock out.”

The stealth was essential; the last time an Afghan rock band performed in public, this month, its members were attacked by the police, who interpreted their gyrations as evidence of public drunkenness.

Beard said he had financial support from a half-dozen embassies, including that of the United States. His grant — the U.S. Embassy would not disclose the amount — came from the public-diplomacy budget, a discretionary fund that totaled $148 million in 2010-11, according to a special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.

U.S. officials would not say how much it is now, although it is believed to have declined to about $80 million in the past year.

“At one point we were throwing money at anything with a pulse and a proposal,” said a former embassy aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It was out of control.”

The fund underwrites projects ranging from Fulbright fellowships to cellphone towers. “Public diplomacy is how we engage people around the world. It’s how we explain our values,” said an embassy spokesman, David Snepp.

Some bizarre-sounding aid groups have done very well. Skateistan, an Australian aid group that teaches skateboarding to Afghan children, would not seem to make much sense in a country where even the potholes have potholes. Yet it built a skatepark and provided schooling and lunches for street children, attracting support from several European governments.

At the peak of the spending spree, U.S. money underwrote an Afghan version of “Sesame Street” in late 2011. In what may have been a first in the annals of war and diplomacy, the U.S. ambassador at the time, Ryan Crocker, was photographed with Cookie Monster in downtown Kabul.

For Saturday’s pink-balloon event, the U.S. Embassy turned down a request for financing. So did the Dutch Embassy, although it provided a place for fundraising. “Another story comes from Afghanistan than the military one,” said the embassy’s first secretary, Vasco Rodrigues. “We thought it was an original idea.” He added that the balloons were reassuringly biodegradable.

The organizer, Arboleda, said he had originally considered passing the balloons out at the Afghan Parliament, which has been debating a bill that would outlaw violence against women, with sentiment decidedly against the bill.

Pink, after all, was chosen because it represented women, he said. In the end, volunteers were unable to find any members of Parliament.

That may have been for the best. Some members of Parliament were spitting mad just hearing about it. Qazi Nazeer Ahmad Hanafi, who represents the city of Herat, said, “Tell that foreigner that if you bring 2 million such things to us, you will have to kill all of us Muslims before we will pass that law.”

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