Sughra Hussainy didn’t want to be a doctor like so many other Afghan youth. The daughter of a day laborer and a tailor in Kabul, she was intrigued instead by her country’s cultural heritage and yearned to study art. Her pursuit of calligraphy and miniature painting at the Turquoise Mountain vocational institute not only opened the doors for her ambition and generated crucial income for her family, but made her one of Afghanistan’s most promising young artists. Sughra demonstrated her skills during a daylong symposium at USIP, co-hosted by the Smithsonian Institute and Turquoise Mountain to put a very different face to the Afghanistan seen in daily headlines. 

Artwork by Sughra Hussainy, Turquoise Mountain Artist

In a series of panel discussions, experts considered whether, how and when cultural heritage—so often a target in war—can be an engine for peacebuilding. A country that doesn’t know its past will find it difficult to embrace its future, Sughra said in an interview. She said that was a central motivation for her training, and she plans to open up a studio in Afghanistan to provide opportunities for future students to build off of the country’s artistic traditions.

“In Afghanistan, people haven't had the opportunity to live in peace for longer than I have been alive.” -- Uzair Qazizada-Naqid, award-winning carpet designer and weaver.

Sughra is among five artists who demonstrate their craft in an exhibit this year during a stunning 11-month exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery that runs through Jan. 29. “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” features the British nonprofit institute’s work and demonstrates how historians, artisans, young students and communities are preserving and renewing traditions, crafts, economic livelihoods and a historic district of Kabul. Turquoise Mountain was founded in 2006 at the request of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and the president of Afghanistan at that time, Hamid Karzai.

Cultural heritage can play a key role in several ways to maintain or restore peace, experts said in the symposium. Cultural concepts might be directly relevant to conflict resolution, or they might serve to humanize “the other.” Cultural traditions also can provide a sense of pride and dignity so often lost in political, economic or social turmoil, and artistic heritage can spur economic development as entrepreneurs find markets for artisan goods.

Uzair Qazizada-Naqid explains his carpet design: I chose an excerpt of poetry from Hafiz about a green meadow. To me, each shoot of grass is like a messenger of peace. It is a sign of tranquility and that prosperity is coming. The more shoots of grass, the stronger the peace.
Uzair Qazizada-Naqid explains his carpet design: I chose an excerpt of poetry from Hafiz about a green meadow. To me, each shoot of grass is like a messenger of peace. It is a sign of tranquility and that prosperity is coming. The more shoots of grass, the stronger the peace. 

An Afghan example of the direct effect of cultural traditions is the Jirga (often referred to as informal justice), an ad-hoc decision-making body that has survived as a social institution through decades of war and remains a durable and accessible—mechanism of local dispute resolution. As the public perception lingers of a corrupt, predatory government, the Jirga remains a a locally accessible and accepted system for solving conflicts, despite years of international efforts to support the formal justice system that strives to be more in line with  modern legal principles.

'Laying a Stone'

A tradition in unwritten Pashtun codes of conduct in which conflicting parties lay down a stone to symbolize a ceasefire, among other uses, also has contributed to conflict mediation in Afghanistan. For example, during the mujahedeenconflict in Ahmad Aba in southeastern Afghanistan in the 1980s, different subtribes of the Ahmadzai tribe entered an oral agreement that outlined rules to avoid infighting and to ban blood-feud killings. Ahmad Aba remained relatively peaceful during the mujahedeenyears as a result.

A standing decision-making body known as a shura (council) has been employed more frequently in recent years at the tribal level and has been able to adapt to new government structures in the post-Taliban government. Between 2010 and 2012, for example, with the technical support of a local non-governmental organization called The Liaison Office that USIP supports, inter-tribal shuras in southeastern Afghanistan were able to resolve several dozen major conflicts over issues such as land or cattle before the tensions deteriorated into armed violence.

These concepts remain durable and flexible because they are not meant to compete against official government structures and rather have been used by tribal elders to reduce violence when the state has been unable to do so. The question remains whether local, traditional dispute-resolution methods can be scaled up to address national conflicts.

Cultural heritage also can cultivate conditions for peace by humanizing others. People can either use cultural identity to turn inward along parochial lines or to jointly build a larger, unified identity. The Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan, for example, sometimes has been denigrated as “Kafirstan”—kafir refers to an “infidel” or unbeliever—because the majority of Nuristanis were only converted to Islam in 1896 by force.

Intricate Woodwork

But Nuristanis also are famous for their detailed and magnificent woodwork with its interlacing patterns, such as some on display in the Sackler exhibit. Majeed Qarar, cultural attache to the Afghan Embassy in Washington, said at the symposium that he believes their woodworking traditions have helped influence neighboring tribes to see them in a more human way because of their clear appreciation of beauty. 

Cultural heritage also can restore a sense of pride for victims of war.

“In Afghanistan, people haven't had the opportunity to live in peace for longer than I have been alive,” said Uzair Qazizada-Naqid, one of six winners of a competition to design carpets displayed during the symposium. “Just like destroying a garden is easier than growing one, waging war is easy, but building peace is difficult.”

Whereas Afghanistan is seen by outsiders as being very much in need, it can actually contribute something to others by sharing its rich heritage, he said. Uzair, who is 25 and from Kapisa Province in the country’s northeast, said he is proud of the links between his traditions and the steadfastness of Afghans in striving for peace under the most difficult conditions today.

After a violent conflict is over, culture also can generate development and economic growth. In front of the National Museum in Kabul, an engraved plaque reads, “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” Afghanistan was once at the heart of the ancient Silk Road, and peace and stability naturally opens opportunities for enterprise.

Ambitious and entrepreneurial Afghans, like Sughra and Uzair, can help build a network of small businesses and workshops while continuing to teach about the importance of guarding culture. Cultural heritage can thus provide not only a foundation for building peace and encouraging reconciliation but also sow the seeds of economic recovery to keep countries emerging from conflict from sliding back into conflict.

A Target of War

Of course, cultural heritage also often is targeted during war.

“Tragedies remind us that cultural heritage matters,” said Mark Taplin, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. Often, the first step in liquidating a people’s identity is to destroy their memory, he said, citing cases such as the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas in March 2001, or the self-styled Islamic State group’s destruction of shrines in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province this year.

Extremists not only destroy the physical, but also hijack the practices and representations that comprise intangible cultural heritage. The Taliban has become increasingly effective at using the treasured Afghan traditions of poetry, for example, in its efforts to recruit fighters.

For those outside a conflict zone, the projection of the beleaguered nation’s cultural heritage can “make us more tolerant and understanding,” said Julian Raby, director of the Sackler Gallery and adjoining Freer Gallery of Art. It can help entice and inspire influential external figures or publics to action in support of peace, even when their default behavior might be more inward-looking.

The most powerful effect of Turquoise Mountain’s work is that it “keeps Afghans in the mind of outsiders,” said Tommy Wide, assistant director of special projects for the Freer and Sackler Galleries. At its most influential, such outside public attention could translate into pressure for resolving or, ideally, preventing violent conflict, he said.

Joshua Levkowitz is a program assistant on Afghanistan and Central Asia at USIP.

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