Afghans bury paintings and hide books out of fear of Taliban crackdown on arts and culture

KABUL, Afghanistan – The Afghan artist, driven by past memory, buried 15 paintings – all works of modern art depicting women – in a compound three days after the Taliban entered the capital, he said.

A well-known filmmaker carried the same fear. Before she fled the country, she tucked away a large hard drive with more than 20 films in a secret location.

And an aging bookseller in his tiny sidewalk shop concealed every book the militants consider damning. They included two Bibles, translated into Dari and Pashto.

“If the Taliban fighters find this, they will punish me,” he explained, speaking on the condition of anonymity for his security.

And so goes the cultural unraveling of Afghanistan’s capital six weeks into the Taliban’s resurgence. The group’s return to power – and its history of destroying precious art and relics it considered sacrilegious – has reopened the psychic wounds of the past, at once triggering anxiety and efforts by individual Afghans to protect their culture.

The past 20 years of Western presence ushered in a flowering of arts, film, music and books, helping to transform Kabul into a cosmopolitan metropolis. A new generation of artists was influenced as much by Afghan traditions and history as by modern themes such as the war, Western music, women’s rights and oppression under the Taliban.

So far, Taliban mullahs have yet to decree what shape and form art and culture will be permitted to exist in the new Afghanistan. But many artists fear they will soon be governed by a hard-line vision of Muslim righteousness that will reverse the gains they’ve enjoyed in freedoms of expression, speech and ideas over the past two decades.

“The kind of art that we believe has a value means artists should be free to express their own thoughts, not under dictatorship or censorship,” said Sahraa Karimi, the filmmaker. “Those artists will not easily be able to work as freely as they used to. And they were so free.”

Even as some artists take great risks to protect their creations, many have fled the country, while others are self-censoring to avoid the wrath of the Taliban.

Some artists have destroyed their paintings or sculptures. Stores selling musical instruments have shuttered, as have many art galleries. Wedding bands and singers have stopped working as many wedding halls cancel live music to not anger the Taliban. Afghan filmmaking, at the moment, is dead.

“The Taliban has not issued any statements regarding the arts,” said Safiullah Habibi, the director of Kabul’s Fine Arts Institute, a government facility. “But artists themselves are limiting themselves. They think the Taliban will repeat what happened in the 1990s. At that time, the arts had no place in their rule.”

Bilal Karimi, the Taliban deputy spokesman, said the interim government is new and is still “making a framework” for all issues concerning arts and culture. But he said that whether a form of art is “permissible or prohibited” will be governed by Islamic law, or sharia.

“The knowledgeable people will formulate the rules, keeping in view the religious, national and historical traditions for art and cultural heritage,” said Karimi, who is unrelated to the filmmaker. “And whether these issues are in line with the Islamic laws or against them.”

Few Afghans expect the Taliban to fully return to their cultural zealotry of the mid-1990s, when they first came to power. The militants prohibited television, radio, movies and other forms of entertainment, declaring them immoral and socially corruptive. Their religious morality police confiscated or smashed television sets, videocassette recorders, cameras, videos and satellite dishes. Violators were given public beatings.

In 2001, in the months before they were toppled following the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban banned the Internet.

Today, the militants deploy sophisticated social media campaigns on Twitter and other Internet platforms. Taliban officials give interviews on television and radio, and answer questions on WhatsApp. Their fighters in Kabul have been spotted with smartphones, taking selfies and videos.

To be sure, the Taliban’s lack of clarity on their cultural vision has created a landscape of contradictions in Kabul. In a few neighborhoods, art galleries remain open, though few customers come due to fear and a collapsing economy. Every Friday at the city’s only five-star hotel, watercolor paintings of women and animals are displayed for sale, as visiting Taliban officials walk past. Music can sometimes be heard floating softly out of cars or buses.

And the militants have not ransacked the famed National Museum of Afghanistan, filled with thousands of ancient cultural artifacts, as they did during their previous rule.

But Kabul’s established artists dismiss the seeming tolerance of some of the Taliban as a mirage. They note the militants are seeking to improve their image to get diplomatic recognition, unfreeze billions in funds and receive international aid to bolster their tanking economy and address a spreading humanitarian crisis.

Last month, Taliban fighters shot dead Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi in his mountain village north of Kabul, prompting Karima Bennoune, the senior-most United Nations official for cultural rights, to urge governments “to demand the Taliban respect the human rights of artists.” In Bamian province, Taliban fighters destroyed two statues of leaders revered by the ethnic Shiite Hazara minority, long persecuted by the militants.

“Until now, there is a difference between what the Taliban does and what the Taliban says,” said Zia, a well-known artist who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used out of fear for his safety. He has hidden more than 60 paintings and sculptures and is in hiding himself.

At the Fine Arts Institute, what was forbidden during the Taliban’s previous rule still hangs on the walls. In one gallery, a painting depicts women being oppressed by the Taliban. In another is one of players mounted on horses engaged in buzkashi, a traditional sport. The Taliban considers portraits of living beings blasphemous.

“Artists are a big part of our society,” said Habibi, seated in his office with a portrait of an eagle on the wall. “The Taliban’s silence makes us concerned.”

For days now, he has sought a meeting with a senior Taliban official in the cultural ministry. Habibi hopes to convince him that art is not against Islamic law and that the institute is preserving Afghan culture. It also helps strengthen the economy by training its 700 students – 90% of them female – to find jobs, he plans to argue.

He has yet to hear from the official.

Last week, though, a group of Taliban arrived at the institute, saying they were from the movement’s security services. On the grounds, they spotted a yellow sculpture, a reproduction of one of the famed giant Buddhas of Bamian. The original two sixth-century statues were carved into the side of a cliff in central Afghanistan. In March 2001, the Taliban blew them up with explosives.

The Taliban agents were not pleased to see the reproduction.

“They said the statue was ‘haram’ because it’s of a human being,” recalled Habibi. “I told them ‘No. This is our cultural heritage, and that’s why we made this.’”

On a busy street lined with bookshops, the elderly bookseller with the two Bibles remembered the last time he encountered the Taliban, 25 years ago.

In his stall, he had inadvertently placed a book on top of the Koran, Islam’s core religious text. A member of the Taliban’s religious morality police spotted it and demanded the book be removed. “Then, he whipped me several times,” recalled the 60-year-old bookseller.

This time, he’s careful of what he displays. When they governed before, the Taliban viewed any effort to convert Muslims to Christianity a crime worthy of death. So the Bibles are tucked behind a bookshelf. Some Afghans, he said, buy them for research purposes.

Now more than ever, he brings them out only if he feels there’s no threat to his life.

“We show the Bibles to only people we know and trust,” he said.

The Taliban, so far, have not publicly weighed in on which books it considers socially acceptable.

So many of the booksellers have taken it upon themselves to remove books they believe the Taliban will not condone. These includes books against sharia laws, ones with racy titles or images of women on the covers, or political books that argue that the Taliban was a creation of neighboring Pakistan, booksellers said.

Afghans are also removing sensitive books from their personal libraries, in the event Taliban fighters raid their houses. Some said they hid books on democracy and human rights. Others said they hid any literature that was Western.

Before the Taliban seized control last month, the staff of Afghan Film, the state-run film company, had more than 20 films in different stages of productions, including feature-length films, shorts and documentaries, said Sahraa Karimi, the former head of Afghan Film. They were preparing for their second national film festival.

Today, the staff is coming to work only to show their faces, “like an attendance sheet,” Karimi said. She fears for the films in progress. The footage for two films left with editors who fled the country, but the rest are on the hidden hard drive, which also contains photos, projects and other activities of the past two years, said Karimi, who is now in Slovakia.

“The Taliban haven’t found it,” she said. “If they find it, they will destroy it. They will delete it.”

There is precedent for this. In the mid-1990s, the Taliban banned moving images and destroyed reels of film.

The militants, she said, are now no longer as much against film, noting their use of television, videos and social media for their propaganda. But they do care about the content being devoutly Islamic. Independent filmmakers, she said, are “not going to compromise and will show the truth” – and hence displease the Taliban. For instance, one film in the hard drive is titled, “Valley of Female Bathroom.”

Also of concern, she said, are decades of film archives – thousands of hours of film – that were being digitized. The archives were located inside the presidential palace, which is now occupied by the Taliban. “The archives are in big danger,” said Karimi. “It is now under the direct control of the Taliban.”

The artist can no longer visit the compound where he buried the 15 paintings. It’s inside a government complex, and Taliban fighters now guard it, he said.

Since last month, he has changed homes because his neighbors knew he was an artist. He now lives in the basement of a relative’s house – along with 42 of his other paintings. Three days before the Taliban entered Kabul, he took them out of their frames, wrapped them up in a blanket and spirited them out of a gallery.

Also a singer, he has hidden his dambura, a traditional lute, along with his paintings, which mostly depict humans or animals.

“When we paint a human being or an animal, the Taliban says we give life and spirit to a piece of paper,” said the 38-year-old, goateed artist. “Saving my own art is like saving my own life.”

Asking that he not identified because he’s well-known, he said that more than a dozen of his artist friends are also in hiding.

Sometimes, the artist plays his dambura in the early morning to “safeguard my mental health,” he said. He plays it softly, so that neighbors won’t hear and inform the Taliban.

But on a recent afternoon, after a long and depressing conversation with two visitors about his plight, the artist picked up his dambura and crossed a prohibited threshold: He burst into song and music with total abandon. And for the next brief minutes, he was transported to a time, not so long ago, when he was fearless and free.

The Washington Post’s Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

Angelia S. Rico

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