Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

A Kaleidoscopic Heritage: New efforts to promote Afghan traditions of art and culture

S Reza Kazemi 15 min

A fifteenth-century miniature painting of the prophet Yusuf brought to new life in an animation, puppets telling the modern love story of Siyamoy and Jalali and women’s traditional hats in Daikundi: all are featuring in a festival held in Kabul at the Qasr-e Chehel Sotun – the Palace of Forty Columns. The festival is one of a number of efforts to celebrate and support Afghanistan’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage,’ traditions of art and culture rooted in the country’s past. Said Reza Kazemireviews the festival and reports on what feels like a piece of good news for a country that has been shattered by intolerance and violent conflict for far too long.

A still from the documentary showing a young girl wearing the traditional hat called kola-ye topak-dar in Daikundi province. Photo: Nasim SeyamakA still from the documentary showing a young girl wearing the traditional hat called kola-ye topak-dar in Daikundi province. Photo: Nasim Seyamak

The recently-restored Qasr-e Chehel Sotun (also written Chihilsitoon) in southern Kabul was an apt venue to hold the Intangible – Art and Culture Festival (3 to 5 July 2019). Built as a royal guesthouse in the 1920s and then destroyed during the war, (1) the Chehel Sotun Palace and Garden has been open to the public since September 2018 (see a short video of the rehabilitated palace and garden here). As Kabul city’s largest public garden, Chehel Sotun provides a much-needed retreat for increasing numbers of Afghans in a metropolis that suffers not just from deadly explosions and attacks, but also frustrating traffic jams and sickening pollution. In the heat of a Kabul summer, one can now find a pleasant oasis in the Chehel Sotun Garden. Many families go there to enjoy its green landscape and get together, eat and have fun, especially over the weekend. For three days in early July, it provided a kaleidoscopic array of presentations.

A view of Kabul city from Chehel Sotun Palace. Photo: the author

The Intangible – Art and Culture Festival marked the completion of the first three-year phase of the Silk Road Cultural Initiative (SRCI). (2) The initiative is named after the ancient Silk Road – a term, Seidenstraße, invented by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen to describe the historical trade and cultural routes between Asia and Europe which had Afghanistan astride them. (3) One component of the initiative has been to promote and support Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage including through grants for art projects. (4)

The festival’s presentations were kaleidoscopic. The diversity of art projects on display was the result of SRCI awarding grants to 32 individual practitioners and small cultural organisations in 11 provinces in five regions across Afghanistan. (5)

Three grantees presented their work to open the festival in the auditorium. First was a three-minute animation by 29-year-old Nasir Hashimi. It is based on one fifteenth-century miniature painting by an unknown artist in the National Archives of Afghanistan. The animation covers the beginning of the story of the prophet Yusuf (Joseph) and Zulaikha (Potiphar’s wife in the Biblical tradition). Of all his brothers, Yusuf is preferred by his father Yaqub (Jacob). When Yusuf grows up, he has a dream in which the stars and moon bow down to him. He describes it to his brothers and, angered by its implication of his supremacy, they plot to kill him and throw him into an empty cistern. The rest of Yusuf’s story – he is sold into slavery in Egypt, imprisoned on false charges, interprets dreams, rises to become a vizier and eventually meets and reconciles with his brothers – is yet to be animated. Hashimi told AAN he is working to develop an animation of the entire Yusuf story based on the 59 miniature paintings in the National Archives and has so far produced six episodes of the animation on the basis of the first six miniature paintings. “Once this is done,” said Hashimi, “my colleagues and I would like to create an online platform to make the animation and probably other resources in the National Archives and in museums such as the National Museum of Afghanistan accessible to a wider audience inside and outside the country.”

The miniature painting in the National Archives of Afghanistan showing Yusuf asleep and his father Yaqub sitting next to him. The text above reads: “Yusuf (peace be upon him) has a dream about the stars and the moon.” Photo: Nasir Hashimi

The miniature painting in the National Archives of Afghanistan showing Yusuf asleep and his father Yaqub sitting next to him. The text above reads: “Yusuf (peace be upon him) has a dream about the stars and the moon.” Photo: Nasir Hashimi

The second was a documentary by Nasim Seyamak, an Afghan photographer and filmmaker, about the disappearing tradition of women making and wearing traditional hats in Daikundi province in the centre of Afghanistan. The hats are beautiful and special because they hint not just at the marital status of the women wearing them, but also at the economic conditions of their families. Unmarried women wear kola-ye topak-dar (a hat with five coloured fabric balls on top) over their headscarf. By contrast, married women wear kola-ye bi-topak (a hat without such balls) under their headscarf. Larger fabric balls signify the girl comes from a well-to-do family, while smaller ones indicate straightened economic circumstances.

In his conversation with AAN, Seyamak said this tradition has almost entirely disappeared for two main reasons. First, when the Taleban captured Hazarajat, of which Daikundi is a part, in the 1990s, they banned this tradition because they felt it grossly contradicted their interpretation of Islamic hijab. Second, Seyamak said that when people from Daikundi migrated elsewhere in Afghanistan such as the capital Kabul and to countries such as Iran and Pakistan in the region and beyond during the last several decades, they got acquainted with the clothing and fashion in those areas and countries which they then brought back to Daikundi when returning or visiting. To try and help preserve this tradition, he said, the documentary would be distributed to libraries and cultural centres in different provinces such as Daikundi, Kabul, Bamiyan, Herat, Kandahar and Balkh.

The last work presented was a puppet theatre performance of Siyamoy and Jalali, a true early-twentieth-century love story that is particularly famous in western Afghanistan. It has been produced by the Mime Theatre Group and directed by Kaveh Ayreek (watch the full performance here). In his youth, as the story goes (read a Dari version here), Jalali leaves his home province of Badghis for Herat where he enrols in a school. One night, he has a dream about a tall, gorgeous and angel-faced girl with long black hair; hence, his beloved is called Siyamoy (literally meaning black-haired). In the dream, Siyamoy asks Jalali to come to her. Leaving school before finishing, Jalali embarks on a long search for his love, writing poetry about his longing and separation as he meanders through a series of places. When he finds Siyamoy in neighbouring Ghor province, as the story goes on, conservative social mores do not let them unite, partly because Jalali is not wealthy. Disillusioned, he resorts to travelling in Afghanistan and to areas beyond the Amu Darya (Oxus River) such as Samarkand and Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan. When he finally reaches his love and marries her in the year 1301 (1922/23), he falls ill and dies a year later, and is buried in Badghis. The story became an immortal folk tale after Siyamoy never married again, instead, living with the memory of her beloved Jalali until her death six decades later in 1362 (1983/84). She is buried in her home province of Ghor. The following is part of Jalali’s poetry for Siyamoy with the author’s English translation:

سرم مسته ز سودای سیاه موی

دلم دارد تمنای سیاه موی

سیاه مویان عالم خیل و خیل اند

نمی گیرد یکی جای سیاه موی


Inebriated am I with melancholy for Siyamoy

In my heart lies the longing for Siyamoy

In the world, there are many, many siyamoys

But takes none the place of Siyamoy

Jalali dies on Siyamoy’s lap. Photo: Kaveh Ayreek

Jalali dies on Siyamoy’s lap. Photo: Kaveh Ayreek

Works by several other artists receiving grants were put on display outside the auditorium in Chehel Sotun Palace. Three of the projects were related to books. Na’ima Ghani, writer and head of the Afghanistan Children’s Literature Foundation that was established last year, presented five children’s story books: Dokhtar-e Darya (Daughter of the Sea), Shash Cheshmi (The Six-Eyed), Tohfe-ye Azhdaha (The Dragon’s Gift), Pishak wa Panir (Cat and Cheese) and Rangin Kaman (The Rainbow). Based on original stories, the books will be distributed to children in the four provinces of Kabul, Bamyian, Helmand and Nimruz. Na’ima Ghani narrated her favourite of the five stories to AAN. Rangin Kaman is the story of a girl called Rangina (meaning colourful) who lives in a village where residents like and use just one colour – grey, metaphorically conveying a sense of gloom and dullness – and hate all other colours, perceiving them as ominous. However, Rangina thinks all the colours are lovely and wishes for her village to see colours that way. So, she dyes her chadar (her large headwear) in seven colours. She then goes out and walks around the village wearing her colourful chadar. Local people criticise her for breaking the village taboo. Upset, she leaves the village. But children who saw her in the coloured chadar come to appreciate the prettiness of colours. At the same time, elders begin to notice that not just grey, but all colours can be good. In this way, the whole village reconciles itself to colours. Though she does not return to the village, Rangina not only fulfils her dream but also makes a beautiful and lasting difference to the lives of the village people.

Rangina walks with her colourful chadar through the village, from the story Rangin Kaman. Photo: Na’ima Ghani

The other two book-related art grant projects were: (1) the Liberty Book Club run by a young girl, Atefa Ibrahimi, that promotes literacy and reading by providing a space for reading, studying, writing and discussing books in Kabul city and (2) seven children’s colouring books developed with original illustrations provided by Negarin Design, a local graphic design firm. According to the SRCI, the seven colouring and five children’s story books “tell tales and show images of Afghan culture that help children make their dreams come true.”

Other works were also displayed in the festival. Morteza Herati, an Afghan documentary and street photographer, presented his book of photographs Char Su (Four Directions). Through the book, as the SRCI says, “Morteza Herati takes you on a journey through the winding streets and the four seasons of Herat… city and its people.” Ali Baba Awrang, a native of Ghazni province who has a certificate from the Iran Association of Calligraphers based in the historic south-central city of Shiraz, presented his calligraphy and calligram (where calligraphy is used to create an image or picture) book Kelk-e Khial (Imagination’s Reed Pen), a body of work, which according to the SRCI, “takes the historical tradition of calligraphy in Afghanistan and creates a new story; a story about Afghan people who show the world that even in the middle of war, lives are still lived.”

Photographs of women and a girl from Morteza Herati’s Char Su. Photo: the author

Photographs of women and a girl from Morteza Herati’s Char Su. Photo: the author



Ali Baba Awrang’s calligraphy and calligram book Kelk-e Khial. Photo: the author

Ali Baba Awrang’s calligraphy and calligram book Kelk-e Khial. Photo: the author

Other works displayed in the festival and in other related venues before this event are described in the following (information taken from the festival, SRCI Facebook page and other sources as indicated below):


  • Hazaragi embroidery techniques of graf and khampoor Through her community-based project, Marzia Hussaini helped to shine a light on the disappearing traditional handicrafts of graf and khampoor. This project, supported by members of the community who provided a space for women to gather, not only revived a traditional craft but contributed to improved livelihoods as well.
Samples of graf and khampoor embroidery displayed in the festival. Photo: the author

Samples of graf and khampoor embroidery displayed in the festival. Photo: the author

  • Chess training for women Muhammad Akbar Salam, a lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Kabul University, trained 24 female students in chess for three months in Kabul and prepared them for national and international competitions.
  • Abarzanan (Superwomen) Exhibition on International Women’s Day 2019. “To pay homage to Afghan women’s strength and resilience,” wrote Rada Akbar, exhibition organiser, “Abarzanan selected inspiring women and created wearable monuments to honour each woman’s contribution to Afghan history. These wearable monuments synthesize recognition of Afghan cultural heritage with modern style” (see here and here for the eight women, four from the past and four from contemporary Afghanistan, selected for exhibition by Abarzanan). The exhibition was held from 8 to 12 March 2019 in the historical palace of Bagh-e Babur (more on the reconstructed Bagh-e Babur including pictures here; see also this previous AAN dispatch on a Mughal art exhibition there).
  • Embroidery skills training for women Zarif Design trained 20 women in embroidery skills to produce high-quality clothes in a project aimed at contributing to the cultural preservation of Afghanistan’s heritage. Launched by the Afghan architect Zolaykha Sherzad in 2005, Zarif Design says it practices “the art of ‘slow production’” by preserving Afghan “cultural traditions that are in danger of being replaced by mass produced commercial goods” and providing “a platform where traditional, high-quality craftsmanship is a source of economic opportunity and personal fulfilment.”
  • A studio practice space Centre for Contemporary Arts of Afghanistan provided studio practice space for ten selected artists where they could interact, discuss and make art in a creative environment.
  • Radio programmes on Afghanistan’s cultural and archaeological heritage Baagram Media Consultancy Services developed up to 80 radio programmes as snapshots into Afghanistan’s cultural and archaeological heritage. Aired twice a week, the programmes take us on a road-trip across the country, visiting a variety of historic sites and culture-bearers along the way. From Bamyian to Balkh and beyond, the programmes lead us to places that tell the history of a place through its monuments and traditions, helping to present the cultural richness of Afghanistan.
  • The literary event in the northeast The NGO, Cooperation for Social Improvement Organisation, held a literary competition and festival (poetry and short stories) in Pul-e Khumri, Baghlan province, in February 2019. It was attended by writers from several provinces in the northeast.
  • Chahartok melodies Olghobig Hafizy re-recorded 20 local chahartok melodies with the assistance of local musicians of Afghanistan. In the past, chahartok melodies were sung to prepare the audience before an intended performance was due to begin in a concert.
  • Local dances Asia Culture House, in partnership with Porsesh Research and Studies Organisation, carried out research on six local dances of Afghanistan, trained 21 students and performed these dances in a festival. For details about these dances including pictures, see this paper.
  • Bamyian folklore Having grown hearing the local songs, stories and lullabies of Bamyian, Ghulam Reza Mahdparwar seeks to capture and preserve them for the future. In this project, he trained eight women from eight districts in the use of audio recorders so they could return to their villages and capture some of the slowly disappearing tales and songs. The result is a collection that will live on as a childhood memory for generations to come.

This list of 18 works is not exhaustive but gives an idea of the breadth and variety of achievements linked to the festival.

A bigger picture and greater efforts

Literature, photography, documentaries, calligraphy, handicrafts, folklore, dance and music, the artistic and cultural works featuring in the festival, at first glance, look disparate and unrelated. Nevertheless, they are connected to one another as they are part of recent efforts to revive Afghanistan’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ – deep-rooted traditions of art and culture. UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage defines this as (paragraph 1 of article 2 of the Convention):

the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity…

The domains in which intangible cultural heritage is typically manifested include, says UNESCO (paragraph 2 of the same article): “(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; (e) traditional craftsmanship.”

As of 11 May 2018, the Convention has 178 states parties including Afghanistan which joined it in March 2009. Currently, there are three more efforts that are under way to explore and promote Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage. First is the start of the second phase of the Silk Road Cultural Initiative for the next three years. According to arts grants and culture specialist at Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), Amanullah Mojadidi, this will have a greater focus on strengthening the creative industries, mainly fine arts and handicrafts, helping artists and artisans enter the economy through design enhancement and providing online platforms to promote and make works accessible to the market inside and outside Afghanistan. This includes potential regional collaborations.

Second, UNESCO, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Ministry of Information and Culture have conducted a research survey on Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage. This research was made up of 300 General Surveys for the public, 40 with Afghan professionals from the cultural, media, research, sporting and other sectors and 40 ‘Knowledge Holder’ Surveys with ustads (experts) on specialist subjects. The data obtained is currently being transcribed not just for analysis, but also for forming the basis of an initial database at the Ministry of Culture. A list of intangible cultural heritage items, technically called ‘elements,’ is required before Afghanistan can make any nominations for inclusion on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage lists. Thus far, 122 countries have nominated and included 508 elements in the two UNESCO lists: the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (details here).

Third, the Afghan government is establishing an intangible cultural heritage department in the Ministry of Culture. Currently, the Ministry is, in collaboration with the AKTC, deciding on a space for the department and recruiting core staff. The department will serve as the centre for all intangible cultural heritage initiatives in Afghanistan, including promotion and research, and leading the task of nominating Afghan ‘elements’ for inclusion on the UNESCO lists. Signing the 2003 Convention brought an obligation to Afghanistan to report regularly to a UNESCO committee on its implementation, as well as the possibility of requesting international assistance from a UNESCO fund (more details here).

Apart from Nawruz which several countries including Afghanistan jointly nominated as an intangible cultural heritage element, Afghanistan has itself nominated no items for consideration for potential incorporation on UNESCO’s lists. Afghanistan did place Bagh-e Babur on its list in 2009 following its ratification of the 2003 Convention, but this was not followed up and nothing has happened in practical terms since then. At the same time, neighbouring countries have all made nominations. Some examples include chakan an embroidery art in Tajikistan, the rice dish palov (also written pilau) as a tradition in Uzbekistan, the kushtdepdi rite of singing and dancing in Turkmenistan, naqqali as a dramatic storytelling form in Iran, suri jagek as a traditional meteorological and astronomical practice in Pakistan, and shadow puppetry in China. There are also sometimes problems in nominating artistic and cultural traditions that are present in more than one country (eg palov/pilau and the game buzkashi). There has been a bitter dispute, for instance, between Iran and Azerbaijan over to which country the polo-like game of chovqan/chogan as an item of intangible cultural heritage belongs.

The slow advancement of Afghanistan in nominating elements to UNESCO only shows the importance of the work being carried out now as a way for Afghanistan to present its intangible cultural heritage on the world stage after, more crucially, starting to understand, appreciate and revive such heritage in its own society. According to Mojadidi, there are many items which the Ministry of Culture could, in consultation with artists, activists and communities, nominate: the traditional attan dance could be one definite nomination. There are also other items Afghanistan could nominate. These could include what are called ‘vernacular architecture techniques’ (ie to do with domestic or functional buildings, rather than palaces and monuments), the traditional musical instrument the rubab, the game buzkashi, Nuristani woodcarving, Kandahari and other styles of embroidery, the game kaftar bazi or pigeon flying (details in this AAN dispatch), kite fighting and specific types of carpet-weaving.

A sample of Nuristani woodcarving as practiced in Jangalak Vocational Training Centre in Kabul. According to the centre’s officials, such carving on the entry door to a family’s compound hinted at the family’s social and economic status, that they were well-off and often hosting guests. Photo: the author

A sample of Nuristani woodcarving as practiced in Jangalak Vocational Training Centre in Kabul. According to the centre’s officials, such carving on the entry door to a family’s compound hinted at the family’s social and economic status, that they were well-off and often hosting guests. Photo: the author


These new efforts to promote Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage and support the people ‘making’ it reveals at least three things. First, they provide us with insights into the diversity and richness of art and culture in past and contemporary Afghanistan that typically go unnoticed and unappreciated. Second, they indicate small but significant efforts that are being made by a new generation of Afghan artists and artisans to revitalise, preserve and display that artistic and cultural diversity. Third, they give us a small piece of good tidings not because Afghanistan might soon get onto the UNESCO lists, but because they point to good, diverse and tolerant living traditions that help bind us all as human beings.


Edited by Kate Clark and Christian Bleuer


*The author would like to thank Amanullah Mujadidi, arts grants and culture specialist at the Agha Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), for responding to his many questions and for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this dispatch.


(1) Writing for the Encyclopaedia Iranica, the late Nancy Hatch Dupree (more on her from these previous AAN dispatches here and here) says the palace changed its name from Endaki (named after a nearby village) to Chehel Sotun (forty pillars) “because of the many columns that supported the roof of the verandah.” Among the eminent guests staying in the state, guesthouse has been Sir Mortimer Durand who negotiated the boundary between Afghanistan and India. When the Afghan communist government turned Chehel Sotun Palace into a government hub with frequent press conferences with domestic and foreign correspondents being held there, it became a major target of attacks by the mujahedin and “was so severely damaged that Karmal [president of Afghan communist government, 1979-1986] was forced to move to the safety of the Arg (citadel) in the centre of Kabul.”

Also, for details (and pictures) about how palaces have shaped Kabul city over time, see, for example, this article: Bill Woodburn and Ian Templeton (2012), “From the Bala Hissar to the Arg: How Royal Fortress Palaces Shaped Kabul, 1830-1930,” The Court Historian 17 (2): 171-188.

(2) The Silk Road Cultural Initiative (SRCI) is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and implemented by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). AKTC was the agency that restored the Chehel Sotun Palace and Garden, among others. The SRCI was launched in late November 2016 with a three-day national seminar on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), bringing together practitioners from various disciplines including the late Nancy Hatch Dupree to discuss ICH in Afghanistan and exchange ideas on art and culture more broadly.

(3) On the Silk Road, see, for example, this recent work: Peter Frankopan (2016), The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, London: Bloomsbury. Interestingly, Frankopan draws our attention to regions such as Afghanistan and its neighbourhood that he argues has become “lost, suffocated by the insistent story of the rise of Europe” but once “[served] as the world’s nervous system, connecting peoples and places together” (pp xiii, xv).

(4) The SRCI has three other components:

  • Supporting the development of Afghanistan’s cultural policy in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Culture
  • Providing vocational training in areas such as carpet-weaving, tailoring and tinsmith and promoting traditional craftsmanship including through Jangalak Vocational Training Centre in Kabul city
  • Contributing to physical conservation such as the rehabilitation of Balkh City Walls and Burj-e Ayyaran as cultural spaces in northern Balkh province

(5) The 11 provinces are Kabul, Bamyian, Herat, Balkh, Nangarhar, Kandahar, Ghazni, Daikundi, Samangan, Baghlan and Badakhshan.


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