The House of Histories

still from The House of History

Film still from The House of History, with a view of West Kabul during the struggle over the city (1993-5).
The Dar ul-Aman Palace is just visible in the far distance. Courtesy of Afghan Films.

The House of History is a short documentary made by eight cameramen from Afghan Films, the national film institute of Afghanistan, during the turbulent years of 1993-95. The first ten minutes of this film combine poetic narration and stark images to show the total destruction of Kabul during this period – first by factions within the mujahidin government, which tore the city apart in their struggles for power, and then by the advent of the Taliban, who bombed and burned much of what remained. Then the film takes an unexpected turn, into the fresh ruins of the Kabul Museum, where the animist, Hellenic, Buddhist, and Islamic histories of Afghanistan have always mingled through their artifacts. As former employees of the archaeological museum pack its remaining treasures into crates destined for the vaults below the Ministry of Culture, carefully sifting the shards of different statues into separate boxes, the museum director explains that they are preserving these fragments of the past, destroyed in the present, in the hope that some point in the future will permit them to be reassembled. That present moment permitted only certain parts of the past to be remembered and preserved; others had to be elided, or destroyed. But the filmmakers, like the museum employees, held out hope that a different moment would arrive, in which other parts of the past could be recovered from all the vaults and crevices and cracks of history, the locked drawers of memory where they had been hidden.

Today, the museum has been rebuilt and the fragments, at least some of them, reassembled, under the leadership of that same director, Dr. Masoody. When I visited the museum in June, a new exhibition had just been installed, which traces the histories of Buddhist sites all across Afghanistan by weaving narratives around the objects excavated there from the 1920s, when the museum and the French archaeological delegation were both established, to the present day, when the sale of a copper mine concession at Mes Aynak to the Chinese company MCC led to the unearthing of a temple – which soon proved to be a sprawling complex of shrines, monasteries, and houses centered around an ancient copper mine, and naturally situated directly on top of the copper lode (predicted by the USGS to be one of the richest in the world).  As the Aynak excavations continue, they present ever more complicated questions for all involved. For example, if a time limit for excavation (still ambiguous – it may be six months, it may be five years; this depends largely on whether the Chinese mining sector actually wants to put any new copper on the market, or just to keep a tight lid on the available supply) had not been imposed by MCC, would it perhaps have seemed more apt to leave the miraculously preserved large-scale statues and friezes in situ, rather than trying to remove them to the museum  to avoid their destruction? If Afghanistan’s politicians and donors were not so invested in the idea of natural resource extraction as the salvation of post-withdrawal Afghanistan, would ‘minimal salvage archaeology’ and the destruction of a historic site even be under discussion? If the history in question were a different history, with a more privileged position in the present discourse, would it be less imperiled?  On the other hand, archaeologists are now almost certain that a city dating back to at least the 4th or 5th century AD (some portions of the Aynak site are believed to date back to the 3rd century BC) is buried beneath the present-day village adjoining Mes Aynak. It is quite possible that the villagers there, whose families have lived in that village for generations upon generations, will be resettled to permit the extension of the excavation into the village. In this case an inhabited, continuous history may be broken off or erased in order to recover a history that was lost from the earth that swallowed it, an active community displaced in order to locate some other set of memories, or something once held sacred by another community that overlaps physically with the existing one, but otherwise is held to be separate. It may or may not be relevant to note, also, that Mes Aynak is located in the province of Logar, just west of Kabul, which has been and continues to be a site of intense conflict between the government and its opponents (whoever happened to be playing which role at any given moment of the past few decades).

still from the House of History

A film still from The House of History (1995), showing archival footage of the Farm-e-Hadda site in Jalalabad in the 1970s, before its destruction in the 1980s. Courtesy of Afghan Films.

The House of History ends with footage from the archives of Afghan Films, shot by some of the same cameramen in the 1970s. The footage shows one of the many historic or archaeological sites that were either severely looted or completely destroyed during the war years; stolen art and artifacts are commonly used to fund causes and forces of all kinds, and Afghanistan’s lost heritage is only gradually being retraced and, when possible, recovered. The film’s narrator reminds viewers that where a great civilization once stood, only these few images, dust and ashes remain. For freedom, and survival, sacrifices have to be made; but not everything has to burn. If, the film suggests, we are too quick to forget or rewrite, smash or sell off our past, we wager the future against the present, the later need against the immediate demand. The House of History, made in a moment when Afghanistan was violently divided, sets against the freefall of iconclasm and cataclysm a vision of the real past and possible future museum where all of Afghanistan’s icons and all the histories they index could peacefully coexist. The museum restored in the present stands as a reminder that not all is lost or forgotten, stolen or set aside; that the fire of new faith does not always have to consume everything that came before it; that we can build memorials that encompass not only the cherished, the close and familiar past, but also the stranger, more distant histories, the dusty corners, the fraying fringes, the loose ends and missing pieces.

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