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Kabul: Germany is Brought Even to Hindu Kush

PrivatCopyright: Parwaz
Enthusiastic audience of the Parwaz Puppet Theatre – The troupe originated in a workshop by the Goethe-Institut (Photo: Parwaz)

7 February 2011

Decades of war have desolated Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Taliban have brought culture to its knees. How can one do cultural work in such a country? It is a question that Anne Eberhard asks every day anew. By Sophie Rohrmeier

When Anne Eberhard moves about in the streets of Kabul, she almost always takes a car. The danger of abduction is too great for foreigners in Afghanistan, even in the capital city. Yet, many Afghanis also avoid going into the public. Whoever can afford it has already retreated into their private sphere. “The city is walling itself in more and more,” relates Eberhard. “Even private homes facing the street are given high walls.” Cafés? Restaurants? They exist, but also behind walls.

“It is a very restricted life,” says the institute director, “but you simply have to adjust to it.” The neighbourhood where the Goethe-Institut is situated is also characterized by walls and bunkers. Yet, the institute itself is an oasis for those Afghanis shaken by 30 years of war who are interested in the arts and the German language.

Here, we can observe scenes like this: a group of young people sit together in the garden of the institute. Boys and girls talk and get to know each other. The mood is relaxed; the young people feel safe. It is certainly not an everyday scene in Afghanistan. Far from the dangers of the street, the young people here talk about art, language and other cultures – with their parents’ permission. The Goethe-Institut is a safe haven for the young Afghanis living under the watchful eyes of traditional Muslim society.

Eberhard’s impressions of Afghanistan are still fresh. She has been in the country since May 2010. She has retained her basically positive attitude in spite of the difficult circumstances. “Of course, we only reach people with our work who have an interest in culture,” says the Oriental scholar. “But in Afghanistan the educated class is relatively large since education is not necessarily a question of wealth.” After the war, compulsory schooling was re-introduced. Most of the children in Kabul go to school. “Moreover, the level of education is mainly related to each family’s dedication,” according to the institute director. As in other countries, it is a matter of prestige to allow one’s children to study, so the universities are full of students in all fields.

Those who cannot study can at least take advantage of facilities such as the Goethe-Institut. The international world is investing not only in the technical development of the country, but also in the cultural. This is where the Goethe-Institut has a great advantage. “We have a very good reputation in Afghanistan. We have been in the country since 1965 and are known for our good work.”

“A certain ‘taker’ attitude has evolved.”

Anne Eberhard knows that the many language students wish to learn German because they aspire to good professional opportunities in governmental and international institutions with their language skills, but also because Germany and Afghanistan are linked by a positive history. In the 1970s the two countries had very good economic relations. German companies were located in Afghanistan and in those days many Afghanis studied in Germany. This meant that many political figures had German backgrounds. This still applies to people of an older generation in the government and the arts today. “The deputy cultural minister told me at a meeting that he learned German at the Goethe-Institut as a young man.” This kind of connection promotes cooperation. “We were able to build on this after the war.”

Copyright: Private
Institute director Eberhard: “We have a very good reputation” (Photo: Private)
This does not mean that work here is easy. “The Taliban brought the arts to their knees.” A new cultural landscape is still evolving. And for many Afghanis development aid from overseas has long been taken for granted. “A certain ‘taker’ attitude has evolved. From development aid we know that the partners receiving aid should always take up some of the tasks themselves.”

In addition, cultural work in Afghanistan is always a balancing act. On the one hand the social circumstances have to be observed in a country with a background of complete cultural oppression and that is still very traditional with regard to tribal culture, religion and certain views. On the other hand, a facility such as the Goethe-Institut cannot deny its own background.

“Dancing, for instance, is still considered anti-Islam in much of society here, in particular when women dance, especially in front of others and particularly before men.” For Eberhard, it is a boundary that she does not wish to cross in the events held by the Goethe-Institut. “I wish to show a certain respect for the traditions and the society of the country.”

Educating via cartoons

Yet, self-censorship is out of the question. Eberhard would not go so far as to edit a kissing scene from a German film shown by the institute. After all, the Goethe-Institut represents German culture. “For Afghan circumstances it is not even normal for a woman to be in my position. So, I am already someone doing something that is not typical in Afghanistan.” However, Eberhard considers it an advantage. “It means I am given some allowances. It lends me certain freedoms.”

The most important thing for the institute director is that her work is able to develop effects that do not dissipate after only a short time. She particularly wishes to promote the visions and opportunities of Afghan youth. “They are the country’s future.” She therefore is invested in educating and further training the instructors. “If the teachers are well trained, we will reach more generations of students through them.”

The Goethe-Institut also supports promising cultural practices with projects such as the construction of an animation studio. “Cartoons are an art form that interest many people, but only a few have access to it. This type of film is also suited for journalism, for educating in the field of children’s and young people’s television.”

To do cultural work in Afghanistan requires perseverance and patience. Luckily, Anne Eberhard has both. A few weeks after she began working in Kabul, Anne Eberhard travelled back to Germany. While there, sitting on a late train, two Germans loudly complained of the delay. Eberhard can only shake her head at that. “I thought to myself, my goodness, what’s your problem?”
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