I was showing Ayse around the Vermeers in the Metropolitan Museum when it occurred to me.
“Do you see … the paintings here have been given to this museum for more than a hundred years? You see this note about a bequest? When rich people die they leave their paintings to the museum. That one may be worth a hundred million dollars. The whole museum … maybe billions? It’s been growing since 1870.
“Do you see, Ayse, that if you grow up going to a museum like this, and the three modern art museums in New York, and the Museum of Natural History, and the public library, that you might think that in a few years you can fix Afghanistan?”
She said she got it.
Ayse is something of a skeptic about her own country. She’s 22 and she’s only been in the US for a month, on a scholarship to a state college in Massachusetts. When I met her in 2002 she was a serious but timid 13-year-old school girl in Mazar-i-Sharif, the bustling northern plains city that is the unofficial center of the Afghan democratic opposition. Her family are minor gentry, landowners in neighboring Faryab Province, and quite liberal. Liberal enough to let her come thousands of miles away alone, to live with a host family and make her way in a strange world.
Ayse started to object that before the years of war, Afghanistan was a much better place. This is a common refrain, but it’s only partly true. In 1950 or 1960, Afghanistan was terribly poor, with among the world’s highest infant and maternal mortality rates, and the lowest life expectancies. It was also overwhelmingly illiterate, and it would have been hard to find an Afghan who had done anything of note on the world stage. And perhaps more crucially, it had little in the way of civil society.
“When New York was founded in 1624,” I said, “the people who founded it were already planning their towns so that people could enjoy walking in the streets, so that there were parks. … By the time my house was built in 1852 every white child went to school. We have hundreds of years of social capital … people trusting each other and living in front of each other and believing in reason.”
Luckily for Ayse, I didn’t have much time for lecturing her. This was a weekend full of the kind of cultural events I rarely have time to attend myself. I’d seen a concert on Friday (the Gorillaz at Madison Square Garden) and the seven-hour-long play Gatz on Saturday night. Then on Sunday Ayse and I spent three hours at the Met, and on Monday we went to the Museum of Natural History. These were the first American museums she had visited. I also dragged her to her first live rock shows on Saturday night (nothing too good, alas), a Brazilian restaurant, and an Upper East Side espresso joint.
I was trying to show Ayse — and remind myself — what our culture stands for, what we are fighting for in Afghanistan. That’s something I can lose sight of, spending time reading, writing, or talking about the war. On some level, and whether it is realistic or not, we’re there to open up Afghan society, to tip it closer to our own, to make it receptive to the culture of the rest of the world and eventually a contributor to it — as Afghanistan was in the Middle Ages. Without these changes, Afghanistan will again become a haven for extremists.
Part of the goal is to make it easier for Afghanistan to accumulate social capital, to provide the breathing space of golden decades of peace and growing trust that ultimately bolster great culture.Afghans need many things, but one is simply time to think, to muse, to take a second look. Part of what gives our society its adaptability and robustness is having time to think in a non-urgent way. Inventions and innovation come from leisure as much as from urgency. They come from a walk in Central Park, or a look in at the Metropolitan Museum, or a rock concert. They come from chance encounters and conversations, from living in a city dense enough to offer many experiences in a single day.
Ayse mentioned that when she arrived at the small town in Massachusetts where she lives that she was surprised that people didn’t live behind high walls, the way they do all over Afghanistan. I doubt she’s had the time here to sort through the implications of this, but she’s onto something important.
A society where people scurry home behind blank walls, afraid that lingering in the public realm will bring danger or disapproval, is likely to be a static one. Even more so one where half the population is almost permanently behind those walls to preserve their reputation. Early Renaissance paintings at the Met show Western European women wearing headscarves, it is true — but they are walking in small groups in the public square. It’s hard to imagine how Afghanistan is going to leapfrog those five hundred years of civil society. It’s even harder to imagine how they will get there without input from outside.