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Seeking My Sister in an Afghan War Memorial

Eight years after my sister died in Kabul, I return to the temporary Artists Transforming Afghanistan exhibit in Washington, D.C., to mingle among fellow commemorators, search for her name, and feel known.

By Catherine Woodiwiss


Six months ago, a stunning courtyard’s-worth of successful Turquoise Mountain artwork and stories arrived in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Freer and Sackler Galleries)

I’ve been at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for nearly an hour on a misty March evening in Washington, D.C., before I start to wonder whether I’ll see it. My curiosity manifests initially in a quick attempt to scan the exhibition labels on each wall through the scrum of dignitaries and curators gathered herefor an exhibit’s opening reception. Soon, I am extricating myself from polite small talk with other guests to scour the room in earnest. I know it’s not likely, but I’m suddenly seized with a clawing need to be sure: Will I see my sister’s name?

Earlier that evening as I stepped through the doors of the Smithsonian gallery, I left the National Mall and walked right into Kabul, Afghanistan. A cheery replica of Kabul’s bustling Murad Khani district had set up shop in the basement, complete with traditional Afghan crafts: bright hand-knotted carpets, turquoise ceramics from Istalif, and kites, previously banned during the Taliban regime. The exhibit — “Artists Transforming Afghanistan” — is a project of Turquoise Mountain, a British-funded, Kabul-based foundation dedicated to rebuilding historic Murad Khani. Since 2006, Turquoise Mountain has trained and employed Afghan artisans in traditional arts: jewelry, woodworking, ceramics, and calligraphy. The exhibit is a showcase of what they’ve accomplished in a district that was once a center of arts and culture in the country but has since been destroyed by years of war and neglect—a story of cultural regeneration in a time of war.

Nine years ago, my sister Anna joined Turquoise Mountain’s work in Kabul; she was interested in urban renewal and was eager to help reverse the fortunes of the old city and its people. Six months ago, a stunning courtyard’s-worth of successful Turquoise Mountain artwork and stories arrived in my city, at the Sackler Gallery. My sister didn’t come home with it.

Little about the colorful exhibit at the Sackler Gallery fits with the negative narrative Americans have heard for the decade and a half our military has spent in Afghanistan. Many of the press’ references to the country since 2001 have been negative, tinged by either associations with terrorism or war—after the September 11th attacks, American television stations increased coverage of the Afghan refugee crisis, which had existed for decades; more recently, passing references to bitter military failure and small news items, like the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, have predominated.

But even some of those elements have faded now from our associations: The American news media is now largely ignoring the country. By 2010, Afghanistan was receiving less than 4 percent of American news coverage. In 2016, the presidential race “has hardly touched upon” the topic, the New York Times’ Max Fisherwrote last month. The country has been so whittled down to wisps of policy updates that it’s easy to forget American troops are still there in 2016. Since publishing The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts last year, “I can’t recall a single person asking me about the war in Afghanistan,” Swarthmore College political science professor Dominic Tierney wrote in an Atlantic piece titled “Forgetting Afghanistan” last year. “It seems as if Americans have signed onto a pact of forgetting: a collective effort to expunge all memory of the war in Afghanistan.”

Today, though, Americans can’t look the other away: October 7th, 2016, marks 15 years of military involvement in Afghanistan. In acknowledgement of the anniversary, Turquoise Mountain hopes its exhibit will provide Americans with a rich and compelling experience of the country — one that has been shrouded from view by press and post-9/11 politics.

“We set out to humanize a place that’s so often understood through the lens of war and conflict,” Tommy Wide, former director of exhibitions for Turquoise Mountain and lead curator for the exhibit in D.C., says. “I hoped that the exhibition would provide a space for people to discuss Afghanistan in a way that went beyond simple geopolitical concerns … [and] to remind people of the human cost, and human resilience, and human creativity of the country.”


(Photo: Freer and Sackler Galleries)

A giant pavilion sits in the center of this single-room exhibit hall, fashioned to look like a courtyard. Encircling the structure’s seat cushions and hard-carved cedar columns are ceramics displays and hanging carpets interspersed with floor-to-ceiling story panels and portraits of Afghan artists.

Their stories are sweet and endearing, though shot through with unmistakable trauma: Abdul Matin Malekzadah was a refugee in Pakistan for many years before he could return to his Afghan village of Istalif for his buried ceramics tools, only to find them destroyed by the Taliban. Naseer Mansouri learned woodworking in Tehran as a young refugee, and when he returned to Afghanistan at 26, “I was like a foreigner in my own country,” he says. Calligrapher Sughra Hussainy’s parents were illiterate and died when she was young — her father was shot and killed, while her mother died shortly after of grief. “Making art for me is a link with my past — with my family and with those who went before me,” she says.

A sense of dislocation is palpable in their stories. Their testimonies to healing through creative work, meanwhile, is deeply humanizing, just as Wide wanted. Large lettering unfurls above a collection of Hussainy’s calligraphy: “The body needs food to live, but the soul needs art.”

The words are hers, but they could have been mine.

The words are hers, but they could have been mine.

Anna loved poetry — art of any kind really; she was the type to dream up a romantic adventure and then work to realize it. As a high school student she loved reciting Mark Van Doren and T.S. Eliot — “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” She was a pragmatic person, but had a taste for the dramatic, so it surprised none of us that when she heard of a British writer and former foreign officer recruiting for a team to help rebuild a crumbling Kabul, she jumped at the chance.

Her work there ended in 2008, when she died in a horseback riding accident. That her death was not a direct result of the violence of war is yet another disorienting thread to her story. As I walked through the museum, I was treading the same soil of grief as visitors here to commemorate war, but was disconnected from the immediate context in which so many American military lives have ended.

At the opening reception, having found no trace of Anna’s story, I circle back to the crowd, where a Smithsonian employee is speaking animatedly with attendees. “It’s a living exhibit,” he says, and my heart jumps to my throat.

Veterans of the war in Afghanistan, despite ongoing requests, are unlikely to get a war memorial on the National Mall. By law, a conflict must be over for 10 years before a memorial can be built. While North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led operations in Afghanistan officially ended on December 28th, 2014, the War on Terror continues in perpetuity. In the age of twilight war, stories of loss are left to linger alone, without a home to commemorate them. And so the Sackler Gallery, featuring artists’ private stories of resilience, has also become a rare D.C.-based institution to engage present-day Afghanistan at the public level.

“I suppose there was a concern [with this exhibit] that those who had suffered trauma in Afghanistan, that this might bring back very painful memories — that some might feel anger at the loss, or anger for what had happened to Afghanistan after the intervention,” Wide says. “I wouldn’t dare to suggest what people should or shouldn’t feel in a space like that … I wanted it to be a place that perhaps would even be healing at times.”

Whether museums can serve as places of healing is a relatively new question. Some curators point to September 11th, 2001, as a turning point for understanding the healing potential of public galleries. In the wake of sudden national trauma, the Liberty Science Center — across the Hudson River from the Twin Towers — called in trauma counselors and partnered with the New Jersey Department of Health and the New Jersey Family Assistance Center to provide a safe space for families and the community. Museums like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art changed hours to accommodate solace-seekers, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum invited children to share their emotions in a Compassion mural. Entirely new museums were erected to tell the stories of victims and vulnerable communities — from the National September 11th Memorial & Museum to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

“September 11 brought to light the importance and necessity of the social value of museums…. By 2002, there was a profound sense of urgency to deliver good works at times of need,” Donna Gaffney, a member of the affiliated faculty at the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University, and Emlyn Koster, director of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, write in Fostering Empathy Through Museums, a book of 15 case studies on the subject that was released in July.

Elaine Gurian, former deputy director for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and for the National Museum of the American Indian, says museums are vocationally and uniquely equipped to handle trauma compared to political institutions. “Something people understand about public recitations of history is that these are skewed presentations, with points of view. [But] museums are civic organizations where ideas can be dealt with. All these directors ask themselves these big questions: ‘Do we have responsibility?’” she says. “The Holocaust Museum is [now mostly] reflected memory, but because it’s such an emblematic experience, it’s also about every genocide. People use it about every atrocity and every government overreach. If you went to it with a family story of loss you would find things that are resonant,” she adds.

The embodied, physical nature of museums may offer solace in a way digital exhibits can’t. “The recovery process after a traumatic event must begin with safety, and therein lies the significance of sanctuary. Grounding experiences allow one to return to what is predictable and stable,” Koster and Gaffney write.

Yet exhibits are rarely apolitical, and for those carrying private loss with them, there’s an emotional danger in public memorials — when past conflict and tragedy has contemporary resonance in public affairs, monuments can become spectacles. As I’ve returned to the exhibit, I’ve thought of all those who have seen tributes to their loved ones in the National September 11th Memorial & Museum whittled down to fit a museum’s — and a nation’s — storyline. For all the dislocation that Anna’s name going unmentioned made me feel, I wonder whether her story remaining largely private isn’t also a gift.

For all the dislocation that Anna’s name going unmentioned made me feel, I wonder whether her story remaining largely private isn’t also a gift.

After all this time, how can Americans start talking about Afghanistan once more? In one corner of the pavilion sits a guest book, where Wide says visitors have left “several hundred comments” in the months since the exhibit opened. On one visit, I count messages written in at least eight languages. The ones I can read almost uniformly express relief and gratitude: for a positive picture of Afghanistan in contrast to headlines, for joy in finding such beautiful work, for the chance to “travel” to Kabul. One comment says simply: “It is absolutely beautiful to see my culture pave its way in D.C. in a brighter note.”

The Sackler exhibit isn’t a solution, but it is a start. More than 8,000 troops remain, under President Barack Obama’s current strategy. This exhibit will outlast Obama’s time in office, and the healing power of Murad Khani’s stories may influence the museum industry long after our years at war. “It’s amazing what an effect and impact it’s having,” Wide says. “It’s very exciting. I don’t think we had any idea that it would resonate to this extent.”

I’ve found myself pulled to the exhibit often since the opening reception, each time with more curiosity about the people whose names are there. On my most recent visit, I notice the “Whirlpool” apron the potter Malekzadah wears, the way the jeweler Saeeda smiles when she talks about rain, how a string of recent guests have left notes mistakenly praising the beauties of “Africa.” I curl up in the pavilion, watching a British couple turn cedar screens to cast light and shadows on the floor and listening to two women in hijabs analyze the gold leaf on a sheet of calligraphy. The exhibit for me has become a tether, a safe hideout where I and the private story I carry can sit anonymously among the school groups and couples and families, the veterans and journalists and Peace Corps volunteers, and feel known.

I think I come so often because I know it’s temporary. In January 2017, this small corner of Murad Khani will leave D.C., and I will stay here. Waiting for all manner of things to be well.