10 Things to Know about Skateistan on Its 10th Birthday

It’s been 10 years since Skateistan, the award-winning international charitable organization that empowers young people through a surprising combination of skateboarding and education, was first launched in Kabul. In celebration of this milestone birthday, here are 10 things to know about this unique non-profit.

  1. Its founder didn’t set out to establish a charity.

skateistan

Image by we_free | Flickr

When Skateistan’s founder, Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich, came to Kabul in early 2007, he wasn’t specifically interested in charitable or humanitarian work. His main objectives at the time were to stay connected with his then-girlfriend, who had a job in Kabul, and to continue his own work as a research scientist. But as soon as he started taking to the city’s streets on the skateboards he had brought with him, Percovich saw the great potential that skateboarding could have to build confidence and connections among Afghanistan’s large youth population. At the time, nearly half of Afghanistan’s entire population was under the age of 15.

  1. The first Skateistan sessions were very informal.

For the first year or two of Skateistan’s existence, its “programming” mainly consisted of Percovich holding informal skateboard sessions with street kids in Kabul. This early version of Skateistan had a basic website, and relied on a few small overseas donations to support its efforts. It was during these early days that Percovich realized how much the children would benefit from better access to education. Skateistan’s mission of connecting young people with educational opportunities via skateboarding was thus born.

  1. Skateistan has developed its own “Theory of Change.”

The connection that Percovich saw between skateboarding and education was later developed into Skateistan’s formal “Theory of Change,” an operating philosophy that was created over the course of one year using collaborative input from stakeholders, students, and staff. In essence, the theory is that if Skateistan provides fun, quality programs and safe places to experience them, then youth will be motivated to attend regularly and will consequently make new friends and take on leadership roles. As a result, they will have a stronger social support system, more life skills, and a greater level of engagement with the society around them. This theory is echoed in Skateistan’s slogan: “Youth come for skateboarding and stay for education.”

  1. One of skateboarding’s main benefits is that it is free of stigma.

One of the main reasons why skateboarding has proved so successful among Afghan youth is that, because it was virtually unknown as a sport until recently, it didn’t carry the stigma that often surrounds participation in other activities. In Afghanistan, there are often societal pressures around who can participate in sports such as football or bike riding, but because those don’t exist for skateboarding, the sport is widely accessible to all youth.

  1. Skateistan operates three different programs.

At present, Skateistan’s activities are centered on three main programs. “Skate and Create” combines an hour each of skateboarding instruction and education in the arts. “Back to School” is an accelerated learning program for youth not currently in school; in this program, kids attend daily educational tutoring sessions on national curriculum subjects, and are enrolled in a public school after completing the program. Finally, “Youth Leadership” is a way for promising Skateistan students to take their involvement to the next level. As Youth Leaders, students assist Skateistan educators, plan local events, and build their skill sets through taking ownership and responsibility.

  1. Skateistan’s facilities are an important part of its work.

Not only does Skateistan offer the programs described above, the organization has also been instrumental in bringing new skateboarding and educational infrastructure to Afghanistan. In Kabul, a skatepark with classrooms attached was built with the support of international donors and the Afghanistan Olympic Committee. Later, a facility three times that size was constructed in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

  1. Youth with disabilities are big participants in Skateistan.

Skateistan is committed to supporting underserved youth with its programming, and children with disabilities are a main focus group for the organization. A great advantage of skateboarding is that it can be practiced in some form or other by almost everyone, regardless of ability level, making it an ideal activity for youth with different physical capabilities.

  1. Skateboard art has played a big role in supporting Skateistan.

To provide financial support for Skateistan’s activities, Charles-Antoine Bodson (of the social enterprise The Skateroom) came up with the idea of creating and selling skateboard art. To date, some of the biggest names in street and contemporary art have participated, including the Belgian street artist ROA and Los Angeles-based Paul McCarthy.

  1. Skateistan now operates beyond Afghanistan.

In addition to facilities in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Skateistan also offers programs and operates facilities in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and Johannesburg in South Africa.

  1. Thousands of youth have been supported by Skateistan.

More than 1,600 youth between ages 5 to 17 are attending one of Skateistan’s global programs.

What You Need to Know about Babur’s Gardens in the Heart of Kabul

Although Central Kabul may not be the first place where you would expect to see hundreds of springtime roses in bloom, that’s exactly what you’ll find at Bagh-e Babur, also known as Babur’s Gardens. The largest public green space in Kabul—with a history that stretches back more than five centuries—Babur’s Gardens are not only a beautiful and peaceful oasis, but one of the finest living examples of Afghanistan’s commitment to renewing and restoring its cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about this beloved Kabul landmark.

History

Babur History

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Babur, the founder of the eponymous gardens, was born in 1483. A descendent of Genghis Khan and the nomadic leader and conqueror Tamerlaine, Babur became the first Mughal emperor and the head of a dynasty that ruled much of South Asia for two centuries. The Mughal empire consolidated Islam and advanced the reach of Persian arts and culture in the region.

In 1504, Babur captured Kabul, which served as his capital for two decades. An avid gardener and nature enthusiast with a passion for flowers and landscape, Babur was personally involved in the design and creation of at least 10 gardens in the city during his time there. The site now known as Bagh-e Babur—one of the oldest surviving Mughal gardens—was previously the location of a monumental building dating back to the third century BC.

Babur died in 1530 in the Indian city of Agra. Prior to his death, he expressed a wish to be buried in Kabul. Around 1544, his widow finally transferred his body to that city, where he was interred in Babur’s Gardens. Historians and archaeologists speculate that the presence of remains of older tombs in the building on which these gardens were constructed may have inspired Babur’s decision to be buried there rather than at one of his many other gardens. As the home of Babur’s tomb, Bagh-e Babur became a symbolic and venerated site during the reign of the Mughals.

Spaces for physical and spiritual refreshment

Gardens hold a special place in Islamic culture. Echoing the ancient concept of paradise as a garden, Islamic gardens are designed as spaces for physical and spiritual refreshment. Key elements of such gardens include flowing water, shade, lush foliage, and perimeter walls. In addition, Islamic gardens follow specific principles in layout, design, and function.

Like other Islamic gardens, the 11-hectare Bagh-e Babur was originally laid out in the charbagh—or “four garden”—pattern: a classical arrangement that divides the enclosed space of the garden into clearly defined quarters through a series of rising terraces intersected by a central watercourse. The prominent central axis of the garden provided a multi-directional vista, and the trees, herbs, and flowers were all carefully chosen.

Decline and restoration

Gardens of Babur

Image by Wikipedia

After the Mughal dynasty lost control of Kabul, Babur’s Gardens fell into disrepair. Repeated alterations were carried out on the site. One of the largest and most disruptive building programs was implemented by Amir Abdur Rahman in the late 19th century. His structural interventions, which included new buildings and landscaping, significantly changed the visual concept and feel of the garden. However, the alterations did not last long, as King Nadir Shah removed the structures in the early 1930s. During this period, the gardens were open to the public complete with European-style teahouses and restaurants. It was this version of the gardens—which sustained heavy damage as a result of looting and vandalism during the long years of civil conflict—that was preserved until the early 2000s.

In 2002, with the support of the Aga Khan Development Network, a comprehensive restoration of Babur’s Gardens was launched. Over the next five years, the majority of the physical work was completed. Improvements included re-establishing the character of the water channels, planted terraces, and pavilions; creating a swimming pool and caravanserai complex; and replanting local species of trees and plants favored by the reigning Mughals when the garden was first built. The plants ranged from roses and pistachios to the distinctive purple-flowered Judas trees.

The future of the gardens

Today, Babur’s Gardens provide a safe, secure, and peaceful urban green space for Kabul’s residents. Since it reopened to visitors in 2008, Babur’s Gardens have attracted more than 3 million visitors who come to enjoy the gardens and the ticketed events and performances that take place there, such as festivals of Pashtun dancing and even Shakespeare performances. At present, the gardens are managed by the Bagh-e Babur Trust with participation from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, the Kabul Municipality, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The idea is that the revenue from admissions to Babur’s Gardens will help the Bagh-e Babur Trust to achieve long-term financial stability and maintain the garden’s landscaping and monuments.

A Look at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University

The home of one of the world’s largest collections of material on Afghan history and society, the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU) is dedicated to the process of helping to rebuild Afghanistan through the sharing of information and ideas. Read on to learn more about the amazing story of ACKU.

What is ACKU?

ACKU is an active, working archive comprised of over 100,000 items—including books, newspapers, magazines, CDs, posters, and films—on Afghanistan’s history and culture. Nearly half of this extensive collection is in two of the country’s main languages, Dari and Pashto. The rest are in English and other European languages. The archive is used by local and international students, journalists, development planners, researchers, and policy makers.

What is ACKU’s mission?

The broad mission of ACKU is to provide a place and platform where information and ideas about Afghanistan can be shared with Afghans and the wider world. Through research, educational initiatives, and public programs, ACKU aims to ensure access to critical knowledge and resources that can help to rebuild and enrich the social, political, economic, and cultural fabric of Afghanistan.

How did ACKU start?

Originally a semi-independent affiliate of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), the early version of ACKU was created in 1989 to serve as a central depository of information on Afghanistan with the goal of facilitating the coordination of humanitarian aid to Afghan refugees. Located outside the country for many years due to civil conflict, the center was brought home to Afghanistan in 2005, when it was transferred to the main library of Kabul University and renamed ACKU. In 2006, Kabul University allocated space for ACKU to build a new facility, and in 2013, the current ACKU premises were inaugurated. Today, the permanent home of ACKU consists of the archived collection, a reading room, a lecture hall, gallery space, and administrative space for ACKU’s mobile library outreach program, all centered around a main courtyard as a reflection of traditional Afghan architectural sensibilities.

ACKU was founded by two internationally recognized experts on Afghan history, art, and archaeology: Nancy Hatch Dupree and her husband, professor Louis Dupree. Having arrived in Kabul in 1962, Louis Dupree and his wife travelled extensively throughout Afghanistan conducting archaeological excavations and studying the country’s culture and society. Over the course of the next 50 years, Ms. Dupree would become one of the world’s premier authorities on Afghanistan’s cultural and artistic heritage. She has written five guidebooks about Afghanistan, as well as more than 1,000 articles, reviews, and book chapters on a wide variety of Afghan subjects.

Determined to help the people of Afghanistan preserve their vital cultural legacy, Ms. Dupree was the force behind the founding of ACBAR, the early iteration of ACKU, which she directed with her husband. In 2006, she took on the role of director of the renamed ACKU, where she served until 2011. The Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Foundation was established in 2007 to help ensure the long-term sustainability of ACKU and to support other awareness-building initiatives surrounding Afghan heritage and culture.

What’s going on at ACKU?

Currently, activities at ACKU include:

  • Acquisitions—One of ACKU’s most important activities is to continue to find, collect, and catalogue relevant documents and information. At present, many contemporary items come from sources such as the NGO community, government departments, the UN agency system, and private individuals. ACKU’s acquisitions officer is responsible for ensuring that pertinent material is gathered and housed appropriately in the center’s archives.
  • Digitization—Like other libraries around the world, ACKU is working to digitize its collection of physical documents in order to preserve data and expand its distribution reach. To date, over 12,000 titles—or more than 1 million pages of text and images—have been converted to PDF format and preserved on CD ROMs and DVDs.
  • Library training—A key part of ACKU’s mission is to help strengthen libraries and similar institutions throughout Kabul and across Afghanistan. Providing training programs for librarians without any formal professional education in the field is one strategy that ACKU is using to accomplish this mission. Two training programs have been conducted so far, for librarians with the support of the American Embassy and the Canadian Program Support Unit. Participants in the training sessions, which covered 72 hours of instruction, were introduced to a variety of subjects, including general library science, cataloguing, acquisitions, analytic cataloguing, and reference.
  • Research capacity building—With the goal of building analytical and research capacity in Afghanistan—and combatting the “brain drain” that the country experienced during its conflict years—ACKU is helping students and teachers alike to learn how to learn. The center offers induction courses for post-secondary students and faculty on the fundamentals of academic research, including the use of Internet search engines and databases. Concepts such as topic selection, plagiarism and ethics, and formatting and citations are also covered.

Spotlight on the Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Afghanistan’s rich and complex musical heritage—one of the world’s longest-thriving musical traditions—was nearly silenced by years of civil conflict. But today, the sounds of music are being heard throughout the country once again, due in large part to the efforts of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Read on to learn the story of this amazing institution that is helping to revive Afghanistan’s musical legacy.

 

Mission

ANIM logoAs Afghanistan’s leading institute for music education, ANIM is dedicated to providing a learning environment that is dynamic, challenging, and safe. Welcoming students of all backgrounds—including some of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged children—ANIM aims to assure musical rights, transform the lives of Afghans through music, revive and preserve Afghanistan’s musical heritage, train future music educators and leaders, and promote cultural diplomacy efforts between Afghanistan and the international community.

 

Founder

ANIM’s founder Dr. Ahmad Sarmast is a musicologist and the son of one of Afghanistan’s best-known conductors. Having left Afghanistan to escape civil conflict in the early 1990s, he received a master’s degree in musicology from Moscow University in 1993, and then relocated with his family to Australia, where he completed a PhD at Melbourne’s Monash University in 2005. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Sarmast returned to Afghanistan to initiate the Revival of Afghan Music (ROAM) project, which focuses on preserving Afghanistan’s primarily oral music tradition by recording it using western music notation. The dream for ANIM emerged out of Dr. Sarmast’s work on the ROAM project. Today, Dr. Sarmast is widely credited with ushering in Afghanistan’s musical revolution.

 

History

Upon his return to Afghanistan, alongside the ROAM project, Dr. Sarmast began planning for ANIM with the support of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and the Deputy Ministry for Technical Vocation and Educational Training. In April 2008, after two years of preparation, Dr. Sarmast took the vision for ANIM to the donor community. After garnering support from many donors, including the World Bank, the US Embassy, and the government of Germany, the inauguration of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music took place on June 20, 2010.

Since its establishment, ANIM has become known locally and internationally as a leader not only in music education, but in promoting intercultural dialogue within and beyond Afghanistan. Today, ANIM is home to nearly 250 students.

 

Programs – General Academics and Music

guitarANIM students, who range in age from grade 4 to grade 14, receive both specialized music training and a comprehensive core academic education in line with the priorities of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education. Students’ lessons include mathematics, science, social sciences, languages (Dari, Pashto, Arabic, and English), Quaranic studies, and Islamic studies.

Upon their entry to ANIM in grade 4, students begin learning recorder. In grade 5, they make their choice of specialist instrument from the full range of instruments in both Afghan and Western classical traditions. Music education includes instrumental lessons, music theory from both Western and Hindustani traditions, ear training, ensemble playing, and music history. ANIM’s faculty use traditional teaching methods, such as learning music aurally, to teach students in both group classes and one-on-one lessons. For Western music lessons, ANIM has benefitted from the expertise of hundreds of international guest artists and teachers.

Students graduate at the grade 12 level with a high school certificate and can choose to take further associate degree courses in grades 13 and 14.

Ensembles

The heart of music education at ANIM is ensemble playing, and the institute features a number of ensembles, large and small, that offer students the opportunity to collaborate, share, and contribute. These ensembles include:

Afghan Youth Orchestra—The first orchestra of its kind to be established in Afghanistan in more than 30 years, the AYO showcases the country’s unique and diverse musical landscape by combining Western orchestral instruments with traditional Afghan and North Indian classical instruments. The AYO has performed on numerous national and international tours, including sold-out shows in the United States at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.

Young Afghan Traditional Ensemble—Under the direction of renowned rubab teacher Ustad Khial Mohammad, the beloved Young Afghan Traditional Ensemble brings the beautiful sounds of traditional Afghan instruments to life. Particularly in demand for local performances, this ensemble has also toured extensively on the international stage, including performances in the US, the UK, Denmark, Argentina, and South Korea.

Sitar and Sarod Ensemble—This ensemble features students of North India’s traditional instruments—the sitar, the sarod, and the table—performing Afghan and Indian classical music.

Qawwali Group—This vocal-based group features two lead singers, supporting singers, and musicians playing beautiful, religious-themed music using traditional Afghan and Indo-Afghan classical instruments.

Choir—ANIM’s choir is a powerful ensemble that performs regularly at important political and social events around Kabul, including official ceremonies for Afghanistan’s president. The choir also performed at Choir Fest Middle East in Dubai in March 2015, when they took home the award for Best Regional Choir.

What You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Amazing Minaret of Jam

Located in the remote and rugged province of Ghor in the west-central highlands of Afghanistan, the stunning Minaret of Jam is one of the country’s most important cultural treasures. But given its isolated location and the risks it currently faces, the monument is one that few people, Afghans or visitors, may ever have the opportunity to see up close. Read on to learn more about this architectural marvel, designated since 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What is the Minaret of Jam?

One of Afghanistan’s best-preserved examples of ancient architecture—and indeed the country’s first historic monument, according to some conservation experts—the breathtaking Minaret of Jam is the second-tallest brick minaret in the world. Built entirely of fired bricks, the structure resembles a fully extended telescope, with four staged columns of decreasing diameter sitting one inside the other. The minaret rests on an octagonal base roughly 9 meters in diameter, and rises to a total height of 65 meters (213 feet).

The outside of the monument is completely covered with highly detailed geometric designs in raised relief. A Kufic inscription inlaid in turquoise tiles adds a striking touch of color. Inside the minaret, a surprise awaits: a pair of staircases entwined in a double-helix pattern that echoes the form of a DNA molecule (a design that predates by hundreds of years the constructions that became popular in European towers during the Renaissance). This remarkable combination of beauty and practicality makes the Minaret of Jam one of the finest examples of both the artistic creativity and the structural engineering skill of its time.

How old is the monument?

Minaret of Jam

Image courtesy Afghanistan Matters | Flickr

The Minaret of Jam is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that it is more than 800 years old. The monument was built in 1194 by Ghurid Sultan Ghiyas-od-din (1153-1203). Today, the minaret is the only remaining monument from the Ghurids, a civilization that dominated the region during the 12th century, ruling an empire that extended from Bengal to Iran. The capital of the Ghurid dynasty was the legendary city of Firozkoh, also called the Turquoise Mountain, which was described as the world’s most splendid city before it was destroyed by a descendant of Genghis Khan. The present-day site of Firozkoh has never been located, but some experts speculate that it may have been in the region around the minaret. Other remains in the area include vestiges of towers and castles from Ghurid settlements east of the minaret and on the banks of the Hari-rud River, and a group of 11th- and 12th-century stones with Hebrew inscriptions located on the Kushkak hill.

The Minaret of Jam was vital to the dissemination of innovative Islamic architecture and ornamentation, and it played a very important role in the development of art and architecture in Central Asia during the period following its construction. The Qutb Minar minaret, a red sandstone tower built just south of Delhi in the early 1300s, is a clear example of the Minaret of Jam’s influence.

According to some accounts, the minaret was forgotten about until its long shadow was spotted by a British aircraft flying over the Hari River gorge in the late 1950s. Archeologists first surveyed and recorded the site in 1957, and the minaret later enjoyed a period of time as a popular destination for intrepid international tourists, including British writers Peter Levi and Bruce Chatwin.

What risks is the monument facing?

In addition to illicit excavations and other potential conflict-related damage, the Minaret of Jam faces a number of serious environmental threats. Given its proximity to the Hari and Jam rivers, erosion and flooding remain constant dangers, as do the earthquakes that strike the region fairly frequently.

In 2013, the Minaret of Jam was placed on the list of “World Heritage Sites in Danger,” and reports from 2014 stated that the minaret was in serious danger of collapsing. For many years, the monument has been precariously tilting at an angle of about 3.47 degrees. For some context, the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa once tilted at an angle of 5.5 degrees, which was later reduced to 3.99 degrees after $25 million worth of emergency work. However, although the tilt of the Minaret of Jam is not as severe as that of its Italian cousin, the structure is 30 feet taller than the Tower of Pisa, built of far less sturdy material (fired bricks) than Pisa’s quarried stone, and positioned on a much less stable foundation. The top of the minaret is currently leaning more than 10 feet from vertical.

Despite concern from cultural preservation groups within and beyond Afghanistan, the future of the Minaret of Jam is not altogether certain. UNESCO has carried out some basic stabilization work over the years, including the construction of a new supporting wall, but the location and political climate of the area make it difficult to conduct the full extent of work necessary to preserve the minaret and the surrounding site. Activists hope that more donors will be found to boost conservation efforts by UNESCO and the government and ensure that this important reminder of Afghanistan’s cultural legacy is preserved for many future generations.