On Monday, November 9, the Afghan government tore down the Cinema Park, a 70-year-old building located at the heart of the capital Kabul City. A center that used to be home for families and friends to enjoy their free time and watch Hollywood and Bollywood movies and connect with world culture. But the golden age of such a prestigious building did not last any long; and like many other human and non-human residences of Kabul, the cinema was damaged during the civil war, and until few days ago, the sign of bullets and bombs were all over its walls. Therefore, the poor cinema never got the chance to bring back the public’s missing smiles and offer a warm cultural welcome to Kabul and its people. The cinema represented war-time and how the culture of film and cinema were shot and then removed from our social life. Kabul experienced such harsh times that films and music were forbidden, so watching a movie could cost you your head.
The destruction of the Cinema Park has raised protests and anger from the public, cultural institutions, activists, and the Afghan film industry, arguing that this cinema is part of their cultural heritage and should have been preserved. These reactions, however, came around too late!
From an academic perspective, criticism goes both to the government and cultural institutions to prevent such actions in the future. Why was the Ministry of Culture silent in the last weeks after it was announced that the cinema building would be destroyed? Why didn’t the directorate of Afghan film develop a strategy to integrate the cinema as a part of essential social life? Can we call them responsible institutions if they ask the tractor driver not to destroy the building and then cry on a Facebook public post? We cannot expect our cultural heritage to be saved by simply posting a Facebook status.
Suppose, the Ministry of Culture argues that the Cinema park represents a cultural history. In that case, they should come with their research and a list of the relevant cultural sites, explaining why they want a place to be saved and why it is essential for the country.
Of course, totalitarian governments produce or demolish identity as a deliberate policy to maintain or destroy a selected part of cultural and natural heritage. But I believe in Afghanistan, the situation is different, and the country needs a cultural policy and system for its heritage management. It is the lack of a cultural strategy which means in a security meeting, some official who has no understanding of cultural heritage orders the removal of a cultural building. Like any ordinary member of the public, the minister for culture writes a Facebook post and asks us to wait for days.
Preserving and restoring heritage require a transparent system and approach where experts and professionals study various aspects of heritage because it is connected to our past and with do with it now.
Within academia, the fundamental questions for heritage studies are: what is heritage? Who wants to save it? For whom? Who is expected to pay for it? Where is the best place for this heritage? How is this heritage best interpreted and presented, and to whom?
These are the questions that need to be addressed while studying and managing heritage because it depends on the value people invest in this phenomenon. Heritage is not only about the past, but is a process and a product, and therefore different groups may place a different value on it.
Sometimes, there is a conflict of interest over heritage management, presentation, and preservation. For example, war heritage can be a reason for feelings of pride from some, while it is associated with brutality and violence for others. Therefore, how this heritage is best interpreted and presented, and to whom it needs to be addressed, are crucial issues. The economic aspect of maintaining historical sites is another issue that a community needs to consider and agree on, as preserving and restoring such places may have costs.
I believe the Afghan government needs to design a policy covering its heritage in all its aspects, both good and bad, and which includes a presentation from all Afghans. So far, the only time we talk about our cultural heritage or any archaeological sites is when they are in danger of collapse or destroyed by the government or any other groups. At the same time, Afghanistan should have a policy on how cultural and archaeological heritage can help the country to foster nation-building and a sustainable peace and be a source of understanding difference, diversity, and our rich history. This requires a system to understand the interpretation, restoration, and management of the heritage as a national asset and source of pride, identity, and income.