National Museum Of Afghanistan Struggles To Rebuild

has a rich heritage. As a crossroads of trade it spawned numerous civilizations that were influenced by cultures as far away as Macedonia. There was even a thriving Buddhist culture in Afghanistan that created art inspired by Classical Greek models.

It’s also been rocked by decades of war that saw the destruction of many of its ancient sites and museums. The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was especially hard hit. During the 1990s it was shelled and caught fire. When the Taliban took over, they destroyed about 2,500 of the museum’s statues for being un-Islamic. Gold and silver artifacts were stolen and melted down or sold on the international antiquities market.

Now the museum is slowly rebuilding, Art Daily reports. An international network of police forces and museums has been tracking down the museum’s stolen artifacts, as well as those illegally excavated in lawless parts of the country, and returning them to Kabul.

The museum staff surprised the world in 2003 by producing a wealth of artifacts they had hidden during the years of Taliban rule. These included thousands of pieces of gold jewelry and coins from the Bactrian era, more than 2,000 years ago. Those pieces are now on tour around the world as part of the exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul.” The exhibition just closed in Norway and is now headed to Australia.

There are still problems for Kabul’s museum. Power cuts are a regular occurrence, and the Taliban still threaten countryside. They and other Islamic extremists would love to smash a few thousand more statues. Moderate Muslims, like the staff at the museum and the locals who come to visit, see the Buddhist statues and other pre-Islamic artifacts as the heritage of their nation, not threats to their religion. One hopes that moderate Islam wins out in a country flattened by warfare, and that Kabul’s archaeology museum, once the finest in the region, can keep its doors open without fear.

Check out the photo gallery for a sample of Afghanistan’s magnificent ancient heritage.


Video: Finding Love In Iran

When people think of Iran, dating isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s a conservative country with a strict form of Islamic law. Natural urges are unconquerable, though, and young people will always find a way to hook up. This video from Alessio Rastani describes how the young and well-off find love in Tehran, Iran’s capital. Rastani talks with his cousins, who live there, about how to go about it and what Iranian women are looking for in a man.

This is nothing new. When I was in university back in the ’90s, one of my friends was an Iranian woman studying in the U.S. She told me that when she was in a girls’ high school, guys would hang out in front of the gate at the end of the day and throw little balled up pieces of paper onto the ground with their phone numbers on them. If you liked the guy, you picked up the piece of paper and called.

She was strictly Muslim, so talking was all she did. She liked one guy enough that she got permission for him to come over. After a few visits, her parents left them alone together. The first time this happened they sat together and talked for a couple of hours. After he left, her mother came out from the next room and said she’d been listening the whole time and was proud that she had been a good girl. My friend replied, “What did you expect me to do!?”

For her, you could be a good Muslim and still have fun.

Check out Rastani’s YouTube channel, HelloIranTV, for more great videos about life in Iran.

The burqa and niqab: can travelers get used to anything? Should they?

burqa, burka, niqab, Somaliland, somaliland
Travel broadens the mind, at least for most people. As we explore different cultures and beliefs we see that for the most part they’re OK. While there are always local customs we just can’t follow, in general the more we travel, the more accepting we become.

But how accepting should we get? I’ve traveled extensively in the Muslim world and I’ve yet to figure out exactly how I feel about the burqa and niqab, two types of female Islamic clothing that cover the face. For the vast majority of the world’s population, the face is a key to identity. We look at the face to tell what a person is thinking and feeling. It’s how we spot friends and enemies at a distance. To see a covered face makes many people suspicious. In most cultures, it means the person has something to hide.

Here in Europe a debate is raging over whether the face veil should be banned. Some politicians say it’s oppressive and against Western values, while others defend it as part of a cultural heritage that needs to be tolerated in a free society. One thing these pundits have in common is that they talk about women who cover their faces, but very few actually talk with them. Regarding the burqa ban in France, one female friend quipped, “It’s just another case of men telling women what to wear.” Here’s a video from the BBC program Newsnight that interviews Muslim women both for and against veils.

This video makes two important points: that opinion is divided in the Muslim community over face covering, and that there are thinking, educated people under those veils.As a Western man I haven’t had many opportunities to talk with covered women, but when traveling in Somaliland I got to talk to a few niqabis. While talking with them I discovered that their personalities began to emerge. I also kept a lot of eye contact since there was nothing else to look at. The eyes are always expressive. Among niqabis they’re even more so.

Fellow travel writer Lara Dunston taught in Abu Dhabi for many years and noticed the same thing. The veil didn’t stop her from getting to know people as individuals. She even became able to recognize people just from their eyes. She says the vast majority of her students cover by choice. In the book From My Sisters’ Lips, Muslim convert Na’ima bint Robert talks about why she chose to cover her face, and interviews others who made the same choice. Central to their decision was the desire to be known for what they think, not how they look. They see the veil as accentuating a person’s identity rather than hiding it.

burqaIf only it were that straightforward. In many places it’s not individual choice but social pressure or even force of law that makes women cover their faces. Saudi Arabia, which is our ally because we need their oil and they need our weapons, has been instrumental in the global spread of radical Islam. For example, they’re building beautiful mosques and madrasas in the Muslim regions of Ethiopia in order to change what has been a bastion of liberal Islam. I’ll never forget passing through one village where the only stone building, and the only one that had more than one storey, was a Saudi-built mosque. Walking along the road in the noonday sun was a woman in a niqab with a huge bundle of firewood over her back. I was hot just standing there. I can’t imagine how she must have felt.

Take this woman: uneducated, almost certainly illiterate, who’s probably never been outside her own region, and introduce her to a Saudi cleric with his nice car and clothes and education, and he tells her she needs to cover her face or Allah will be angry and her neighbors will think she’s a slut. What’s she going to do? That’s not a choice; that’s oppression pure and simple.

In a response to the controversial “Just Say No To Burqas” mural in Australia, a Muslim activist friend of mine Asra Nomani said, “‘Say No To Burqas,’ says ‘no’ to not only burqas but the interpretation of Islam that says that women are too sexy for their faces and have to cover up to be ‘good Muslims.’ It’s important that we reject the interpretation of Islam that sanctions burqas. One girl who had to wear a burqa in my village in India asked me, ‘What’s it like to feel the sun shine on your face?'”

Asra makes a good point that the burqa is only one interpretation of Islam. The Koran and Hadith say that both men and women should dress modestly. They say nothing about women bundling themselves up from head to toe in yards of cloth.

An educated debate about this issue is becoming increasingly important as Western society becomes more multicultural. It’s becoming more important to me personally. I spend every summer in Oxford. Among the many Muslims there, most women wear headscarves, something that I barely notice anymore. A small minority of women wear the niqab, including a local pharmacist. Last year we were in the park and my son, then four years old, saw one of the mothers wearing a niqab.

“Why is she hiding her face?” he asked.

“Because she wants to for her religion,” I said.

“SHE SHOULD TAKE IT OFF!” he said in that typical child voice that carries for miles.

“Only if she wants to,” I replied rather lamely.

I couldn’t think of a better answer. I still can’t.

Skiing in a former Taliban stronghold: Malam Jabba, Pakistan

Pakistan, pakistan, skiing, ski resorts
Thumbing your nose at the Taliban has never been so fun.

The Malam Jabba ski resort in the Swat Valley of Pakistan has been a battleground between the Pakistani army and the Taliban for years. When the Taliban seized the area in 2006 they blew up the resort. They decided that skiing is unislamic, probably because it’s fun. Well, the Muslims in the Pakistani army didn’t agree with this interpretation of Islam and when they retook the region in 2009, they rebuilt the resort. Now they’re hosting a skiing competition to show off the new facilities, the BBC reports. Six Pakistani teams are competing. No news on the winners yet, but the only losers are those grumpy nutcases in the Taliban.

The army, which runs the resort, is hoping to attract tourists to the region. It used to draw intrepid foreign skiers but the fighting, which continued into last year, scared them away. Judging from the above photo, the skiing looks pretty good. Unfortunately it’s hard to tell what the facilities are like now because this picture was taken in 2005 by M. Sajid Ishaq, before the Taliban got their hands on it.


Somalia’s Al-Shabab bans handshakes between men and women

Somalia, somalia, handshakeAs if you didn’t have enough reasons to avoid visiting Somalia, Al-Shabab has given you another. BBC reports that the Islamist group has banned handshakes between men and women in the town of Jowhar. It’s also illegal to walk with or chat with a member of the opposite sex you’re not related to.

It’s not clear what the punishment would be for committing these “crimes”, but BBC’s correspondent in Mogadishu says a common punishment is public flogging.

Al-Shabab controls much of southern and central Somalia and rules under a harsh form of Shariah law that, in the humble opinion of this agnostic, has nothing to do with real Islam. I’ve read the Koran twice and don’t recall anything about it being a sin to shake hands or talk with someone of the opposite sex. In fact, I’ve had conversations in public with many devout Muslim women, including Somali women. Looks like these women could tell Al-Shabab a thing or two about Islam.

Luckily not all of Somalia is controlled by these idiots. In the north part of the country, Puntland remains free from their rule, although it’s full of pirates, and Somaliland is a safe place to travel. When visiting Somaliland I met a lot of refugees from the south and they all felt tremendously grateful that they didn’t have to live with Al-Shabab’s false form of Islam.

[Image courtesy user Hucz via Wikimedia Commons]