Anne Eberhard: It’s not all perfect in Berlin either. On the work of the Goethe-Institut in Afghanistan.

Tears are running down Farsad’s face. He calls despairingly for his brother before breaking down, exhausted. “Lights off,” sounds brightly from the background. And where a moment before there was concentrated silence, the applause of hundreds of people now thunders through the room. Farsad bows briefly and gives a shy smile. Scene change on the stage of the National Theatre in Afghanistan.

The Afghan National Theatre Festival, which was held for the seventh time in 2011, is without doubt one of the most significant projects which the Goethe-Institut has initiated and helped to organise in Afghanistan since its reopening in 2003 – after twelve years of closure and as the first cultural institution to return. Today, the Film Festival and National Literature Forum also offer unique platforms for exchange between creative artists from all provinces, who meet regularly, not only in Kabul.

The reconstruction of state structures has been and remains an important step towards a working civil society. In this, it is not culture as an economic factor which is important, but above all the opportunity for different sections of the population to engage in culture and to promote awareness of the common ground in Afghan culture, the importance of education and the involvement of women in public and economic life in schools, communities and public institutions.


An ever greater number of private initiatives by young and independent creative artists are springing up alongside the reconstructed, often stiff state organisations. These hold great potential to have a positive impact on the art and culture scene and to continue to build it up. Female and male poets and authors meet at literature circles in their living rooms, print their work themselves and are building up a network across province borders. Students at the Faculty of Fine Art are trying to set up theatre groups and artists’ groups.

Without the funding available to the Goethe-Institut Afghanistan – not least thanks to the special funding from the Afghanistan Stability Pact – these im­­portant activities in cultural and education policy would not be possible. It costs money to connect actors from provinces who can often only travel by aeroplane, since the land routes are still too unsafe. However, the fact that theatre groups from Kandahar in the South, Herat in the West, Balkh in the North and Nangahar in the East, with their various dialects, languages and traditions, were all able to come togeth­er and exchange ideas in Kabul in 2011, despite the often tense security situation, is priceless, and also impossible to measure against the usual benchmarks of development cooperation.

Unfortunately, the (re)construction of cultural institutions by sometimes uncritical donors and the massive financial support in many areas have promoted a taker mentality and a sense of expectation, which often works against a hand­­over of cultural work to Afghan institutions. Long-­term networking and consultancy pro­gram­­mes between German and Afghan cultural institutions could promote a more effective creative and eco­­nomic attitude towards the institutions and actors.

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The art and cultural scene which grew up after the Second World War, at least in Kabul and other urban centres, was already suppressed at the start of the civil war and met a sudden end under the Taliban, or could only be continued under the most difficult of conditions. The rescue of the Afghan film archive, achieved by building false walls in the premises of the production company, whose films were shown in the then 17 cinemas in Kabul, has been widely reported in the German media. How­­ever, it is little known that the theatre de­­partment of the Kabul University was never formally closed, despite extreme difficulties. Many Afghan intellectuals and artists had already left the country by then and were trying to continue their work in exile. One of the first significant Afghan cultural magazines, Sapeda, was founded in Peshawar, Pakistan. One of the Goethe-Institut’s new long-term projects is to resurrect this magazine as a national platform for art and culture.
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One of the reasons why the Goethe-Institut Afghanistan, officially founded in 1965, enjoys such a good reputation is that the individual projects are always implemented in partnership with domestic institutions and initiatives. Providing inspiration and creating sustainability in a country which is itself still working on defining itself culturally in some areas, and doing so with confidence, is much more important than staidly presenting cultural artefacts from far-off Germany.

The search for an Afghan pop idol, much hyped in the media and lacking nothing compared to its Western counterparts, is just part of today’s culture. The internal Afghan debate about the definition of their own values and traditions and the question of what “Afghan culture” actually means are just as important. This kind of self-determined discussion can give rise to crucial inspiration for the development of Afghan society in terms of culture and education policy; customised education programmes and free economic enterprise are particularly dependent on players being able to develop their own intellectual space.

One example of how new ideas can come about from a collaborative approach is the Berlin puppeteer Wieland Jagodzinski, who gave the first of his many puppet workshops in Afghanistan during the fourth Theatre Festival in 2007 and thus in­­­spired ten young actors to ask the Goethe-Institut for support in founding their own theatre group. With these specialist and organisational qualifi­cations, the Parwaz Puppet Theatre is now itself training a new group in Northern Afghanistan for the Goethe-Institut – and is playing to thousands of Afghan children on behalf of large international institutions.

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The university education system has seen development in recent years with regard to infrastructure in particular. Despite the on­­going difficulties in the education sector in terms of content and concepts, the young generation’s appetite for learning is driving development forwards. They want more liberalisation and improvement in the living situation in Afghanistan and are willing to fight for it.

Interest in the German language has continued unabated in Afghanistan; German teaching at universities outside Kabul has been expanded further since 2011. The Goethe-Institut will continue to support this pro­­cess both technically and in terms of content, and promotes further training in the language and in methods and didactics for prospective and current German teachers.

Mehdi is still at school, but has been coming to the Goethe-Institut regularly for years. He wants to study architecture so that he can help to rebuild his home town of Kabul. If possible, he’d like to take a semester abroad in Germany. Because he enjoys German lessons so much, he has first applied for the Institut’s internal training programme for German teachers. Many of the course participants at the Goethe-Institut, which is one of the largest institutes in the region with up to 1,500 registrations per year, are learning German for practical reasons. They hope to gain opportunities for one of the well-paid jobs in the projects run by German development institutions – or the chance of a scholarship for a university in Germany.

For them, the Goethe-Institut in Kabul is a first important window into Germany. Alongside the small media library with its teaching materials and cultural items, the garden is one of the most popular parts of the Institut. As well as film and music evenings, breaks are extremely popular, giving the young course participants a little piece of the freedom they have to fight so hard for elsewhere.

Returning from a four-week language course scholarship, Mehdi was often asked if he wouldn’t have preferred to stay in Germany. “You know, I never would have thought it, but it’s not all beautiful and perfect in Berlin either,” he replies thoughtfully. Young people like him will be able to bring about real change in Afghanistan, if we let them.

AnneEberhard-KopieThe author (born in 1979) came to the Goethe-Institut after completing her degree in Oriental Studies and has led the Goethe-Institut Afghanistan in Kabul since 2010.