As the CEO of The Agha Khan Trust for Culture Jolyon Leslie is a very busy man these day. Based in Kabul, Mr. Leslie heads up several projects through the trust that work in rebuilding Afghanistan. Along with the Agha Khan Development Network, Mr. Leslie and his colleagues presented a day of culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on October 8th. The program included the screening of Majid Majidee’s “Children of Heaven”, as well as a presentation by Mr. Leslie on the projects they are working on to help rebuild Afghanistan. Providing a diverse overview through images, Mr. Leslie told the audience about the revitalization of the old city of ‘Herat. From remodeling old roofs, doors, intricate wall moldings, city canals, and entire houses and schools, the Agha Khan Trust for Culture has provided a lot of funding to support post-war Kabul.
With a background in architecture, Mr. Leslie is also the co-author of “Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace” and has worked for the United Nations in different capacities. His passion and enthusiasm for the culture and people of Afghanistan is overwhelming. I had the opportunity to speak to with Mr. Leslie one-on-one:
PersianMirror: How did you get started with The Agha Khan Trust for Culture and rebuilding Afghanistan?
Jolyon Leslie: I have lived in Afghanistan for 18 years. This happened virtually by accident, as I was in very interested in architecture. I came to Kabul from South Africa by the way of the Middle East. I had Arabic but no Persian at the time. There was a direction that sent me there and once I got there I was intrigued by the challenges. I started working for the United Nations, in Kabul, doing rural reconstruction; projects included building bridges, roads, drainage systems. I was then the UN regional coordinator, at the time of the Taliban doing negotiations. There was a steep learning curve for me, understanding interpretations of Islam and where East and West stand on these issues. That’s when I wrote my book “Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace”. I was finally able to combined my knowledge and background with the Agha Khan projects.
PM: How do you operate?
JL: I have had a tremendous amount of support from his highness (The Agha Khan) and of course the people who have known me for so long in the community. The houses that I photographed so long ago are the ones we are now fortunate enough to repair. Mausoleums, mosques, houses and so on. We are here to change lives and livelihoods. Our responsibility is to get into schools, get into the communities, listen to the consensus of the people, women especially, about issues like healthcare. I have great colleagues who can follow up and work well.
PM: What was Afghanistan like 18 years ago as opposed to now after the war?
JL: It used to be much more beautiful. It was tired but it was a tired beauty. It often reminded me of old parts of Tehran that have been preserved. Kabul is much more provincial and smaller but the leafy gardens and villas were extraordinary. A lot of that has been destroyed not just by the war but also by the modernization that is going on and the development. The world and the international press see that as progress. I don’t; I find it intrusive. Ironically some of the salvation of cities like Herat has been lack of money. People are concerned angry with the lack of investment. Many ordinary Afghans are disappointed. We have a responsibility to build a new Afghanistan, all of us, and we have a huge responsibility to save the cities. Civil society may see us as part of the problem so we have to keep a positive attitude towards all of this and maintain a degree of objectivity and distance.
PM: How many of you are there right now?
JL: We are about 130 people, of whom 4 of us are expats and the rest are Afghans. We very consciously keep an Afghan profile. Some of my Afghan colleagues are a lot better educated and skilled than I am; they have PhD’s from Western Universities and so we work to each other’s strengths. We do succession planning so we know when to move out and step back. Every year we take in a dozen students from different faculties and give them another education and invest in them.
PM: Give us an overview of some of your projects in Kabul and the old city of Herat.
JL: We are doing two projects in the old city of Herat. Another big project is the Bagh-e Babur Gardens and it is coming to an end. This was the rediscovery of a 16th century garden which all lay under the ground and we will deliver it in a year or so. There are great pictures on archnet.org for that project. There, we were able to revive a garden and do 4 years of archaeology. We found channels, pools, waterfalls, and distribution systems. We try and bring the motif to the surface, with working canals and waterways. The old cities project is also about social and physical redevelopment. As the garden project, we need to get community by in and restore a sense of identity among the people.
PM: Are there challenges in changing people’s behaviour?
JL: People want progress and shiny new buildings. We spend a lot of time educating them on the benefits of the old without being patronizing. We use the students to convey the message. We have some great communicators, who are young and enthusiastic. They go on television and talk about all the benefits of this sort of revival. The Ali Mosque made such a big difference in the community, where we also received particular support from the religious communities. The religious community has been the best carrier of our message. We spend a lot of time fighting modern architecture; but don’t we all.
PM: Tell us more about the Agha Khan Foundation?
JL: We are part of the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, which sits under an umbrella of the organization (The Agha Khan Development Network) covering health, social development, education, rural development and so on throughout east Africa, the Persian world and the rest of Asia really. The historic cities program set out to look at aesthetic things and develop the fabric of society from an economic and community point of view. We try to solve a multitude of local problems. We drive the projects but we don’t really run them. We are conservationist techies interested in social development and making sure people’s needs are met all around. It’s a long haul. It takes time to build this.
PM: What else are you working on?
JL: I also manage a music school, which has four to five master musicians who train the new generation of musicians in traditional instruments like the Afghan Rubab and we do voice lessons. We have two centers in Afghanistan, each with about 60 students. The school is under the Agha Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia.
PM: What else do you want to share with our readers?
JL: I want them to continue to talk about Afghanistan and what is possible there. It encourages us to see the interest that there is in an important and influential city like Kabul. The one thing that the Afghans miss right now is a sense of being connected to the rest of the world. We are trying to work together and build a sense of the bigger community and purpose. We want to encourage them to learn.
It’s nice to have the interest so come and visit us!