Kabul is not a city of squares but of narrow lanes. The narrow chaotic bazaar – the commercial space of workshops and the stores – around the great mosque, beside the Kabul River was kept entirely separate from the residential areas. If you had been permitted to penetrate the studded doors, tunnels, and passages that led from the bazaar to the residential lanes, you would have discovered generous courtyards, but these were private: inaccessible to all but the most intimate guests. Respectable families stayed behind the high walls of their compounds. They did not stand on on the mud roofs like the man who pretended to fly homing pigeons, peering surreptitiously into other men’s courtyards and they certainly did not spend their days, sauntering in the bazaar or squatting in the open spaces to bet on wrestling, cockfighting and dogfighting.
It was in 1639 that Ali Mardan, a Kurdish immigrant, first tried to give Kabul the equivalent of a square. He brought the idea from Persia, where his father, Ganj Ali Khan, forty years earlier, had demolished a square kilometer of shops and houses in the city center of Kirman. In their place he had laid out a new formal bazaar, of fired bricks and glittering blue tiles, and a piazza three hundred feet long and a hundred and fifty feet wide. Ali Mardan followed this model, tearing into the informal sprawl of mud shops in the center of Kabul. He replaced them with four straight vaulted arcades—the Char-Chatta—arranged in a cross. It was the center of this cross of shopping streets that formed Kabul’s first real public space—not at the scale of his father’s in Kirman—but a formal secular square nonetheless.Char-Chatta was famously beautiful, but because in December 1841 the Kabulis used this public space to display Sir William Macnaghten, the British resident in Kabul, on meat hooks, the British army demolished Ali Mardan’s bazaar in revenge.
Squares are not natural phenomena, and in the absence of Ali Mardan, no one had the authority or confidence to impose a new architectural plan or stop a dense network of timber-framed shops from recolonizing the space. The Char-Chatta disappeared. One hundred and thirty years later, in 1971, an East German foreigner chose to emulate Ali Mardan by building another square. This time he planned to place the square not in the commercial bazaar but in the residential neighborhood of Murad Khane. Delighted by the new plan, the government issued a forcible acquisition order for the whole area, paid some limited compensation, and began by demolishing two traditional courtyard houses in the heart of the district.But before the plan could be implemented, the president of Afghanistan was assassinated by Russian Spetsnaz storm troopers; the Soviet Union invaded; and redevelopment was put on hold.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Murad Khane lay on the front line of the civil war. It was shelled from the city walls, residents were torn apart by rocket fire, and Ukbek militia bivouacked in the courtyards and burned the garden trees, wooden shutters, and panels for firewood. When the Taliban drove out the militia in 1995, the houses filled with refugees from outlying villages. During this whole period, no one built on the empty site, and no further houses were demolished. Forty years later, all that remained was the space where the two houses once stood, surrounded by the ancient residential streets of Murad Khane, a square in miniature.
Before Rory Stewart, British academic, author, diplomat, and documentary maker came along, taking an interest in Afghan art and public life, Maidan-e-Pompa, the square of the pump, in Murad Khane, was strewn with crumbling mud brick from old buildings, layered with bright blue and pink plastic bags and sprinkled with the feces of men and goats. It had a new function as a garbage dump. After Rory Stewart, and his charity Turquoise Mountain, got to work the courtyard houses were demolished and the square was created, everything changed. Two very separate lanes were suddenly connected. Or rather, they ceased to exist: when you emerged from the narrow tunnels, there were now no lanes. Instead of facing the blank mud wall of an unbroken terrace, you could stand in the center of the old terraces and see the facades of houses designed to be invisible. The private had suddenly become public.
After five years of clearing garbage, leveling streets, installing water supply and electricity, and restoring buildings, an architectural office, a community center, a tea shop, a woodworking shop, a masonry yard, the beginnings of a school of traditional crafts, a primary school, and a clinic all lay in the square. But most of this was invisible, still hidden behind the high mud walls of courtyard buildings that formed the edge of the square.
But then the old ways of living fought back. The playground was mysteriously locked one day, the architectural office relocated, and an alternate site for the primary schools and clinics, just three hundred yards away but no longer in the square, was found. The square was folding back into the private space of the residential lanes, and all the other activities were being pressed beyond the studded gates into the bazaar. The community backed Stewart’s projects, the craft schools and clinic were flourishing, but they were determined that they should stay in the bazaar and never return to the square. The old fortified private lanes seemed to persist in the imagination, although their gates could no longer be closed. Murad Khane had survived the East German plan and the Afghan government demolition order; it had survived my attempt to bring workshop, school, clinic, tea shop into the square or to make it a place for adults to relax or children to play. And it will not be a decade before the space has been colonized again with private houses and the old locked alleys have reappeared. And old Kabul has again lost its square.
PUBLIS SCALE: B-
Murad Khane, under Rory Stewart’s leadership almost had it all. It was centrally located, surrounded by residential areas, a vibrant community that was in need of community spaces. While the creation/revamp of Murad Khane led to the creation of a wide range of services and institutions for the locals, the prevailing notion of a separation between public-private, of women’s modesty, of the outdoors being a space for the poor and the working class resulted in a square that is mainly used for transit. These cultural barriers prevented any real interaction and exchange from occurring in the square.
Murad Khane provided the emergence that the locality needed – a centuries old Afghan art has been saved, children have access to far better education, but none of this has happened in the confines of the square. The square was a catalyst but not the location.
Murad Khane is an important lesson of the codependence of the success of the public square on the public culture. A space can be created, facilities built, but the ultimate determinant of success are the people themselves. An empty public square is just a square.