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Undaunted

First Rory Stewart walked the breadth of Afghanistan. Then he took up a real challenge: restoring traditional architecture in Kabul

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Eventually Stewart set his sights on Murad Khane, attracted by its mixed Shia-Sunni population, proximity to the river and scores of buildings that Leslie and other experts deemed worth saving. With Karzai's support, Stewart lined up key government ministers and municipal officials. The biggest breakthrough came in July 2006, when several Murad Khane landlords—some of whom had been initially skeptical—signed agreements granting Turquoise Mountain five-year leases to renovate their properties.

A few days after my first meeting with Stewart, we travel by Toyota Land Cruiser through the muddy alleys of central Kabul, bound for another inspection tour of Murad Khane. Near the central bazaar, we park and walk. Stewart threads his way around carts piled with everything from oranges and Bic pens to pirated DVDs and beads of lapis lazuli, conversing in Dari with turbaned, bearded merchants, many of whom seem to know him—and he them. "That fellow's cousin was shot twice in the chest and killed in front of his stall last week," he tells me, just beyond earshot of one acquaintance. "It was an honor killing."

It is hard to imagine that anyone—even the fiercely ambitious Stewart—can transform this anarchic, crumbling corner of the city into a place appealing to tourists. "It's not going to look like Disneyland," he admits, but "you will have houses renovated. You will have sewers, so the place won't smell, so you won't be knee-deep in mud. The roads will be paved; 100 shops will be improved; a school of traditional arts will be based here with 200 students." It is possible, he acknowledges, that the project could fizzle out, done in by government indifference and a drying up of funds. Stewart predicts, however, that this will not be the case. "It was fashionable five years ago for people to say ‘everybody in Afghanistan is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome,'" he says, referring to the recent Taliban past. "That is simply not true." Turquoise Mountain's team, Afghan and expatriate alike, he believes, ultimately may well rejuvenate a historic neighborhood—and restore a measure of hope to an impoverished, fragile city.

Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin. His most recent book is Yokohama Burning, an account of a catastrophic 1923 earthquake.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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