Interview with Renate Elsässer

Culture Work for Democratisation

The Goethe Institute in Kabul became the first foreign cultural institute to be re-opened in the city. The Institute was closed in 1992 because of the turmoil of the civil war. Stefan Weidner spoke to Renate Elsässer, director of the institute, about her work

At an official opening ceremony on 22 September 2003, the Goethe Institute in Kabul became the first foreign cultural institute to be re-opened in the city. The Goethe Institute in Kabul was founded in 1965 and was closed in 1992 because of the civil war. Stefan Weidner spoke to Renate Elsässer, director of the institute, about her work

What exactly will the Goethe Institute’s areas of activity be in Kabul?

Renate Elsässer: We intend to pick up where we left off last year: in other words in the fields of film, theatre, music, fine arts, the equipping of libraries and the training of librarians. That is the main focus of our work. There will of course be others but that will take some time. A project really only makes sense if we systematically build up to it and prepare for it. And that is really a long-term thing.

What exactly do you mean by ‘theatre and film work’? Do you mean that you will be inviting people from Germany and putting them in touch with Afghan partners?

Elsässer: Yes, that’s right. We invite artists, specialists and experts from Germany and try to organise longer workshops with our Afghan partners because we learned last year that a week is a very short space of time in Afghanistan. We need more time to start from scratch and really build up the areas and provide our Afghan partners with the expertise from which they were cut off for so long.

In other words, your main task is to act as a sort of mediator between German cultural experts and those Afghans who are interested in, and would like to work in, these fields?

Elsässer: You see, there are very few links left here in this sector. By establishing these contacts with German artists and experts, we are trying to help our Afghan partners catch up with culture and art in other countries. We consider our task to be to help rebuild Afghan culture. In other words, presenting German culture will take a back seat in the near future.

It is also very important for us that the works Afghan artists are producing in the fields of film, theatre and fine arts will also be shown abroad. This is why we are bringing Afghan artists to Germany. In April, we held an ‘Afghan Week’ in the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg and organised several film events featuring the new films that have been produced here in Kabul. We want to show the German public what the Afghans are creating in these areas. Time will tell whether the Afghan artists can work independently of the project we are offering them and whether a real exchange will come about. However, we have a long way to go before that.

Does that mean that you have not yet held any public events like film showings or public discussions, readings or similar events?

Elsässer: Yes, of course. We also want to offer something to the interested general public, build up public relations and make ourselves better known. This is why we will also show films. Naturally, we have to take great care when selecting the films. Maybe older films - including silent films - would be best. There was a huge interest in silent movies among our partners in the film sector. For the moment, though, we are not planning to invite any German theatre groups to Kabul. Instead we want to present the results of the theatre workshop, which will run for three months at the university’s Theatre Department, to the public when it is finished. Three plays, which will be performed by Afghan students from the Theatre Department, are in the pipeline at present. We want to organise exhibitions in the National Gallery and hold concerts in a cultural centre that was opened three months ago and is receiving financial support from the World Bank for one year.

Will you also be offering German language courses?

Elsässer: Yes. The German courses got underway in May. At the moment, there are four courses and we hope to add another four in October. There is great interest in the German language in Afghanistan because of the good relations that have existed between the two countries for many years. There are still very many Afghans who want to learn German. Naturally, we want to meet this demand. For young people in particular, it makes sense to learn German because it gives them the chance to study in Germany later or find a job in one of the many German institutions in the country.So you could say that in addition to the workshops, which constitute a very special form of cultural work, the Goethe Institute in Kabul offers a classic programme of courses?

photo: private
Kabul's Goethe Institute staff

​​Elsässer: Indeed. We always say that our work rests on three pillars: the first pillar is programme work, i.e. cultural events, workshops and exchange between artists in both countries.

The second pillar is the language work for those who are learning German at our institute and also co-operation with other institutes that offer language courses. This also includes teacher training for German teachers, of which there are very few in Afghanistan. Outside Kabul there are hardly any left at all. We are slowly trying to change that by organising projects in provincial cities like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and maybe even Kunduz. This is very difficult and extremely time-consuming because we are rarely able to travel to these cities. This is why it is so important for us to find reliable partners there.

The third pillar of our work is library work here at the institute. Unfortunately, we only have very small rooms. It is a temporary solution for the next two years. If things develop peacefully, we hope to rent a large building in the future. Our present classrooms are medium-sized and while that’s enough for the moment, we only have two of them. The library is very small and is really only a reading library, not a lending library. But that’s not really a problem because there is hardly anyone left in the country who can read German books. So I think this institute is big enough for us at present. However, we are aware that we will need a bigger building at some stage in the future.

With which partners are you working at the moment?

Elsässer: We are working very closely with partners from the film sector. This is also the area that is the most advanced because many film-makers went into exile in Pakistan and Iran and were able to continue working there. Many of the Afghans that were in exile in Iran or Pakistan are coming back. This is why we have some very capable partners with whom we have already outlined the kind of help that is needed, especially in terms of equipment and workshops. As it is, most of the work in the film sector is being done in Afghanistan. Films are already being made: the feature film by Sidi Gula Bamai, the president of AfghanFilm, was even awarded a special prize in Cannes. His film has already been sold and is already showing in many countries. It will come to cinemas in Germany in January. This is the first major step towards independent cultural activity in Afghanistan. Many other directors have produced short films and are planning to make longer feature films or documentaries.

Do you feel that the German public and the German political scene support your work?

Elsässer: Yes. The German political scene supports our work. In fact, the German Foreign Office specifically requested that the Goethe Institute would be opened here. We also received adequate funding from the Special Afghanistan Fund. Naturally, we are often asked by friends and journalists whether cultural projects are really what Afghanistan needs most. I am very aware that Afghanistan certainly does not need culture most of all; the country is still far too poor for that, too many people are still living well below the bread line and desperately need food and a roof over their heads. However, I do think that culture plays an important role in the building up of a civil society and that cultural work of the kind done by the Goethe Institute contributes to democracy and the shaping of political ideas. This is something that is confirmed by many of our Afghan partners.

Interview: Stefan Weidner

© 2003

For more information about the Goethe Institute in Kabul click here. (in German)

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