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Kabul, Interrupted

Ahmad Zaki in Buffalo’s Delaware Park.

Ahmad Zaki in Buffalo’s Delaware Park. Photo: Douglas Levere

“Everyone just came and built anywhere, including in parks, on governmental buildings, on hillsides.”
Ahmad Zaki

Story by Jim Bisco

THE DEPARTURE OF AHMAD ZAKI (MUP ’14) from his native Afghanistan was sudden. He was told he had received a Fulbright Scholarship—to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning at UB—the day before his flight. Taking the opportunity would mean leaving behind his family and job, but it would also mean pursuing a lifelong dream to help his beloved city of Kabul. He accepted.

Ravaged by decades of war, with extreme levels of pollution, out-of-control construction, a population that has swelled from 500,000 to five million in the past decade and numerous other urban woes, Kabul is in desperate need of planning. This is where Zaki comes in: Armed with knowledge gained at UB, he hopes to establish the country’s first urban planning program at Kabul University, where he is a professor of architecture.

We met with Zaki at the end of his two-year program at UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, shortly before he boarded a plane back to his home country to set his dream in motion.

How was your experience in Buffalo and, in particular, at UB?
It was really challenging at the beginning. But as day by day goes on, you find out how friendly are the teachers, classmates and environment. I’ve started to love the place, to have a feeling that I’m tied with the area.

Did you find the program at UB to be relevant to the situation in Afghanistan?
Yes. It is enriched with courses that are applicable all over the world—how to plan to create jobs for poor people, how to advocate for distressed communities, how to plan for environmental quality. I can take that knowledge and apply it back home.

How bad is the situation in Kabul right now?
Everything is in bad condition—the environmental system, transportation system, sanitation system. Observing this desperate condition strengthened my determination to get my master’s.

Has there ever been any urban planning there?
Kabul is a city with over 3,500 years of history. Its story as a capital city of modern Afghanistan, however, began in 1776. In the early 1900s the city began developing in a modern style, with European architecture, a new palace and tree-lined avenues. Kabul was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Asia until 1978, when war not only halted its development, but also made it a target for different parties. There was a plan in place then, but most of it was never implemented. During the civil war, from the 1980s to 2001, a majority of the city was burned to ashes and it was left with a dysfunctional infrastructure and destroyed environment. After 2001, immigrants, displaced persons and a huge amount of housing brought such a dynamic movement to the city that it was actually impossible for the government to control. Everyone just came and built anywhere, including in parks, on governmental buildings and on hillsides.

There seems to be so much to do. What are the top priorities when you get back?
Uncontrolled development and environmental quality, especially in the capital. People are burning wood to heat their houses. During the summer it’s full of dust and smoke, and during the winter it’s full of smoke. There are great areas that are so distressed, with no recreational areas for the people to go and enjoy a walk. It’s literally not walkable or bikeable. The public transportation system is really poor. And a sewage system is needed.

How do you plan to address these issues?
My primary objective is to establish this program together with my colleagues to educate the young generation and produce planning professionals who can slowly change things. I also hope they give me an opportunity to work in a governmental position to implement my ideas after I establish the program.

 Kabul’s cityscape on an unusually clear day.Photos: Jerome Starkey/Getty

Kabul’s cityscape on an unusually clear day. Photo: Jerome Starkey/Getty

Do you think young people are eager for this kind of program?
There is a big demand for it, but a big portion of students who want an education are not admitted to universities. Currently about 300,000 students are waiting to take the admission exam, but the government has the capacity to accept only about 40,000 students.

And do you feel this is the right time to reintroduce the idea of urban planning in Afghanistan?
Unfortunately, thinking about improvements and development usually is not appreciated, especially when it comes from a person who had a professional education in the western world and came back. Also, [it can threaten] some personal benefits, so some “old-school” people would actually resist this kind of change. Another challenge is an autocratic system that says changes have to come from their side because they are the decision makers. Since the decision is made top-down, any efforts from the bottom may not get attention. Then, there are the political situations. Any time, any moment, something could just happen.

Yet, despite all these potential setbacks, you seem to maintain a positive attitude.
Yes, I have positive feelings, especially during the last 10 years because things have significantly changed. The people here, especially the young generation, are being exposed to opportunities and successes, and now they know their right to have a good quality of living. The young generation also got out from a dark era to a brighter era; many, many students like me came to the western world and got an education. So this is a big opportunity for the country. And I think if there is good leadership, the young generation has the ideas and the will. This, I think, is something that gives hope to many.

Jim Bisco is a freelance writer whose work appears in various UB publications.