The ‘miraculous’ survival of Afghanistan’s Bactrian treasure (which will be exhibited at the British Museum for the first time in March) was no miracle, but the result of many small acts of heroism. One of its most unassuming yet dedicated guardians is Carla Grissmann, an American traveller who went to Kabul in the late 1970s ‘out of curiosity’ (‘I just kept getting on buses and going further and further’). She stayed there for two momentous decades, working at the National Museum of Afghanistan to safeguard and catalogue its extraordinary holdings and, in her spare time, capturing peaceful moments with her Nikon camera.
In 1979 she was among the first to handle the precious Bactrian gold finds as they arrived from the Jawzjan site of Tillya Tepe (Pashto: ‘Golden Hill’) where the archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi was excavating six tombs from the first century BC. Time was of the essence: once uncovered, the site became vulnerable to looting. Sarianidi, working with Soviet–Afghan teams, had to use any materials he could to help take the objects to Kabul. ‘I remember the gold arriving at the museum in paper bags, even a PIA airline sickbag,’ says Grissmann, whose eye for quirky detail makes her great company in person and in print. (In 2001 she published Dinner of Herbs, a sensitive and witty memoir of a year in rural Anatolia.)
Born in 1928, Grissmann grew up in Geneva, Berlin and New York, the daughter of a German born hosiery entrepreneur. Now eighty-three, Grissmann lives in West Kensington, London. When I went to meet her there, I was sad to see that she was wheelchair-bound; I was nevertheless pleased to discover that this did not diminish her zest: at 6 pm sharp, she celebrated ‘cocktail hour’, raising her fists in the air.
Her flat is decorated with choice finds: masks from Sri Lanka, where she was sent by the Asia Foundation to write a report on the teaching of English and ended up helping to reform the entire education system there; a wall hanging from Iraq. Her Afghan rugs had been removed for de-mothing, but her time in Kabul is represented by a sepia photograph of a Pashtun man, as beautiful as Nureyev, with a rose in his mouth. ‘I love the way there was no shame for a man to wear a rose,’ she says. ‘Even ferocious Afghan warriors with beards and pointed teeth – they love flowers, poetry, music.’
In 1979 Grissmann first arrived in Kabul from Tehran, which she found unpleasant. Speaking of the holes in the walls of her hotel room, she discounts state surveillance as the reason. Perverts, perhaps? ‘Yes!’ she replies. ‘You put your lights off, and you could see peep-holes with light streaming through.’ The bus journey from Tehran took two days, with ‘boxes of almonds and dried apricots falling on my head – chaos!’ She had telegraphed ahead to the Kabul Hotel, ‘a huge, cavernous place where I quickly realised no one had stayed for years’.
On her first day in Kabul, she walked along the walls of Zahir Shah’s royal palace, the country’s last king, then still ruling. A soldier on guard outside ‘had a geranium tucked under his epaulette and a little tea stove with a teapot under his metal chair. ‘“Khanum!” he cried – “Madam! TEA!” and offered me a tiny cup of tea. He had some tomatoes ripening in the sun on the wall above him. It was so charming, I thought, “I could live here”. It’s so spontaneous, so real. On buses, “shuma mainan asti,” (“You are a guest, no money”) was often said to me and matched with great generosity.’
We turn to a big book containing photographs of the Bactrian burial gold. Leafing through its pages, which have been defaced by ravening Afghan termites – they have eaten huge, symmetrical Rorschach blots out of the paper – Grissmann points out images of the glorious jewellery she weighed, measured and inventoried in 1979. She never actually visited Tillya Tepe – it was too far and too inhospitable for even her tastes (‘you’d need a guard, a van, a guide’) – but she was aware of the heavy legacy of the hoard for Sarianidi. ‘Immediately, as happens, there are rumours, backstabbing, jealousy. Soul-destroying!’
She never studied archaeology, though by the time she settled in Kabul she had worked unprofessionally in museums in Tangier and Jerusalem, ‘righting cards that were upside down and doing the practical thing that Americans do’. The Peace Corps helped her find her first job in Kabul, at the zoo – they needed an accountant, but she also ended up taking care of Bobby the Chimp. ‘They called me the “Bobby-sitter”.’ When the Soviets invaded, she says, the zoo was shelled and Bobby was killed, as were some deer and the elephants were injured. Nowadays the zoo is still going, though it is depleted. ‘They have a cocker spaniel,’ Grissmann sighs, characteristically succinct.
She showed her mettle on her first day at the National Museum, then situated ‘off the beaten track’ in Darul Aman near King Amanullah’s palace, eight kilometres south of Kabul city. Grissmann found the lavatory there embedded in dirt – ‘it hadn’t been cleaned for twenty years’ – and, despite then-Director A.A. Motamedi wringing his hands and saying ‘Oh, no, you can’t, Miss Grissmann’, she set to with her Swiss army knife, boiling water, ammonia and some willing security guards. ‘After four days it was gleaming,’ she says with satisfaction. ‘We Americans love immediate results.’ Two security guards still joke with her that a plaque there should read: ‘This site excavated by Carla Grissmann.’
Grissmann modestly describes her crucial archival work as ‘dogsbody’, adding: ‘I spent weeks looking through books trying to understand the sign that said “an early example of palin pottery”, until I realised it was meant to read “plain” …’ She was not a trained archaeologist, but then neither were any of the Afghan men and women who were members of the ‘Museum Committee’: ‘They all had other jobs, selling onions and potatoes in the evening.’
From the museum’s collection, she picks out two favourites. One is a Persian herm, curly-haired and thoughtful, sculpted in the third century bc. ‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ she remarks. ‘Like a Rodin.’ The other is an intricate Begram ivory coffer lid. ‘I loved these because they have such imagination – here, the horse’s head looks backward because it could not fit from right to left.’ She was just getting really interested ‘when it all stopped’.
In one uprooting the museum was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence; the staff was ordered to move out with three days’ notice. ‘It took us three months,’ says Grissmann, who was living in an apartment in Chicken Street. She oversaw the move to the Kabul Hotel as a temporary repository. The UN special envoy Benon Sevan (who would later be suspended for fraud by Kofi Annan), a ‘tough cookie’ according to Grissmann, alerted the world to the precariousness of the museum’s collection in a photo opportunity with BBC correspondent William Reeve. Later, during the shelling of the museum in 1993, she remembers her UN and long-standing friend Jolyon Leslie fixing bars and metal doors to the shattered building: ‘Well, that was just a challenge to the Afghans and they hacked them off.’ On the vexing question of buying back goods from looters, she says pragmatically: ‘Desperate times call for desperate measures.’
In 1989, Grissmann was ordered to leave Afghanistan by the US Embassy after she and the Asia Foundation were, quite unwarrantedly, she assures me, accused on the front page of the Afghan Times of opium smuggling. Even this did not keep her away for long, however.
Despite the tribulations of life in Kabul – the shelling, the cold (she recounts how the great archaeologist Aurel Stein contracted pneumonia and died in 1943 after a visit to the Kabul Museum) and the weekly trips to the United States Agency for International Development to fetch five galllons of uncontaminated drinking water, Grissmann loved the place deeply, describing her time there as the happiest of her life. ‘I knew everyone,’ she shrugs. She spent happy weekends in the gorgeous Curzon-designed US embassy with the ‘much-loved’ ambassador Theodore Elliott and his wife Pat. She is still given to fits of laughter when recalling the restaurant that proudly displayed a sign saying ‘GUARANTEED – NO DUYSIANTARRY’. On Chicken Street, she would lower a bucket out of her window, shout to her vegetable-selling friend Amanullah, then winch up the bucket he had filled with a kilo of carrots. ‘Life was so simple,’ she says.
Rarely did Grissmann feel vulnerable to danger. Once, when she breezed as usual into a leather tannery with her camera and casual curiosity, the male leather tanners all turned and looked at her with eyes that made her afraid; another time, returning from a happy hour hosted by Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree (two committed American Afghanophiles), she was grabbed by security guards who started spinning her around. She was a woman alone, wearing a belted Tunisian smock, earrings and high heels; ‘I’m out of control,’ she remembers thinking, when a cook from the next-door US embassy rushed out and saved her. ‘Usually I’ve always been lucky in new situations,’ Grissmann says. ‘I trust to instinct and I don’t push it too far. In Afghanistan they look at you with animal instinct – they assess if you’re a good person or if you’re devious. Then there’s this big smile: “Come home, meet my mother” …’
Grissmann has the gift of making friends without vocabulary. Communication, she believes, goes beyond speech. ‘There’s a human language, you know. If you can laugh at the same thing at the same time, you’ve bonded for life.’ She describes one of her proudest Kabul moments as being taken home to meet Amanullah’s mother, who laughed and slapped at her long, red fingernails. She grew, over the years, tolerant of local customs, even buying goods she suspected had been stolen to order from American and German families. She shrugs: ‘It worked.’ She recalls that the US embassy’s wine cellar was stored in the commissary to protect it against looting, until one day it was discovered to be empty. ‘How do the Afghans do it? They dig a tunnel. These are Afghan traits. If an Afghan tells you “no problem”, you’ve got a problem.’
Grissmann was in Turkey ‘with the carpet man, Dick Parsons’, when a neighbour rushed in with the news of 9/11. ‘It was all shock, shock,’ she says. She witnessed Afghanistan’s sudden repositioning to the world’s centre stage. ‘Women in Afghanistan have always worn veils; it has just become an international issue now.’
Still, she watched as, in the early 1990s, the Taliban made an impact. The dozen or so women who worked in the museum, mainly in the ethnographic department, had to leave their jobs. Grissmann also got to know the mullah who became the Taliban’s deputy culture minister. ‘He came in, didn’t look at me, didn’t shake hands. I was prepared for that. I put to him three very precise methodical questions – and he replied in order: one, two, three. I nearly fell onto the floor.’ Her surprise was partly that he was speaking to a woman, and partly that he replied with a meticulous relish of detail uncharacteristic for an Afghan. They developed a friendship of sorts, though they were never exactly allies. (Unlike her friend Nancy Hatch Dupree, Grissmann doesn’t think she ever met Osama bin Laden.) ‘The deputy culture minister had six children,’ Grissmann says, ‘and one of them, a boy, fell off a wall. I prayed for him while he spent five nights at his son’s bedside.’ The son recovered.
Grissmann lived in Tangier, where she was friends with Paul and Jane Bowles and John Hopkins; she worked on the glossy magazine Realités in Paris for two decades (‘I walked in, God being great, at just the moment they needed an assistant editor’); she also set up a hotel in the Indus Valley, in Ladakh, north of Pakistan and west of Tibet, which she makes sound like a South Asian Fawlty Towers: ‘A Japanese man had painted all the wrong names and numbers on the doors … The bathroom tiles were bought from Delhi and had to be glued onto the walls … In the night I remember hearing them fall, one by one, off the walls with a clatter … The cook slept on the cement floor outside his kitchen with all his noodles in a pile near the top of his head to keep them safe through the night … We were only busy once, when the Swiss explorer Ella Maillart brought a busload of lady mountaineers in lederhosen …’. Grissmann has, in short, lived a life of adventure, unbridled by domesticity. One gentleman, a Parisian, came to visit her in Leh, but his suede loafers gave him blisters and he only lasted three days. ‘Love at 8,000 feet,’ he said. ‘I can’t do it!’ Grissmann looks defiant as she says: ‘The few men in my life have said, “I will help you buy your clothes, I will share my bank account” … Not me!’ She counts herself fortunate, however, to have remained great friends with each of them.
Grissmann has lived frugally, amongst frugal people; her bold, non-judgemental approach to life might be seen as classic 60s spirit, but with perhaps more discipline and less hedonism. She has never, for example, tried opium, although our final drink together is a bracing tot of Fernet-Branca. She plays down her role in the preservation of Afghanistan’s history at every turn, and explains brusquely that the romanticised story of the ‘keyholders’ conspiracy’ to hide the treasures down wells, inside walls and in private homes was merely routine, standard practice. She denies any political involvement or diplomatic mission, and is wonderfully non-ideological in her hopes for the future of Afghanistan. (The only thing she believes will help is education and the dissemination of knowledge.) Yet I can’t help wondering as I leave her, waving me warmly off from her basement flat, if Grissmann’s zany charm hides another story we may never fully know.