Cultural Diplomacy

Cultural exchanges have been an integral part of the U.S.-Afghan relationship since the establishment of diplomatic missions in the early 1940s. Such activities flourished after the signing of a 1958 cultural exchange agreement in Washington, D.C., by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud. In the decades that followed, the United States and Afghan governments organized numerous events that showcased American musicians and artists for local audiences.

These unofficial ambassadors ranged from jazz legends Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington to musicians Ann Schein and the Golden Gate Quartet. Concerts were greeted with enthusiasm, and U.S. visitors often found common ground with the Afghan artists and performers they encountered. The 1963 appearance of the Joffrey Ballet in Kabul was especially meaningful to all participants. The group’s founder, Robert Joffrey, born Abdullah Jaffa Anver Bey Khan, was the son of an Afghan who had immigrated to the United States. Because of his heritage, Joffrey chose Afghanistan to be the official start of the Dreams of Glory tour.

For some observers, the U.S. pavilions at the Jeshyn Fair in Kabul – an annual event celebrating the country’s independence – represented the pinnacle of American cultural initiatives in Afghanistan. American entries had been a highlight for Afghan visitors since the 1956 Fair with the debut of R. Buckminster Fuller’s striking geodesic dome. A red-, white-, and blue-striped circular building with fluorescent tube lights made another bold statement at the 1968 Fair. Twice-nightly screenings of documentary films were popular among attendees that year, as was the children’s playground behind the pavilion. However, the real crowd pleasers were the United States Air Forces in Europe Band, a “Cowboy and Indian” show presented by American children, and an exhibition about the U.S. space program.

U.S. performers and pavilions were eagerly anticipated by audiences, but the heart and soul of these exchanges was the USIS Library and Cultural Center. This facility provided books, magazines, and movies about American life. It also offered educational programs for Afghan visitors and resources for American residents to learn about the people of their new home.

The Afghan equivalent of the USIS Center was the Kabul Museum, which houses the national treasures of Afghanistan. Many American archaeologists and art historians explored the country’s rich and illustrious history beginning in 1937, and their efforts enhanced the museum’s impressive collection. The most famous among these scholars was Louis Dupree, who became a world expert in the ancient and modern culture of this great nation. The Kabul Museum also attracted a number of Americans who helped local curators catalogue and study its holdings. One of these volunteers, Carla Grissmann, became an internationally recognized advocate for Afghanistan’s heritage through her work with the Asia Foundation.

Such initiatives brought Americans and Afghans together because of their shared appreciation for art, music, cinema, and history. Those who participated in these events still speak of them with enthusiasm as if they had just happened. Such is the power of cultural diplomacy.

The first American expedition to Afghanistan.
Froelich Rainey, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, with camel nomads.
Afghan workers erecting the U.S. Pavilion at the 1956 Jeshyn Fair.
The geodesic dome at the 1956 Jeshyn Fair.
Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sign a cultural exchange agreement.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Afghanistan.
Afghans enjoy an American movie outdoors.
Louis Dupree receives Afghan musical instruments from A.R. Benawa (center), Director of Radio Kabul.
The Joffrey Ballet strikes a pose.
Duke Ellington arrives in Afghanistan.
A model train set on view at the USIS Cultural Center.
Pianist Ann Schein and Public Affairs Officer Harold Otwell meet a young Afghan tambor player.
The United States Air Forces in Europe Band at the 1968 Jeshyn Fair.
American children present gifts to Queen Homeira at the 1968 Jeshyn Fair.