In Paris, first lady pushes to save Afghan art, culture

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Associated Press WriterPARIS (AP) -- With a phone call to the Labor Department, first lady Laura Bush tackled the problem of school uniforms for Afghan girls. With a tour Wednesday of an Afghan art exhibit here, she took on the salvage of Afghanistan's cultural treasures.

In addition to private philanthropists, "I think there is a role for our government as well, as we work to rebuild Afghanistan, to pay attention to the art and the culture and the history of Afghanistan," Mrs. Bush said on a visit to the Musee Guimet.

The Parisian museum of Asiatic art features an exhibit of paintings, sculpture, jewelry and miniatures that survived not only two decades of civil war, but the Soviet occupation, destructive reign of the Taliban and more recent U.S.-led military assault.

"Fortunately, war has given way to hope and reconstruction in Afghanistan. And today we celebrate because, while some might try to destroy art and culture, many more people are devoted to preserving and protecting these precious things," the first lady said.

Of the 100,000 items once housed in Kabul Museum in the Afghan capital, only about 2,000 remained when the Taliban looted the museum last year and destroyed many of the pieces. Surviving pieces have disappeared, turned up on the art market, or found their way safely to collections here and in Japan and Switzerland.

Mrs. Bush told reporters it was lucky that the pieces on show at the Guimet were removed from Afghanistan, else they might have been demolished by Taliban iconoclasts, just as the ancient towering Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up by the fundamentalist Islamic regime last year.

From the museum, Mrs. Bush visited at a Paris apartment with Mariane Pearl, widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan. The two women met for nearly an hour about "the need for people to speak out against hate and how to empower people where these is no free speech," said presidential counselor Karen Hughes.

Wednesday's tour of the Guimet marked the first lady's third trip to the art museums of Paris since she arrived here with daughter Jenna, 20, late Monday evening. On Tuesday, French officials opened the Louvre museum, normally closed on Tuesdays, to the Bush women for their private look at the Mona Lisa and other treasures. The pair also toured the Musee D'Orsay.

Mrs. Bush focus on Afghan art carried more than a cultural message. On this 10-day international swing, which includes visits to Hungary and Czech Republic, Mrs. Bush was hammering away at a political message to Afghan and international leaders who are faced with rebuilding that country now that U.S.-led forces have driven out the terrorist-allied Taliban.

In a speech Tuesday to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mrs. Bush recapped all that the United States has done to aid Afghan civilians, including a recent initiative to give wages to Afghan seamstresses making uniforms for Afghan girls newly allowed to go to school. They had been barred from classrooms under Taliban rule.

"Prosperity cannot follow peace without educated women and children," Mrs. Bush said.

In an interview after the OECD speech, she seemed at once proud and shy about the part she played in twisting arms at the Labor Department to see the uniform project launched.

She said she personally called Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to lobby for the project. A reporter asked, was the secretary undecided and you helped them decide?

"I think so," Mrs. Bush said with a smile and glint in her eye.

It is through a Labor Department grant that Afghan widows receive about $2.50 for every school uniform they sew.

"I am confident that the United States and the global community will continue to work to improve the lives of all the people of Afghanistan," she said.

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