In November 2009, Michael Novak, world-renowned theologian and author, former U.S. Ambassador and the current George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., approached Librarian of Congress James H. Billington with a suggestion.
On a recent trip to Prague, Novak had visited the new headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) where he had seen a unique collection of letters that were being sent to Radio Azadi, a branch of RFE/RL in Kabul, by Afghans from all walks of life. Not only were the letters very personal, they were also beautifully decorated with flowers, birds and other motifs. Novak learned that due to lack of storage space, after responding to some of these letters on the air, the staff of Radio Azadi stashed them in large trash bags and sent them off to headquarters in Prague.
“I must share these letters with Jim Billington,” said Novak, according to RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin, who recounted the story at the exhibit’s preview event at the Library on Feb. 23. He hoped that the Librarian of Congress would agree to house the letters in the nation’s library.
Novak, along with Gedmin and Diane Zeleny of RFE/RL, brought sample letters to a meeting with Billington; African and Middle Eastern Division Chief Mary-Jane Deeb and the division’s Near East Section head Christopher Murphy. All agreed that the unique letters and related items should be stored and preserved at the Library of Congress for use by researchers studying Afghan society. The letters complement the Library’s existing collections from the region, some of which date back to the 17th century.
The Librarian not only agreed to accept the gift of the letters from RFE/RL, but proposed that a display of selected letters, which he called “the oxygen of civil society,” be mounted at the Library in early 2010. At the Librarian’s request, staff in the Library’s African Middle Eastern Division and Interpretive Programs Office began planning the exhibit.
Deeb was promptly dispatched to Prague—in the midst of Washington’s first major snowstorm of the season—to select the letters for the exhibit. There she met Akbar Ayazi, director of Radio Free Afghanistan, and members of his staff who helped her select the materials and translate them from Dari and Pashto to English. She also met with RFE/RL Media Director Ricky Greenberg to discuss the production of a short film about the process of writing and sending a letter in Afghanistan that could accompany the display.
Back at the Library’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., William Jacobs, director of the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office (IPO), and Exhibition Director Kim Curry began the process of planning and mounting the exhibit with a 90-day time frame. [Library exhibitions can take several years to plan, fund and execute]. IPO worked with designers to create exhibit cases that could be grouped into the shape of an accordion manuscript. They designed a banner for the exhibit using the motif from a 19th-century lacquerware book cover from Afghanistan that is in the display. They blended text, audio and visual elements into unified themes. And above all, they showcased the illustrated letters.
Deeb and Murphy selected the complementary historic materials from the division’s collections. Other members of the Library’s staff translated the materials from Dari and Pashto into English.
“The Afghan people overcame enormous obstacles to have their voices heard,” said Deeb. “So we felt we should also work hard to display the items and provide a permanent home for them at the Library of Congress.”
The deadline of early February was met, but the exhibit was postponed until Feb. 24 due to a record snowfall in the nation’s capital that closed the federal government for several days.
At a private preview of the display on the evening of Feb. 23, representatives from Congress, the Library, RFE/RL and Afghan Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad celebrated the culmination of their collaborative efforts.
Among the eloquent speeches delivered that evening were remarks made by Afghan human-rights activist Nasreen Gross.
“Do you know where we are?” she asked rhetorically. “We’re in the largest library in the world, the largest repository of knowledge,” she marveled. “The letters of 15,000 faceless Afghans are here. I want to thank the Library of Congress for helping my people heal.”