Carla Grissmann

An amazing woman. I’m posting this story from the Times of London to the blog because even though this isn’t explicitly a happiness bit nor a Bhutanese one, this lady lived her life the way she wanted. What could be better? (Thanks to Craig for sending along.)

Carla Grissmann

Carla Grissmann, who died in London on February 15 aged 82, devoted much of her life to preserving the cultural heritage of Afghanistan.

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Carla Grissmann (second left) and friends at a party in Afghanistan

An American traveller who went to Kabul in the late 1960s “out of curiosity”, Carla Grissmann lived there on and off for more than 30 years, helping to look after and catalogue the remarkable collection at Afghanistan’s National Museum. She was even in the city sporadically after the Soviet invasion of 1979 as well as during the Taliban ascendancy between 1996 and 2001.

Part of the National Museum’s collection was the Tillya Tepe gold (popularly known as the Bactrian treasure), part of which is currently on show at the British Museum until July 3. The gold — more than 20,000 pieces, principally items of personal adornment — was unearthed in 1979 by the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, who was excavating six tombs from the 1st century AD at Tillya Tepe, in the north of Afghanistan.

Time was of the essence as the site became vulnerable to looting, and Carla Grissmann was among the first to handle the precious finds as they arrived in Kabul. “I remember the gold arriving at the museum in paper bags, even a PIA [Pakistan International Airlines] sick bag,” she later recalled. She immediately set about making an inventory with archaeologists and curators at the museum.

The treasure’s survival during the conflict that engulfed Afghanistan in the late 20th century was thanks to a decision, in 1989, to remove it from the museum, situated on the outskirts of Kabul, to a secret vault beneath the Central Bank of Afghanistan in the city. A small group of archaeologists, curators and workers at the bank had the necessary keys, and swore each other to secrecy.

The Taliban made several unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the vault, and the gold was eventually retrieved in 2004. It is a measure of the respect in which Carla Grissmann was held in Afghanistan that, when it came to making an inventory of the recovered items, the Afghans insisted that it be carried out by her. The museum has now been rebuilt, and the Bactrian treasure will eventually return there after it has toured the world.

During Carla Grissmann’s years in Kabul, the dangers faced by her and her colleagues were considerable. In the early 1990s, when the rival Mujahideen were fighting for control of Kabul, the staff were sometimes unable to reach the museum at all because of shelling and rocket fire; once 14 rockets hit the museum in a single day. Carla Grissmann recalled: “I was standing outside when a jet streaked by so low that stones suddenly began sizzling through the air all around me.”
In 1994 the museum was largely destroyed, and the staff moved some 6,500 of the remaining artefacts to the Kabul Hotel. Conditions there were scarcely ideal: the generator had been stolen, and the museum staff had to work in the basement storeroom by the light of kerosene lamps; the rooms were airless and thick with dust.
Some items from the museum were concealed, to be retrieved only after the fall of the Taliban. Carla Grissmann was privy to their whereabouts, but never revealed the details.
Carla Grissmann was born in Chicago on September 2 1928 and grew up in Bronxville, New York, where her father ran a business selling nylon stockings from an office in the Empire State Building. She read English at Barnard College in Manhattan, and in 1948 travelled to Europe, completing her studies in Geneva. She then moved to Paris, where she worked as an assistant editor for the magazine Réalités.
She later reflected of her time in Paris: “You have an interesting job, a cosy place to live and a few good friends you see regularly. You go out to dinner once a week, and take a trip once a year. Nothing ever really happens, but one is comfortable and, before you know it, 10 years have gone by.”
Carla Grissmann decamped to Tangier, where she taught at the American School. In August 1962 she met the American writer John Hopkins at a vernissage at the Casino de Tanger. “Carla was characteristically dressed in black,” he recorded. “Her hair was done up in a bun. She wore bright red lipstick. She looked like a schoolmarm — a chic, sophisticated, Parisian schoolmarm. Her skin was brown from a summer spent in the south of France. She was very beautiful … [She] went everywhere in Tangier on foot, in high heels.” Both she and Hopkins had teaching jobs at the American School. On Sunday nights they dined at the Paname Restaurant on Boulevard Pasteur, where they might be joined by figures such as William Burroughs and Timothy Leary.
Carla Grissmann next went to Tunis, where she worked on a research project for Harvard University, and thence to Israel, where she worked as a journalist on the Jerusalem Post. She also spent a year in a Turkish village, many years later publishing an account of her experiences, A Dinner of Herbs (2001).
In 1969, after a two-day bus journey from Tehran, she arrived in Kabul, where the Peace Corps found her a job at the zoo. Although she was theoretically hired as the zoo’s accountant, her duties included looking after Bobby the Chimp. (Ten years later Bobby would be killed when the invading Soviets shelled the zoo.)
Carla Grissmann soon found her niche at the National Museum, and showed her mettle on her very first day, when she found the lavatory embedded in dirt: it hadn’t been cleaned in 20 years. She immediately set to work with her Swiss army knife, boiling water and ammonia, enlisting the help of some security guards. “After four days it was gleaming,” she said with satisfaction. “We Americans require immediate results.” The security guards joked that there should be a plaque reading: “This site excavated by Carla Grissmann.”
She revelled in roughing it, sleeping on the floor of her unheated house on Kabul’s Chicken Street. She was as happy with a dinner of cold chapatis on a mud floor as she was with paté and champagne on a white tablecloth. Her usual comment when undergoing hardship was: “I offer it up to the Afghans.”
As the years passed she became a familiar figure in Kabul’s bazaars. Always sensitive to local customs, she was greatly respected by the local people. Although she was soft-spoken, sometimes seemingly timid, she stood by her convictions, and even in the face of adversity retained her sense of humour. She always wore a chiffon headscarf and dressed entirely in black — because, she told a friend, it saved on the dry cleaning bills.
On average Carla Grissmann spent five months a year in Kabul . For the rest of the time she worked for the Asia Foundation, establishing English language centres in the science faculties of universities in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. On one such mission, in Peshawar, she heard gunfire every night as gangs of Taliban roamed the streets hunting down doctors, lawyers and intellectuals, shooting them on sight.
Wherever she went in the world, she carried a small trunk with wall hangings, paintings and exquisite objects to adorn her temporary home. For the past 30 years she had had a base in south-west London, a rented flat in Redcliffe Gardens, where she would receive a steady stream of visitors. Latterly confined to a wheelchair, she retained all her customary joie de vivre, always celebrating “cocktail hour” at 6pm sharp.
Although Carla Grissmann had many suitors, she never married.

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One thought on “Carla Grissmann

  1. Luzia Margaretha Wolf says:

    Thanks again Lisa for sharing this fabulous persona. It would be such a great movie tracing partially her live. Wow.

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