The Long And Winding 'Silk Road'

Festival Planners Tangle With a World of Red Tape

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 17, 2002; Page A01

The Smithsonian badly wanted Indian woodworker Aash Mohammed for this year's Folklife Festival on the Mall. His skill with bamboo was exactly what was needed for the elegant towers, arches and plazas at the heart of the festival. When reached at his shop in Ghaziabad, he immediately said yes.

But there was a problem. The 22-year-old artisan was born at home; he had no birth certificate. That meant it would take two months to get a passport and visa, even after he had documentation of his birth. The festival organizers couldn't wait that long.

Compound the problem of Mohammed's passport several hundred times and you begin to understand the vicissitudes that have engulfed Smithsonian curators this spring. As they prepare for a festival celebrating the ancient Silk Road, they have accommodated Syrian glass blowers, Indian tentmakers, Mongolian bureaucrats, Pakistani truck painters, the Uighur language, conflict in the Middle East, war in Afghanistan, border clashes in Kashmir, a shortage of two-hump camels, and a yurt.

The Silk Road, a network of trading routes, stretched from China and Japan across south and central Asia to the Mediterranean. It flourished from before Alexander the Great to the times of Genghis Khan and Michelangelo. This summer's 36th annual Folklife Festival, the most elaborate the Smithsonian has ever staged, will bring together a sampling of the cultures that flowered along this trading artery.

"The SilSilk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust," the first festival devoted to a single theme, will run June 26-30 and July 3-7.

Mohammed, a slight man with a feathery beard and mustache who learned his craft at his father's carpentry shop, could never have solved his problem alone, but the Smithsonian -- working with the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi -- got him a temporary passport in a few days.

It wasn't easy.

"I took over our invitations from the Smithsonian, and the embassy official wanted to know: Why are they recruiting our workers? Why aren't they getting American workers?" said Pramod Nair, an administrator for Rajeev Sethi, who designed the elaborate pavilions for the Smithsonian.

Nair returned with a thick portfolio of pictures, showing the intricacy of the designs and contenting that the structures required building techniques only the Indians could execute quickly.

"We were on tenterhooks for about a week," said Nair. The very day the paperwork was done, Mohammed went home, packed enough clothes for a month, and headed to the airport for the overnight flight to Washington by way of Germany.

Right now, all around him on the National Mall, there's the bustle of construction, the banter in Hindi from the rest of the crew. If Mohammed is a little disoriented, that is to be expected. He had never flown, never been out of New Delhi, in fact.

The organizers of the Folklife Festival typically have simpler problems -- making sure Cajun fiddlers arrive from Louisiana, for example. This festival is a pan-continental expo, with 370 people and thousands of pieces of art arriving from places such as Istanbul and Jaipur. The focus was inspired, in part, by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has his own Silk Road music and education project. He encouraged the Smithsonian to present the countries as a unit and helped find the money, enlisting the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The logistics involve money transfers, airline travel, dietary needs, animal care and hotel rooms. A 13,360-pound Pakistani truck needs to be shipped, as do two miles of painted canvas.

"The Silk Road is a story of movement and travel. This is a contemporary Silk Road story," said Richard Kurin, the director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which oversees the festival.

Kurin's office, an airy, pleasant suite in the Victor Building near MCI Center, is now a war room. The couch is covered with color pictures of tents, pavilions and people. Planning started four years ago and now the breath-holding phase has begun.

The staff has been using e-mail and overnight delivery to get travel documents and shipping schedules lined up, but there is a keen sense of all the things that can still go wrong. The last ship from Bombay arrived in Norfolk this week. The artists are traveling on 150 flights, said Diana Parker, director of the festival, shaking her head. The staff enlisted the help of the State Department and the National Park Service and has contracted with APL Ltd., a huge shipping company whose history on the route goes back 150 years. The Smithsonian has rounded up translators for 25 languages, including Azerbaijani, Tibetan and Uzbek. A few of the Italians speak English, but only two of the guests from Central Asia are fluent. One speaks only Uighur, a language of western China.

As the fieldworkers made their contacts, they also started asking things like: "How heavy is that loom? How big is that toolbox?" The loom measurements went from weavers in Bangladesh, India, Turkey, Syria and Uzbekistan to a tentmaker in India who created a canopy to cover them all. "In India the loom is 10 feet tall," said Sethi, "but the Turkish one added another four feet, so we had to adjust the tent."

Sethi, whose workshop in New Delhi has been the hub of overseas preparations, is going to cover much of the 20 acres of the Mall with representations of famous monuments along the Silk Road. A replica of the Todaiji Temple of Nara, Japan, will stand at the east end of the Mall, near the Capitol; a mock-up of Samarkand Square in Uzbekistan will stand near the National Museum of American History, and a model of the Piazza San Marco in Venice will stand near the Washington Monument.

But in some cases, just getting in touch with artists was difficult. Tohtu Baqi Turdi, a papermaker, lives in Hotan in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. He is a specialist in an ancient craft of making sun-dried paper from mulberries. Jane Farmer, an American fieldworker and expert in the history of papermaking, doesn't speak his language, Uighur. But a glassmaker from Turkey did. The two of them flew the 2,000 miles from Beijing to explain the festival to him. By late June, Tohtu Baqi and his paper will be in a booth in front of the Smithsonian Castle.

"Sometimes DHL doesn't go to the village," said Richard Kennedy, deputy director of the folklife center.

And sometimes the artists aren't even where they are supposed to be. Because of the war in Afghanistan, a number of artists from there were living in Peshawar, Pakistan. The U.S. consulate in the Peshawar region helped the Smithsonian track down several people who will be at the festival, said Van S. Wunder III, director of the State Department's Office of Citizen Exchanges. In addition, State gave the Smithsonian $50,000 for the travel expenses of the Afghan folk artists.

But there are some places where even the State Department had no people.

"In Iran, for example, the U.S. has no representation," Kennedy said. "We had to fly [the Iranian artists] to Istanbul to get the documents. So we have to get money to them. Later one of our representatives will fly with them to Paris, and we have to get the money there for tickets." The Iranians include six musicians, including masters of the dutar (a sort of lute), the kamanche (a kind of fiddle) and the balaban (a double-reed woodwind). One of the Iranians also practices zurkhane, a form of spiritual bodybuilding done to drums and chanting.

Importing the art has been as difficult as importing artists, as the story of an elaborate, flamboyantly painted truck from Pakistan shows. Such vehicles are a mainstay on Pakistani roads. But before it could move from Karachi to Washington, the 1976 British-made Bedford truck had to pass Environmental Protection Agency standards.

"For us it is an artwork, for the EPA it is a vehicle," said Kurin.

After that approval was given, three-fourths of the vehicle was painted with assistance from the Institute for Folk Culture in Islamabad. (The artists will finish the rest on the Mall.)

But shipping the truck out of Karachi wasn't easy.

May 1 was a holiday, so the dockworkers stayed up until midnight the night before loading the truck. The truck -- 25 feet long, 7 feet wide and 14 feet high -- is stuffed with stone carvings, statues and Buddhas for the festival, adding another 14,000 pounds.

On May 2 the ship couldn't leave on schedule because of a citywide strike, which escalated into some bombings as the day went on. Late that night, the ship sailed. The cargo from Karachi was unloaded in Al-Fujayrah in the United Arab Emirates and hoisted onto anothership bound for docks at Kaohsiung in Taiwan. It was supposed to be put onto another ship that sailed for the Panama Canal to Norfolk.

But the arty truck missed its connection in Taiwan and had to be rerouted to Los Angeles. It arrived June 13. Now Smithsonian officials are trying to figure out how to ship it across the country. Its 14-foot height makes it too tall for many of the tunnel and bridge clearances between Los Angeles and Washington. The cargo container may have to be removed for shipping and reattached here.

Several other last-minute loads are coming by way of Los Angeles instead of through the Panama Canal. That saves 12 days, according to the shipping company.

Another tricky area has been supplies for the artists. With the airline regulations after Sept. 11, tools of the trade, such as knives and blowtorches, required special advance work. Syrian glass blowers, for example, wanted to bring equipment to build their own furnace. The curators worked out a compromise: The Syrians will bring a door for the furnace but a local concern will supply the bricks. The blower motor is being shipped independently.

The Syrians also needed broken glass for their demonstrations; a scientist at Corning Glass Works made sure they had the right kind. "There were regulatory issues," said Parker. "We couldn't do this near the trees." The plan now is for the Syrians to sit near the Italians and show how glass-blowing traveled from place to place.

Animals were a problem, too. The festival needed camels to pull yurts into place. The massive round felt-covered tents are a traditional home for nomads in Tajikistan and other places. They roll up when the nomads shift to fresh pastures. And Tajiks will be moving them onto the Mall each day as part of an opening ceremony.

But because of the quarantine period for imported animals, the Tajiks couldn't bring their own camels. Instead, the Smithsonian had to recruit camels from Texas.

When it all comes together, people from rival cultures will be working side by side on the Mall, Sethi said. He hopes that many Indians and Pakistanis -- who may never have met anyone from across their countries' hotly contested border -- may return to Asia a little more tolerant.

The work is mostly on schedule, but the festival opens in two weeks, and there is still a lot that can go wrong.

"My immediate concern is that everything gets here, everything gets onto the Mall," said Sethi, the exhibit designer. "Right now everything is in bits and pieces."

Sethi often talks about the considerable karma that will be needed for things to fall into place. Perhaps, he said, there needs to be a new deity -- a God of the Mall -- to make it work.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post Company