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Banker Is Hero of Afghan Culture

Funny how you can (eventually) put two and two together in very unrelated circumstances.

Funny how you can (eventually) put two and two together in very unrelated circumstances.I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this weekend. We probably didn't quite plan out the trip too carefully because it was packed when we arrived. Still, we persevered.

As we were nearing the end of our visit, I suggested going to the Afghanistan exhibit. We were kind of tired and the crowds were wearing on us. But still, I couldn't help but be struck by the beauty of the artifacts that were on display (but still too weary to read the descriptions). It wasn't until I ran across an article in The Wall Street Journal that I realized exactly what it was I had seen-the Bactrian Gold.

Ameruddin Askarzai was a central banker in Afghanistan who oversaw the vault in the presidential palace. Through his efforts, the Taliban were kept from stealing the centuries-old treasures. It wasn't an elaborate, high-tech plan that kept the Taliban from the gold-it was this quick-thinking banker and a broken key. And now, Askarzai is about to get his due, says the Journal.

The Bactrian Gold is an ancient treasure trove of crowns and jewels discovered in 1978 by a Soviet archaeologist. The gold was housed in the Kabul National Museum until the early 80s, when war broke out with the Soviet Union. To ensure its safety, the gold was transferred to a secure vault in the presidential palace, which was controlled by Askarzai.

Askarzai's determination to keep these national treasures safe from Taliban hands was put to the test in late 2001 when a "delegation" of the warlords demanded access to the vaults. They absconded with the country's foreign reserve of gold and silver but were kept from an inner vault containing the Bactrian Gold, having been lead by Askarzai to believe it contained ceramic pots. For good measure, however, the banker later broke the vault key in the lock to make sure the Taliban would never access the treasure-or at least make it more difficult for them.

Askarzai has been in hiding, says the Journal, in fear of Taliban retribution. Now, he is due to receive a medal from Pres. Hamid Karzai for his efforts and has emerged from the shadows.

It's a fascinating story of determination and selflessness as Askarzai put the hopes and history of the Afghan people ahead of his own safety.

Different situation, but it still reminds me of the stories of how some bankers risked their lives during Hurricane Katrina (see here and here) to keep the money flowing and help their stricken towns to return to some semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos.

Sometimes the industry can use a little positive PR.

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