Afghanistan has excelled in crafts for centuries and although the country has been constantly at war for decades, some of the crafts such as finely filigreed gilt jewellery set with semi-precious stones, crochet and cross stitch embroideries, blown glass ware and carpet weaving managed to survive in Afghanistan as well as in the refugee camps in Pakistan.
Fortunately under the post war government of Ashraf Ghani, international aid organisations have helped the Afghan craft industry to get back on its feet. Along with jewellery, wood work and other crafts, the almost defunct pottery of Istaalif, with its intense turquoise glaze and incised motifs into which the glaze pools to create a darker shade of blue, has also been revived.
With these interventions, many of which have been made by international designers as well as Afghans settled abroad, several Afghan cottage industry products are now placed in boutique shops, galleries abroad. In one of the exhibitions, recently held at the UN compound, featuring jewellery designers showed how local filigree pendants had been combined with beading techniques to make necklaces, or how locally mined semi precious stones had been given contemporary ethnic settings and compositions.
Invited with fashion designer and social entrepreneur Shaiyanne Malik to make a trip to Afghanistan, I eagerly jumped to the bait. With several years of experience in training craftswomen, contemporising designs and emphasising quality for the ILO in Sindh and Southern Punjab, Shaiyanne was asked to make a skill assessment of women doing embroidery in Mazar-e-Sharif and Balkh province. This venture has evolved with a view to design products and markets them in Pakistan as well as other parts of the world.
Our destination, Mazar-e-Sharif, is the capital of Balkh province, close to the Uzbekistan border; a small, deeply spiritual city dominated by the exquisite Blue Mosque which is said to be the final resting place of Hazrat Ali (PBUH). The area has always been a centre for carpet weaving using natural dyes, and an ILO supervised project is active there. But we were here to explore the possibilities for women’s crafts, looking at local embroideries with a view to using them in modern items such as personal or interior decor accessories, with the aim of marketing them in Pakistan eventually.
Before travelling to Afghanistan, one wonders what to expect of a country that has been subject to unending war. The Taliban still make intrusions into daily life, and Balkh province - General Dostum’s land - is no exception. While we were there, they had cut internet networks, affecting banks and businesses. Communication was only restored once the government agreed to close internet traffic after business working hours. This was in the interest of morality. They were not, however, averse to stopping truckloads of merchandise coming or going from the city and demanding money in exchange for safe passage. But daily life in Mazar-e-Sharif seemed peaceful for the locals, if not for UN employees who are subject to a list of rules and restrictions. Young girls in kameez and straight pajama with a headscarf walked in groups along the road after school or college, and the famous blue shuttlecock burqa, although visible in the markets, was not as dominant as one had assumed it would be. Many of the young women prefer to wear shalwar kameez from over the border Pakistan, and wedding apparel vies with any Western wedding.
At the Women’s Chamber of Commerce we met the local representatives as well as entrepreneurs. There were women in abaya and a headscarf; ones who folded away their blue burqas once they entered the premises; and the younger women who wore beautifully fitted coats over an undershirt, straight trousers, and a headscarf. One of these entrepreneurs runs a boutique; stitching garments ranging from traditional wedding wear peshwaaz with hand embroidered appliqued borders, coins and amulets, to fitted coats and western wear. Other craftswomen specialised in the beautifully fine cross-stitch - which one could buy years ago in Pakistan. The problems were similar to the Pakistani craft industry: a need for contemporisation if the craft is to survive and develop. It would be sad if this were the case; if traditional jewellery can be modernised and be sold in international markets, why not embroideries?
A two-hour drive from Mazar-e-Sharif took us through a spectacular landscape of vineyards of the famous sundar khaani grape and orchards of kaaghzi badaam; bordered in the distance by barren mountains, to the small town of Samangan. The town specialises in the vibrantly coloured, striped woven cloth used for dastarkhwaan, suzani embroideries, and kurs dozi work. Kurs dozi features embroidery over a metal shape, creating raised motifs used on velvet bedspreads. Although this is a small town, the women were forthcoming and confident, and keen to make connections which would help to promote their work. Several already had contacts in Kabul - over five hours’ drive away - and had sent their products to be exhibited there.
Arriving a few days later in Kabul, we met with the dynamic head of the Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce, Manizha Wafeq, who has already forged relationships and is looking for more possibilities for international trade networks within this region. It was clear from the products shown by her team of entrepreneurs, all of whom are members of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce. They understood how to modernise traditional crafts into well designed, quality home wares which included soft furnishings, clutch purses, hand bags, and packaged dried fruit. Most outstanding was the apparel: beautifully fitted coats and jackets using traditional silks, weaves and embroideries, as well as modern takes on the traditional chapan.
Although Kabul, being the capital, had a better developed cottage industry, both cities were keen to create new contacts and networks promoting products and trade, each being interdependent on the other. With the current political strife and imminent changes, however, it remains to be seen how these existing design businesses continue to develop or sustain themselves. It would be sad if they are curtailed: Afghan crafts, like ours, could provide substantial revenue. Small enterprises can generate good money and support multiple households, and using craft would mean carrying forward an existing aesthetic tradition.