x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

And sew forth

Feature While Afghanistan struggles to emerge from seemingly endless cycles of conflict, Sarah Takesh offers its women an income and the rest of the world a source of beautiful, hand-embroidered clothes. Hamida Ghafour reports.

Sarah Takesh's clothes combine her eastern origins with her western upbringing.
Sarah Takesh's clothes combine her eastern origins with her western upbringing.

While Afghanistan struggles to emerge from seemingly endless cycles of conflict, Sarah Takesh offers its women an income and the rest of the world a source of beautiful, hand-embroidered clothes. Hamida Ghafour reports. Sarah Takesh's mobile phone rings constantly, and it's always someone from Afghanistan. She always takes the call, chattering away in Farsi to sort out a problem. "It's a nightmare, my phone bill is $2,000, it's horrible," she says, grimacing as it rings yet again. "During this period of immense darkness I will be here, but I'll go back to Kabul."

With the help of her mobile and a laptop, Takesh is running her Kabul-based fashion label Tarsian & Blinkley from Dubai. She designs exquisite, hand-embroidered clothes handmade by Afghan women that capture her eastern origins (she was born in Tehran) and her western upbringing (she grew up in California). She is also a pioneer in Kabul. There are at least two other fashion labels based in the Afghan capital now but she was the first to open in 2002 when it was so difficult to source a decent button that she turned to a jeweller to get them made.

We are sitting on a cream-coloured Afghan carpet in her high-rise flat overlooking Sheikh Zayed Road. Takesh, 35, tosses back her dark glossy hair to roll a cigarette and calm her nerves. After living in Kabul for nearly six years, she moved to Dubai about two months ago with her husband and is concentrating on selling her clothes here because of the increasing instability in Afghanistan. She drags out a suitcase from a corner of the room and takes out samples. "Most of the clothing is hand-loomed silk and cotton," she explains, unfolding a wrap dress the colour of pomegranates. Some of the fabric is handmade in Afghanistan, and some of it she imports from India. "Real hand-embroidery is rare in the world. Most of it is made in China."

There is an elegant tunic with gold metallic leaves embroidered around the neckline, a short and fitted jacket cut from cotton woven by hand in Kabul with a thick standing collar and turquoise details, and the most eye catching: a gold silk shawl with horses embroidered in purple and brown thread. Upon closer examination, none of the horses are the same. "This was made by Fatima, and this horse design is hers," Takesh says, referring to one of her workers. "She lived in Iran as a refugee. She was really battered and broken, but I don't know what happened to her. I don't let any of the other girls knock off this design because no one can capture the particular quality of the horse. It's like folklore-ish art. The character of the person emanates from it."

Takesh employs 50 local women to do the work, capitalising on and preserving the dying art of Afghan embroidery, which has for centuries been important in the largely rural, tribal society. The women are usually widows, refugees, or both, and even if they are not, they have to work to feed their families because their husbands do not earn enough money. The women pick up the raw materials from Takesh or one of her 10 full-time employees, such as the thread, a sleeve, a shawl or a collar, and when they finish embroidering the design they drop it off. The women are paid $5 (Dh18) on the spot.

"The minute a woman starts to earn an income in a household she automatically gets respect and it elevates her status in the home," Takesh says. "Her husband could be a deadbeat and losing his wits but at least his wife provides basic necessities for the house. The beauty is that the women can do it on their own time. So you watch your infants, do the cooking, housework, do the embroidery and get on with your life too."

She picks up a brown silk tunic with a Central Asian floral motif. "The woman who did this, she is a Hazara," she says, referring to one of the ethnic minority groups in Afghanistan. "Her husband drags stuff around the market on his back to make money. But she is so smart and interprets designs. We don't oversee embroidery. We show them designs and say, 'put your stamp on it'. So it brings out their soul."

There is also an embroidery school for girls in Kabul who want to learn the craft run by an experienced Afghan woman called Ustad Jantab, who knows every stitch there is to know. "If it was the 17th century, she would be embroiderer of the king's robes. She is just amazing." Takesh's love affair with Afghanistan began when she was very young thanks to her mother, an avid collector of antiques and textiles. "When we saw a blue-eyed person who spoke funny Farsi my mother would say, 'they are Afghan... they are Aryan'. She wove a very romantic story and made me associate Afghans with heroism and good looks."

Takesh herself is from an ancient aristocratic family who owned large tracts of land in Iran's western provinces, which they lost after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Her family then settled in California. Her first real encounter with the region came in 2000 when she drove through Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, met Afghan refugees in Peshawar and "completely tripped out, I found the mother lode. There was nothing more fabulous, more exotic than Central Asia," she recalls.

She plotted, schemed, did some courses at Parsons, the renowned fashion school in New York City, signed up for an MBA in social entrepreneurship at the University of California, Berkeley and moved to Kabul in the summer of 2002 - into a guesthouse full of Christian missionaries. The seed money for the business came from a $25,000 (Dh91,825) grant from Columbia University and a $150,000 (Dh550,950) loan from an American private investment corporation.

"No one else would give me the money. Fashion and Afghanistan? You've got to be kidding." I met Takesh in 2003 when we were both living in Kabul. The city was full of optimism and had suddenly become a magnet for the young and adventurous. It was like a throwback to the 1970s when Afghanistan was on the hippie trail, except these people were more like deluxe hippies with pedigrees in art, business or fashion. They all mingled with Afghans who had returned from exile and English public schoolboys at Kabul's famous garden parties. "It was genuinely the beautiful people's scene," she remembers.

It is lunchtime and we walk towards the Dubai International Financial Centre for a bite to eat. It is difficult to find a greater contrast to the world she has left behind: Dubai, hurtling towards the future and shedding its last vestiges of tribalism, and Afghanistan, poor and backwards, struggling to emerge from endless cycles of conflict. Yet her Afghan years were the most rewarding. It was hard to turn away poor women literally begging for work even though some returned pieces with holes burnt through the fabric. "The women I hired were shy, damaged people who'd barely seen the light of day. Within a few years there was an ocean of difference. They were confident, laughing, it was so different. I also got carpet burns and my mum said, 'you have carpet burns in the same place a mullah does because they sit the way you do'."

Since 2002, she has pulled off seven collections. Her clients are typically expatriates in Kabul and she also sells items by mail order through Tarsian & Blinkley's website. "It was fun. It was fun up until a year ago," she says. The glamorous crowd have packed up and left. The Taliban and their supporters have formed a noose around Kabul, and there are now insurgent checkpoints on three of the four roads leading out of the capital.

K idnappings of ordinary Afghans and businessmen now happen almost every day, although they rarely make the news. Takesh had to drive around with at least one armed guard and two cars. Her Afghan business partner was held up at gunpoint three years ago, and the shop was robbed. But the breaking point came when a good friend's father, a high-ranking government official, was kidnapped by a gang of criminals in Kabul and held for ransom along with a businessman's son earlier this year.

"They were tossed in a dark room four metres underground, next to a well. You could say it was a grave. They were buried. There was no way to get them out. The people who kept them like that were such heathens. Their oxygen came from a two-inch pipe. The room was underneath a house. The intelligence people got a tip off, 'look for a pipe', and had to dig them out. I would have had a heart attack and died if that was me. You think of kidnapping and you think of a room. They got rescued but I never got over it," she says, laughing to ease the tension.

"They are literally plucking people off the street and kidnapping them. It is run like a family business, the government people are paid off, it's like a free for all. The government can't protect its own citizens. It wasn't worth it any more. Nobody wanted me to be there, even people who worked for me." We arrive at the cafe and take our seats on the terrace packed with members of Dubai's financial crowd. "It's too sad to be somewhere that was functioning and see it go backwards," she says, fiddling with the menu. "I may be sitting on this lovely patio, but I'm there. I worry about Afghanistan to the point of sickness. I sound like an eccentric or a weirdo, but I wish I could be there, not here."

Her dark eyes look a little haunted. Tarsian & Blinkley clothing can be purchased from Amzaan at Wafi City mall and 50 Degrees in the Souq al Bahar. Visit www.tarsian.com for more information.