x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

From Afghanistan to the UAE via Pakistan: the journey of a gemstone

Cover Adnan Khan follows a ruby from the mountains of Afghanistan via the markets of Peshawar to the gold souks of the UAE - and uncovers a fascinating story of hardship, risk and dreams of a better life.

Feature Adnan Khan follows a ruby from the mountains of Afghanistan via the markets of Peshawar to the gold souks of the UAE - and uncovers a fascinating story of hardship, risk and dreams of a better life.

It's an unremarkable day for Sami Ahmed. As on any other day, he woke up early, performed his morning prayers, ate his usual breakfast of eggs, toast and sweet milk tea before bathing and getting dressed, ready for another round of meetings with his clients. In other apartments lining the neatly trimmed streets of Dubai's old city, similar routines are unfolding: buses are transporting office workers to their glittering, modern offices in Jumeirah, boatmen are gliding their dhows out on to the still waters of the Creek, smiling at the tourists with their bulging wallets heading out to the souks in Bur Dubai and Deira, on the hunt for bargains. Dubai is coming to life and along with it all, the hopes and dreams that a city premised on future promises.

For Sami Ahmed, those dreams are packaged in glittering gold and sparkling hues of red, green, blue, pink, purple-all the colours, in fact, of a crystal rainbow. His jewellery shop in Deira's gold souk is an adult's fantasyland, its walls lined with treasures. The browsing shoppers try to maintain an air of casual indifference, like aristocrats who've come to buy a mere trinket. But for all of them, there is one question begging to be asked: How much?

The first person to ask that question, a middle-aged Arab who has come into Ahmed's shop with his wife and daughter, seems nonplussed by the response: "That necklace?" Ahmed says, pointing to a ruby-encrusted gold chain. "Just $2,500 (Dh9,100). It's small." Indeed. How much? It's a question we often ask without ever really thinking about what it might imply. Value is not an objective thing; it is an abstract concept, imbued with emotion and personal relevance.

The awestruck tourist gaping at Ahmed's window display tells a thousand stories. He looks a little like Aladdin, wandering through the Cave of Wonders, hypnotised by the glittering gold, diamonds, rubies and every kind of gemstone. Dubai's gold souk can have that effect. It is, for example, cavernous, its vaulted ceiling rising skywards in a massive arched canopy, its wide promenades crowded with glittery-eyed treasure seekers. In another time, it could easily have been a setting for one of Scheherazade's tales, a modern-day Iram, the bejewelled dream world of a sultry Arabian night.

But this is not a dream world. The fortune hunters here are not the banished princes of Baghdad, and there is no magic word to open the gates to this treasure trove. Here, the key that unlocks the window displays is money - followed by that inevitable question: how much? And the gems that occupy them are not the whimsical products of a writer's imagination but have their own stories to tell, tales of war and hardship, and journeys across borders to rival the most gripping Hollywood script.

In Deira's gold souk, the treasures don't just magically appear on necklaces and earrings; they pass through dozens of hands, some carried through minefields, others surviving bomb blasts, each journeying along a path bristling with pitfalls and adventures. The fact that they get here at all is a testament to their power, and what that power promises to the men who transport them: the chance at a better life, perhaps a life more like the lives of the people who will buy them, such as the European tourist transfixed at the window display, or maybe a life like Ahmed's.

But to relate that journey, we must leave Deira - and Dubai - and fly 2,000km to the north-east, across the Gulf, over the wastelands of the Dasht-e-Lut in Iran, through the war-ravaged southern deserts of Afghanistan and into the rugged peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. Here, in a small village in the Afghan hinterland, Juma Gul is waking up to his own routine. Like Sami Ahmed he will also perform his morning prayers - in the dim light of a kerosene lamp. He will also eat his breakfast - plain flatbread and sweet green tea - wrapped in a thick Afghan shawl to stave off the sub-zero chill. In the other mud-brick houses in Sappar, the ramshackle mining village where Gul lives, other men will be going through a similar routine, preparing for the day like any other day, a day devoted to digging up crystal dreams.

And like Sami Ahmed, Gul also has clients to meet. They will be arriving from other villages, materialising out of the surrounding landscape on foot and in the 4x4 trucks that are the only motorised means of reaching Sappar. There are no roads in this part of Afghanistan, just rugged dirt tracks snaking through desolate mountains and valleys. Sappar is a place ripped out of time, caught in the debilitating cycle of violence that has left Afghanistan frozen in an era without electricity or running water, where distances are measured in days rather than hours, and the outside world is still a mystery. But Sappar is also where some of the best rubies in the world are found - the Jegdaleki ruby - prized for its rich colour and lustre and matching, if not surpassing, the beauty of the more famous Burmese version.

Men like Gul have been working the ruby mines here for generations, using the same techniques as their forefathers. When I arrive in the village, he has already gathered with his clients, basking in the sun and trading the most recent crystal specimens pulled from the half-dozen or so mines surrounding his village. "There are rubies still to be found in these mountains," he tells me, producing a 180 carat crystal he recently pulled from his mine. "But the work is slow. We're digging by hand. And the government is not helping us."

Since a mining law was passed in 2005, exploiting Afghanistan's vast mineral wealth without a licence has been officially banned. But the work continues in some pockets, where poor miners who cannot pay the exorbitant licensing fees are defying the government. Two years ago, when I last came to Sappar, Afghan policemen were enforcing the ban, forcing the locals into opium cultivation, an activity Sappar had never needed in the past. To counter the drug trade, local police decided to allow the miners to work, quickly putting an end to opium. Standing on the hilltop with the miners, looking over the desolate landscape, it's easy to understand why mining is so important here. There is very little else of value in this barren region. Rocky outcrops rise out of boulder-strewn hills and many of the narrow valleys are so saturated with landmines left from the Soviet war that farming has become quite literally a game of Russian roulette. But beneath the desolation, buried under tons of rock are the tiny packets of magic that the men of Sappar risk their lives to extract. The work is perilous: dynamite is wedged into solid rock, fuses lit by hand, and the resulting debris lifted out piece by piece. And yet there are surprisingly few deaths. "We've been working these mines for so long," says Gul. "We know the rock like our own mother. We can predict when it will collapse or when it will stay standing. We know where the rubies are and how to get to them." His newest mine is just about to reach the white marble vein where he is certain rubies will be found. The dull thud of exploding dynamite guides us to the spot, up into the mountains behind Sappar, past the gaping gashes of disused mines dropping 100 metres and more into darkness. Two dozen labourers crowd the entrance to the newly-blasted shaft, a gaggle of youthful, smiling faces eager to start digging. Gul has a reputation in Sappar for smelling out the best ruby deposits, and the more rubies that are found, the more the workers will be paid. The shaft is half complete. "We've already dug out 40 metres," he says, guiding me down into the dark, narrow passageway. "Another 40 and we will hit the vein." Climbing down feels a little like sinking to the bottom of a murky lake. The air is heavy and oppressive and the light fades quickly, disappearing altogether 20 metres into the shaft. It's difficult to imagine the labourers working happily in this environment, without proper equipment, crouched in a space that even a hobbit would find discomfortingly small. To me, it quickly becomes claustrophobic and I abandon the tour, leaving a bewildered Gul shouting back to me that we're almost at the end. The men outside the shaft can see the panic receding from my face as I emerge. They break into a chorus of laughter and turn to the work at hand. They have a much stronger motivation for pushing into those interminable depths. And they are used to it. The men of Sappar have been working the ruby mines for more than 600 years. They are relentless - pigeon-blood runs in their veins, one miner tells me, using the industry's phrase for describing the deep-red hue of the world's top rubies. But it's not just digging that they do. Everyone in this barren, lifeless region has a shining crystal or two in his pocket. Whenever I come here, I'm stopped half a dozen times a day by what appear to be the poorest of the poor: ragged old men in tattered clothes, grimy teenagers, even the occasional child looking up at me with pure innocence in his eyes, all holding out ruby crystals they want to sell. Admittedly, on more than one occasion, I haven't been able to resist asking that fatal question: how much? Value, however, has a different meaning in this part of the world. Rubies are not the luxury items they are in Dubai - they haven't reached that point yet, though their journey to opulence begins here. What they are is food, and clothing, and an education, and the possibility of a better future. When they leave Sappar, they leave with all of these hopes invested in them, carried by men who have plied the dangerous route from Afghanistan to Pakistan for years. Those smugglers are perhaps the most colourful characters in this story. But they are also the least willing to let a stranger into their lives. Their livelihood depends on remaining invisible, unseen by the thieves, the militants, the corrupt policemen and opportunistic tribals who populate the road from Sappar to Peshawar, in Pakistan's northwestern frontier. For centuries the Khyber Pass has linked the tribes of present-day Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent and beyond. It was through this route that some of the first precious stones ever mined - lapis lazuli from what is now Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan - reached the treasure houses of ancient kings and queens as far back as 6,500 years ago. It was also the route taken by Alexander the Great's armies, chasing those same riches. Sappar's smugglers are the heirs to that legacy, facing many of the same dangers as their predecessors. The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan now make the route especially treacherous. The instability that accompanies armed conflict is not good for the ruby business. "It's not so much the thieves," Nazar tells me, "though they are a problem as well. It's the corrupt officials, on both the Pakistani and Afghan sides of the border. We're having to pay more and more bribes these days to those kafirs."

Nazar, a tall, lanky Pashtun with a pugilistic expression permanently carved on his face, lives in Sappar and has transported its rubies to the gem bazaar in Peshawar since before the Taliban ever existed. He has lived and worked through much of Afghanistan and Pakistan's recent turmoil and watched as the gem industry has imploded as a result. In Peshawar, his trade has been reduced to a fraction of what it was a decade ago and because he works on commission, his livelihood has suffered. Namak Mandi in Peshawar's old city, is the smugglers' destination. These days, its warren of dilapidated alleyways, lined with workshops where adolescent boys hunched over grinders and polishers transform rough crystals into shimmering gems, is eerily empty. At one time, Nazar says, he would walk into Namak Mandi and the cutters would flock around him, begging for his goods. Now, he must go door to door, hoping to find an interested buyer. People are desperate, he explains. Wars and instability have decimated the industry. Buyers are avoiding Pakistan and sellers have a hard time getting visas to western countries. Without access to the global market, Afghan and Pakistani traders are left holding their most precious stones. Other selling outlets - the internet, for example - are not appropriate for the industry. Gemstones are not like comic books: this is not the kind of stuff one would want to buy online or from catalogues. The key to appreciating a gemstone is to hold it your hands, turn it to see the light dance as it refracts through the complex internal chemistry, and - if you want to wax esoteric about it - feel its energy. Buyers need to meet their crystals in person before the magic can happen. But in Peshawar, buyers and their intended gemstones just aren't meeting. But the smugglers and traders still come, driven by memories of better days and the hope that someday those days will return. The meeting point, at the heart of the bazaar, is gossip central. "You should hear these guys," says Khyber Khan, a local cutter who has guided me through Namak Mandi's maze for years, pointing at the gruff, hardened Pashtuns milling around in the small square. "They get together here and they talk about people behind their backs. They're just like women." He laughs. But there is a dark side to his cliché. Gem trading can be dangerous business in this part of the world. The competition is stiff, brutal, and sometimes deadly. There are unwritten rules to the game that everyone must follow. The commission rule, for example: if a person brings a buyer to a shop, he is entitled to a commission - 2-5 per cent if he brings a Pakistani, 10 per cent if he brings a foreigner. Breaking the rules has its consequences. "You don't understand the way things work around here," Khyber warns me. "You can get killed if you cross some of those lines." There is an unmistakable cloud of danger hanging over the gem bazaar, over all of Peshawar, in fact. It's a contradictory confluence of forces: out of the dirt and decay of Namak Mandi, tiny bits of pure beauty are emerging. A few blocks away, regular bomb blasts are pushing Peshawaris to the edge of madness. But for Khyber, it's the work that keeps him sane. "Cutting a stone is like falling into a dream," he says. "Nothing else exists when I'm shaping a ruby. We are in our own world together." There is a certain alchemy in the cutting of gemstones. The magic is not so much in the grinding away of unwanted crystal, or the shape that gradually emerges, liberated from the surrounding detritus by subtle pressures applied with an almost hallowed care by the cutter's hands. No, the real magic is less somatic, more visceral. It happens in an infinitesimally small world, where light and minute crystal structures interact to produce the luminous dance so prized by gem buyers. Michelangelo once said about one of his sculptures that he "saw the angel in the marble and carved until [he] set him free." For the gem cutter, that angel is light. An experienced cutter senses how light will play inside a given crystal; he shapes a gem, clears crystal space for his performers, adding facets one at a time to bend photons, directing what will eventually be a finely choreographed optical performance. This is the art of gem cutting. But Khyber is less abstract about his work. In Peshawar's gem bazaar, artistry is not the principal focus of the cutting process. "What's most important here is weight and speed," he says. "The less a cutter wastes precious crystals and the more gems he can produce in a day determines his value. Ironically, as a cutter's value rises in Namak Mandi, the value of the gems he's producing falls on the international market. This is Peshawar's weakness. The gems cut here rarely meet international standards. Local sellers tell me that during the industry's peak a decade ago, when foreign buyers were flooding into the market, sales were made based on how well a gem could be re-cut in Europe. "They were willing to lose weight to get the perfect cut," says Khyber. "Someone would buy a 3-carat ruby here knowing it would eventually become 2 carats. But the value would go way up."

These days, ruby brokers will never risk their best crystals on the whims of local cutters. Instead, they hold on to them, waiting for the prized foreign buyer, a prize painfully out of reach now, given Peshawar's inherent dangers. But still they wait, men like Haji Gul, Namak Mandi's top ruby broker, sealed away in their grubby grottos, sipping green tea and reminiscing about better times. When I meet Haji Gul, his shop is buzzing with activity. A group of smugglers, including Nazar, has just arrived from Sappar. Each member has his own cache of crystal hopes and dreams. The mines are producing again, which is reason to celebrate, but the gathering is edged with some frustration: rubies are back, but getting them to the world market is near impossible, producing a logjam of crystals in Namak Mandi. The best of those crystals end up in Haji Gul's hands. "He is very well-respected in my village," says Nazar. "He only buys the best quality crystals and I've seen some incredible specimens here in his shop." Corpulent and bushy-bearded, the 65-year-old Haji Gul reminds me of a Pashtun Santa Claus, handing out glittering red pieces of candy. But his beard, stained a sickly yellow from the constant clouds of smoke that engulf the rough cubbyhole that is his shop, resembles more a loofah and, well, he's hardly handing out the candy. "A few years ago I bought one lot of ruby crystals for 20,000 rupees (Dh1,600)," he says, holding one of his most prized pieces up to a glowing lamp. "I sold it for 200,000," a 900 per cent profit, $2,200 (Dh8,000) in today's dollar terms, a small fortune in this impoverished corner of the world. He has other lots as well, in every quality range, and a valuable collection of specimens - natural ruby crystals rising out of the surrounding matrix stone like blood-red menhirs. These are prized as showpieces, feeding a burgeoning market for decorative crystals; but he won't tell me how much they're worth. Haji-sahib is a businessman to the core, and as in any business, he won't name a price to just anyone. Muhammad Qadir Baig, on the other hand, isn't just anyone. The Qadir family has been in the gem business for generations, originally in Jaipur, India's gems and jewellery capital, and after Partition 1947, in Karachi, then the capital of the newly-created Pakistan. They have 300 years of gem-cutting experience behind them and are considered the top ruby cutters in Namak Mandi. Their workshop, on the third floor of a khan a few hundred metres from Haji Gul's shop, is remarkably clean compared to the dusty and dirt-ravaged dens at street level. And Qadir Baig is equally refined, slim and equine, choosing his words carefully. "The industry here is dying," he says. "India and Thailand are taking all our business, because the Pakistani government hasn't done enough to modernise our techniques. We came to Peshawar from Karachi because this is where the gems are. This is where they should be cut for the international market. But that's just not happening." The Qadirs are the few trusted cutters in Namak Mandi. The gems that make it out of the bazaar and reach Karachi, where they will be added to gold jewellery, almost invariably go through Qadir Baig's workshop. There, in the congested urban heart of the city, is the final stage of a gem's journey to the UAE. Local jewellery-makers tell me that half the jewellery produced in Karachi is destined for Dubai's gold souk. "Every second shop is designing for Dubai," says Hanif Mussa, owner of Euro Gold jewellery. "And most of the jewellery includes gems." Pakistan's one saving grace in the international market is its gem-setting. Centuries of experience have made Karachi's jewellers experts in the art. Necklaces studded with rubies and emeralds are produced in the city's workshops. But even here the industry is in decline. "Everything is at a standstill because of the war," says Saeed Mazhar, owner of Al Mas Jewellers and head of Karachi's jewellers' trade association. "We're having to rely more and more on gems imported from Bangkok and Jaipur, which of course cuts into our profit. But the really sad thing is that Pakistan has all the gems it needs to be the top producer in the world market, if only the government would help improve the industry." Some efforts are being made. A new government-funded gems and jewellery institute in Karachi is trying to teach cutters modern techniques, using state-of the art equipment. But the process has been painfully slow. "The problem is not just a lack of equipment," says Nasir Afridi, the head of the institute's lapidary department. "There is also a mentality in Pakistan that as much of a stone's weight as possible must be preserved during the cutting process. But for international standards, you have to lose weight to produce the best quality cut." Changing that mentality has not been easy. Afridi is not only battling tradition, but also a wide gap in the perception of value. For Peshawar's cutters, like Khyber Khan, quantity trumps quality. Cutting at international standards would mean discarding piles of low- and medium-quality crystals. But the history of those crystals, the stories behind their journey to the cutting wheels in Namak Mandi gives them a value that doesn't get measured on the international market. Khan knows those stories and so for him every shard of ruby is endowed with special meaning. In Karachi, value moves in the opposite direction: rather than looking back at where the gem has come from, the jewellers look forward to where it is going, to Dubai and the buyers there who have their own ideas about a gem's value. And finally, there is Deira's gold souk. Here value reaches the zenith of abstraction. Sometimes, a name is enough, a brand, to give a piece of jewellery the veneer of credibility and attract the most image-conscious buyer. Sometimes, it's the simple glimmer of the gems that decorate it, appealing to the romantic impulse and the near-mythical stature gems have attained in the world's collective consciousness. For Sami Ahmed it is much more mundane: value is measured in dirhams, in profit made and how that profit sustains his life. But tracing the journey of a gem to Dubai, meeting the people who rely on it for their livelihoods, reveals the complex and capricious nature of value. At every stage of that journey - from the mines in Afghanistan to the workshops in Pakistan - value changes, refracts, re-aligns itself like light travelling through crystals. And along with it, meaning changes, and a gem becomes more than just a glittering dream.