x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Crafting a new nation

After three decades of war, rebuilding Afghanistan may require more than a massive influx of aid. Can culture succeed where cash has failed?

Malik Mohammad was a potter in Istalif before it was destroyed by the Taliban. Now he has returned to making the region's distinctive green and turquoise pottery.
Malik Mohammad was a potter in Istalif before it was destroyed by the Taliban. Now he has returned to making the region's distinctive green and turquoise pottery.

If you squint your eyes, Istalif could be Tuscany, with the saturated, late afternoon sun casting a warm glow over the mud buildings perched on the edges of its terraced fields.

With your eyes open, you can see Istalif for what it is: a devastated town. It was razed to the ground by the Taliban as they marched to Kabul to seize power in 1996. They burnt Istalif's houses, killed anyone who did not escape and uprooted the grapevines for which this region was once famous.

Since then, the grape orchards have returned. Towards the end of the summer the main road that links Istalif with the Afghan capital is checked with tablecloths on which layers of raisins dry in the sun, shrivelling to a concentrated sweetness. But orchards recover more easily than towns, people or culture. After so many years of war, Afghanistan's spirit gasps for air.

Kabul, too, is an aggressive, traumatised city. Houses are either battered or cower behind razor wire. Heavily armed cars driven by soldiers or drug traffickers rumble past like bullies of the road, pushing aside the poor. Anyone on a motorbike with a covered face is a potential suicide bomber. There is hardly a trace left of the genteel city beloved of Babur Shah, the founder of the Mogul empire who is buried here in his 16th century garden.

It is a city, indeed a country, in which aggressors have relentlessly triumphed over victims and savagery over kindness. Beauty has been something to be destroyed, whether it is an ancient minaret or a painting of Buddha. While a vicious insurgency continues unabated in the south, it is difficult to imagine the Afghans have seen anything but war.

Yet there are signs of normality. In two neighbourhoods - Istalif's main bazaar and Kabul's historic district of Murad Khane - the artistic heritage of the country is returning. These regenerating communities demonstrate that it is still possible for beauty, order and culture to emerge amid terrible destruction.

In these neighbourhoods small but crucial projects are under way: historic houses are being restored, and artisans have returned to the bazaars. It is a glimpse of another kind of nation-building, one potentially more effective than the billion-dollar projects announced since 2002 to bring democracy and capitalism to Afghanistan. These seemingly modest efforts to revive the culture devastated by Soviet invasion, civil war and Taliban rule may contribute more to mending the fabric of Afghan society than large-scale development projects.

The road from Kabul leading north to Istalif across the fertile Shomali plain is mostly unpaved - and bone jarring. I followed Abdul Istalifi to his ancestral village on a recent Friday, the busiest day of the week, when Kabulis escape the pollution of the capital by picnicking along Istalif's river. For expatriates, a visit to the town is a chance to buy rare souvenirs fired in the town's kilns.

After its grapes and raisins, Istalif is famous for the beautiful turquoise and green pottery that its residents have been producing for at least 300 years. The tradition was interrupted by the Taliban, who destroyed Istalif's main bazaar and an economy dependent on grapes and ceramics.

The war years have broken Afghanistan, but the damage did not begin with the Taliban. The Soviets attempted to transform an agrarian, feudal society into a model Communist state by forcing the landed gentry from their farms. The Taliban accelerated the process of decay, blowing up antiquities and banning the worship of Sufi shrines. After September 11, Dick Cheney said America brought democracy to Afghanistan for the "first time in 5,000 years", oblivious to the democratic nature of the tribal shuras, or councils, which have kept social order for centuries through consensual decisions among tribes. An entire generation has grown up knowing nothing but how to hold a Kalashnikov, and there were no voices to protest that Afghan culture was older than democracy and more sophisticated than the brutal deeds of the Taliban or al Qa'eda.

The Istalifi family were among the educated class of Afghans who went abroad to escape the fighting. Abdul, my travelling companion and his son Ali, 28, have been instrumental in reviving their ancestral village's handicrafts and, in turn, its confidence. With financial and logistical help from American friends at the New Mexico-based Jindhag Foundation, they have rebuilt the town's bazaar at a cost of $120,000 (Dh440,700).

"A few attempts by non-government organisations to revive the place failed," says Ali. "We thought if we build the economy everything will come out of that. Let's build the central market and then revive the handicrafts." That meant rebuilding 120 shops that had been reduced to rubble.

"There was nothing when we first came here," says Abdul when we arrive, as he surveys the small stretch of road which forms the bazaar. Several shopkeepers shake his hands and show their respect. Clay pots, vases and plates are on display in shop windows and doorways, and piled by the steps of each entrance. Families are relaxing by the river, or eating a kebab snack in the restaurants.

"First come and see the potters at work," he says, and starts up a rocky hill surrounded by ripening mulberry orchards and narrow freshwater streams. We reach a plateau with a panoramic view of the Shomali valley below. A long time ago, Afghans came here for Eid prayers; for this the plateau is called the Place of Prayer. A pile of pottery lies in the sun on the edge of the plateau, as it has been for centuries.

Istalif is ancient. Its name is derived from the Greek word "stafili", which means grape. Alexander the Great passed through in the fourth century BC and may have named it after its most delicious export.

"Every family has a kitchen for pottery," says Abdul, and the kilns are busy now that the families have shops in which to sell their goods. We enter a small room behind a house where Daoud Yusufzada, 28, sits behind a large table hollowed in the middle for the potter's wheel. The round moist clump on the wheel's head takes the shape of a large bowl with a fluted edge.

"I learnt this from my father, and his father before that," he says. "For as long as anyone in my family can remember we've been doing this work." The mud is brought from the mountain by donkey and mixed with water, although the potters keep the precise ingredients a secret. The stunning colours are made from the ground leaves of a shrub cultivated in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

"We don't paint the pottery with a brush because it would leave marks," explains Yusufzada. He describes a "trick of the hand" in which the glaze is poured over the piece in one quick swoop.

Istalif's plates and bowls are starting to appear in Afghan homes, as a small domestic market for the pottery springs up. But a domestic market is not enough, and the challenge is to help the residents bring their pottery to the attention of the outside world. Handmade pottery fired with a glaze that dates from the 9th century may appear to be an easy sell to a western audience enchanted by The Kite Runner. But the glaze contains lead - and the process of removing it, which would be necessary to sell the dishes in the West, risks ruining the quality of the colours.

Turquoise Mountain, a non-profit organisation trying to revive handicrafts, has been attempting to strengthen the pottery and remove the lead from the glaze to appeal to a foreign market. But Ali says they should be marketed as folk art. Last year, the Jindhag Foundation brought 3,000 pieces of pottery to an art fair in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They were a hit. "People were moved by the beauty of the objects," says Ali. "And the Afghans were amazed at how many people were interested in them."

In the beginning, none of the Afghans thought it could happen, says Abdul as we walk back down to the market. It wasn't easy convincing the shopkeepers that rebuilding was in their interest. "Twenty years of war breaks people's confidence," Ali says. "A lot of them said, 'we don't know how long this government will last and the Taliban will return.'"

Halfway down the hill is a large square pool around which dozens of people are sitting. At one end water flows in from a natural mountain spring. At the other, the water channels out and continues below to the mosque. The pool is a Sufi shrine, believed to possess healing powers for those who are drinking or washing their hands in it. It is a quintessential Afghan scene - one which the Taliban sought to destroy, as it was incompatible with the extreme Salafi beliefs they imposed on the country. Cultural projects such as this one do more than provide income and employment; they nurture cultural traditions that are at the heart of what keeps a society together. The wounds of war appear as so many millions of tiny cracks in a society's foundations. These Sufi traditions, like the pottery, are ancient and embedded in the culture and with a little bit of encouragement, they can flourish.

Ali says it cost $1,000 to repair each shop and make it earthquake proof. The villagers cleared away the rubble in 48 hours and used the bricks to build their own homes. The shop owners then rented them out to the potters to sell their wares.

One of the potters, Malik Mohammad, 44, wants to show us a dark yellow teapot with an apple design that stands out from the rows of traditional blues and greens.

"I copied it from a Japanese design," he says with a note of confidence in his voice as Abdul nods encouragingly.

"We will teach the world our ancient craft in exchange for help. We have crawled out of the mines, from under the rubble and we are willing to work and to create," he says. "But we just need a little help."

Abdul explains that the unpaved road from Istalif to Kabul makes it difficult to transport the fragile clay. "They need a road - you saw how bad it was - before we can take this further," he says, revealing another obstacle to Afghan reconstruction: large-scale projects, financed mainly by America, are rarely carried out in collaboration with small Afghan-led organisations that understand local priorities.

"We paved the way for people to help themselves," says Ali. "If you want to help Afghanistan you have to do it like this. The West thinks so large scale, it forgets to think small scale.

Murad Khane was home to the Qizlbash, Shiite warriors who supported the founder of the modern Afghan state, Ahmad Shah Durrani. In 1776, the capital shifted from Kandahar to Kabul and the monarch gave the Qizlbash a plot of land, named Murad Khan after a Qizlbash general. These scribes and advisers to the king built fine homes for themselves in the neighbourhood.

But in recent years, Murad Khane, a maze of low buildings that sit on the north bank of the dry and stinking Kabul river, had been the butt of jokes because it was literally a rubbish dump. It had no sewage system, no clean water and no drains.

"Since 1973 there was no collection of rubbish," says Hedayatullah Ahmadzai, an engineer I met in Murad Khane, referring to the year the Afghan monarchy was abolished, setting off a chain of events that led to the Soviet invasion. "The garbage was two metres deep and the remaining houses were falling from neglect," says Ahmadzai. "Some people had to duck to get into their doorways because rubbish piled so high. In many cases it eroded the foundations."

And so an area of learning and culture was degraded until it was literally a heap of waste. Ahmadzai points out one building - a former school - where Afghan vendors stored unripened bananas during the war, and lit fires to hasten the ripening process.

Murad Khane was slated for destruction until it was saved by a presidential decree last year with lobbying from Turquoise Mountain. At first glance, it is difficult to see anything worth saving. Large sections of the houses have collapsed or severely eroded.

But since 2006, Turquoise Mountain has cleared several tons of rubbish using labourers from Murad Khane. It has also repaired 65 houses and trained and employed traditional craftsmen to begin restoring the 18th century buildings in a 19 acre area.

Turquoise Mountain was started by Rory Stewart, 35, a former British diplomat who walked across Afghanistan in 2002 (and wrote an award-winning book about it) before going on to serve as deputy governor of Maysan province in Iraq after the invasion. The foundation is named after the lost capital of the 12th century Ghorid dynasty, which ruled over a massive empire from its base in the mountains of Ghor province. They are working to revive woodcarving, calligraphy, embroidery and ceramics in Istalif and Kabul.

It receives funding from the Prince of Wales' charity, The Prince's Trust, and has recently received $3 million from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The hope is that Murad Khane's cultural heritage will drive economic growth.

At the Abu Faisal shrine, with its rows of beggars leaning against the wall, the filth from the raw sewage and noise is overwhelming. The stench is barely masked by the pungent scent of the wild rue seeds that poor children burn and offer as a blessing for a few pennies.

I duck into a passageway to follow the engineer and we arrive in a small courtyard. When I look up I can't help but give a gasp of surprise: here is a gem of a building, faded and tired but still lovely. It is called Peacock House, a 19th century dwelling belonging to a merchant family and named after the peacock carvings on its window frames.

The narrow stairs lead to a landing with cedar shutters that are lifted to let the sunlight in. Cushions lay against the walls. The door frame is carved in the old Kabul style, floral and curvaceous, reflecting Mogul and Persian influences. In the wall is a shallow shelf made from plaster and shaped like an arch. In this quiet room, you can envision the city and culture that once was, but has since lost itself in grief and destruction.

The arts have been largely ignored in the effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Many of the country's antiquities have been destroyed or looted in the last three decades and what precious little is left is being painstakingly put together in the Kabul museum. It was as if the very essence of Afghan identity, forged by a millennia of invasions, was destroyed in the process of hacking away at ancient monuments.

But for some residents here, the restoration of that architectural past is not as important as ending the humiliation of living in the midst of so much rubbish. As one resident told me: "We couldn't even sit for a few minutes in our house because of so many flies."

What gives the project legitimacy is the participation of the Murad Khane shura, which consulted residents about their needs and requested a school and a health clinic from Turquoise Mountain, says Pahlawan Aziz, one of the most important men in the neighbourhood. At age 65, he still has the stocky gait of the wrestler he was when Afghanistan was still a monarchy.

"The foreigners are doing good work," he says as we walk towards his family's old home, the double column house which, when completed, will house a ceramics school and a chaikana - an institution as vital to Afghan culture as the cafe is to the French.

The efforts to bring Istalif and Murad Khane back to life are not only tributes to heritage; each is an attempt to build a living, breathing community capable of sustaining itself.

The cedar wood columns of Aziz's building are in the style of the "tree of life", but rot and decay have eaten away at them. Worse, no one from Kabul knows how to make new ones. To remedy this, Turquoise Mountain has set up an apprenticeship training school for 25 students and recruited seven master-artisans - including three master carvers from the remote northeastern province of Nuristan - to teach a new generation of Kabuli artisans. The training programme is housed in an old fort across town that belonged to a member of the royal family and was lost in a gambling bet to a hairdresser.

"We can't teach the old masters' skills," says Babs Alink, a Dutch woodworking instructor at the fort. "They know what to do. We can only give them the tools and teach them to teach the next generation." As she speaks, the carvers draw the symbols, freestyle. The students watch and take note.

Nuristan's wood pillars once formed the façade of many public buildings. The crisp carvings reflect the Hellenistic style of Alexander the Great as reinterpreted over the centuries by the pagans who once inhabited the region. In recent decades, the art began to die without a market for the chests, mirrors, tables and lattice-framed windows.

Behind Alink stands a tall "tree of life" column, carved from the trunk of a Himalayan cedar, which will be used to restore the double column house in Murad Khane.

In one corner, several men cut door frames, windows and lattice frames from Himalayan cedar or walnut wood. These are given to the master carvers, who carefully carve suns, moons, flowers, stars and geometric shapes into the wood.

"We don't know the background of the symbols," admits Alink. "We have a man in Nuristan who is writing an explanation of what each symbol is. They are pre-Islamic." The inhabitants of Nuristan, some of whom still carve the swastika in a nod to their Aryan heritage, practised pagan worship until the late 19th Century when they converted to Islam.

Alink's previous job was with the American military. "Before this I was doing a cash-for-work project," she says. "I thought I could be a wolf in sheepskin and change things for good from within the system. But it was baloney. It was paying Afghans to throw gravel on the ground and then saying, 'see what we can do?'"

Frederick Mocatta, a Turquoise Mountain spokesman, looks a bit nervous, but Alink continues. "I was bitter. The politics made me sick." She stops for a moment. "I am allowed to say that?" Alink asks Mocatta.

"Um, not really," he says mildly. She tries to sound more conciliatory. "When I joined Turquoise Mountain I thought it was something positive. I earned $20,000 a month with the US but my hands were tied behind my back. Here we don't have a hidden agenda, it's nothing political. It's a five-year plan to make this sustainable. It will be Afghan-run. When I worked with the army, 80 per cent went back into security. Here we employ and train as many people as we can so they can help themselves."

Indeed, only a fraction of the billions in aid spent in the country has actually gone to Afghans. A recent World Bank report indicated that 70 per cent of development money went straight back into donor countries' pockets in the form of salaries and security for the armies of aid workers and consultants.

Turquoise Mountain is trying to get more public, institutional funding for the woodworking school, to ensure its long-term survival without relying on the goodwill of private donors. A foreign market is also needed for the goods, although sales are slowly increasing. Last year, gross sales were $70,000, but for the first five months of this year they already total $105,000.

The carvers are busy working on a commission for the Afghan embassy's library in Tokyo and another for an American who has commissioned 1,500 coasters. There is also a deal in the works with The Connaught, a posh London hotel, and they are planning to participate in an interior design and furniture trade fair in Dubai this autumn.

"We are aiming for a luxury, high-end market," says Mocatta. The problem is how to transport such delicate and heavy objects out of the country at a reasonable cost. The list of commissions suggests an awkward reality: the domestic market cannot afford these ornate handmade pieces, but they are still expensive by western standards.

Traditional arts don't have much appeal to ordinary Afghans. It is ironic that while these cultural traditions signify a possible source of unity and social cohesion in the new Afghanistan, as time passes Afghans long more for the trappings of modern life. Take a drive through Kabul and most new houses are made from concrete; traditional silver jewellery shops attract far fewer customers than new stores selling Indian gold.

Fatma Wakil, of Turquoise Mountain, says: "Afghans don't like it because they like modern fashions from Pakistan or India. So there is no fashion for it and no market. But foreigners like it. It's exotic for them."

Mocatta disagrees. "Most Afghans appreciate modern conveniences as well as having a sense of history and practicality," he says. "Take, for example, the house in Murad Khane that was built, without help from Turquoise Mountain, using traditional mud techniques that they had learnt from watching our work."

Another project that Turquoise Mountain has set up at the fort is a calligraphy school. Here, 32 students are enrolled in a three-year programme which teaches them calligraphy or miniature painting using paints made from lapis lazuli, gold or turquoise.

Ustad (meaning master) Mohammed Tamim Sahebzada, 28, is bent over a delicate illumination and writing in Kufic script the Basmallah, which is recited before reading the Quran. It was commissioned by a Kashmiri businessman and will cost $400.

"The text is from the Quran so we must use beautiful things," he explains. He says his biggest influence is Bizhad of Herat, a master miniature painter born in 1455 near the contemporary border with Iran. Under the patronage of Timurid princes who ruled the city, the art form flourished and Bizhad became famous. He went on to teach Iranian masters.

"Sometimes I see a design in a dream and I have to wake up and draw it right away. It is very important to me," he says. "Bihzad is dead but we must continue his work. We are proud of him. People say he is Iranian but I don't like that. He is Afghan."

"In the Taliban times I painted figures and portraits, which were not allowed," he continues. Even today, with those harsh controls lifted, he is haunted by the war years. "It is hard to concentrate because when I draw I can see bombs," he says. "I can see body parts. It is hard to think." His brow furrows.

"We need a garden, like Bihzad, to think and get inspiration. We need a calm place to think about our arts."

@email:hghafour@thenational.ae