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Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan

I looked out the window as I was driven into the city of Kabul in December and thought how can anyone live here? The trucks driving around with machine guns at the ready, the tanks at street corners, the fortresses of Embassies and government buildings, the barbed wire, the unimaginable stress that people must be living in waiting for the next attack. But then I also saw the bread shops with the smell of warm fresh bread, the children running to school, the bustle at the market and the quiet contemplation outside the beautifully tiled mosques as the faint morning wintry sun shone on all this and snow sparkled from the mountains that ring the city.

I asked Zia the gentle driver from Panshir how things were, he usually answers with a positive ‘fine’ this time he said ‘fine…well not so fine really’ there had been an attack the night before on a guest house within the secure zone and everyone was feeling nervous.

I went to the Turquoise Mountain house to leave my things and then straight to the workshop. The moment I stepped inside the workshop with its Persian rugs covering the floor and the overwhelming smells of chemical and stone dust, I felt happy. The welcoming smiles from the men and women who were all busy working on an order greeted me.

After exchanging news about our families and my trip we sat down to discuss the new collection. Everyone gets involved in these discussions, young boys are sent to the nearest stone market to bring samples of rock from all corners of the country and I pull out measuring tapes, drawings, samples and ideas out of my bag and we get to work.

By the time we lift our heads it’s nearly dark and due to the proximity of the recent incident, everyone wants to get home safely so we pack up early. The next day will be busy as Belquis Zahir, my old school friend, is coming to work with us too.

Belquis spent her early years living at the palace in Kabul with her grandfather, the last king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah. A man who brought many positive changes to the country, he was a unifying and much loved figure until he was over thrown and sent into exile in 1973 just before the Russians invasion. Her grandfather changed the constitution, introduced a parliament, democracy, free elections, civil rights, women’s rights and universal suffrage and brought in many foreign developmental advisers for large irrigation projects.

Belquis and I have been close friends since we attended a small girls school in Wiltshire. Belquis went on to train as an interior designer and also learnt the lost wax jewellery technique, which she uses to make beautiful sculptural pieces in bronze. We had talked about working together on a project in Kabul with the artisans for many years before finally meeting there a few weeks ago to start work.

The craftsmen and women gathered around at the workshop as the introductions were made and we all quickly got to work on transforming stones into bean pods to add to our collaborative collection of Seeds of life and pods of hope – a collection celebrating the simple perfection of natural forms, but also the poignant symbolism, so relevant in a country struggling to find its way peacefully forward.

It was wonderful to be in Kabul with Beliquis, after we left the workshop we went to visit her relation Zolykha at her design studio Zarif – with its beautiful wool coats and embroidered cushions. It is something other worldly. Set in a small garden with its fading winter roses and tailors peacefully going about their work, we sat down to the traditional, delicious Afghan offering of fresh walnuts, dried apricots, warm green tea and a gracious lunch of winter turnip stew with other passing guests. One, a restorer from the national museum and two others shaken Spaniards who had lost a friend in the attack on the embassy guest house a few days before.

The wonderful designs of Zarif that are drawn from traditional Afghan styles and motifs are, like all business in Kabul, struggling with the growing security problems and withdrawal of an international community that had helped support them in these past years.

Later we went to walk up Chicken street, a street that was known in the 1960′s and 70′s for the “Afghan coat”. Sellers, woven Uzbek Ikats, Chinese ceramics and brass samavars line the shelves of modern silk route trading posts. All the shops are empty now, it’s an obvious target area and the shop keepers were delighted to see us and joke with Belquis in Dari while we sat and drank tea with them. I found a delicate wooden perfume bottle carved into a gourd and Belquis bought some stones.

The next morning, I was to work with Saeeda, a young jeweller who is remarkable not only for her talent but also for her courage. Struck through illness as a child and losing her hearing and voice, Saeeda learnt sign language and was encouraged by her family to attend the Turquoise Mountain institute to learn jewellery making, a long held dream of hers. I remember meeting her years ago when she had just started and thinking how brave she ws, not just a girl in a man’s world but in a silent world and unable to easily communicate. But she has triumphed and having graduated she started a women’s cooperative with 2 other girls. Together they are working on their own designs now.

Saeeda had been selected to design the star pieces for the Smithsonian prestigious exhibition opening in March called “Turquoise Mountain: artists transforming Afghanistan”. Turning the space into an Afghan caravanserai with art and demonstration by artisans of jewellery, woodwork, ceramics and calligraphy, the exhibition intends to transcend the headlines of war and conflict.

She and I sat down to see how the piece was progressing. We had designed a gold and Panshiri Emerald Amulet box together in September on my last trip. The open-work pendant allows a wonderful stream of green glow through the stows and behind the larger central stones is a small gold box. We had discussed at length what should go into the box from a prayer for peace or a secret gem, she had decided in the end to put a handful of Afghan soil in it, something to take to Washington, a piece of her country. The pendant hangs on hand-made gold Turkman chain with long tassels at the bottom, a ‘rain-like ‘ pattern of Emerald gems set in and droplets. A stunning piece and one which took a great deal of work, through the setting hundreds of Emeralds, the negotiation of prices for the stones and cooperation from other craftsmen.

Saeeda was proud of the piece and it was progressing slowly but well. We discussed a few technical details about the piece and she was very excited to rush off to apply for a passport for her potential trip to Washington DC for the exhibition in the spring.

In the ten years since Turquoise mountain was started by Prince Charles, Hamid Karzai and Rory Stewart, they have trained hundreds of artisans in traditional arts, rebuilt 122 historic buildings in the old city of Kabul, set up a local primary school and family health clinic serving 20,000 patients a year.

I am so very proud to have been working with them for the last 8 years, designing dozens of collections, establishing a strong diffusion line for Pippa Small sold internationally, as well as collaborating with companies such as Monsoon to provide employment and opportunity for the men and women artisans.

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