Tumbling economy hits this Afghan village

Tumbling economy hits this Afghan village

Tumbling economy hits this Afghan village
To survive the last catastrophe, when their town was sacked and burned by the Taliban, the potters of the northern Afghan town of Istalif buried the tools of their trade and fled, some enduring years of exile until the threat finally passed.

The town has long been coveted for its rustic, riverine beauty, nestled among bands of orchards that overlook the parched Shomali Plain, and for its strategic location on the road to Kabul, the capital. Istalif’s resurgence after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 hardened its reputation for resilience, earned over centuries as it repeatedly survived pillaging by invaders. Yet, now, Istalif is endangered again, and the peril this time is more difficult to escape: imposed not by marauders but by neglect, as Afghanistan’s government grapples with accelerating violence and a collapsing economy, and as the foreign presence evaporates.

Afghans who picnicked by Istalif’s river or visited its famous shrine, have stopped coming because of growing insecurity across the country. With unemployment chronically high, those who do visit spend little on the town’s distinctive turquoise pottery or the mass-produced knickknacks that shopkeepers hawk to survive. Gone, too, are the foreigners who descended on the village during the last decade, sometimes on day trips from Kabul, flush with cash. The offices of various international organisations that sought to aid the town and its residents have been forsaken, as they have across much of the country, leaving behind only rusted signs detailing the foreigners’ lofty and now discarded ambitions.

In lettering faded by the sun, one sign for a Belgian group called Mothers for Peace advertises projects including English and literacy courses, a mothers-and- children clinic, agriculture education and a “pottery section.” Beyond the sign, a padlocked and emptied building is a vestige of passing Western interest in this place. The shops on Istalif’s main street were open on a recent morning, but devoid of shoppers.

“I have forgotten what a dollar looks like,” said Mir Golom Rasool, a 70-year- old store owner — exaggerating for effect, but only a little. Istalif, which is actually a grouping of several smaller villages, once attracted an unusual amount of interest from foreign organisations. It was considered a “microcosm of rural life” less than an hour’s drive from Kabul, according to Scott Liddle, the Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain, a non-governmental group that trains Afghan artisans.

The town benefited from some international development projects that provided it with clinics, schools and electricity, Liddle said. A different non-profit founded by an American couple provided financing for the restoration of more than 100 shops in Istalif, and by 2007, news reports were hailing the town as an Afghan success story. But even as development improved people’s lives, one of the town’s foundations — its centuries-old pottery production — was struggling. In recent years, the local market for pottery had been “obliterated,” Liddle said. “Hardly any foreigners go there, and fewer Afghans.”

Turquoise Mountain, which once had a branch in Istalif, is still trying to connect the town’s craftspeople with international markets, and recently included its pottery in a landmark exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution — where their wares were the best- selling items, Liddle said. But of the various Afghan crafts the group was trying to promote, including jewellery and woodwork, “ceramics is the most challenging one and the hardest to commercialise internationally,” because of the difficulty in shipping delicate pieces and ensuring that the quality of the pottery is up to the high standards of buyers in London or New York, Liddle said.

The loss of business seemed an especially cruel turn for a place that had managed to survive far more crippling shocks. Mohamed Islam Malekzada, who manages a pottery business started by his grandfather and spoke in his shop on the main street, spent years in a Taliban prison after the insurgents raided Istalif in the late 1990s.

He was rounded up with other residents and beaten “after they burned our homes,” he said. “It was a very dark era,” he said. The family returned to Istalif after the fall of the Taliban and revived their pottery business, with help from Turquoise Mountain, which worked to improve the quality of the ceramics and revived a distinct, natural glaze — measures that were supposed to help Istalif’s craftspeople market their wares abroad. Yet Malekzada said he hardly ever received international orders. “There was one shipment to America, for 25 pieces, about two months ago,” he said. With international support drying up, Afghanistan’s government had not jumped in to support the struggling pottery industry, he said.

As he spoke, a family stopped by, browsing past the pricier pottery before settling on a large, unglazed pot that cost less than a dollar. “We are not going to give up,” Malekzada said. “We kept the business in bad days, and we will keep going as long as we can.” In his book “Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town,” Noah Coburn, an anthropologist who spent several years working and living in Istalif, described the central role of pottery production in the town and on local politics. It “shaped the rhythm of life for the potters” by requiring a high level of integration in families and collective labour, he wrote. That, in turn, “encouraged loyalty and hierarchy.”

Creating change

By contrast, the foreign non-governmental organisations that worked in Istalif had little effect, “despite large amounts of money being spent,” Coburn wrote. “Most surprisingly, the NGOs’ goals often had little to do with a desire to improve life in Istalif,” he continued. “Most of the projects had been conceived abroad, and the goal of the development workers was to ensure that the programmes ran as described in their funding documents, not in a way that created real change.”

Across the street from Malekzada’s stall, another shopkeeper, Abdul Jabar, was also trying to seize any opportunity, handing a young man a small clay pot that the boy said he needed to feed his partridge, on the promise that the boy’s father would pay later. Abdul Jabar traced the history of Istalif through Afghanistan’s recent eras, recalling the Taliban occupation, when he hid in Kabul, moving from house to house until he was able to restart his business. Years later, the town prospered as Afghanistan became more secure, and “people would come from all over the country for picnics,” he said.

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