Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Kabul's Old City Gets A Facelift

KABUL, October 16, 2010 -- Kabul has been so damaged by wars and pell-mell rebuilding that it's hard to remember this was once a pretty city with elegant mud-brick mansions, elaborate carved-wood lattice windows, and shady courtyards.

But some of the old neighborhoods still exist, hidden away in what today are the poorest parts of town.

To find them means going to the very center of Kabul, where a bazaar the locals call "Titanic" appears each summer in the dry gulch of the Kabul River, then disappears again with the spring floods.

There, you have to duck behind the Soviet-era buildings and concrete-box shops surrounding the bazaar and plunge into a labyrinth of smoky, noisy lanes. As the smoke from the blacksmiths' forges stings your eyes and the hammering rings in your ears, you reach the neighborhood of Murad Khane.

For decades, this neighborhood of once-grand homes was so neglected that it literally fell into ruin. The mud-brick homes crumbled around the residents as they became too destitute to repair them. Some of the largest homes turned into cheap warehouse space for the nearby bazaar and their courtyards became dumping sites for trash from other parts of town.

But now, Murad Khane is reviving. Since 2006, it has been the focus of a major renovation effort funded mostly by private international donors. And as its buildings return to view, the neighborhood is becoming one of the city's most charming historical treasures.

Rory Brown, the development officer for the project, says the task of just digging out the trash has been prodigious. "Since 2006, we have removed almost 20,000 cubic meters of rubbish from the streets, courtyards, and sites of collapsed buildings in Murad Khane," he says. "In places, that has meant the street level has dropped by up to 2 meters."

Here is a picture of one of the neighborhood's landmark buildings, the "Peacock House," after extensive restoration. A 'before' picture of the house is at the top of this article.

The recovery is part of a $25 million effort by the Kabul-based Turquoise Mountain project and the brainchild of two well-known British personalities.

One is the Prince of Wales, who famously dislikes modern architecture, and the other is Rory Stewart, Turquoise Mountain's founder. Stewart walked across Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban to write the best-selling book "The Places In Between" and, like Prince Charles, admires Afghanistan's cultural and artistic traditions and wants to help revive them.

The Peacock House is named for the motif of peacocks that appears on its carved wood facade. Like many of the other landmark buildings in Murad Khane, it dates to the 1920s, when dozens of buildings with elaborate wood carvings were erected by rich families.

The district itself was long associated with the royal palace that stands nearby. Afghanistan's founding ruler, Ahmad Shah Durrani, built several buildings there in the 18th century to house members of his court and it remained a prestigious address for centuries afterward.

The aim in restoring Murad Khane now is both to save the centrally located district from being bulldozed to make room for new buildings and to find a new life for some of the finest structures as a crafts school. Fifteen of the buildings will provide the campus of the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, which will not only teach new generations of artisans but also help provide a sustainable economy for the rest of the district.

This student at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture practices calligraphy.

At the same time, the urban-renewal project has built a primary school in Murad Khane, provided the neighborhood with electricity, water, sewerage, emergency repairs on private houses, and now is completing a women's community center. All the work has created near full employment in the neighborhood.

In one of the restored buildings, the institute's ceramic school is already up and running. Its teacher and headmaster is Abdul Matin, who graduated from the school last year.

Matin says one of the most difficult things for the students to master is the traditional glaze that gives Afghan ceramics their characteristic blue-green coloring. The glaze is based on a plant that grows in northern Afghanistan called "gaz" and which requires many steps to process before it delivers a rich range of colors from yellow to green.

"Actually, we don't burn the [plants] ourselves, but the people of Hairaton in [northern] Balkh Province collect them, ignite them, and collect their coal," Matin says. "We purchase the coal, then we heat it by adding some special products and next crush the coal into powder in a special machine. Once we have the powder, we can use it as a glaze."

Matin, a native of the nearby village of Istalif, which is traditionally famous for its ceramics, operates his own pottery business in addition to teaching. His studies at the school prepared him to do that by including not just pottery classes in the three-year curriculum but also general art history and design classes, business classes, and even English-language lessons.

Pictured here is one of the woodwork teachers at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture.

The comprehensive education the school offers has made it a magnet for would-be artisans across the country, despite its small size. The total student body is only 120 students, with some 30 places in each of the four craft areas of ceramics, woodworking, jewelry-making, and miniature-painting.

Khan Etebari, a spokesman for Turquoise Mountain, says each year the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture gets hundreds more applicants than it has places.

"Each year we announce the process of institute enrollment and on the average we receive between 800 up to 1,200 applications for 30 seats," Etebari says.

Unlike traditional apprenticeship programs in Afghanistan, where a student begins to study under a master at 12 and completes his training with almost no other education by 18, the new art institute only takes students who already have graduated from high school. The arts-and-crafts education at the institute is so complete that it has received Britain's demanding City and Guilds Accreditation, which certifies the quality of the students' work.

For now, as reconstruction in Murad Khane continues, the institute's three other schools remain housed in an old fort the Turquoise Mountain renovated elsewhere in Kabul as a temporary quarters. The older students there may or may not ever see the new campus being prepared for them before they graduate.

Here is one of the restored buildings in Murad Khane that will serve as part of the new campus of the arts school.

But the teachers say that all the students of the new art institute have one thing in common that previous generations of artisans in Afghanistan lacked. That is, the possibility of making a successful commercial living in their own country when previously many had to flee to find work elsewhere.

Haji Aslam, the head of the school of jewelry and gem-cutting, was trained by his father, who was a jeweler to the Afghan court. But he spent much of his own professional life as a refugee in Pakistan because of Afghanistan's recent decades of turmoil.

"[The economy] wasn't good, it was collapsing, and then all of us became refugees and headed toward the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran because there was a big fight here," Aslam says. "Our own home got hit with a rocket; my kids were injured and we couldn't live here."

Aslam says that today the jewelry business is good in Kabul, for both modern and traditional styles, and he believes his students will not have to live as he did.

It is an optimistic thought in a country still struggling with an insurgency and major economic problems. But such optimism seems fully at home in the newly awakened neighborhood of Murad Khane.




Related Links:

Turquoise Mountain Foundation

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Strong Sales But Low Investments Spell Trouble For Afghan Carpet Producers

KABUL, October 2, 2010 – Sales are good in Kabul, where both large numbers of foreigners and newly prosperous Afghans create a steady business for carpet dealers.

In Najeb Zarab market, where wholesale and retail carpet shops fill the inner courtyard of a large building, the famous red-and-black weavings so characteristic of northern Afghanistan reign supreme.

NATO and U.S. soldiers come looking for souvenirs and buy a six-square-meter Khal Mohammadi design for $ 2,000 or two of them for $ 3,000.

And Afghan shoppers come for rugs to fill their reception rooms or give as gifts. During the recent Eid holidays, the shop owners say, business was particularly brisk.

But if the fast turnover suggests good times for Afghan rug merchants, that is only half the story.

Many will tell you that the sales only hide a very worrisome business trend. And that is the flight of capital investment from their industry. Without new investment, they fear, the country's still just revived carpet sector will shrink despite the strong market demand.

Subhan Gul is CEO of Hali Weavers, a young company that has exhibited its products at international trade shows such as Domotex in Hannover and won awards for its design innovations.

A visitor might expect him to be upbeat about his success, and he is. But he also surprises guests with the extent of his concern about the future.

In previous decades, Subhan says, when he and many other Afghan weavers were based in refugee camps in Pakistan, there was virtually no domestic Afghan market for rugs. But unlike today there was plenty of investment money.

In those days, wealthy Afghans who fled the country to escape its wars needed somewhere to put their money to work. And in Pakistan they often put it into the refugee carpet industry since they lacked the contacts needed to invest it in other sectors of the Pakistani economy.

The returns for the investors were good because, at that time, the global economy was strong. Afghan weavers in Pakistan enjoyed notable successes, including launching the now famous chobi design which swept the export market with bold Indo-Persian designs and natural dyes.

The chobi, which appeared some 10 years ago, still remains one of the best selling carpet designs in the world today.

But as Afghan refugees have returned in large numbers to Afghanistan over the past decade, the investment possibilities for those with money have broadened considerably.

Subhan says that these days faster returns can be made by investing in virtually any kind of business that imports consumer goods. The number of shops – from kiosks to a shopping mall complete with escalators – that now fill Kabul's streets offers a measure of how much investment has gone that way.

The impact of the capital flight out of the carpet industry is compounded by a number of other factors, particularly the difficulty of getting bank loans as an alternative. The interest rate for commercial bank loans in Afghanistan today runs 13 to 14 percent. That is compared to just 2.5 to 3 percent in Pakistan, but loan shopping across the border requires the borrower to first be a Pakistani citizen.

Some of the other factors complicating the Afghan producer's finances are the high tax of 15 percent which the Kabul government levies on sales (and which is collected annually when companies renew their licenses); the lack of any government rebates on exports; and a crushing level of bureaucracy which means producers spend some 15 days processing their export documentation for each consignment.

Here is a detail of the weaving on the border of one of Afghanistan's popular red-and-black rugs, a Konduz-Waziri woven in Konduz province.

Afghan carpet producers say they will need new investment if they are ever to complete the process of rebuilding their industry at home. Afghanistan has yet to establish high-quality cutting and finishing facilities comparable to those in Pakistan and much of that downstream work continues to be done at high cost across the border.

New investment is also needed to build up Afghanistan's dye industry and develop its wool sector further. Most of the wool used in Afghan weaving today comes from New Zealand, despite the country having its own famous Ghazni wool which is highly prized by foreign customers.

And, perhaps most of all, investment is needed for that all important activity of any industry: advertising. Without it, and publicity about the uniqueness of the weavers' work, Afghanistan will almost certainly lose ground to powerhouses like China and India which are ready and able to duplicate the Afghans' most successful designs.

For now, the Afghan weavers, many of whom are ethnic Turkmen like Subhan, rely upon the timeless appeal of their traditional red-and-black rugs -- the famous "red rugs" of Central Asia. One of them, a Konduz-Waziri is shown here.

They also are counting upon their ability to keep innovating with the best-selling chobi pattern. Some of the current innovations include add-ons such as silk and gold thread or embossed motifs, and trying different washing techniques such as 'golden wash' to add depth of color and tone.

But if tradition and innovation seem to be enough to keep sales booming for now, they are not enough to make anyone complacent about the future. Instead, without the missing third ingredient – new capital – they may be only enough to stand still in an industry where standing still means losing ground.




Related Links:

Hali Weavers