In October, I was lucky enough to return to Afghanistan to visit the artisans we work with.
I landed on a warm afternoon as the sun was sloping over the mountains and the light was golden and startling. The city's streets felt quieter with fewer cars and more bicycles and horse carts. The bomb blast walls are now covered in sprawling script from the Taliban and the old green, red and black flag replaced by the white Talib flag fluttering over the streets. There were noticeably fewer women on the streets, but most you do see are covered in the billowing blue Burka.
I went to meet the ladies of Zindagi Now, our initiative to train, employ and support women to learn and create jewellery in a safe environment. The buzz of energy, bursts of laughter and excitement were contagious. It was pure joy to see the ladies again that I had met last year and with whom I have had zoom and mentoring sessions since. In one year, these ladies have perfected their silversmithing and stone-cutting skills and have become competent designers. I reviewed the 60 lady's work as we sat and caught up. I heard about life this last year and discussed designs. One lady created a tiny cage with a little figure inside, which she says is how women now feel trapped in their homes. Another showed work with the sun passing in front of the moon, showing the light will return after a period of darkness. We discussed hoops and chains, hair clips and rings all made with such vitality and positive intent. In a way, these ladies know a little part of themselves are going out into the world through their jewellery. The pieces are being sent back to London to be put on our website under Next Generation where their work can be seen and bought.
These particular ladies are excited that so much has changed for them in the last year. From the fear and panic of the political changes in 2021 to increasing restrictions on their mobility, this group of ladies are some of the few fortunate ones, they can come to work, there is a creche for their children, and they receive a salary and a hot lunch. With this salary, these women can help their families financially; some are young and should be at school, others are illiterate and have had very little opportunity in their lives having never been to school, still others are professionals unable to work in their old government or NGO jobs and have found a new community, a new form of creativity and ways to express themselves.
I talked with women's rights activists, orphans, mothers and grandmothers, shy ladies, bold ladies, and girls that made me smile with their infectious joy, and others made me want to cry as I listened to their hardships and challenges. All are courageous, committed, grateful, and happy to be a part of Zindagi Now - a new life.
I was also over the moon to return to Murad Khane, where the school of Turquoise Mountain is nestled in an ancient brown earthen building with walls as thick as two men, keeping the warmth in and the cold out. The warren of worn passages and courtyards smelled of cedar and walnut wood, the sun filtered through the carved wood jali work walls, and the beautiful calligraphy of Rumi poems decorated the courtyard walls surrounding the pomegranate trees. There was an overwhelming feeling of peace, quiet, and creative contentment as I followed the teachers to meet the ladies who had set up small businesses within the school's walls and were passing their skills to younger girls.
I felt such joy seeing the women. Some I have known for years, and we greet each other with hugs and kisses; others are new, and we shyly shake hands. We looked at their work which was full of creativity, beauty, and wonderful stories. The joy of music are found in a tiny pair of perfectly crafted 'flute' earrings, the geometric designs found on mosque tiles have made their way into necklaces and a turtle moves its legs with the pull of a chain. I listened to stories, and we discussed their work over hot green tea.
The men worked in another side of the school, and it was just as exciting. Goldsmiths have teamed up with miniature painters to create intricate unique work and a treasured family home has been interpreted in a necklace. Another young man has translated the history of Afghanistan with a necklace from the Bactrian camels, depictions of the Silk Road, and the recent pride of the country when an engineer created a car made from all the leftover tanks and war debris.
I was so lucky to join a family birthday celebration, to sit with the women and discuss our children, our loves and our lives. Babies were passed around and toddlers lent on mothers and watched older cousins play. There was so much love, so much warmth and such welcome. The Afghans are a people who have suffered so many decades of war, violence, death, and destruction, yet their culture instills such reliance and pride within them.
I felt humbled to witness such humanity, respect and care between people. I work with such pride with the Afghan artisans and look forward to seeing Zindagi Now, a social enterprise, grow and include more and more women, spreading opportunity, hope and a safe retreat in the creative act of collective making.