Kabul, Afghanistan | January, 2004
Charmed progress continues to keep me warm, even enough to feel optimistic about my first winter visit to Kabul, the high-altitude city of no central heating. As my thoughts occasionally jerk to the unpleasant thought of being cold all the time, I am also delighted to discover that my shipment has arrived safely to Kabul from Delhi with minimal hassle. Afghan customs had even tried to lab test the fabrics (and thread!) to determine customs duty, a legitimate, albeit slightly absurd, effort at professionalism.
The atmosphere in town is distinctly different from the warm, humming summer of barbeques and Scandinavian girls by the UN clubhouse poolside. There had been a spate of bombings and attacks recently on foreigners all over the country, and the second-ever Loya Jirga of the new administration is to about to be staged. The country is in rumbles over the rash of counter-government activity while it simultaneously has to stick its hand in the pot and stir the stew of agitation. Loya Jirga means that it is time for the ultimate meeting of every provincial representative throughout this great and disunited country. Hundreds of both good and not-so-sober characters will descend upon the city from all over, and some of these guys are downright scary (i.e., warlords with their tanks pitched outside of town). The elections that had recently happened for them were rife with stories of mass bribery of the voters and even detainment of the voters (in basements) the days preceding the vote so that their “vote” wouldn’t be sold to another buyer! There was a jagged lull over the whole place -- the populace seemed quite content with a self-imposed curfew and it seemed eerie driving through the streets by 8 pm.
Nevertheless, there were many improvements and pleasant surprises to this third trip. The most prominent example being the tailoring workshop/non-profit that handled all of my production. On my first trip in 2002, well before graduating from Berkeley or winning any prize at GSVC, it was a half-wrecked building with a staff of lethargic, disoriented, recently-returned refugees; and the women that visited for embroidery seemed timid and tense. Now, fast-forwarding a year and half ahead, I was looking at a new building with new carpeting and fancy furniture, all funded by profitable uniform sewing contracts for the Afghan National Army.
Word got around the neighborhood that “Miss Sarah” was back, and within a week’s time, dozens and dozens of female handiworkers were lining the hallways downstairs, hungry to be bulldozed with exotic requests. The new collection was really ambitious, handicrafts-wise. My favorite top, called “Edulis”, created 10 days of labor – first handcrochet an entire front panel, then bead a pattern on it, embroider the sleeves, sew the garment, line the garment, attach beads to the sleeves, gold thread embroider the front bodice trim, and fringe the bottom hem…But if the fashion market had taught me anything in the past 3 months, it was that you could never try hard enough!
And now that it had been three trips here, the ladies and I had formed a very unique chemistry. I knew many of them by name, who was whose cousin, who knew how to do what, who was a troublemaker, who was a widow, who was very good but very slow, who was infinitely reliable, etc. It became a musical game of trying to match competence levels with skill, explaining exactly what I needed, and not getting trampled to death in the meanwhile. Because you see, Afghanistan is not a post-colonial nation of subservient peoples – these folks often don’t take no for an answer. In the month that I was in town, 200 different women stopped by with pleas of “oh come on, give me work, too!”. Our setup, which ensured that cash ended up directly in the hands of the women, had also created for us an unmanageable degree of popularity. I continue to experiment with various crowd control techniques and I hope to get it right soon because whenever I emerge from one of my embroidery distribution sessions, I carry a hoarse voice, frazzled nerves, and a scarf that drags on the floor.
But the clothes, the new collection….wow. It was SO TOUGH to produce, but they did it, and did it well! After taking the first collection home and learning a few lessons about fit and market, I had come back with an even greater set of demands than last time. Slippery silk linings, one-sleeved asymmetrical tops with beaded straps, French seams, crochet panels – there was nothing these folks couldn’t do when setting their minds to it. Was I amazingly lucky…or just smart for being here? I haven’t made it back to the USA yet, but I can tell from the current feeding frenzy by the expat females here in Kabul, who stop by the workshop to pick up items in $400 scoops, that the line will be well-received.