Kabul, Afghanistan | May, 2006
I seem to spend far too much time telling you stories of the novel and flighty aspects of life in Kabul and its environs. I have been guilty of not depicting what it is that actually happens every day in our offices. There have been two reasons for this hesitation. First, three years in Afghanistan has made me more than a bit sensitive to the constant talk of “empowering Afghan women”. I always wanted to do it without making a big, cheesy show over it and inadvertently exploiting the topic. I always viewed Tarsian & Blinkley as the hip, lighthearted, no fuss way to create employment and welfare for poor local women while creating something the world actually wanted and did not purchase out of pity.
However, there are times when the facts need to be told and the story is that we are doing a serious service to the people who work for us. They are more often than not individuals who have virtually no other recourse for finding employment. The wages they pull in from Tarsian & Blinkley are the difference between discomfort and worry or relative tranquility, paid rent, shoes for the kids, and full stomachs. I asked my assistant Palwasha, now on her way to Bucknell College in Pennsylvania (thanks to a scholarship found for her by the fabulous ladies at the Business Council for Peace), to catalogue the stories of a selection of our handiworkers. The following are those stories, one lady at a time…
A typical scene in the embroidery distribution room – discussions of techniques and swapping of design ideas
Hawa Said Ali
Embroidery Specialty: Pokhtedouzi
Styles She Has Produced: Chard Tunic, Cote D’Afghan, Domanera, Chloe
Hawa is a very special lady and one you could describe as a favorite of mine. Unlike the other pieceworkers, she never approached us aggressively, shouting to grab our attention amongst the throng of ladies vying for our attention. She always opted for gentle manners but backing those gentle manners was a rock solid work ethic that repeatedly returned fantastic work. Though she was a late comer, having only turned up about a year ago into our network, she caught my eye because she had been a refugee in Iran. I always pity those Afghans that had to go to Iran because the lower strata of Iranian society do not regard Afghans particularly well and in most cases, the Afghans suffer for it.
Hawa has the “misfortune” of having six daughters and only one son, a fact that every Afghan pities from the bottom of their heart. Afterall, Afghanistan is a man’s world and girls are regarded as an ultimate burden. More unfortunately, her one son suffers from brain damage attributed to the Taliban period when he incurred a head injury.
During the civil war in the 90’s, Hawa and her family fled to Iran as refugees and underwent incredible difficulties in transit. They traveled for 7 days, sometimes walking, sometimes on the backs of trucks, and had nothing to eat almost the entire time. Occasionally fellow refugees would give them food, but they did not eat properly until they reached Iran.
In Iran, Hawa says that they were quite content because her husband had work and a steady income. A couple of years after 9/11, they decided to return to Afghanistan and have been struggling ever since because her husband has not been able to find any form of employment here. She has become the sole breadwinner of the family via the work she receives from Tarsian & Blinkley. Since we like having her around, we have also hired her as a cleaner in the office and she says that she is very happy with the arrangement. Not only does she collect a regular salary, but her constant presence on the premises allows her to be able to collect a consistent amount of embroidery work to supplement that salary. According the Palwasha, “she has a happy life now”.
Embroidery Specialty: Kandaharidouzi and Eyelet Stitching
Styles She Has Produced: Kimono and Gold Blinkley’s Scarf
I remember Zainab from 2002, the summer I came to Kabul between first and second year of business school. She was noticeable amongst the throng of women in the Maharat offices because she was very tall and had the most solemn and sad face -- expressionless and seemingly incapable of a smile. In 2002, the ladies were still in shock over their sudden “liberation” and not quite used to the sunlight yet. I asked her fat, talkative mother why her daughter was so sad and she said that she had not been outside much in the past 7 years. Rather than leave and become refugees elsewhere, they had opted to sit through the hideous reign of the Taliban.
Zainab has two brothers and four sisters and three of her sisters are illiterate because they were barred from attending school during the Taliban era. Her family is originally from Bamiyan but during the Taliban massacres of Hazaras (an ethnic minority heavily persecuted by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban), they escaped to Kabul for safety. The Taliban killed thousands of Hazaras and burned their farms and villages during that period in Bamiyan province and elsewhere.
The family lives in a rental property consisting of two rooms with a rent of $60 per month. Her father is a “muzurkar”, meaning that he earns his keep lifting things and transporting them around town for whoever requires it. He earns about $50 - $80 per month, which is inadequate to make ends meet. She says that the work she and her sister do for Tarsian & Blinkley greatly helps the family’s income and is very appreciated because she is illiterate and has few other options for work. Her youngest sister attends school and is in the fifth grade.
Embroidery Specialty: Sequinwork and Beading
Styles She has Produced: Tulip Carboz, Short Kurta, Bias Skirt
Shirin got married at the age of seventeen during the 1990’s civil war. Within two months of her nuptials, she and her husband banded together with ten other families and went to Pule-Khumri, a town in the provinces. They occupied a school and lived there essentially as refugees. Her husband sold potatoes for a living. Things were all right for a period of time until news came that the Taliban had taken Pule-Khumri. This forced them to flee back to Kabul on foot. They had no food on the multi-day trip and suffered a great deal. From Kabul, they eventually fled to Pakistan and lived there for five years.
She and her family have now returned to Kabul hoping to settle back to normalcy, but they continue to encounter difficulties. They do not own their own home and her husband is jobless. He was initially selling vegetables on the street, but the government has tried to ban that activity and has told street sellers to acquire shops. Since he does not have the capital for a shop, he is now entirely without work. The only source of income they have comes from the embroidery work that Shirin does for Tarsian & Blinkley. Because she is illiterate, this kind of work is one of her very few options for her.
Embroidery Specialty: Chainstitch
Styles She has Produced: Ascots, Nefertiti, Hazara, Buzkash
Karima has been with us for years and is recognized for her intelligence and capable attitude. Her hardships make her occasionally tricky to deal with, but she exudes reliability and confidence, a trait not always seen in the women here. She is also a Hazara from Bamiyan with seven children, the eldest being a 17 year old girl. Karima explains that many years ago, her family had what could be described as a good life in Bamiyan valley. But during the civil war and the takeover of Bamiyan by the Taliban, her home was burned and she lost everything she had. Her family escaped with their lives and lived in tents on a mountainside before making it to Kabul where there was relative safety.
They now rent a standard two-room home in Chargala, the Hazara/Shiite neighborhood of Kabul, though her husband remains in Bamiyan and works as a teacher for a pitiful salary of $50 per month. All the supplementary income for this family of nine comes from her handiwork for Tarsian & Blinkley. Through her grit and endurance, she has managed to keep things going and sends all of her children to school. She aspires to re-establish the relative peace and prosperity they once enjoyed in the green valley of Bamiyan.
Karima and her family at home (Pictures were originally taken for an Organic Style Magazine Shoot in January of 2005).
Roya (Hawa’s daughter)
Embroidery Specialty: Pokhtedouzi
Styles She has Produced: Belts for Cote D’Afghan, Domanera, Farahnaz
Roya is 32 years old and acknowledges that all Afghan women have suffered hugely in the past two decades and recounts one of the more dreadful things that happened to her in her life. When the Taliban attacked Bamiyan and the family was escaping by foot, she went into labor. All around her she recalls seeing refugees walking and remembers herself at the side of the road giving birth to a child. It was a horrible and frightening scene.
Embroidery Specialty: Beading
Styles She has Produced: Bamiyan, Short Kurta
Neghbakht always does reliable, pretty beadwork on our popular Bamiyan collars. I always found her to be sweet and engaging as a person, never realizing that she has lived through so many tragedies. Her mother died when she was three years old and shortly after that, her eldest brother died in a truck accident. As a teenager, she got engaged to her cousin and after just a few days of the engagement, her other brother’s truck was hit by a rocket, killing him as well. After one month of his death, she got married and now has five children. She says that they have an abundance of ongoing financial problems and the work she receives from Tarsian & Blinkley is a big help in making ends meet.
Embroidery Specialty: Kandahardouzi
Styles She has Produced: Manto, Kimono, Drawstring Pant
Shikeba is a high school student and second eldest in her family. She does work for Tarsian & Blinkley on the side in order to generate some extra cash for her struggling family. Similar to many other families, her father mysteriously “disappeared” during the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan. As a Hazara, they were a widely persecuted minority and many were killed during the Taliban regime. She says that the family still harbors hopes of him coming home one day, miss him hugely, and are “always waiting for him”.
In truth, Shikeba is not one of our great embroiders. But we’ve had her around for a long time and she is best remembered as the embroiderer that gifted me the best kitty in the entire world, my beloved Choochegak. Granted Choochegak was verging on death when she brought the little thing over, but we’ve since nursed her to her health and she currently lives in the lap of luxury in one of the most beautiful villas in Kabul.
Choochee, the once-malnourished but now healthy kitten given to Sarah by Shikeba
Palwasha also interviewed a lady named Shahdari who I have no personal acquaintance with. Shahdari said that her story is no different from that of so many others in Afghanistan. “I am from a very poor family. I have seven children and I am pregnant. I am so poor that I cannot afford to send my children to school and all of my children are illiterate. My husband is a muzurkar (transports heavy stuff around town for a fee) and has occasional work. The additional work I get at Tarsian & Blinkley allows us to eat.” Very depressing. If we a stronger organization and a bigger business, we could reign in characters like Shahdari, engage them more consistently, and give them incentives to send their children to school. That is why I am trying to figure out how to strengthen Maharat, the non-profit that was originally associated with us and get it registered in the US.
Embroidery Specialty: Pokhtedouzi
Styles She Has Produced: Khiva, Kimono, Triclodes
Zewar has only recently gotten married. She explains that her own family is all right financially but that her in-laws are quite poor and her husband jobless and still dependent on them. She herself is illiterate, as is common for many girls in Afghanistan of a certain age. The work she does for Tarsian & Blinkley goes towards assisting her in-laws and is a “great chance” because she is permitted to do the work from home. She would otherwise not be allowed by her in-laws to spend her days working outside the home.
Embroidery Specialty: Crochet
Styles She Has Produced: Pin Blouse, Shirin, Towers, Graphica, Papavera
Guljan is 32 years old but still unmarried because she has the responsibility of caring for her brother and two sisters. The reason for this is that during the civil war, an errant missile hit their home and killed both of her parents. They now live in her uncle’s home and her siblings go to school. The handiwork she does for Tarsian & Blinkley covers the cost of all needs associated with school, such as clothes and reading materials, while her uncle covers their food and shelter.