Spotlight on 8 Amazing Afghan Craftsmen and Artisans

Over the last decade, the nonprofit, non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain has been working tirelessly to revive and revitalize traditional Afghan arts and crafts. Today, thanks to initiatives like the Turquoise Mountain Institute—Afghanistan’s premier vocational training institute for arts and crafts—and extensive partnerships with international organizations, markets, and artists, a whole new generation of artists are breathing new life into Afghanistan’s unique crafts traditions, and transforming their own lives in the process. Read on to meet a few of the 450 artisans that Turquoise Mountain has worked with over the years.

 

 

  1. Javid Noori

The Noori family has been in the jewelry business since Javid’s father founded his first shop in the 1950s; it was here that Javid began to watch and learn his future craft. Although his family left Afghanistan during the conflict years, Javid returned in 2002 and established one of the country’s best-equipped jewelry workshops. Having quickly gained a reputation for working exclusively with Afghanistan’s finest gemstones, Javid saw his business thrive, leading to a host of opportunities, including a collaboration with renowned international jewelry designer Pippa Small.

Despite the scale of his success, Javid remains firmly committed to supporting and nurturing the next generation of Afghan jewelers. To this end, he teaches part time at the Turquoise Mountain Institute and nurtures promising emerging talents as apprentices in his workshop.

 

  1. Ahmad Shafiq

A 2011 graduate of the jewelry and gem-cutting school at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Ahmad Shafiq is the cofounder of Blue Diamond, a jewelry business that specializes in creating unique, modern pieces that are inspired by traditional Afghan designs. Together with his three fellow cofounders, Ahmad has collaborated with Hattie Rickards, a UK-based designer, on a contemporary jewelry collection that features indigenous stones and bold geometric patterns. He has also worked with jewelry designers Vicki Sarge and Zara Simon, and with prestigious international labels MADE and Bajalia. The Blue Diamond workshop is based in the old city of Kabul.

 

  1. Tamim Sahebzada

As a member of a family of well-known calligraphers, Tamim Sahebzada was just seven years old when he began learning the art of miniature painting. Today, at the age of 35, Tamim continues his family tradition of working to preserve the Behzad School of illumination work, a style of painting that originated in Persia in the late 15th century. In addition to teaching miniature painting, illumination, and design at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Tamim has exhibited his work locally and internationally to wide acclaim.

 

  1. Samira Kitman

Although just 25 years old, calligrapher Samira Kitman is already running one of the most successful arts enterprises in Afghanistan. A graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Samira established her own business, Muftah-e Honar, in 2012. Two years later, the company garnered a prestigious commission for Mecca’s five-star Anjum Hotel, which Samira completed along with 15 fellow calligraphy graduates from Turquoise Mountain. Since that time, Samira’s reputation for producing quality handmade artworks has grown significantly, enabling her to work on numerous bespoke commissions for public buildings, exhibitions, and private clients all around the world.

 

  1. Masoud Abdul Baqi

Born in Kabul in 1984, Masoud Abdul Baqi grew up outside Afghanistan but returned to the country at the age of 10. After completing high school, Masoud enrolled in the Turquoise Mountain Institute’s woodwork program. Today, he is a specialist in jali, a unique form of woodwork that features hundreds of different geometric patterns created by using delicate joints to hold slender slivers of wood together.

 

  1. Sayed Jan Nuristani

Also known as the “Land of Light,” the Nuristan region in the Hindu Kush Mountains of northeastern Afghanistan is home to a distinctive woodcarving tradition, the hallmarks of which are geometric and repetitive patterns made by cutting deep ridges and angles. It was in a Nuristan village, working alongside his father carving interiors for village homes, that Sayed Jan Nuristani learned his woodworking craft. Today, in addition to teaching at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Sayed works alongside his son at his family business in Kabul.

 

  1. Samim Nasimy

Unlike many other artisans, Samim Nasimy is the first member of his family of distinguished engineers to receive vocational training in traditional crafts. As he explains, there is something very powerful about using one’s hands to transform raw natural material into a beautiful object. A 2012 graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Samim teaches pottery and helps to run Afghan Traditional Pottery, an independent Kabul-based business.

 

  1. Zahir Shah Amin

Born in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1988, Zahir Shah Amin is the son of one of the most renowned tile-makers in Afghanistan. Zahir has been with the Turquoise Mountain Institute since 2007, when he worked in its tile-making program. Today, Zahir is the program’s head teacher. In addition, he directs his own business and has received tile commissions for a number of prestigious projects, including an exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the new façade of the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Spotlight on 9 of the Most Popular Afghan Dishes

While Afghan cuisine was relatively unknown outside of the country’s borders until fairly recently, anyone who has sampled some of Afghanistan’s exquisite traditional dishes would agree that Afghan food deserves a worldwide following. Drawing from the cultural influences of neighboring countries—including India, Persia (Iran), and Mongolia—Afghan cuisine is a rich and complex fusion of flavors that will make any food enthusiast’s mouth water. Read on to learn about nine of Afghanistan’s most popular—and delicious—traditional dishes.

 

  1. Kabuli Pulao

food

Image by Alpha | Flickr

At an Afghan table, nothing is more important than rice, and Kabuli Pulao is the classic way to prepare and serve it. Dubbed the “national dish of Afghanistan,” Kabuli Pulao is what Western foodies would recognize as pilaf: a delicious mixture of rice, spices, vegetables, nuts, and meat, usually lamb. While the dish varies greatly from one region to another, with different areas making use of their own local ingredients and cooking methods, they all prepare Kabuli Pulao with a slow, multi-step cooking process during which the rice develops a deep rich brown color and a beautifully caramelized flavor. In Afghanistan, young girls are taught to make Kabuli Pulao before marriage. Indeed, it’s said that a woman’s marriage prospects may depend on how well she prepares this dish.

 

  1. Mantu

Also known as manto or manti, these stuffed dumplings are a nod to Mongolia’s influence on Afghan cuisine (dumplings and noodles being major staples of Mongolian cooking). A popular street food in many Afghan cities, mantu are prepared from a filling of spiced ground meat and onions wrapped in a thin dough. The dumplings are then steamed, rather than fried, which gives them a lighter taste. They are often served with tomato and yogurt sauces on the side, or you can try them with qoroot, a special type of sour cheese.

 

  1. Ashak

Another traditional dumpling dish, this one hailing from Kabul, ashak uses meat as a topping rather than as a filling. Smaller than mantu dumplings, ashak dumplings are stuffed with gandana, a vegetable that resembles chives or scallions, and is served on a large platter topped with spiced minced meat, garlic yogurt sauce, and dried mint. Unlike many Afghan dishes, which usually have a fairly mild flavor, ashak can be quite spicy. Since dumplings can be time-consuming to make, ashak is not usually prepared as an everyday meal, but instead is reserved for important holidays such as Eid and Ramadan.

 

  1. Bolani

This delicious stuffed vegetarian flatbread is a classic example of the central role that bread plays in Afghan cuisine. Also known as peraki (or poraki), bolani’s stuffing is made of hearty vegetables such as pumpkin, potatoes, and lentils, with chives and leeks adding flavor. The stuffing is encased in a light, thin dough, almost like a sandwich, and the dish is baked or fried until crisp. Bolani is often eaten as a quick snack or served alongside other main courses.

 

  1. Kebab

Lamb or mutton is the most common type of meat served in Afghanistan, and Afghan cooks are experts at preparing it, often marinating it for hours to ensure maximum tenderness and flavor. The best way to consume Afghan lamb is as a kebab. Chunks of marinated lamb meat, often still on the bone, are threaded onto long metal skewers and grilled over a charcoal fire. The slow cooking process enables the meat to melt in your mouth. Rice, naan, and a special Afghan green sauce comprised of garlic, lime juice, and chilies are common accompaniments.

 

  1. Kofta

Kofta is another delicious way to consume lamb in Afghanistan. In this dish, ground lamb is used rather than whole chunks: the minced meat is flavored with spices, onions, and garlic, and shaped into small patties or meatballs. They are then fried and served over rice with tomato-yogurt sauce.

 

  1. Qormas

quormas

Image by Nadir Hashmi | Flickr

Also known as kormas, the Indian version of these creamy stews will be familiar to most Westerners. Afghan qormas are prepared from a base of fried onion and garlic to which cooks add tomatoes, chickpeas, vegetables, meat, dried fruit, and yogurt, as desired. Qormas are often thickened with a nut puree, which gives them their distinctive smooth and creamy texture, and they usually have a sweeter flavor.

 

  1. Roat

While Afghan cuisine tends to focus more on the savory rather than the sweet, there are still many delicious examples of Afghan baking and desserts, and roat is one of the most common. A dense, crumbly cake, flavored with cardamom and only lightly sweetened, roat is a cross between a savory quick bread and a sweet cake that is often served for breakfast or with afternoon tea. Roat is traditionally made in the shape of a large oval, sprinkled with nigella seeds and served sliced into diamonds.

 

  1. Sheer Payra

Another example of an excellent Afghan sweet dish is sheer payra, Afghanistan’s answer to fudge. This mouthwatering confection is prepared with the traditional Afghan flavorings of rosewater and pistachios, along with cardamom and other nuts. Since milk and sugar, the main ingredients in sheer payra, are at a premium in Afghanistan, the dish is usually only prepared for special occasions including Eid, weddings, and birth celebrations, as well as for honored guests.

4 Facts about Islamic Calligraphy That Will Amaze You

Turqoise MountainTraditional arts and crafts suffered greatly during Afghanistan’s long years of civil conflict, but over the last decade, the country has seen a renaissance of traditional art forms and the launch of a brand-new generation of artisans. One group spearheading this remarkable revival is the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization Turquoise Mountain, an international association founded in 2006 that is dedicated to revitalizing historic areas in Afghanistan and to spurring the development and growth of the Afghan arts and crafts industry.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s most important initiatives is the Turquoise Mountain Institute. As the premier arts vocational training institution in Afghanistan, the Institute is where the country’s future master artisans get their start. Around 15 students are accepted every year via a highly competitive application process, and successful candidates then receive three years of intensive training in their particular craft from some of the world’s most distinguished artisans (both Afghan and international faculty teach at the Institute).

In addition to offering world-class training in disciplines like woodworking, ceramics, and jewelry-making and gem-cutting, the Institute serves as the home of the Alwaleed Philanthropies School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting. Calligraphy is a highly revered art form throughout Afghanistan and the rest of the Islamic world, and it has a rich and captivating history that few Westerners are familiar with. Read on for some fascinating facts about the beautiful art of Islamic calligraphy.

 

Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art form.

Islamic calligraphy began as the practice of handwriting text directly from, or based on the contents of, the Quran, the sacred book of Islam. Early calligraphers drew inspiration from significant parts of the Quran and particular sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as the statement “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” and they took these messages to heart in developing writing styles that would enhance and formalize the text of the Quran as people began to write it down on parchment. Because these artists regarded the words of the Quran as the verbal manifestation of divine truth, they viewed their work as an act of worship. Indeed, experts describe devoted Islamic calligraphers as adopting a meditative and almost mystical approach to penmanship, attempting to craft an inscription that is as pleasing to the eye and as rewarding to the spirit as the harmonious rhythm that emerges from recited verses of the Quran.

 

 

Islamic calligraphy exists in a surprising number of places.

While Islamic calligraphy began as the act of inscribing the Quran onto parchment, the art form quickly expanded to other materials. Over the centuries, people have applied calligraphy to ceramics, tile, metal, stone, glass, textiles, carpets, wood, leather, and ivory. In an exhibit of Islamic art, for example, calligraphy exists on almost every precious object, from a carved jewelry box to an inlaid pen case to a decorative water pitcher. But perhaps the most striking place to view Islamic calligraphy is in architecture: Muslim structures all over the world are adorned with beautifully crafted, flowing script running throughout the building. Some of the most famous examples include the Alhambra Palace in Spain, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and the Taj Mahal in India.

 

The instrument that people use to write calligraphy is called a qalam.

The tool that Islamic calligraphers use to create their art is called a qalam. Made from a dried bamboo stem or sometimes a dried reed, the qalam is treated and carved to hold different-colored inks. It’s important to understand, however, that the qalam is much more than just a pen—it is a spiritual tool. In fact, Muslim literature states that the first thing that God created was the qalam, which had the sacred duty to record everything that happened in a person’s life. In addition, because a calligrapher spends so much time using the qalam, it essentially becomes an extension of the hand and a repository for the calligrapher’s ideas and feelings.

For all these reasons, the qalam is treated with a particular reverence, and there’s perhaps no better illustration of this than the ritual of the qalam shavings. According to a custom long respected by calligraphers, all the shavings a calligrapher produces whenever he or she cuts and sharpens his or her qalam must be kept, from the calligrapher’s first day of learning to the day he or she dies. After the death of a calligrapher, the family performs the ritual of collecting the shavings and burning them in the fire that heats the water that will be used to wash the calligrapher’s body. In this way, the calligrapher and his or her qalam both disappear from the material world together.

 

Image by Doctor Yuri | Flickr

 

There are a number of different script styles in Islamic calligraphy.

While “Islamic calligraphy” is referred to as a single discipline or art form, there are several different script styles that calligraphers use depending on what they are writing and where they are writing it. For example, the Kufic style, which was popular during the 7th through the 10th centuries, is one of the oldest script forms and the source for other major styles that emerged later, while the Thuluth script style, which developed in the 9th century, was often used for architectural inscriptions because of its larger size and high visibility.