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.

Will This Amazing New Facility Put Bamiyan Back on the Map?

For centuries, the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan stood guard over the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. These two massive sculptures—one measuring 115 feet in height, the other 174 feet—were carved directly into the valley’s sandstone cliffs approximately 1,500 years ago.

Visitors came from around the world to view these unique examples of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage. However, years of fighting and conflict took their toll on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Unfortunately, the statues were destroyed in 2001, an incident that was devastating for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Today, however, a bold new initiative is in development that aims to pay homage to the legacy of the Bamiyan Buddhas and to put the Bamiyan region back on Afghanistan’s cultural map. The Bamiyan Cultural Center, a project initiated by UNESCO in collaboration with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, is intended to serve as a hub for culture and creativity in Afghanistan and to contribute to a vital national discussion on the past, present, and future of the country’s cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the vision for the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

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The Bamiyan Cultural Center is envisioned as a vital space for a wide range of activities and programs around the topics of cultural diversity, cultural heritage, and the future of cultural identity and cultural preservation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government, like many of the country’s citizens, believes that sparking conversations around these topics is an essential part of rebuilding and redevelopment efforts, and that the thread of culture and heritage is one of the most important in the fabric of civil society.

Practically speaking, the Bamiyan Cultural Center will be home to two gallery spaces (focused on Afghan archaeology and similar cultural subjects), an auditorium for live performances, a tea house, and an extensive outdoor garden. The Center will host a variety of events—from speakers and lectures, to regular exhibits, to special displays like the Kabul Photo Biennale. When it is complete and operational, the Center will benefit many stakeholders from a wide demographic, including schoolchildren, visiting scholars and researchers, and national and international organizations.

 

Who will design the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

In 2015, after being flooded with a remarkable 1,070 design entries from 117 different countries, UNESCO and the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture chose a proposal from an Argentina-based architectural team as the winning design. Carlos Nahuel Recabarren, Manuel Alberto Martínez Catalán, and Franco Morero won over a panel of distinguished jury members with their proposal, entitled “Descriptive Memory: The Eternal Presence of Absence.”

The vision of the Descriptive Memory proposal is of a generous public park that extends out to meet the rooftop of the Cultural Center, which is imagined as a sunken building complex which surrounds a public plaza and is bordered by a reflective pool. As the architectural team described in a statement, its vision was inspired by the image of a meeting place where ideas can be shared and communicated, and which highlights the impressive surroundings of the Buddha Cliffs.

Thus, rather than imposing a newly-built structure on the landscape, the team is working very much with the notion of the Center as something that is “found” or “discovered” by carving it out of the ground. This strategy ensures that the building is fully integrated into its environment. It also pays homage to the area’s ancient building traditions.

In choosing this proposal as the winner, the jury particularly praised the design’s well-conceived plan and sensitive site strategy that minimizes the structure’s visual impact; the choice of brick as the designated building material; the Center’s elegant curving passageways; and the project’s appropriate consideration of scale and feasibility of construction. The design has been endorsed by Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who also took the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to protecting the country’s cultural heritage through the announcement of a national program to support cultural diversity.

 

Who is financing the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

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Financing for the main complex of the Bamiyan Cultural Center—which has a projected cost of US $2.5 million—is being provided by the government of South Korea. The Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing is supplying an additional US $1.5 million for the creation of the outdoor areas, including the gardens and public park.

 

Why is the Bamiyan Cultural Center important?

Initiatives like the Bamiyan Cultural Center, with its focus on national unity, cross-cultural awareness, and the safeguarding of ancient heritage, are hugely important elements in the broader process of reconciliation, peace-building, and economic development in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Bamiyan Cultural Center is expected to make a valuable contribution to Afghanistan’s socio-economic development by revitalizing visitor interest in the Bamiyan valley, which remains a UNESCO World Heritage Site even without the famous Buddhas. Finally, the Center will encourage local residents to participate in tourism-oriented efforts that will help grow their communities and showcase their ancient heritage.

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.