Blue Sky thinking Revives Blue Pottery Village
By Clare Brett Smith, Hand / Eye Magazine
The Emperor Babur, 1483-1530, India’s first Mughal Emperor, kept a diary noting trees and flowers, poetry, wine and parties as well as his gruesome conquests southward. Like Afghans today, he longed for his homeland. In the Baburnama he wrote, “There are few places to equal Istalif… a large torrent runs through the middle of the village and there are orchards on both sides. Verdant, pleasant small garden plots…” Even into the 1980’s, Istalif’s pastoral beauty made it a place for country picnics. But it was also an artisan village celebrated for its pottery, especially for the intense lapis-like glaze considered a special gift from God only passed on to those worthy of it. In the 1990’s though, Istalif was caught between the Mujahadeen and the Taliban. In 1999 the Taliban pounded it into rubble, cut down the orchards, burned the grape vines and the people scattered. But Istalif was remembered as home and home is not so easily destroyed.
One of the first to return to Istalif was potter Abdul Wakheel. Renee Montagne of NPR brought his story to the world in 2002. He needed, “beams to finish rebuilding his home; money for pottery supplies, and possibly food to tide him over until the pots began selling again.” Her story worked. People from many nations, perhaps sharing nostalgia for the idyllic life of an artisan village, have come to help.
Based on the long friendship between Ira and Sylvia Seret in Santa Fe and Abdul Ahmed Istalifi’s family in Kabul, the Serets set up the Jindhag Foundation to help rebuild the Istalifi family’s ancestral village. Abdul is a respected elder in Afghanistan, and one of his sons, Ali Istalifi, now living in London, believes Afghanistan needs local involvement and well-managed aid.
Because the ruined marketplace had been the economic heart of the town, Abdul and Ira reasoned the rebuilding 120 main street shops was the first goal for Jindhag. Silvia wrote, “Getting the villages to help clear the rubble on each of their shop locations enabled us to afford the rebuilding which came to a bit more than $1,000 a shop.” Ali added, “When we started the rebuilding of the shops, we did it in one go. It was very important that once we started we finished it. One shop owner came to me every day during the work, concerned that we would not get to his shop, which was one of the last.”
Knowing that the sales are crucial to the sustainability of Istalif, The Jindhag Foundation placed orders with each of the potter families for the July 2007 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market: the largest order Istalif had ever had. Ali, who manned the booth at the Market, knows there is still more to do. He and his father plan to use proceeds from the market to build new village kilns. Please see Jindhag.org
Renee Montagne told of her return to Istalif four years later: “Abdul Wakheel was massively better off. His new baby son is a round-faced, plump healthy baby… His wife and sister in law are also much much healthier… It was quite noticeable for the entire family. They are dirt poor still, and live on dirt floors, but seem to consider themselves doing as well as there were in better days… Everyone seemed to be working, people were quite happy all in all, and living a traditional life with a few modern conveniences, like power, which they hadn’t had before.”