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Last Updated: Friday, 30 November 2007, 12:34 GMT
Old Afghan pottery craft faces new hurdles
By Alix Kroeger
BBC News, Istalif, northern Afghanistan

The Afghan ceramics are in demand at home and abroad

On the main street through the village of Istalif, the scrape of the bricklayer's trowel rings off the walls opposite. In contrast, the potter's kick-wheel in the workshop above the street is almost silent.

Kick, spin, kick, spin: when Qari Aktar Mohammad hits his stride, he can turn out almost a pot a minute. He began learning the craft from his father when he was just 13, in 1992.

Istalif's tradition of making ceramics - turquoise, ochre and green for the most part - goes back at least 400 years. But in 1996, the village was razed by the Taleban after the withdrawal of the Northern Alliance fighters.

They destroyed most of the houses, burnt the rest, and gave the inhabitants an hour to leave. Some of the potters buried the tools under the floors of their houses. The tools were still there when they returned to Istalif after 2001, and the fall of the Taleban.

Forests disappearing

"The Taleban didn't want to let us work. They burned all our houses," said Qari Aktar.

He and his family fled to Kabul, where they continued to make pots. But they had nowhere permanent to live, so in 2002, they returned home.

"Istalif is my country," he says.

Now, there are around 60 potters' workshops operating in Istalif. But an old craft faces new hurdles.

Traditionally, kilns are fired with wood. But Afghanistan's forests are disappearing, hastened by illegal logging controlled by the warlords. Even when wood is available, the price is high.

It takes 560kg of wood to fire a kiln for the six to eight hours needed to finish a batch of pots. That costs $80 (4,000 Afghani) - a high price in a country where half the population live on less than one dollar a day.

Istalif potter Daud
In Kabul, we burned a lot of wood [to fire our kiln]. It smoked a lot, which was not good for the neighbourhood
Istalif pottery maker Daud

Now, an organisation dedicated to preserving Afghanistan's cultural heritage is trying new methods. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF), based in Kabul, has built a gas kiln in Istalif.

It's part of a resource centre which is subsidised to allow potters to experiment. The gas kiln fires at higher temperatures, which makes the pots stronger, and so more suitable for export. It's also easier to control the temperature and is cheaper to operate.

But that in its turn brings problems. The glazes crack and graze at the higher temperature. So potters at the resource centre are working to reformulate the glazes, and to get rid of the lead traditionally used.


Noah Coburn says the potters need help if they are to improve the quality of their products and reach a wider market.

Because of the high price of wood, Istalifi potters typically pack 800 to 1,200 pots into a kiln at a time.

They stack them, using small triangular trivets which leave three small, unglazed scars where the trivets separate the pots. But the scars are frowned on by international buyers.

"The potters know how to take away the three scars if they wanted to. The problem is that you have to put shelves in the kiln," Mr Coburn explains.

"So there are fewer pots per kiln. You get a slightly nicer pot, but one that costs four, five or six times as much. It makes it unaffordable," he says, especially to the Afghans who make up 90% of the market.

Potter in the village of Istalif
Pottery is an ancient Afghan tradition

TMF is also working to improve the quality of the clay used. The raw material comes from the mountains above Istalif. A small workshop might bring down a donkey-load at a time; a bigger workshop would use a small truck.

Initially it looks like pebbles and dust. Because pottery is a family business, handed down through the generations, the work is divided up based on age and seniority.

It's the lot of the youngest son to stamp on the clay for two to four hours at a time to soften it up. It's hard work, and not the best way of mixing the clay.

At the TMF resource centre, a modified wheat grinder first reduces the clay to dust. It's then watered using the network of irrigation ditches running through the village.

"The longer the clay is kept wet, the more it breaks down, and the stronger it becomes," Noah Coburn explains.

In the final stages, it's put through a mill to knock the air out of it, then mixed with a handful of fibres from bull rushes to strengthen it.


The potters pay a small amount for clay from the resource centre, about the same as it would cost to buy from a donkey driver who goes up into the hills.

Daud, 35, is one of the Istalifi potters interested in trying new methods. Like Qari Akbar, he comes from a family of potters which fled to Kabul during the Taleban time.

"In Kabul, we burned a lot of wood to fire our kiln. It smoked a lot, which was not good for the neighbourhood. The governor didn't like us, and we couldn't continue there," he says.

He says he's happy with his work, and is interested in seeing how the gas kiln works.

Ruins in the village of Istalif
The village of Istalif was razed by the Taleban

The TMF is now looking at expanding its work in Istalif, creating a programme to train women in putting the designs on the pots, and possibly reviving the local tile-making industry, which had died out.

The idea would be to make tiles to sell to wealthy Middle Easterners who are commissioning mosques.

But Istalif is a conservative village, and Noah Coburn acknowledges they will have to move slowly in creating opportunities for women.

He tells the cautionary tale of another NGO which built a gas kiln in Istalif a few years ago. It, too, wanted to improve the quality of the pots by getting rid of the three scars.

Initially, villagers welcomed the plan. But when they found out that the new kiln was supposed to be used only by women, they boycotted it.

As a result, there is a fully functional gas kiln already in Istalif which has never been used.

Istalif's pots are not fine art. Many of them break easily. Some of the designs are crudely drawn.

But the ceramics made here are a part of a genuine folk tradition, one that's popular with Afghans and foreigners alike.

The hope is that by making a few small changes, a craft which was nearly destroyed by Afghanistan's wars can regenerate and prosper, eventually reaching a wider audience.

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