Firuzkoh: Artists Transforming Afghanistan

07 September 2016

by Jawad Zeerak - consulting engineer based in Australia

Jawad writes about an inspiring project he visited during a recent return visit to Afghanistan

The Turquoise Mountain Institute (Firuzkoh) can be found at the heart of Old Kabul City, sprawled across the historical district of Murad Khani. Much of the district had fallen into disrepair when residents fled the city during decades of war, leaving buildings unoccupied for many years.  Since its foundation in 2006, at the request of HRH Charles Prince of Wales and the then President of Afghanistan Hamed Karzai, the Turquoise Mountain Institute has been central to the revitalisation of the area. 

The Institute now occupies a number of restored 19th Century houses and courtyards in a complex that includes workshops, showrooms, classrooms and administrative buildings. Staff at the institute are justifiably proud of this transformation. I had known about the Institute and their activities before and was keen to visit there, particularly to see the rehabilitation works undertaken in Murad Khani area. During my recent trip to Kabul I got to know Maryam, who works for Turquoise Mountain and she offered to take us on tour of the Institute. On my visit, I was shown how poor maintenance and exposure to weather had caused many buildings to collapse. Staff also described how unoccupied areas were frequently used as makeshift garbage dumps, with thousands of cubic metres of waste excavated before the rebuilding could begin. A cross section of the recovered garbage has been preserved within a glass structure and is now on display. These layers of dirt, plastic, paper, pieces of wood and other domestic waste serve as a reminder of the renewal that has taken place.

However, it hasn’t just been a physical renewal. One of the main aims of the Turquoise Mountain Institute is to preserve, revive and revitalise Afghanistan’s rich artistic and cultural traditions. Maryam Omar is a British-Afghan who returned from London to work for Turquoise Mountain in 2015 and is now Head of Design, and Sales Manager at the Business Development Department. Maryam took us on a tour highlighting the Institute’s focus on calligraphy, woodwork, ceramics, gem cutting, jewellery design and other crafts. 

The Institute has brought together some of the most skilled and famous artisans from around the country to run classes and oversee the workshops at Turquoise Mountain. We met Ustad (Maestro) Abdul Hadi in the woodworks section, tending to his students. Born in the Koche Najara (Carpenter’s Street) area of Deh Afghanan, Ustad Abdul Hadi started working with his father when he was a child. He recalls how his father had learnt the carpentry trade from his grandfather and that the traditional skills had been passed on through generations. Now 85 years old, Ustad Abdul Hadi says he is getting old and wants to pass his skills to the next generation of Afghan artisans.

The students are enrolled for a three year term, and upon graduation are able to start their own businesses or work for independent businesses in the area of their interest. According to Maryam Omar more than 150 students have graduated from the Institute to date and 25% of graduates are female. In the gem-cutting workshop, we met 16 year-old Farida. “I have been learning gem cutting for three years now and will graduate next year,” she said steadily as she lowered the white coloured gem into a small bucket of water, then examined it closely, before starting to polish it again. Farida hopes to one day manage her own jewellery and gem cutting business. Farida is typical of the students at the Institute: she is very proud of her trade, her capacity to help her family financially, and the contribution she is making to preserving Afghanistan’s centuries old handicrafts and artistic traditions.

Maryam advised us that the Turquoise Mountain Trust is currently working towards becoming a self-sustainable enterprise, especially through identifying potential export markets for their products. Jewellery items and gemstones created at Turquoise Mountain have already proved to be very popular abroad, including in the United States, Europe and the UK. Staff also proudly informed us that on one occasion the Prince of Wales had ordered his Christmas gifts from Turquoise Mountain.

The restored buildings of Murad Khani and the Institute’s showrooms of beautiful handicrafts are testimony to the positive impact Turquoise Mountain has in preserving Afghanistan's rich cultural history and artistic traditions. In meeting the staff and students of the Institute one also senses the contribution that Turquoise Mountain is making to restoring hope for the future. A visit to the Institute is a wonderful opportunity to see a different side of Afghanistan, to lose yourself in the beauty of the past and be inspired by the students of today.

 

Photograph shows the main courtyard of the Turqouise Mountain Institute.

Visitors to Washington DC can currently see wood arcades, screens, carpets, jewellery and calligraphy produced by Turquoise Mountain artists on display in the “Artists Transforming Afghanistan”  exhibition in the Freer and Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC from to December 2016.