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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The history shop of Herat

In a ravaged Afghanistan, Sultan Ahmad and his sons are the last of the glassmakers, trying to preserve what’s left of Herat glass.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: June 19, 2016 12:01:12 am
Rubab player Abdul Qadir. Rubab player Abdul Qadir.

The entrance to the “history” shop is from a back street behind Herat’s great mosque. Inside, evidence of time lies strewn about, with careless disorder that belies its value. Ferocious beasts made from marble and the imagination of an artist who likely lived in the court of a Ghazni monarch; a glass perfume jar, still coated in clay; pearl-inlaid jezail muzzle-loading guns, silver jewellery, and antique musical instruments.

“I really wanted to see Herat, which had no equal in all the world,” wrote the young Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad, later Babur, emperor of India, in 1506 “and which during Sultan-Husayn Mirza’s reign had been adorned… 10, nay, 20 times over.”

The history shop is the custodian of the wonders the young prince would have seen. Local resident Sultan Ahmad built the collection over 50 years, nursing it through one of the world’s most savage wars. Now, though, peace is posing threats of its own.

Ahmad’s family has been linked to Herat’s famous blown glass for over 200 years. Artisans gathered sang-i-safed, silica-rich white rocks found on the riverbed, to be melted into glass. The molten glass was then blown through a long, thin pipe, into vases and jugs, coloured with dyes derived from metal. Herat glass was sold across the region, its distinctive blue colour marking it as the product of a centuries-old tradition.

“Learning this craft begins when you first stand in front of the stove and the heat washes over you,” says Ahmad, now in his 70s. “Some people, it takes them five years. Me, I learned in a year.”

In 1968, Robert Brill, historian at the Corning Glass Museum in America, travelled through Afghanistan on an expedition documenting traditional pyrotechnologies.

Brill discovered Ahmad’s workshop in Herat, where his craftsmen, Saidullah and Saifullah, were making glass using practices described in 2,700-year-old cuneiform texts. The historian, then returned in 1977 to make a documentary — the only known record of the ancient practice.

Sultan Ahmad. Sultan Ahmad.

“I learned to make glass 57 years ago,” recalls Ahmad, “And today, I am the only person in this business. There are only five who know the craft other than me — my sons Omid and Awaz, and my three apprentices.”

The reasons for that aren’t hard to discover. In a 2012 interview, Saidullah, who no longer works at the factory, told the newspaper Afghanistan Today: “My heart is broken by the state of the business. The money I earn is not even enough to buy bread.”

For Ahmad, though, the shop was never just about glass. From an early stage, he began collecting artefacts brought in by villagers from across the region, selling them to a handful of tourists who had begun to trickle along the hippie trail, heading east by road from Europe, through Turkey and Iran, to India. The artefacts, Ahmad says, were initially purchased to be sold, but as he realised the value of the best ones, he kept them for display only.

In his collection are marblework artefacts from the palace of Masud III in Ghazni, and pre-Islamic marblework, from Afghanistan’s Buddhist past. Metalworks scavenged from élite homes across the country; tiles and enamelwork retrieved from decaying mansions; dutar and rubab, stringed instruments, inlaid with mother of pearl, some made over a 100 years ago.

Had war not intervened, the shop would have evolved into a kind of pseudo-antique store which line tourist avenues from Istanbul to Bangkok. But the uprising that followed the long rule of Mohammad Daoud Khan changed the course, undoing decades of progressive policies.

Daoud’s efforts incensed the religious right, and by 1974, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was waging a proxy war against the government, through figures who would become important in the anti-Soviet Union jihad.

In 1978, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan staged a coup against Daoud, murdering his entire family. Inside a year, warring communist factions forced the Soviet Union to intervene, paving the way for a long war.

A view of the antiques and artefacts at the shop. A view of the antiques and artefacts at the shop.

In the shop, these years are represented too, a brass belt buckle bearing the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle, old fur hats, and military compasses.

Those years are still fresh in Ahmad’s mind. “My shop was closed for 14 years,” he recalls, “And I was sent to jail many times because my brother was a mujahideen, and I was suspected of helping him.”

Later, after the Soviet withdrawal, the store remained closed, as rival mujahideen factions clashed for power over Herat.

“There was this one time a rocket landed on the first floor of the shop,” Ahmad recalls, “I was terrified, not for my life but because I knew so much of my homeland’s heritage could be destroyed in a second.”

In 1997, Ahmad reopened his shop after order was restored under the Taliban. “There were rules,” he says. “I could keep glass, but if it was a sculpture or a musical instrument, it had to be hidden.”

For others in Herat’s cultural circles, those years were less easy to negotiate. Abdul Qadir, one of the city’s leading rubab players, lost his harmonium player. “He was performing in Pashtun Zarghun,” Qadir recalls, “when a Taliban mullah heard him. He said, this man is slaughtering our religion and we should slaughter him, too.”

In those years, many from Herat fled to neighbouring Iran. “I never, ever was tempted to leave my country,” says Ahmad. “This is my homeland, and I was happy to share its fate.”

Ever since Afghanistan’s new republic was born after 9/11, Ahmad’s history shop has been open, frequented by few visitors. Inside Afghanistan, a revival of interest has led to orders coming in from Jalalabad and Kabul. He’s exhibited at festivals in Dubai and Islamabad — and hopes to exhibit in India.
The old art, though, is dying. Instead of extracting glass from sand, they recycle glass bottles which reduces the cost, as the furnace needs to be kept burning for less time.

“It is still hard work,” Ahmad says. “To get the right colour, we have to mix metals with the glass in just the right proportion. The metal has to be made as soft as kajal to dye the glass properly.”

The big fear that haunts Ahmad, though, is what happens after his death. “Inside these rooms is the history of Afghanistan, which I have gathered and looked after, as I have cared for my sons.”

He knows, though, that many young Afghans are fleeing the country, uncertain of its future and tired of a war without end that makes it difficult to even imagine a future. The treasure casually laid out on the tables of the history shop could buy them a new life in a distant land.

“I do not know what they will choose to do,” says Sultan Ahmad. “I only know that while I am alive, I will protect what has been entrusted to me.”

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