Once a bustling hub full of ceramic artisans, this remote village 40 kilometres away from Kabul was ravaged during the Afghan war. The potters are now scraping together work again.
Istalif, a mountain village along the Salang Pass only an hour’s drive from Afghanistan's capital city Kabul, is known for its centuries-old turquoise pottery. Settled thousands of years ago and nestled among lush trees overlooking the Shomali Plains, Istalif used to be a royal retreat as it is known for its rustic beauty.
Its picturesque landscape was just one of the many things that attracted people from all parts of the country and beyond. Its blue pottery was another reason that brought tourists to this nondescript village in search of this unique handicraft.
Believed to be over 400 years old, Istalifi pottery was an art form that was brought by Uzbeks. The village rich in clay deposits and abundance of water was the perfect place to develop their traditional pots, ripened with a glaze made from Ishkar plants found in specific parts of the country.
In Istalif, being a potter is not just a tradition, it is a way of life. It is the identity of its people who have trained with their fathers for years before taking on the family legacy. Sons and women participate in the making of the traditional pottery and learning the craft.
One such family was that of Abdul Matin Malekzada who comes from a renowned family of potters in the village. As is with every son in the potter’s clan, Matin too started training with his father at a young age. But it all came to an abrupt end when the Taliban arrived in Istalif in 1997.
Their village was razed to the ground and the people persecuted for supporting the wrong side of the war. Matin and his family fled the village and relocated to Kabul. Their kilns were wrecked and so were their lives. “Everything was black from explosions and the houses were ashes. There were no trees, no workshop, everything was completely destroyed,” tells Matin.
But in 2005, they came back to Istalif and rediscovered the tools they left behind. Within a matter of time, they picked up where they left off. Abdul Matin Malekzada became Ustad Matin when he joined a British NGO, Turquoise Mountain, and became one of their first graduates. Today, he heads the Ceramics Department and continues to provide training and workshops to keep the art form alive.
Matin talks about his craft with zeal and passion as he explains how hard he is working to bring the natural glaze obtained from Ishkar plant back into the Istalifi pottery. “These days, people use chemical glaze in Istalif because it is cheap. But Ishkar glaze is hard work and the price is very expensive. When the customers come here, a bowl from chemical glaze costs $3-4. But when it is prepared with Ishkar glaze, a medium bowl will cost up to $30 or more because of its high quality and food-safety,” explains Matin.
Ishkar plant is found in the Balkh province of Northern Afghanistan. The bloom is 100 percent natural and appears from June to August. This plant grows on its own and is not cultivated by people. “We burn the plant in a deep floor at least 100 cm deep for 18-20 hours. After that, it takes the shape of a stone that is turned into powder to be used as glaze. It is mixed with oxide to give it different colours. Ishkar glaze takes two weeks to prepare and it is only possible to make up to 50 bowls in a day” reveals Matin.
He is the fifth generation in the old potters’ clan who learnt the craft from his father. Eager to pass on his skills to the new students and to his own children, Matin hopes to take Ishkar-glazed blue pottery to all parts of the world. “I promise to teach my two boys and two girls the pottery because this is my culture and my art that I have to teach to my children. My kids are also interested in learning this ancient craft.”
But his ambitions are thwarted by the ongoing war and security crisis that has ceased to bring locals and tourists to his village. What used to be a bustling bazaar back in the day now struggles to find even a single customer. Even the locals that come here for picnics are no longer the buyers that they used to be. “Fledgling economy has severely impacted the buying power of its people and the tourists don't come to Istalif anymore due to the security situation.”
With rising unemployment and uncertainty due to conflict, even the local shopkeepers have started stocking mass-produced pots to stay afloat. “20-25 years ago, all the people in Istalif used Ishkar glaze. But now the customers want to get the pottery cheaper, so they have to use the chemical or Pakistani glaze to keep the price down,” adds Matin.
Surprisingly though, despite the low tourist footfall due to safety concerns and Covid-19 pandemic affecting travel plans of most people, Istalif saw an unprecedented rise in the sale of their wares during the global lockdown. “In Istalif, corona times were very good. The shopkeepers were selling at least 20,000 pieces per month that were being exported to Tajikistan via Badakhshan.”
Two-three years ago, the business was good. But since then, it is only 10-15 percent of what it used to be. People are jobless and loss of income has become a serious problem. The money is gone now and the work is very low for all Afghan people. But they hope that the future and security will be better.
Matin aspires to build a company that sells his unique Istalifi pottery in not just the international market, but for the whole of Afghanistan. “I am an artist and very pleased with the acknowledgment my work has received all over the world. But I wish to reach the top and take Istalif’s name globally.”