Ten Years Of Hanging On As An Afghan Potter

Dec 22, 2011
Originally published on December 23, 2011 8:07 am

After the fall of the Taliban, Abdul Wahkeel was the first potter to return to the Afghan village of Istalif.

Istalif had been home to generations of potters who crafted teapots, dishes and pots that glow a jewel-like blue. But Wahkeel and other villagers left after the Taliban torched workshops, smashed pottery and — it was said — killed birds in their cages.

When NPR's Renee Montagne first arrived in Istalif in 2002, she heard Wahkeel's story as he was centering clay on his potter's wheel.

"It is two months now that I have returned back to my home," he told her.

Montagne returned to his story and the village of Istalif again and again over the years. Those reports reveal a man and a community clinging to safety and prosperity as violence rages in other parts of the country.

As Wahkeel rebuilt his home and his business, so did others. The school and a small hydroelectric power plant were rebuilt using money from international donors. Pottery stalls came back to the village, as did a bakery and a clothing shop.

By 2006, things had improved even more. "It's good," Wahkeel told Montagne. "The pottery bazaar has attracted attention. On their days off, foreigners working in Kabul come here to shop for pots."

Fast forward to 2011 — 10 years after the Taliban fell. Wahkeel now has a cellphone he uses to place orders in Kabul for wood in his kiln. He now presses "Made in Istalif" on the bottom of his pots.

And he's training oldest son, Omar, in the family business: "Now he can make glasses, some plates and some small pots."

Over the last 10 years, Istalif has been luckier than most towns in Afghanistan. But those gains are fragile.

"Everything depends on security and peace," he told Montagne recently.

Wahkeel now has nine children. "If there is peace in Afghanistan, they will have a prosperous future. But if not, we don't know what will be their destiny."

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The year now coming to an end marks a decade of war in Afghanistan. We're going to spend the next few minutes in a place my reporting has taken me over and over again since the fighting began back in 2001. It's a place where the arrival of the coalition's warplanes was welcomed.


MONTAGNE: Traveling with American allies from the northern alliance was NPR's Ivan Watson.

IVAN WATSON, BYLINE: Northern alliance fighters watched as an American B-52 bomber attacked the Taliban frontline.

MONTAGNE: That frontline just north of Kabul ran through a vast stretch of lush valleys and graceful mountains, where grapes and walnuts and mulberries once grew. Years before, as the Taliban came to power, they torched the vineyards, destroyed the mud brick houses, and it was said even killed the songbirds in their cages. When I traveled there in 2002, many thousands of people who had been driven out were finding their way back from refugee camps in Pakistan, Iran and Kabul. The first person we encountered was an old man in a brown turban smoothing wet mud over the wall that surrounded his long-abandoned orchard.

MIZAHR GUL: (Through translator) The place where we are living now, they are all in rubble and there are huge scorpions. And if they bite us, then we will be finished.

MONTAGNE: Ask about what aid he's gotten, Mizahr Gul snorts: No one has given us so much as a needle. And then he softens.

GUL: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: It's hard, but I'm really happy to be back. I wouldn't sell even one hour here for a million Afghanis. It's hard to overstate the joy we encountered, mixed with trepidation, on this summer day back in 2002. At the time we were on a mission to find one man in particular. We were headed for the village of Istalif, famous throughout Afghanistan for its ceramics bazaar where generations of potters had made bowls and teapots and dishes glazed with a jewel-like blue. I had heard that one potter had come home to a ruined village where the streets were covered with pottery shattered in the fighting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: A trek up a hill littered with pottery shards, following a man coaxing a donkey loaded with logs, leads to Abdul Wahkeel just now centering clay on his potter's wheel.


ABDUL WAHKEEL: (through translator) Yes, it is two months now that I have returned back to my home and I started making the clay pots.

MONTAGNE: The return of Abdul Wahkeel signaled a renaissance for Istalif. He'd been pushing a wheelbarrow in Kabul to feed his wife and four small children and care for the widow and child of a brother killed by the Taliban. And the Taliban had barely departed Istalif when the children of Istalif were back learning, lined up on benches under U.N. tents, including Wahkeel's oldest son and daughter.


MONTAGNE: Here's the school bell fashioned out of an old rocket shell echoing the dark and violent past Istalif hoped it had left behind.


MONTAGNE: In 2002, billions had been pledged by the international community to rebuild Afghanistan. Germany promised a schoolhouse to Istalif. South Korea promised to fund a small hydroelectric plant on its rushing river.


MONTAGNE: By the time I returned to the town in 2006, five years after the Taliban fled, Istalif was a place transformed.


MONTAGNE: So now when you look down this road, it's really quite astonishing. All the stalls are back up and the pottery is in its place and there's a bakery right there and a clothing shop. And everything has doors on it. And there had been nothing. As for our potter, Abdul Wahkeel, he'd acquired a nice stall on pottery row, two more children, and a far more efficient kiln.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) It's good. Things are going well.

MONTAGNE: As we watch, Abdul Wahkeel pulls a thick knob from the brick to reveal a deep red glow inside.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) We only need 10 more minutes to have the pots made.

MONTAGNE: The last time we were here, almost five years ago, you were really having problems getting your pots to market. The roads weren't very good. The trucks weren't coming. Is that still an issue?

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) We still have the road problem because it's not a paved road. But other than that, it's good because the pottery bazaar has attracted attention. On their days off, foreigners working in Kabul come here to shop for pots; and also in the summer a lot of families come here to picnic and they also buy pots.

MONTAGNE: Over the last 10 years, Istalif has been luckier than most towns in Afghanistan. Its proximity to Kabul meant it hasn't been forgotten by the central government or the aid organizations. And another advantage: As the school principal, Abdul Qahar, once told me, when the people came back to Istalif, they brought with them their jobs.

ABDUL QAHAR: (Through translator) People here in Istalif have skills, every one of them in one field or craft, and that's something that supports security. People want to do their work in a peaceful environment.

MONTAGNE: And peace has meant progress. Abdul Wahkeel in 2011 has a cellphone he uses to order the wood he needs for his kiln. He has his sights set on an electric pottery wheel and presses Made in Istalif on the bottom of his pots. Plus, he has three more sons - nine children in all. Do you think your sons - you have so many - will become potters?

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) I do want my son to be a potter. I train him sometimes. Now he can make glasses, some plates and some small pots.

MONTAGNE: Is Omar, are you the one that's interested in being a potter?

OMAR WAHKEEL: (Through translator) Yeah, I want to be a potter and I'll do the designs. My little sisters also help. They do the art on the small glasses. My older sisters do pots. You see the designs on those two pots.

MONTAGNE: The one's I'm holding, these really beautiful bowls.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Still, as with everything in Afghanistan, Istalif's gains are fragile. Abdul Wahkeel says sales of pottery have slowed; increased violence has meant fewer foreigners are coming. And he's not sure what will happen when the coalition troops pull out. Now that you have children who are old enough to be looking at their future, thinking about the Afghanistan that they will live in, do you have an image of what it would be, an Afghanistan when they grow up?

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) It's difficult for me to say anything because everything depends on security and peace. If there is peace in Afghanistan, they will have a prosperous future. But if not, we don't know what will be their destiny.

MONTAGNE: A destiny that may or may not be in their own hands.


MONTAGNE: To see pictures of the potter, Abdul Wahkeel, and his son Omar, go to our website NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.