KABUL (Reuters Life!) - Ustad Abdul Fattah once made jewelry in Afghanistan’s royal studio, developing a lifetime of skills that went to waste in a country plunged into war after the king was toppled in 1973.
The silver-bearded gemcutter, however, is now back in business, teaching at an institute set up by a British charity which trains 120 pupils in intensive, three-year programs in traditional woodworking, jewelry, ceramics and calligraphy.
“We were only three or four people left with such skills, and they were not being used. They would be lost,” he said, watching one of his students carefully guiding a quartz stone onto the spinning face of the grinding machine.
“My skills were dead,” said Fattah, who was apprenticed into the royal jewelry-making atelier of Afghanistan’s King Zaher Shah at the age of 13.
At a time when Western donors are spending billions of dollars on massive aid projects, the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture is working to save something more intangible than roads, dams or hospitals.
Its founder — author, former British diplomat and now Harvard professor Rory Stewart — describes the goal as “regeneration of a culture.”
In another room, Mohammed Tamim Sahebzada teaches a class the ancient arts of calligraphy and miniature painting, as perfected more than 500 years ago in western Afghanistan’s city of Herat by the great Timurid dynasty master Kamaluddin Bihzad.
His pupils make their own paper, their own cat-hair brushes, and their own inks the ancient way, from natural plants and minerals such as gum arabic and lapis lazuli.
“It is our duty to teach the future,” Sahebzada says.
In the nearby woodworking studio, first-year apprentice Jamal Nasser, 17, patiently cuts into a hardwood board to make a traditional join for a cabinet drawer.
Nasser and his brother spent their childhoods under the Taliban pushing a vegetable cart in the market. Now, he says his artisan’s skills will one day let him support the entire family.
In addition to setting up the artisanal institute, Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation, funded by private donors and several countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia, is restoring an entire section of the capital’s old city on a bank of the Kabul River.
It employs 550 builders, using traditional methods to meticulously restore more than 70 mostly derelict 19th century mud-brick buildings that had been slated for bulldozing under a 1970s urban master plan drawn up by East German engineers.
The once-grand homes of courtiers and merchants, with exquisitely restored carved cedar wood pillars and facades, will become the future home of the arts institute.
Buildings that have been restored so far now house a primary school with more than 200 pupils and a clinic specializing in pre-natal care and public health classes.
Eventually, the arts institute will move into the area, providing an anchor for an entire neighborhood that would act as a cultural hub, teaching apprentices who can establish their own business and employing craftsmen and women in its own workshops.
The ceramics studio has already moved into the old city. Pupils are taught traditional tile making by a master who worked for 33 years at the dazzling Blue Mosque shrine of Imam Ali in Mazar-e-Sharif, one of Afghanistan’s architectural marvels.
The calligraphy studio will move soon into a former merchant’s house, where the mud walls and sliding wooden windows will keep them cool in summer and warm in winter.
Visiting their current cramped room, where mostly female pupils were sketching the elegant lines of Persian poems, Ching Eikenberry, Chinese-born wife of U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, borrowed a student’s quill to demonstrate Chinese calligraphy.
In Mandarin, she wrote: “Where there is a will, then one will find a way.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy