Ten Years Of Hanging On As An Afghan Potter

Dec 22, 2011

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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