The sale attracts 250 shoppers on Friday, Afghanistan's day off, and a smaller crowd the next. The customers are mainly foreigners and Afghans who have lived for some time in the west. They work in aid organizations and embassies and compounds across the city. Because of heightening concerns about security and often their own organization's ironclad rules about safety, many of them rarely leave their own walls. There are thousands of these people in Kabul, eager to mingle and shop and gossip and shed their gun–toting bodyguards.
Although it seems odd to think of starting a fashion line in the country most famous for the worst item of women's clothing ever designed—the burka—Zolaykha Sherzad is not the only person to have this idea. Other designers have also set up shop in Kabul, including Sarah Takesh of Tarsian & Blinkley and Gabriella Ghidoni of Roya. In July of 2006, Sherzad and Ghidoni staged Kabul's first runway fashion show in decades.
The fact is that despite the dust, faltering electricity, unpaved roads, and concerns about security, there is a fertile environment in Kabul for women coming to the country with big ideas. "Afghanistan is one of the most culturally restrictive countries on earth, but these women are free to do as they please in business," says Kate Buggeln, a New York consultant who volunteers with the United Nations–affiliated Business Council for Peace to assist women starting businesses in post–conflict countries. "There are few existing business models so they are able to create their own, something they could never do in the west where they would have to take on the established order."
Fashionable Job Creation
Moreover, people starting businesses in Afghanistan can do quite a bit of good while they do well. With some 40 percent of the Afghan population unemployed, businesses like Sherzad's provide desperately needed training and jobs. Sherzad takes pains to build up the businesses of other Afghans as she supplies her own, too. She buys beautiful silk from Selee Fokour, a local weaver. She buys cotton from Afghanistan's sole surviving textile factory, still clattering along with machinery from 1939. She has all the posters advertising her work printed in Kabul instead of sending the job to Pakistan. "People ask me if I had the poster done in New York," she says. "I say no, that I designed it here and it was printed here. It's not easy; it takes time to do anything professionally in Kabul. I pay more here, but these people are just starting their business. They need help."
Sherzad's workshop is blocks away from the restaurant, behind the ubiquitous compound walls that make parts of Kabul feel like a boxed maze. Inside her gates, hollyhocks and roses bloom. A child's crib mobile dangles over a pen of pet rabbits, who watch Sherzad's cook washing vegetables for the staff meal. Four smiling women look up from their embroidery in one cream–colored room and put their hands over their mouths as Sherzad introduces him. In another, five women operate black sewing machines decorated with gold butterflies, while three tailors—two men and a woman—fuss over patterns. Colorful fabric lies in heaps, some taken from the old tribal jackets—men's chapans—that Sherzad buys in the local antique shops to remake into pieces for women, some from bolts of new material woven in the traditional way.
She runs her hand lovingly over a piece of ikat, a weave of silk in which bands of blue, plum, white and yellow seem to streak into each other. She picks at the fine lines of green in another fabric, which is no longer available in Afghanistan. "The weaving for this is even dying in Uzbekistan," she says. "We're trying to revive this art in Afghanistan, though. We were part of the Silk Road. It's our heritage."
Her showroom displays the final products on racks and also from hooks on the wall, like pieces of art. She reaches for a dark brown coat, brightened by hand–embroidered flowers and leaves across the chest and elbows, plus another flash of color at the lapels. She opens the coat to show a flowered lining. She explains that she has found this contrast between exterior and interior in many of the old chapans and now incorporates it into her own designs. A dark exterior often yields to a colorful interior, rough fabric often gives way to smooth. As in the city outside, something is always about to be revealed.
Kristin Ohlson is the author of the award–winning memoir Stalking the Divine and a co–author of the New York Times bestselling Kabul Beauty School. A California–born, Cleveland–based writer, Ohlson's credits include articles and essays in the New York Times, Salon.com, Smithsonian.com, Oprah, Food & Wine, Discover, Preservation, and others. She has also published short fiction in award–winning literary magazines. She is the recipient of the Ohio Arts Council's major fellowship for fiction and her Gourmet article about dining out in Kabul is included in Best American Travel Writing 2008.
All photos by Kristin Ohlson except where indicated.
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