Coming soon…


Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Mazar-e-Sharif

New posts are on the way about my trip in October to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, and about my upcoming trip later this month – just waiting for proper permissions from the organisation I’m working with. I know it’s a bit of a wait but we’ve all been so busy with planning and prep work on the project that processing permissions for blogs took a bit of a backseat – really looking forward to sharing info soon! So watch this space…

A little about The Shrine of Hazrat Ali:

The Shrine of Hazrat Ali, fourth Caliph of Islam, the son in law of the Prophet Mohammed is an iconic sight in Mazar-i-Sharif in the province of Balkh in Afghanistan. The story the founding of the shrine indicates that, shortly after the murder of Ali and the burial of his body at Najaf, near Baghdad, some of Ali’s followers worried that his body would be desecrated by his enemies, and they placed his remains on a white female camel. Ali’s followers travelled with the camel for several weeks, until the camel ultimately fell to the ground exhausted. The body was then reburied where the camel fell. All knowledge of the final resting place was lost until the body was said to be rediscovered in the 12th century, its existence having been revealed to a mullah in a dream.
On the east side of the shrine is a tall minaret-like pigeon tower. The doves in the shrine complex are famous across Afghanistan. Every seventh pigeon is said to contain a spirit, and the site is so holy that if a grey pigeon flies here it turns white within 40 days. (If you look closely at my pic you will see one of these famous white pigeons in flight.)

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Autumn in Kabul 2012

Salma faceting a gemstone, peridot at Turquoise Mountain’s Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture, Kabul, Afghanistan.


I am very excited to be returning to Kabul later this month. The reason for my return is that for the past two years, since my first visit to Kabul, I have been involved in developing a project to take skilled and semi-skilled Afghan gem-cutters and jewellers to Jaipur for apprenticeship style training and skills enhancement. This project is about to get underway and I am very much looking forward to continuing my engagement with the developing jewellery industry in Afghanistan and to get to work with some very talented individuals as they take their skills to the next level.

Watch this space.

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Khala Mahgul

Khala Mahgul in the doorway to her home, Murad Khane, Kabul. Photo courtesy of Laura Lean (details listed below).

Khala Mahgul is the eldest lady in the community of Murad Khane. Khala is the Dari equivalent of “Auntie”, Dari is the dialect of Persion spoken in Afghanistan. For those of you new to my blog, Murad Khane is an area of the Old City in Kabul which is now home to the Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture, housed within a complex of buildings once home to Afghanistan’s first school. Murad Khane has a thriving bazaar and is placed in the heart of the commercial centre of Kabul. The bazaar itself attracts approximately 100,000 visitors per week. Historic buildings have been restored and infrastructure has been installed as part of a comprehensive regeneration programme by Turquoise Mountain in collaboration with the local community and the Ministry of Education.

Turquoise Mountain has invested equally in the regeneration of the built environment and in the improvement of living conditions for the local community. Their Community Development team has worked closely with the conservation, architecture, and engineering teams to pursue a holistic approach to urban regeneration assisting those who would otherwise be denied access to basic services and providing economic opportunities to those with irregular incomes.

Literacy classes have been provided to women through the Community Development programme since 2008; within three years all adult women within the community were literate. Khala Mahgul was the first person to sign up for the course.

Shortly after I arrived here at Turquoise Mountain, this March, I was asked if I could undertake writing a piece for an American publication focusing on Afghan women’s experiences in relation to Turquoise Mountain’s projects. Looking through all the documentation I had accumulated to write this piece I came across Mahgul’s case study. I was utterly intrigued. I thought how great is this lady, she’s in her nineties and she is the first to sign up for literary classes, how fantastic! (Mahgul told me she was ninety-five when we spoke but no one seems entirely clear on her age).

Mahgul’s energetic spirit and vivacious personality belie her advanced age. Although she is originally from another area of Kabul she has been living within the community for twenty-five years. “Murad Khane used to have a lot of different traditions and we were a very close-knit community,” she says, recalling weddings parties that lasted for seven days and a time when the men of the community had their own businesses – many repairing shoes and designing hats. She has watched these local traditions disperse along with most of the original residents who fled the community during the past three decades of war.

Pigeons in Mahgul's courtyard, Murad Khane, Kabul.

I had read that Mahgul was now able to read and write and that she had been able to record her poems in written form. I thought, is there anyway that I can find out more about this lady or get some examples of her poetry? I was given contact information for Nilab, a member of the team at the Turquoise Mountain Family Health Centre and I met her to find out if this was possible. She did one better and suggested arranging a meeting with Mahgul! As the wooden door off of one of the inner streets in Murad Khane opened and I met Mahgul for the first time I was instantly taken aback as she looked more like my own grandmother than anyone I have ever met before. We walked through a dark passageway that opened into a courtyard where pigeons were kept and as I turned around I saw the wooden façade of her house, which was just beautiful.

View of the façade of the first floor of Mahgul's house from her courtyard, Murad Khane, Kabul.

We spoke briefly and she said she would come and meet us shortly in the health centre to talk. She expressed concern about the imminent arrival of her son, who was not well, and said she wanted to avoid us running into him. (Her son is known to have some challenges with mental health). It seems that we headed off just in time as her son was walking down the lane behind us as we left the house. He definitely seemed to have a rather lose if not non-existant grip on reality.

Not long after whilst seated around a communal table in the health centre Khala Maghul began to tell me a little about herself and her poetry. She explained that the poems she is now able to write down are a combination of poems passed onto her from her grandfather and those of her own composition.  I had heard from William, the head of Community Development, that Mahgul was always waxing poetical. She did not disappoint. As we sat around the table she recited for us two beautiful poems; one from Hafez Sharazi, a famous 14th century Persian poet from Iran and another from Jaami, a 15th century classical Sufi poet from Herat, Afghanistan. Mahgul then composed a short poem on the spot about the people present, which roughly translates as follows:

In this room I am sitting with five beautiful people

Dear Dr. Ferogh is the most senior and most trustworthy

I hope that Dear Dr. Khudjesta is not offended

For I will say that Dear Nilab is the fruit of the earth.

She was really a gem. There is one line from the poem she recited from Jami that stays with me. “The sun is just one but its light is everywhere”. Oh, Khala Mahgul you lit up at least one lady’s life that day. From the look on the faces of everyone seated around that table I don’t think I was the only one touched by your spirit.

Laura Lean is responsible for the breathtaking image of Khala Mahgul. Laura is a brilliant and fearless documentary photographer and I am so grateful to her that she was able to capture such a wonderful moment. It is so often that pictures fall far short of those experiences we hope to capture with them; Laura manages to exceed expectations. For more details about her work please visit her website: or follow her on

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Salam Melanie jan! Chetor Astid?…

A peacock perched in the corner of the courtyard of the Qala.

(Literally translated as “Peace Melanie my soul. How are you?”. However a more accurate English equivalent would be “Hello Melanie dear, how are you?”. This is always followed by questions further enquiring into your health and wellbeing, the health and wellbeing of your family members and how the city in which you are residing is treating you etc et all.)

It is now approaching a week since I have been back in Kabul. Even though it has been over four months since I left it seems as if hardly a day has passed now I am back.

Murad Khane

Now that the Institute’s facility has moved to the old city I have been spending my days in Murad Khane. The experience has been quite different to my time spent at the Institute’s premises when they were housed within the fort. At that time I would walk from the guest house, within a 19th Century Fortress, down to the Institute which was spread throughout two acres of terraced gardens. Now it is early morning drives through bustling Kabul to the Institute’s new facility, which is in the middle of a bazaar in Murad Khane, which is placed in the heart of the commercial centre of Kabul. The bazaar itself attracts approximately 100,000 visitors per week.

Whilst there are pockets of tranquillity amongst the various courtyards that comprise the Institute’s new premises the minute you are in Murad Khane proper you feel the pulse of the city, jostling along passage ways dodging anything from men with wheelbarrows to little children darting in and out of the flow of people. Think of a busy area of any city but instead of vehicles the flow of ‘traffic’ is people.

Although the schedule has been pretty punishing – 6am starts. It has been great to be working with the students and Institute staff again and fantastic to see the progress of some of the students who have set up their own collectives of craftsmen: producing goods for sale, carrying out commissions and even setting up their own small institutes passing on their newly acquired skills to others.

The Qala in spring

As I write this I am sitting in the courtyard of the fort (Qala in Dari, the dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan) with a cup of green tea (chai sabs in Dari).  I must admit it is one of my favourite places on God’s good earth. The fruit trees are in various stages of blossom. Daffodils dot the borders, pigeons and doves are cooing from the gallery above, the peacock is shrieking periodically and sparrows are chirping as they flit from tree to tree. A few colourful kites flutter in the light breeze and dot the blue sky. What a wonderful place to be during the onset of spring.

One of the blossoming fruit trees in the Qala's courtyard.

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The Approach to Kabul

View of the mountains from my airplane window seat on flight to Kabul.

My heart soared as the landscape changed below me on my flight here from Dubai. After a relatively sleepless flight from London to Dubai and a four hour layover I had been dozing but then awoke to the splendour of those very mountains that had made such an impression on my first flight here last autumn.

As far as the eye can see 180° of mountain ranges this time snow capped! Any thoughts of further napping were banished completely. These mountains never cease to amaze me. The ridges of the mountains in some places appearing so systematic that it is almost as if a tessellation has been constructed below me. If one looks very closely one can see settlements, villages nestled in the valleys. From my airplane seat they appear as the meticulous work of a master sandcastle maker, being the same colour of the terrain they inhabit.

As the sun hits the water of the streams and rivers that intersect the landscape below they appear as metallic thread woven into some giant rippling tapestry laid out beneath me. As we approach Kabul the snow capped mountains rise up on one side their appearance is not unlike a succession of waves awaiting rolling onto shore. The mountains beside me as we slowly make our descent like a crested wave threatening to crash onto the basin below and the city spread out along it. Shortly there is the first appearance of green and wider snaking rivers. Descending onto the runway once again I am greeted by rows of helicopters and airplane hangers and I know for sure that I am back in Kabul.


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Spring in Kabul

Detail of bronze tray with niello decoration, Kabul Museum. Kabul, Afghanistan.

Here I was thinking that it was high time that I sat down and got myself organised to put up more posts and photos of my two months last autumn at Turquoise Mountain in Kabul but this post is actually announcing my return to Turquoise Mountain in less than a month!

In one of my earlier posts I spoke about Turquoise Mountain’s comprehensive regeneration programme in Murad Khane in collaboration with the local community and the Ministry of Education, to create an educational complex of international standing for Afghanistan. The heart of this complex is the three courtyards of the Great Serai, once home to Afghanistan’s first school. Well you will be happy to hear that the Institute moved into its new facility in Murad Khane at the end of January! Very exciting!! Apparently back in December when the students were shown the new premises that they would return and move into in January they shrieked with delight!  I don’t blame them from what I saw when I toured the building site back in September I would be pretty excited to be studying there to. The official opening is in April; I have been invited to return for that and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I will also be going a bit beforehand to assist with preparations for the event.

My last few weeks in Kabul were very fast paced trying to pack everything in but I still managed to get out and about; for example to the Kabul Museum, to Chicken Street a long time tourist destination for handcrafts and carpets and to an authentic Afghan restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately this blog, sadly as I really enjoyed doing it, got neglected but I’m afraid my work at the Institute and experiencing as much as I could of Kabul took precedence over sitting in my room typing away. It has also been pretty hectic catching up with my work here in London after a two month absence (a little longer in fact as I was quite ill when I first returned to London although a couple of courses of medication later and I’m fighting fit once again!) and getting involved in some follow up projects from my residency; like bringing a student or recent graduate from Turquoise Mountain here to the UK and trying to get an exhibition of contemporary Afghan jewellery together here in London.

However, I’m intending to finally get going on updating this blog and of course documenting my upcoming trip back to Turquoise Mountain. So watch this space for some follow up posts about my experiences of Kabul and for my Afghan Arts Adventure, part II this spring in Kabul.

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Gem-cutting design workshop – Lapis Lazuli

Gems - Lapis Lazuli gemstones finished and in the process of being cut.

Gem-cutting at the Institute here at Turquoise Mountain is carried out using both  modern and traditional equipment.  It’s difficult to know where to start with the gem-cutting students because they truly blow me away whenever I visit them. I haven’t gotten to spend as much time with them as the jewellery students as my expertise does not lie in gem-cutting but I did get the opportunity to do a design workshop with them due to the openness and enthusiasm of the head of the Gem-cutting department, Ustad Azim.   The students in the Jewellery & Gem-cutting department start out learning both disciplines before settling on either Jewellery or Gem-cutting which means that all of the 3rd year students although having a specialty in one or the other have knowledge of both skills upon graduating.

A student using traditional gem-cutting equipment to cut lapis lazuli.

On my first extended visit to the dept. following an extensive explanation of the equipment used, the techniques they were developing and examples of the students work as they progressed through the programme, the Ustad and myself ended up discussing the design implications of a particular cut of stone with one student and were giving some suggestions as to how he might proceed. Following our discussion Ustad Azim was very keen for me to do some design development with the students. I mentioned the design workshop that I had done with the jewellery students and whether he thought that a similar workshop would be suitable. He was very supportive of this and his view was that it would be very good for the students to have a design project. We discussed what type of workshop might benefit the students and off I went to discuss this idea with the head and deputy head of the Institute who it turns out were happy for me to proceed.

Selected sheets from the Gem-cutting design workshop handout.

After looking at examples of various gem cuts that the students had worked on I developed an exercise for the 3rd year gem-cutting students that had them pick one or two shapes to cut from a selection of fifteen with a view to cutting between five to eight stones of at least two different sizes to use in a multiple stone bracelet or necklace design. They were encouraged to take careful consideration of the proportions of the stones so that the balance was right in the finished jewellery piece. Students also had the option to work in pairs if they wanted to cut more than eight stones. They were provided with a handout with the instructions of the exercise which included drawings of the fifteen different stone cuts and several images of multiple stone necklace or bracelet designs or suitable multiple stone combinations drawn by myself to give them some examples and ideas to get started. Lapis Lazuli, which is one of the many gem resources to be found in Afghanistan and has been mined here in the mountains of Badakhshan for over 6,500 years, was decided upon as the gem material for cutting. The idea was for the gem-cutting students to think about how to use their gem-cutting skills to create multiple stone pieces that demonstrate the extent of their ability to work with incredible precision and consistency.

Work in Progress - One student's lapis lazuli inlay work for one of the jewellery students suite of jewellery.

The gem-cutting students consistently work with the jewellery students on projects however, generally the jewellery student makes the piece first and the gem-cutting students cut the stone/stones to fit with the exception of the jewellery students making simple settings to showcase complex individually cut stones. (I don’t think the jewellery students here realize how incredibly blessed they are by this arrangement as most jeweller’s that I know working with stones have to make the settings to fit the stone and not vice versa!) So ideally this project would have a secondary phase which entailed the gem-cutting students collaborating with the jewellery students to create a finished piece of jewellery (dependent on how willing the jewellery students were to tackle this project…) My hope was that in addition to a design-led gem-cutting exercise from which students would have a group of stones ready to serve as an example for commission purposes we might end up with some finished pieces of jewellery from which the design was lead or at the least heavily influenced by the gem-cutting students as opposed to the jewellery students. I know, rather subversive of me but the gem-cutting students and Ustad were right behind me on this one trust me!

Gem-cutting student working on one of the stones for a bracelet design.

My approach to this workshop was much more informal than my previous workshop. The students after some initial meetings were left to work on this project at their own pace with their Ustad’s guidance, fitting it around other projects. Whenever I visited the workshop another student would quietly come over to show me their works in progress or their finished stones. This approach worked particularly well with the gem-cutting students as they are incredibly self-motivated and without any prompting on my part have produced some excellent outcomes to this exercise!

Set of lapis lazuli stones for use in a bracelet.

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Design workshop – Looking to the Turkmen style

Yuria's ring template

I have had a great time carrying out some design workshops and technical exercises with the students. I’ll be posting some of the highlights of these over the next few days.

Work in Progress - My ring design from the Design Workshop

The students had asked me to design something for them to fabricate but I thought they would benefit being more involved in the design process so I developed a design exercise for them instead. A handout was prepared with some instructions and visual references and signed a book out from the library on Turkmen jewellery to get them started. The students are already familiar with Turkmen jewellery forms and the techniques particular to this style of work, most of their 2nd year is spent studying and making in the Turkmen style. The idea was for the 3rd year students to look at Turkmen jewellery for inspiration but design a contemporary piece that relates to one element of Turkmen design, either the form or a technique or style of decoration particular to Turkmen jewellery. To focus on one part of a larger traditional design and to use that in their piece. To change the form of the design – a traditional pendant design into a ring or to use a contemporary form but use Turkmen style decoration, detail or piercing in an unexpected way or in an unexpected place. This workshop followed on from them making a traditional Turkmen style ring with the Turkmen Ustad earlier in the week.

Salem's ring design

I had intended it to be a design exercise but the students were very keen to make so Ustad Javed (who teaches modern jewellery making) and I adapted it to a technical exercise of making a Turkmen ring, inspired by a traditional Turkmen pendant design.  

Nasir's ring design

They were reluctant to get started coming up with their own individual versions but I carried out the exercise along with them and they soon got going and came up with some really interesting templates for the rings. All coming up with really different designs in the end which was great.

Following on from this exercise one of the students has completely taken the concept and run with it. He has designed a series of gem-set earrings using variations of the same forms, fantastic!

Sayeer working on his earring design.

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Technical Difficulties

Hiking in Istalif

Sorry for my delay in having new posts up about my time here. On top of a very hectic schedule I have unfortunately been experiencing some technical difficulties.

Namely that my computer, after a few intense days and evenings of preparing a series of lectures and exercises on research methodology for the 3rd year students, has called it quits, I hope just temporarily! Luckily for me it was polite enough to go on strike precisely fifteen minutes after I finished up all my work related to the lectures…very considerate really! Good thing for external hard drives, mine saved the day!

Gem-cutting student at work

Keeping up to date with internet correspondence here is not a case of simply popping to your local internet cafe. I am going to be lent a computer in the next day or two while my lovely Mac is off sick… (Macs are great, but it turns out not so great or practical in Afghanistan as there are few technicians here who know how to work on Mac operating systems! If anyone reading this knows of a Mac technician here in Kabul please drop me a line!!)

So, computer permitting, check back soon for more posts about the earthquake I experienced here, about my hiking trip to the valleys surrounding the mountain village of Istalif and about my time with the jewellery and gem cutting students as they prepare for an exhibition showcasing their works this Friday!

This post is courtesy of the lovely Faisal from the Finance Team here at Turquoise Mountain who has kindly lent me the use of his computer to post this. Yay Faisal!

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Murad Khane

Murad Khane - One of the Courtyards of the Great Serai

Before I even arrived in Afghanistan I had read about Turquoise Mountain’s regeneration project in Murad Khane, which is in the heart of Kabul’s old city, a historic quarter of Kabul on the banks of the Kabul River. It is home to a multi-ethnic community and a thriving bazaar that attracts 100,000 visitors a week. Before Turquoise Mountain began its work, the area was buried under two metres of rubbish, it had no running water, drainage or electricity, and the community’s homes were collapsing. Now historic buildings are being restored and infrastructure is being installed as part of a comprehensive regeneration programme in collaboration with the local community and the Ministry of Education, creating an educational complex of international standing for Afghanistan. The heart of this complex will be the three courtyards of the Great Serai, once home to Afghanistan’s first school.

During my first few days here I had spoken over meals, and on my journey from the airport, with engineers and architects that had travelled to Afghanistan to work on this project. So when I heard that some teachers and staff from the Institute were taking a trip there I jumped at the chance to go. I must have had about 20 to 30 minutes to speak with the Chief Operating Officer to ask his permission to go and to clear my travel with security. Luckily for me he allowed me to go with the caveat that I was to remain close to the Head and Deputy Head of the Institute. Off I went in the bus with 8 teachers and staff from the Institute, all Afghan. I have been told that in some ways I am lucky because once I have my headscarf on I am not so obviously foreign, i.e. I could ‘pass’ as an Afghan. (The downside of this is that there is a higher likelihood of being kidnapped as an Afghan woman then as a foreign international woman here…) On the journey there I chatted with the business studies teacher, Maria, who was the other female on the trip and she pointed out places of interest along the way. We had met previously to discuss the business studies curriculum here, so I could learn about what the students were covering in terms of business skills and for me to get some information about how it is for the jewellery students to start their own business here.

Peacock House

I had high expectations for Murad Khane after hearing such great things about it and Murad Khane exceeded these by leaps and bounds. It was great to see this amazing development and how it is integrated into the local community there. The architectural conservation project encompasses where the Institute will be moving early next year, a primary school, a medical clinic for the community and places for meeting for example a women’s courtyard and Peacock house where elders from the community meet to discuss issues and living quarters for students from the regions who want to study at the Institute. While I was there I visited the Ceramics dept., which has been located there since Feb. 2009, and I met with the Ustad who teaches tile making. A fascinating feature of this department is that they have adapted a traditional underfloor heating system for the use of firing ceramics. Fab!

New Assembly Hall/Exhibition space

It was very interesting to see the conservation process and how contemporary buildings using traditional methods of construction are integrated effectively with restored buildings in this area. It was explained to me how the students would be using the facilities, how careful consideration was made in using traditional approaches to architecture, finishing, and colour palettes for decoration, and that where decoration was new older examples were used as a reference. I heard how students would be involved in projects to provide plaques, murals and tile decoration throughout the Institute. Some projects in particular were designed to be interdisciplinary; to bring the different disciplines together to work on a singular design and follow through to the finished piece.

To me it is just a fantastic, almost magical place and I am sure the students will find it an inspirational place to carry out their studies.

Traditional Staircase leading to new Jewellery Workshop

After the tour, as we were about to leave to head back to the Institute, Maria invited me to her home as she lived nearby. As touched as I was by the gesture unfortunately I had to politely decline…. I could just imagine what the COO and security would say if I didn’t return back with the rest of the group on my first trip away from Turquoise Mountain’s premises! I would probably not be trusted out again!! It is very awkward and often you feel rude or ungrateful to decline such offers but you also don’t want to put someone who lives here and will be here long after you are gone at risk. Just as I was feeling uneasy about having to decline Maria’s offer, Hedi, one of the Architects working in Murad Khane appeared, she was hoping to catch a ride back to Turquoise Mountain and as we were chatting about her day and preparing to get into the bus to head back the Deputy Head arrived with some chocolate coated ice cream bars (similar to a Magnum ice cream bar but from Herat!). Now if that isn’t a pick me up on a hot day in Kabul, I don’t know what is! So we all enjoyed a very tasty, and well-timed ice cream on the bus ride back! Nice!

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