The Sewing Circles of Herat
A Memoir of Afghanistan

Harper Collins
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Extract 1 (Taken from Chapter 5)
Down below, the sunrise had brought on the day, bringing every one out as suddenly as if a switch had been flicked. Pony traps with red tasselled bridles jingled by as well as large men wobbling along on small bicycles and the occasional pick-up full of gunmen. On a verge by the road a man was setting up an old box camera, placing a stool for his clients to sit solemnly in front of a painted back drop of a Tyrolean meadow full of gaudy pink and yellow flowers. A traffic policeman with a white jacket, a peaked cap and a hand- held Stop sign had even appeared at the traffic island and seemed to be laughing though everyone was ignoring his frantic signalling.

The hotel was on the corner of two wide treelined avenues, Blood-bank Street and Cinema Street. I chose to explore the latter, though the cinema had been demolished by the Taliban. A crowd of beggar women and children quickly collected in my wake, tugging at my clothes. Looking for a place to escape, I ducked into a gateway just along from the hotel. A path led to a white colonial-style building with a sign saying in English and Persian Literary Circle of Herat.

I stared at it, intrigued. First settled five thousand years ago, Herat has always been regarded as the cradle of Afghan civilisation, so renowned as a centre of culture and learning that one of its leading patrons of arts in the fifteenth century, Au Sher Nawa’i, claimed, ‘here in Herat one cannot stretch out a leg without poking a poet in the ass’. Babur, the first Moghul Emperor, descended from Tamerlane on his father’s side (and Genghis Khan on his mother’s), visited his cousins in Herat in 1506, only a year before it fell to the Uzbeks. In his memoir The Baburnama, a sort of personal odyssey which tells of what he calls his ‘throneless years’ wandering Central Asia in search of a kingdom, having lost his own tiny Ferghana, he wrote of the city being ‘filled with learned and matchless men.’

Herat’s golden era was under Queen Gowhar Shad, wife of Tamerlane’s youngest son, Shah Rukh. The name of Herat’s most important queen is almost unknown in the West but she used her power as wife of a ruler whose empire stretched from Turkey to China to find and promote the best architects to carry out such grand projects as the ruined musalla. She also sponsored painters, calligraphers and poets, usually in the romantic language of Persian even though the Timurids themselves were Turkish-speaking. One of her protégés was Abdur Rahman Jami, widely considered the greatest-ever Persian poet with his prolific outpouring of ghazals and Couplets. Her court artist Bihzad is regarded as the master of Persian miniatures for his intricate depictions of hunting scenes and chival rous encounters between tall princes and reclining maidens in intense colours such as deep lapis blue made from powdered jewels. One of the first miniaturists to sign his paintings, he headed the Herat Academy from 1468 to 1506 and became so famous that many miniaturists tried to emulate his style, signing their work ‘Worthy of Bihzad’, though Babur was characteristically frank, writing, ‘he painted extremely delicately but he made the faces of beardless people badly by drawing the double chin too big’.

Over the years the city had been sacked so many times that it was hard to imagine any of this artistic spirit had survived. The door of the Literary Circle was open and I walked in, unsure what I would find. The building seemed to rumble in protest as overhead planes flew low, American bombers heading south to Kandahar where the Taliban were threatening to fight to the last after Mullah Omar had announced that he had had another dream that he would stay in power. The rooms were bare and deserted but I noticed a pair of scuffed black sandals outside a door on the left. Inside a man in a black polo neck who looked like a young Robert de Niro was sitting at a desk moodily staring into space. He introduced himself as Ahmed Said Haghighi, the society’s president, and invited me to sit down.

I asked him how the Circle had survived the onslaught on culture of the Taliban years and he smiled wearily. ‘It was not just those years,’ he said. ‘Here in Herat we’ve been fighting a war on culture for hundreds of years. Ever since the death of Queen Gowhar Shad you could say.’
‘How old is the Literary Circle then?’

‘It was founded in 1920 by the poets of the city to make known the rich culture and heritage of Herat. We used to have literary evenings when people would come and read their works but we’ve always been opposed by governments. Many times the doors of this place have been shut down. The Communists locked up many intellectuals and when the Russians came in 1980 they wanted to turn this into an institute of propaganda so many of our members fled to Iran. But the Taliban was the worst time. First they tried to turn us into a propaganda voice, then they came and padlocked the door and publicly whipped our members so we were forced to become an underground movement, meeting in members’ houses to secretly read stories and poems.’

On the shelves were piles of stapled papers that looked like a monthly journal. ‘Yes, we call it the Eighth Orang, it means throne in English, after a poem called Haft Orang the Seven Thrones written by Jami, the most famous poet of Herat, during the most turbulent years of the Timurid Empire. We thought if he could write such a work at that time then why shouldn’t we in our difficult time.’

I was surprised that they had been able to get it past the head of censorship. ‘The Taliban were stupid,’ he replied. ‘They didn’t realise what we were writing. We used symbolic language as in any totalitarian state to convey our messages. Some writers used devices such as the discourse of birds and animals.’

He fell silent and I wondered if I should leave. There was not even a paraffin heater in the room and in the sub-zero temperature my feet felt like blocks of ice, but then he started speaking again without looking at me.
‘In other cities, where there had been fighting between factions and lots of crime and insecurity, when the Taliban came they were greeted with relief. But we had not had those problems. So to us they were simply a bunch of illiterate religious fanatics who did not speak our language and had come to make life difficult for us. Barbarians who hung people from electricity poles and crossroads. One day I counted eighteen people hanging. Can you imagine seeing that?

‘It was particularly hard for our female members. They Closed the girls’ schools and banned women from the university, initially saying this was temporary while they worked things out. But then they captured Kabul and started turning girls’ schools into mosques, banned our language and stopped paying women teachers, so we knew. For a while we waited, hoping they would be defeated but when it became clear that they were going to retain control of Herat we sat around discussing what we could do to stop the culture of our city dying and to help our girls. There was only one thing we could think of.’

‘What was that?’ I asked. Haghighi studied me for a moment as if trying to make his mind up about something. I shifted in my seat and found myself pulling forward my scarf which was always slipping off my hair, already feeling uncomfortable to be stared at so openly in a land where men usually do anything to avoid a woman’s gaze. He pushed his chair back from the table and got up.
‘Come with me.’

His brusque tone brooked no possibility of asking where we were going and I found myself following meekly as he walked quickly along the road back past the hotel, across the Flower traffic island with the laughing traffic policeman, past Aziz barber’s shop which was busy with men shaving off their beards, and down a small mud-walled alleyway. Some way along by a doorway on the left was a blue sign. Golden Needle, Ladies’ Sewing Classes, Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays.

‘This is what we did,’ he said. I stared uncomprehendingly. ‘The one activity which women could do and involved lots of coming and going was making clothes,’ he explained. The innocuous plaque masked an underground network of writers and poets, who had become the focus of resistance in this ancient city, risking their lives for literature and to educate women.
Three times a week for the previous five years, young women, faces and bodies disguised by their Taliban-enforced uniforms of washed-out blue burqas and flat shoes, Would knock at the yellow wrought-iron door. In their handbags, concealed under scissors, cottons, sequins and pieces of material, were notebooks and pens. Had the authorities investigated they would have discovered that the dressmaking students never made any clothes. The house belonged to Mohammed Nasir Rahiyab, a forty-seven-year-old literature professor from Herat University, and, once inside, the women would pull off their burqas, sit on cushions around a blackboard and listen to him teach forbidden subjects such as literary criticism, aesthetics and Persian poetry as well as be introduced to foreign classics by Shakespeare, James Joyce and Nabokov.

Mr Haghighi banged on the door and it was opened by a small boy who showed us into a long windowless room with cushions on the floor, a board at one end, an oil painting of a man at a desk, and some glass wall-cases containing a few books including a Persian-English dictionary, some volumes of Persian poetry, and a book in English on Poisoning. Professor Rahiyab came and sat down with us beneath his own portrait, and a flask of green tea and a dish of pistachios were brought even though it was Ramadan. ‘I don’t go to the mosque,’ he explained with a shrug. He was a shy soft-spoken man who only became passionate when talking about his beloved Russian writers and he showed me his bust of Pushkin, which he used to keep hidden, only taking it out for the classes.

While lessons were underway his children would be sent to play in the alleyway outside. If a Talib or any stranger approached, one of the children would slip in to warn him and he would then escape into his study with his books while his place running the class was quickly taken by his wife holding up a half-finished garment which they always kept ready.

Only once were they almost exposed when the professor’s daughter was ill in bed and his son had run to buy bread so there was no one to raise the alarm when a black turbaned Talib rapped at the door.

‘Suddenly he was in the courtyard outside. I just got out of the room in time and my wife ran in and the girls hid their books under the cushions. I realised that I had not cleaned the board or hidden Push- kin. I sat in the other room, drinking tea, my hand shaking so much my cup was rattling. Fortunately the Taliban were such ignorant people they did not know what they were seeing.’

In a society where even teaching one’s own daughter to read was a crime, the Sewing Circle was a venture that could easily have ended in more bodies swinging above Gul Crossroads and I asked the professor why he had taken such a risk.

‘If the authorities had known that we were not only teaching women but teaching them high levels of literature we would have been killed,’ he replied. ‘But a lot of fighters sacrificed their lives over the years for the freedom of this city. Shouldn’t a person of letters make that sacrifice too?
‘We were poor in everyday life,’ he added. ‘Why should we be poor in culture too? If we had not done what we did to keep up the literary spirit of the city, the depth of our tragedy would have been even greater.’
To lessen suspicion, Professor Rahiyab never openly criticised the regime and carried on quietly teaching his male students at the university, even though the Taliban had decimated his syllabus, forcing him to replace most of his literature classes with lectures on Islamic culture and Shariat and insisting the only books he use were those which he said were ‘brought from the mosque’. Literary Theory was reduced from ten hours to two hours a week, European Literature scrapped altogether, and Islamic Culture increased from four hours to fourteen hours. ‘I had an extremely long beard,’ he added, rubbing his close- shaven chin with a wry smile.

Inspired by the Golden Needle, hundreds of similar courses were held all over the city, mostly in central places where there were lots of comings and goings so a few more would not draw too much attention. Some of the Literary Circle’s writers even disguised them selves in burqas to go to women’s houses to teach. A Unicef official later told me that an estimated 29,000 girls and women in Herat province received some form of secret education while the city was under Taliban control.

‘A society needs poets and storytellers to reflect its pain – and joy,’ said Professor Rahiyab as we got up to leave. ‘A society without literature is a society that is not rich and does not have a strong core. If there wasn’t so much illiteracy and lack of culture in Afghanistan then terrorism would never have found its cradle here.’

Extract 2 (Taken from Chapter 6)
The card for Sultan Hamidy’s famous glass factory described it as ‘Handicrafts & Historical thinhgs Shop’ and carried a small blue diagram which pictured it on the corner of ‘North St. of the Big Mosque’.

It was not hard to find. Big Mosque was a literal but accurate description of the Masjid-i-Juma or Friday Mosque where for eight centuries the people of Herat had gathered for prayers and important events in the city such as declaring a new ruler or motivating soldiers before they went off for war. Every inch of the walls was Covered with Stunning blue tiles decorated with golden arabesques and white-petalled flowers; the entrance was through an impressive archway with three tiers of pointed arched windows. We left our shoes with the old man sitting with his pile of sandals and tin of coins outside and stepped into a vast courtyard open to the sky with a marble floor which was icy cold underfoot even through thermal socks. Only the rich wear socks in Afghanistan, and I grimaced to see the worshippers walking barefeet. Near the entrance in a plastic case was a bronze cauldron at least three feet tall and wide, engraved with black markings, that had been commissioned by Tamerlane, and just off to the left a room which contained the tomb of Ghiyas-ad-Din, king of the Ghorids, who founded the mosque in 1200. A small marble shelf ran all the way along the west wall at about knee height and on it, in one of the prayer niches, a man had taken off his prosthetic leg and laid it by his side with his Kalashnikov while he prostrated himself It seemed an odd place of worship where men leave their shoes at the entrance but not their guns.

It was too cold to linger long in the mosque so I scurried across the road to find sanctuary in Sultan Hamidy’s shop. From the outside the windows were so encrusted with dust that it was hard to see what it sold. I supposed it was a long time since a foreign tourist passed this way. But inside, once one adjusted to the dim light, was an Aladdin’s cave. Old British muskets hung from the ceiling along with wooden lute-like instruments called tamburs inlaid with ivory, as well as long Uzbek coats and antique silk scarves in bright pinks and emeralds. Glass cabinets contained a jumble of Bactrian lion heads, small limestone tablets covered with squiggly writing, flat squarish coins that looked like they dated from Greek or Roman times, Buddh ist-style walnuts covered with ivory fashioned into dragon designs, Kandahari whistle-flutes, Persian seals and miniatures, and Russian pocket watches in silver cases carved with bears or trains. It was an inventory of Afghanistan’s invaders.

By the windows was a series of cardboard boxes piled with candle sticks, vases, dishes, water cups for birdcages and goblets twisted and sculpted into the strangest shapes and sorted into colours – bright mermaid blue, deep cobalt and jade green. I tried to pick out a set of six glasses but no two were even remotely alike, all different heights and shapes and thicknesses with strange bumps and bulges. They were layered with dust and when I took them to the doorway and wiped them with my sleeve they glittered in the sun as if tiny particles of dust were trapped inside the glass.

I was holding up one that I particularly admired when a papery voice behind me whispered, ‘Do you know the secret of glass?’
I turned around to see an old man in white shaiwar kamiz with a short waistcoast and a long white beard. His face was smooth and unlined yet his milky green eyes told of times long past. This was Sultan Hamidy, the owner of the shop.
‘The secret of glass?’

‘We once made glass for all over Afghanistan. All over Persia too. Kings and queens drank from Hamidy’s glasses. We were the biggest glass factory in all Oxiana and Transoxiana. Look.’ On the wall were framed yellowing certificates of awards won for his glassware in exhibitions in Tehran, Istanbul and Karachi.
‘What happened?’ -

‘War. Killing. Who is there to make glass when the men are all fighting? And who will buy glass when they don’t even have a roof over their heads or bread to feed their children?’
The old man shook his head and turned in from the doorway as if the light was burning his eyes. ‘Mine is a country where all the beauty has died. Look around you. This was a beautiful city of poetry and painting and pine trees famous as far away as your country. Foreigners loved this place. It was green and lush, the stalls were all piled high with pomegranates, figs and peaches bigger than your fist. Now it is brown and dry, a dead place.’

He walked back towards the depths of his shop and I feared he would disappear. Instead he picked up something wrapped in yellowing newspaper from inside a drawer and handed it to me. It was a Wooden pencil box varnished in lapis blue with the Herat citadel delicately painted in the centre surrounded by a border of tiny star-shaped red roses and gold edging in the style of the old miniatures. The price he quoted was the equivalent of six months’ salary in Afghanistan and, I knew, far too much, but it was little to me and it seemed wrong to bargain over something so exquisite, so I took the box along with half a dozen of the turquoise blue glasses Which he wrapped in straw in a box as if they were tiny kittens in a bed.

‘You mentioned a secret,’ I said after counting out several large bricks of tattered afghanis, considerably lightening the load in my rucksack.

‘Each glass is individually made. We used to say a line of poetry for each one so that it would have its own soul. You see them there in the grains of sand trapped in the glass. Then when my first son Rahim was killed by the dushman [Russians] in 1979 I whispered his name into the glass as I blew it over the flame; Then we did the same every time a son or brother or neighbour was made shaheed but we could not keep up – you see how many glass pieces we have made but there were hundreds, thousands of dead. First we had no more customers. Then after a while we no longer had the workers or the materials. Our colours were from crushed jewels, you see the tiny splinters. Now the glasses just sit there, waiting to be found. This is the secret of Sultan Hamidy’s glass.’


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