ART AND INSPIRATION IN AFGHANISTAN, 1968-78.
text by Ira & Sylvia Seret
1. Living History 2. Changing Course 3. The Stars Align 4. You Can Take The Boy Outta New York, But… 5. Lucky Car-Ma 6. A Rolls Royce Signed By Warhol 7. If You’re Going To San Francisco… 8. Where Are The Coats? 9. Down To Business 10. All That Glitters Isn’t Gold 11. Back In The New York Groove 12. An Eye For Beauty, A Feel For Display 13. Lapis Lazuli: The Philosopher’s Stone 14. Magic Carpet Ride 15. A Thunderbird In The Desert 16. Ethnic Chic 17. Sheherazade’s Pad 18. Coat Of Many Colors 19. Arrival 20. The Patchwork Tent 21. Woodstock 22. The Marketplace 23. Old Roads, New Directions: Finding Chak 13 24. Stitching Cultures Together 25. The Dream Ring And Other Ancient Treasures
28. Rugs Not Drugs 28. Ancient Inspiration 29. Malangs: Mendicant Sufi Mystics 30. Abracadabra 31. The Weavers Unravel 32. Dis-Harmony In New York 33. Left Behind 34. A Lone Woman 35. Licensed At Last 36. A Different Kind Of Project 38. Christmas And Women’s Work 39. New Year And The Urge To Expand 40. The Ramazan Saga 41. Germany, New York… And Aruba 42. A New Life Begins 43. Two For The Price Of One 44. Indigo Turbans 45. Rug Rehabilitation 46. A Family Visit 47. A New Home In Kabul 48. The Light Begins To Fade 49. End Of The Beginning 50. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly 51. Appendicitis 52. Exit Visas 53. Heading West 54. Bringing It All Back Home
26. The Summer Of ‘75
55. A Stitch In Time
27. Art On The Run
56. Istalif Revisited 57. Echoes
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It may seem hard to imagine now, but Afghanistan was once a place so beautiful, so photogenic, that one had only to look through a viewfinder to discover a breathtaking image. The people, the landscape, the bazaars, even the animals — one could hardly take a bad shot. During our years living and working in Afghanistan, my husband, Ira Seret, frequently remarked that the Afghan people had the most beautiful faces and demeanors in the world—a living expression of their ancient heritage. Certainly, my interest in photography grew stronger during our time in this fascinating country, as I documented our travels and our work building cottage industries. It is gratifying to me that nearly four decades later I am able to share some of those photos, adding a visual element to memories of our early creative path, the start of our family life, and the wonder that was A fghanistan in its last moments of traditional splendor. It is Ira’s story, inextricably woven into the fabric of Afghanistan, that has inspired this book. Ira has spent a lifetime bridging East and West through fashion and design. In the mid sixties, his fascination with color and pattern blossomed in the creative excitement of New York’s Pop Art movement. By 1968, he was already living in Afghanistan, developing his eye for exquisite handicraft and sourcing textiles that would shape the aesthetic of the times. A native New Yorker, whose grandparents had emigrated from Russia, Ira had never traveled outside the United States before landing in Afghanistan. His transformative experience in Afghanistan not only shaped his life, it also provided inspiration for the decades of creative work in fashion and design that followed. Consequently, Ira became instrumental in building Western markets for Afghanistan’s amazing handicraft traditions, generating fashion trends in New York and beyond, starting with a craze for the iconic Afghan “sheepskin coat,”—that classic hippie fashion worn by everyone from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix. I met Ira in January of 1974, by which time he was already six years into his mythic adventure in Afghanistan. I was fortunate to join him and share that experience of preOpposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 11
war Afghanistan: a beautiful, peaceful, and magical place. Together we built on Ira’s earlier work, creating and developing cottage industries in weaving, embroidery, beadwork and clothing. For nearly five decades Ira has cherished the beauty and artistry of Afghan culture. He has shared his passion by sending its rugs, textiles and handicrafts into homes around the world, along with the gorgeous handicrafts of Pakistan, India, and other Silk Road countries of Central Asia and the Himalayan region. Ira and I lived in Afghanistan during the late 60s and 1970s, when it was known in the West — if at all — as a remote and exotic land. Though a popular stop with overland travelers on the legendary hippie trail, few had ever made it their destination, and even fewer could claim any understanding of the Afghan people and their unique culture — one that had been immeasurably enriched by centuries of international trade, thanks to the country’s position at the crossroads of the Silk Road. Those few who did make the effort to discover Afghanistan found a land possessing a timeless quality. Outside its major cities, the landscape, architecture, animals, clothing and way of life appeared much as they might have a thousand years before. Aside from paved main roads, there were few signs of modernity. There was a mystical feeling to the place—as if time had stood still. But 60-odd years of peace, now nostalgically referred to as the “Golden Years,” came to an abrupt end on April 27, 1978, when a small group of communists overthrew the Republic of Afghanistan led by Daoud Khan. That coup was a turning point in Afghanistan’s modern history, after which the country spiraled into an abyss of violence. The suffering began with the brutal Soviet invasion, followed by years of civil war and culminating with the emergence of the Taliban, whose fundamentalist regime would make Afghanistan a global pariah and open its doors to Al Qaeda. For years, mainstream U.S. media gave Afghanistan little coverage, even as the U.S. was providing covert support to help the mujahideen defeat and expel the Soviets. Only following 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion to repulse the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden, did Afghanistan suddenly appear front and center on the world stage — a position it has largely retained for more than a decade, joined by Iraq and then Syria. Ira and I recall those early days of the U.S. invasion very well, as cable news channels streamed non-stop coverage of a country to which few had paid much attenOpposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 12
tion, and even fewer could locate on a map. At last, we felt, the world would finally see these beautiful, dignified people, supremely elegant although wizened and battle-scarred by decades of war and suffering. At last those faces we knew so well — faces that bore testimony to Afghanistan’s rich historical tapestry and its unique multi-ethnic heritage — would appear in living rooms across the world. So Ira and I were disheartened to realize that as Afghanistan transitioned from obscurity to notoriety, the images imprinted on Western minds would become those of war, violence, oppression, and radical fundamentalism. Americans who had never known Afghanistan in peacetime were now confronted with images of a stark, alien land— a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists, ruled by an authoritarian Taliban, bent on turning a traditionally Sufi-oriented country into an Islamic caliphate. The world was discovering the bombed-out shell of a country that we had known as teeming with life and beauty, its markets and shops full of exquisite handcrafted goods. Even its deserts were punctuated with oasis towns replete with fruit orchards. Remnants of Afghanistan’s ancient history added to the mystique, from Hellenistic Greek ruins to the epic statuary and stupas of its Gandharan Buddhist era. The Afghanistan we knew was a land that boasted hospitality, tranquility, peace and tolerance. Though economically poor, it was rich in its simplicity and family life, and was experiencing a period of relative stability.. The warmth and hospitality of pre-war Afghanistan and its Muslim population we experienced could not have been further from the ultra-conservative, radical faith for which it has become known. Before the Taliban imposed their repressive, fanatical brand of Islam, rooted in the Gulf States’ Wahhabi tradition, Afghans had adhered largely to the teachings of the peace-loving Sufi masters and saints so revered throughout the rural areas. Afghanistan is commonly referred to as the home of Sufi saints—a land where mystics and mendicants are revered. Shrines of deceased Sufi masters are everywhere. Sufism, which values erudition and freedom of thought and expression, is tolerant and accepting of other faiths, and has always been an integral part of Islam. Its rites include music, ritual dance, poetry and other art forms dear to the Afghan people. Indeed, Sufism’s greatest poet, Jalalludin Rumi, was born in Afghanistan. Conversely, the fundamentalist creed of Wahhabism, which only emerged in the 18th century, has sought with missionary zeal to redefine Islam according to its narrow, harsh interpretation of Sharia law. In pre-war Afghanistan this hard-line Islamist extremism Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 14
had no traction whatsoever. It only gained a foothold as a result of constant war and the subsequent utter collapse of a social structure that had prevailed for centuries. Of course, even during the modernization of these “Golden Years” of the 20th century, Afghanistan’s social mores were still deeply conservative, particularly in the provinces. Afghans were a proud people, who had never tolerated interference in their way of life or politics, nor accepted attempts to manipulate their interests. The country’s reputation as a “graveyard of empires” had been earned through the expulsion of that most resolutely imperialist power—the British Empire—not once, but twice. When Soviet-backed Afghan communists took control of the government in 1978 and attempted to educate women in rural villages in order to bring them into the workforce, they did so in an abrupt, authoritarian manner with no sensitivity to the culture. Afghans largely perceived this action as a threat to their centuries-old traditions, familial hierarchies, and close-knit tribal allegiances. Fierce uprisings ensued throughout the country, And then the Soviets invaded. The Soviet-Afghan war, from December 1979 to February 1989, was a brutally destructive and ultimately humiliating experience for the USSR, one that undoubtedly hastened the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But it would also have a profound effect on the course of Western history, in large part because of our covert support of the Afghan freedom fighters known as the mujahideen. During their decade-long guerilla war against Soviet forces, who were both more numerous and better equipped, the West hailed these jihadists as heroic warriors—the valiant underdogs fighting the Soviet Goliath. But after the Soviet defeat and the withdrawal of their troops, the U.S. decided that Afghanistan no longer had any strategic value, and abandoned the country to its fate. Congress refused to offer aid for reconstruction and development. Without Western assistance to support a battered population and work toward establishing a democratic government, the country inevitably descended into a long and chaotic civil war. The various mujahideen commanders, who had maintained unity in fighting the Soviets, now battled one another, reducing vast areas of Kabul to rubble in the process. During both the Soviet and the Civil War desperate refugees fled by the hundreds of thousands. While some managed to get to the west, many more fled to Pakistan, where for decades they lived in cramped, squalid refugees camps, mired in extreme poverty and never integrated into Pakistani society. Ira has always felt that these camps were the root of many problems we have today because the refugee camps in Pakistan were the original Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 17
breeding ground of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He imagines being the eldest boy, living with a widowed mother and many younger siblings in a tent with little hope and no income. Who wouldn’t have gone to fight for any group offering a few dollars to help feed the desperate family for whom these boys were now responsible? Any of us in those shoes would probably be forced to do the same. It became a matter of survival. By 2001, Afghanistan had already suffered through 23 years of war, costing two million lives and creating more than three million refugees, the majority of them confined to refugee camps in Pakistan with little hope of returning to their war torn homeland. For over three decades Afghans made up the largest refugee population in the world. Even though a staggering 5.8 million have returned since 2002, another 3.5 million remain in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. A generation of young Afghans has grown up permanently displaced, with little first hand knowledge of their native country and its magnificent culture. Today, after fifteen years of U.S. involvement and billions of dollars spent, Afghanistan still lacks peace and stability. Sadly, much of that money was wasted. The Taliban have returned with a vengeance and are a growing threat in large parts of the country. Pakistan’s refugee repatriation program, initially scheduled to be completed by 2015, has been postponed, due to the uncertainties facing those who return. But despite the ever-present dangers, Kabul and much of the country is in the midst of a construction boom, young people are eager for higher education, and cultural attitudes are gradually shifting. Before the downward spiral that began in 1978, Afghanistan had every reason to be hopeful. In the capital of Kabul, then called the “Paris of Central Asia,” modernity was on the rise. Students at Kabul University prepared for professional careers with hopes of a bright future for their country. Like many developing countries it faced challenges such as poverty and high infant mortality. However, its economy— based largely on farming, animal husbandry, and handicrafts—still supported a stable, traditional lifestyle. People’s lives were in harmony with the seasons, relatively unchanged for more than a century. Within Afghanistan’s borders a tribal society of diverse, but mutually tolerant ethnic groups exhibited an extraordinary range of highly developed handicraft skills, some of which were beginning to attract international acclaim. Artisans, male and female alike, were increasingly acknowledged as some of the most skilled weavers and embroiderers the world had ever seen. Little wonder that, on discovering the beauty and sophistication of these arts, and the artisans who made them, Ira instantly fell in love with Afghanistan and decided to make it his home 18
Ira and I experienced firsthand the warmth and hospitality so deeply rooted in Afghan culture, though we lived under an Afghan government that was fiercely protective — not only of its heritage and religion, but also of commerce and business. Foreign ownership of any business was limited to a minority interest, (no more than 49 percent), so that in the event of a problem, the government could request the outsider to leave. When Ira later found it necessary to build a weaving factory to fill custom orders for New York, we set up the enterprise with an Afghan partner, initially avoiding the requirement of applying for a business license. In retrospect, part of this book is the story of our efforts to develop Afghan handicraft industries in the final years before the entire country collapsed. It is the tale of how we naively and positively plowed ahead, the resistance we met, and our eventual acknowledgement by the Afghan government for our efforts. Ira and I both realize that we are incredibly fortunate to have lived and worked in Afghanistan during the final flourish of its “Golden Years.” When we look back, we have bittersweet memories and wonder how the world could have allowed such an exquisite culture to be crushed and scattered to the wind. While many of our photos were lost during our move back to the U.S., I have compiled here photos that remain along with stories that will never fade from those years. This book celebrates that beautiful world and the people with whom we lived and worked from 1968-1978. I hope the stories and photos that follow will capture some of the creative synthesis — West meeting East and vice-versa —that unfolded during that decade. In the following pages, two narratives weave back and forth between the photos: Ira’s first-person voice (in blue text) from a series of interviews in 2008; and my own account, drawn from my journals and notes of those years in Afghanistan. This book, then, is not an attempt to explain in any detail the political and historical events that have shattered Afghanistan for close to four decades. Rather, it is a personal history that I hope will shed some light on what was lost during these long years of conflict, and perhaps, in some small way, preserve a little of that w onderful, welcoming, and dazzlingly creative way of life that Ira and I explored together. Of course, the only constant in life is change, but that knowledge is no shield from the brutal truth of a terrible loss. During our time traveling and working in Afghanistan, whenever we marveled at its timeless feeling of antiquity, Ira would often remark in wonder, “This is history,” — reminding me that what we were experiencing, right there and then, was a unique moment, not to be taken for granted. My hope is that these pages can conjure up some of that history, and the magical, otherworldly beauty we were lucky enough to experience — a wonderful moment that has now passed, perhaps forever. 19
Changing Course Meeting Ira was a radical turning point in my life. As such moments often do, it came out of the blue. While much of this book details Ira’s fated encounter with Afghanistan, my own life path led me to meet Ira and through him, to my own magical Afghan adventure. And all these years later it has fallen to me to be the storyteller. My own story starts in Bavaria, where I was born a year after the end of WWII. Fortunately, my father had inherited dual US-German citizenship through his father, who was born in Honolulu while my great-grandfather was the German consul to Hawaii at the turn of the century. In the aftermath of WWII, my father decided in 1949 to move the family from Bavaria to Miami, Florida — a place he imagined as a tropical paradise in the land of freedom and individualism. Though my mother adapted to her new homeland, she missed her family. And so, growing up we spent many summers with relatives in Germany traveling throughout Europe. In 1968 as a Florida State undergraduate studying German literature, I applied and was accepted into the Peace Corps. But when I was assigned to Afghanistan I was less than thrilled: Thailand, India, or somewhere in South America would have been fine, but Afghanistan? I knew almost nothing about the country, and it held no interest for me at that time. I decided instead to go to New York to continue studying German Literature at Columbia University. I already loved the city, having worked at the World’s Fair in the summer of 1964, but as I settled into life as a graduate student, New York fully captured my heart. The turmoil of Vietnam protests had calmed down by the time I arrived in August of 1969, but political activism remained in the air. These were exciting times — the spirit of the 60s was very much alive. I was not quite 23 years old and eager for a new challenge. I could sense the new era underway, one that was being shaped by my generation. I was fortunate to get work teaching introductory German classes, which covered my tuition and provided great experience. To make ends meet, I took another part time job as executive assistant to Dr. Shirley Kaye Fischer, Director of Columbia’s African Studies Association. In the summer of 1972 I accompanied Shirley to Ghana to assist Opposite from top left : From top left- Sylvia in her Afghan sheepskin coat, Austria, 1972; Dogon dwellings, Mopti region of Mali; Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali. 1972. 21
her in organizing a conference. We spent a month there and took a side trip to the Ivory Coast. This was my first exposure to the simple beauty of African life, with its vibrant marketplaces and colorful traditional textiles. I collected Adinkra and Khente cloth, and a variety of exquisite printed cottons. After the conference, I flew to Mali by myself, where I took a small jeep tour from Bamako north through Dogon Country and on to Timbuktu, a mesmerizing desert city, where I slept on a rooftop under the stars. I never gave a thought to safety while traveling alone in this truly foreign land. Those were very different times in the world! From Mali I flew to Austria to continue my studies in Vienna on a fellowship. Upon return to New York in early 1973, I moved into a studio in the West Village, a hip, creative neighborhood where I had artist friends. It was there that my own creative spark suddenly emerged. I used the fabrics I had collected in Ghana to make a colorful patchwork coat for my colleague and mentor, Shirley. Suddenly, friends and fellow grad students started asking me to make others like it for them. When I finally took time to make something for myself, I transformed my one wool winter coat by covering it with a patchwork of colored velvets, and embroidering the neckline with sparkling colored “jewels.” Where, I wondered, had this ability to embroider and sew by hand so precisely come from? In earlier years I had made some great clothes for myself using a sewing machine, but nothing like this. The patchwork coats became an obsession, absorbing all my free time whenever I wasn’t studying or attending classes. They were also my first true form of artistic expression, an effort to manifest outwardly an inner vision, using needles, embroidery threads and fabrics. But they were more than that. After making several more patchwork coats and quilts, I realized that on some level I was literally trying to piece together disparate parts of myself - to fit together the patchwork of my own life. The work was happening on a psychological level, too. Symbolically, a coat is a persona, the exterior we present to the world, a garment that identifies us to the observer and says something about the wearer. In a certain way, then, making that patchwork velvet coat for myself was my way of creating a new persona, expressing an emerging identity, showing the world who I was in the process of becoming. So it seems appropriate that I was wearing the same patchwork coat when I first met Ira. Even before we exchanged more than a few words, he had felt he knew me. As he would later tell me, “The coat said it all.”
The Stars Align
By January 1974, my PhD coursework was complete and I wanted a break from teaching German 101 to freshmen. I decided to take a hiatus before committing to my next year of academic work, researching and writing a dissertation. At this point I knew the city quite well, and at various events I would often run into a guy named Zubin Levy, a former Martha Graham Company dancer, performance artist and clothing designer. In the late 60s Zubin had initiated the trend for multi-colored, tie-dyed clothing that was worn by many of the era’s biggest rock stars: photos of the 1969 Woodstock festival show Janis Joplin wearing a cobalt-blue, tie-dyed Zubin outfit. We soon became friends, and I agreed to make Zubin a patchwork coat using his own tie-dye fabrics. On January 21st, a Monday evening with not much else happening, Zubin invited me to go uptown to meet a friend of his, named Ira, who had apparently used some amazing textiles to create a ‘really cool’ environment. I had no expectations, though perhaps I should have known that Zubin — this mercurial dancer in tie-dyed velvet — would have befriended someone extraordinary. They had initially met when they collaborated on the stage design for a Sun-Ra concert at a mid-town theater. Zubin thought his friend Ira — already a quasi-mythic figure on the New York scene, a member of the early Warhol crowd who was living and working primarily in Afghanistan — would also love to see the patchwork velvet coats I was making. Zubin’s only concern was that if he introduced us, he might never get the coat he’d asked me to sew for him. As it would turn out, he was right! When he wasn’t in Afghanistan, Ira’s base in the city was on East End Avenue and 86th Street, a spacious three-bedroom apartment on the 12th floor. But when Zubin and I arrived that evening, Ira wasn’t home. Instead, we found his friend and housemate, sculptor-potter Naomi Greenspan — six feet tall with wild, frizzy long hair — who invited us in. Entering that apartment was like walking into some kind of psychedelic dream, a place full of swirling, exotic patterns and textures. The walls and living room ceiling were a collage of exquisite, multi-colored textiles Ira had collected during his time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Strewn around were brightly painted Afghan trunks overflowing with newly imported treasures. Some rooms hardly seemed like rooms at all, but more
like kaleidoscopic-patterned tents. I learned that Ira and designer Angelo Donghia had designed these interior tents for Bloomingdale’s, based on traditional Gulgari designs from Pakistani wedding tents. While we waited, awestruck by this extraordinary environment, Naomi phoned Ira at his cousin’s house, telling him frankly that she thought he should meet me. Ira and I spoke briefly on the phone and he asked if I would return the following evening. I was curious to meet this person into whose extraordinary space I had just stepped, and agreed to take the subway uptown once again. When Ira and I met the following night, I think we were both taken aback. In some ways we were total opposites, yet we resonated. Later Ira would tell me that he saw my coat and knew immediately that we were on the same creative wavelength. Personally, I could never have envisioned someone like Ira before I met him. He likes to use the phrase “from another planet” to describe unusual people, but as far as I was concerned, he was from another planet: a total original, inhabiting his own little universe of color, light and beauty… a prince without a crown. (At least, until a few months later, when I made him a patchwork beret-type hat with a white dove feather sticking up on top like an antenna.) My initial impression, then, was of the most original, eccentric individual I had ever met. Our meeting felt almost surreal, and I knew instantly that something had come to me out of the blue, something that would greatly impact my life. Ira had a unique style and expressed his colorful nature and love of exquisite handcrafted artworks through his exuberant, richly textured environment. Beautiful things spilled from every nook and cranny of his living space. He had even designed some of the furniture himself, including a fabulous dining table with matching chairs, collaged and covered with embroidered textiles and needlepoint, legs wrapped with rows of fine colored beads. I was amazed when he told me that I was seeing the place in the last vestiges of its full glory: much of it had already been dismantled and packed away, because Ira was gradually putting everything into storage before heading back to Afghanistan. The place had served as a showcase for his clients, but it was time for a change. He had recently emerged from a several year relationship with Brigitte Bernard, a woman who had accompanied him a few times to Afghanistan. Now he was dismantling his huge ceiling tent, whose panels would need stitching together before being packed up. Having noticed the handiwork on my hand-stitched coat, he asked if I would help him sew the panels. The fact that we could both sew was an immediate point of mutual fascination, Opposite : From top: Ira in his apartment on E. 86th St., NYC; Ira and Sylvia, Woodstock, N.Y. Jan, 1974; Sylvia’s patchwork coat: Velvet, Kente cloth, glass jewels, embroidery. 25
and since he was obviously someone I wanted to know better, I agreed. I was on leave from academia, after all, so I could afford the time off. And so, in the days that followed, we sat there, cross-legged, on one of his beautiful rugs, sewing together those hand woven silk ikat and embroidery panels, listening to music, talking and getting to know each other. I loved Ira’s sense of humor. It wasn’t long before we both sensed that our meeting was no accident, that there were powerful karmic forces at work. Stitching the ceiling panels was a lengthy process, and some days Naomi and friends who dropped by would join in to help us. Meanwhile, we started dating, going to museums, and eventually taking trips to Woodstock to visit friends. We fell headlong into this relationship, one that felt as though it had been arranged by the universe. Yet, having experienced a couple of ungrounded relationships, it seemed only wise to perform due diligence and have our connection checked out, so to speak. In the spirit of the times I decided to ask a seasoned astrologer to look at our respective and composite astrological charts — especially when it became clear that I might even travel to the other side of the planet with this remarkable, yet decidedly unconventional man. Ruth Ray, the astrologer I consulted, came highly recommended. I wanted some insight into these remarkable events and how compatible we might be, as well as some reassurance that I was not running off on the proverbial wild goose chase. Ruth confirmed my intuitions: Ira and I had the potential to be great friends, lovers, and creative partners, since we shared not only a favorable synastry, (astrological compatibility) but also creative chemistry. This was good news because, shortly after we’d met, Ira invited me to go with him to Afghanistan. While he had appreciated the work I’d put into my hand-sewn coats, he thought I would get even greater creative satisfaction from working on my designs with the assistance of some highly-skilled Afghan women, practitioners of a centuries-old tradition of fine needlework. Having already turned down one opportunity to visit Afghanistan with the Peace Corps, I was surprised to have the country appear again on my radar. I decided it must be synchronicity: here was a sign that I definitely had to visit this country, coupled with the exciting prospect of working with talented craftswomen. And, conveniently, I had no job or academic commitments that winter to prevent me from taking up the offer. For both us then, it was a case of mutual inspiration, attraction, and a desire to create something special together. The stars had aligned, and although previously I had often found it difficult to make big personal decisions, this choice was effortless. Ira put his belongings into storage and brought a few personal items to my tiny apartment on Barrow Street, where we stayed together until our departure. 26
You Can Take The Boy Outta New York, But...
In this life I was reincarnated into a very middle class Jewish family with two good parents, two sisters and a canary named Pee Wee. I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens and moved to Woodmere, Long Island (“The Five Towns”) at age 11. My grandparents on both sides came over from Russia around the turn of the century. My mother’s father, Joseph Tankeloff, was a violinist in St. Petersburg — the only Jewish musician in the royal orchestra of Czar Nicolas II, the last Emperor of Russia. Joseph emigrated to New York in 1908 where he met his wife Sophie, a seamstress. She had emigrated with her family from Minsk, Russia. I sometimes wonder if I inherited my creative gene from Joseph. He was poor, but he loved antiques and would play music with other Russian immigrants every Friday night in his antique cluttered apartment on Queens Blvd. Joseph worked for Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics entrepreneur, for fifty years. They were both immigrants and must have clicked. They became good friends and Joe was the in-house house painter for her salons, apartment in New York City, and home in Connecticut. I never knew my father’s parents. They also came from Russia around the turn of the century but died when my father, Sam, was only ten. Sam never mentioned them, and we never asked. Not until Ancestry.com did I find out that Sam’s father was a tailor. Sam was the youngest of six children—the first three were born in Russia. He always loved sports but especially baseball. At age 13 he was selling ice cream from a cart on Delancey Street on the lower East Side, and with the first money he made he bought himself a baseball uniform. Later he owned a bar called Squires in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, and used car businesses in Harlem and Yonkers. The first dozen years of my life were very ordinary for that time and place, yet those times hardly exist anymore. On 63rd Drive in Forest Hills, Queens, there wasn’t much traffic, and you could ride bicycles everywhere. We would play stickball on the side streets around the corner from our six-story apartment building. The blocks of the neighborhood were like our schoolyard. We’d play hopscotch and stoop ball,
where one person is the thrower and one the catcher. If it’s one bounce it’s a single, two bounces a double, three a triple, and if it goes over your head it’s a home run! We played outside every afternoon and weekends — simple games like stoop ball or flipping baseball cards. The candy store was right across the street, where we bought the Spaulding baseball cards. For hours we would pitch the cards against the wall. Today these cards that we pitched all day bring thousands on the collectible market. We would also pitch pennies and nickels, and whoever was closest to the line would win the penny or nickel. Sometimes we’d even pitch quarters, which in those days was a lot of money. The movie theater was only three blocks away, and Saturday mornings we’d walk down there for a double feature with cartoons. We’d buy button candy at the candy store and take it with us to the theater. My mom would leave my younger sister and I for hours in the theater and then come back to pick us up. I had the most fun of all going to a nearby schoolyard that had a handball court. I’d play stickball, and I’d always bring a wire coat hanger with me because the balls would fall in the sewer. So you’d make a round circle on the hanger to pull the ball back out with. In the empty lot next to the candy store we would play cowboys and Indians. Sometimes on weekends I would set up a lemonade stand in front of the building and if you bought a lemonade I’d give away a free baseball card or a comic book—Superman or Archie— ones that I had already read. That was my first job. I earned money to keep buying more boxes of baseball cards. Those years were special. Today I’m not sure kids in that neighborhood play like we did. Once I turned 12 and before I was bar mitzvahed, the play was over. A new act started… It was like that song, “Get a Job.” Jewish middle class immigrants enforced a strong work ethic. In our family there were always relatives with businesses who seemed to need my help or were offering me a job. It was my karma to learn to be organized and on time, which is what work taught me. Sometimes I would work several jobs at one time since my parents expected me to pay for clothes, earn my own spending money, and once I could drive I had to begin paying for my cars. The list of my part time and summer jobs reads longer than you would think possible. In Woodmere, my mother drove me every morning on my paper route as I threw the papers out the window. Sometimes I’d miss the shot and have to get out and move
the paper towards the door. I worked for my mother’s brother making and selling pizzas in Jamaica, Queens, and for another uncle selling frankfurters at his small counter restaurant on West 42nd St. in the theater district. I set up pins as a pin boy at a bowling alley one summer and another summer took the train to Manhattan every day to work at Little Alice Crinoline Factory in the garment district, cutting fabrics on big tables, and packing and shipping crinolines — a job which gave me good experience in the garment business. At 14, in July of 1957, when the Mayflower II arrived in New York Harbor to great fanfare, I sold the official Mayflower II souvenir magazines at the pier (possibly Pier 54) on the West Side. By age 15 I was helping my father in the used car business. I enjoyed going with my father to car auctions in Bordentown, N.J., and I bought my first car as soon as I was old enough to drive…. an old Austin Healy that only cost $450. It kept breaking down and I would have to push it. Then I bought a fairly new white Corvette with red leather interior. A couple of summers I had a job parking cars at a beach club in Atlantic Beach, on the south shore of Long Island. It was a social scene with so many kids my age working there. My mom’s brother also had the food service concession there. I would set up beach chairs and umbrellas and serve food to sunbathers. Another summer, my parents paid the maitre’d $400 to get me a job as a busboy at the Catskills resort called The Nevele. I must have been 17 at the time because I had my Corvette up there. I slept in a bunkhouse for employees and worked three shifts, and made good money but also had to pay my parents back the money they had laid out to get me the job. Because my parents had decided that I wasn’t a “good student,” they pushed me to work in all my spare time. But because I was working from such an early age, I never had enough time to focus on studies to finish high school. The only classes I liked and did well in were chess, sports, and math until algebra. Even though hard work got hardwired into my DNA, I was lucky to eventually find creative work that I loved. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just knew I didn’t want the financial insecurity, which I saw my parents suffer through. I learned that it takes not just hard work to succeed but persistence, attention to detail… and creativity.
An undiagnosed dyslexic, teenage Ira Seret never did finish high school. From the age of 12 he was expected to work weekends, and at 15 he was working for his father’s used car business in Yonkers. Ira had a passion for cars that were rare, exotic and beautiful. At 18 he had already owned a ’54 Austin Healy and a ’59 Corvette, when he fell in love with a 1956 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing Coupé, silver with red leather interior, it was a rare German import he’d found at a dealership near his home in Queens. After his father helped him finance $4,100 to purchase it, Ira proudly drove his Gullwing daily for the next two years — probably far longer and much farther than any of its future owners, given its eventual status as one of the world’s rarest and most collectable vintage cars. Having witnessed Elvis Presley’s inability to avoid the draft, Ira enlisted in the US Army National Guard Reserves rather than risk being drafted to Vietnam later. . After basic training, Ira’s MOS (military operational speciality) was “cook.” He served thousands of meals three times a day. His bunkmate, Vinnie Narcardo, was baritone singer in a doo-wop group called The Capris, whose There’s a Moon out Tonight reached Number 3 on the Pop Charts in 1961. On free weekends the two would drive to clubs in Long Island’s Atlantic Beach. The Gullwing two-seater, a futuristic silver sports car, never failed to draw admiring looks. It was considered a cool car even then, though not nearly the priceless classic it is today. A couple of years later, fearful that an accident would damage the car’s aluminum body and be prohibitively expensive to fix, Ira sold his beloved Mercedes via the New York Times classifieds for $4,300 to photojournalist Sean Flynn1 (son of legendary movie star Errol), who had it flown to Los Angeles. Though reluctant to part with it, Ira was content to have effectively driven the car “for free” for two years. 1. After working as an actor during his teens and early 20s, Flynn became a photojournalist. Tragically, he disappeared In 1970 while on assignment in Cambodia, and was declared officially dead in 1984. He is believed to have been killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Cartoon of Ira in his ’56 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing Coupe, the coolest car he ever owned.
The Gullwing was a car I took for granted and used every day for a couple of years. It turns out to have been one of the greatest classic cars of all time something that became history. Today no one would use that car as their everyday vehicle. They’ll leave it in a garage and show it off to their friends at a dinner party. They’ll walk around with a glass of wine and ohh and ahh at the car. But I picked up girls at Radio City Music Hall and Peppermint Lounge, and had a ball in it. And when Hugh Hefner opened up his Playboy Club on the West side I drove it there with Errol, my older cousin, who was the hot thing at the time, and I was his protogée. It was just lucky Car-Ma. For $4100 I got my money’s worth. His taste for refined and exotic vehicles undiminished, Ira went on to own a number of rare and fantastical cars, most memorably a 1930s Rolls-Royce limousine, built when co-founder Henry Royce was still alive. Although Ira had purchased the Rolls himself, paying the estate of JP Morgan $9,000 for it, his father Sam couldn’t resist selling it for $16,000. By this time, Ira and his father had bought a classic car showroom just off Broadway near Columbus Circle, but shortly after, Sam and Ira stopped working together. Having energized his father’s business with his knowledge of the secondary market and willingness to take risks, it was time for Ira to branch out on his own.
A Rolls Royce Signed By Warhol
New York City in 1965 was a hive of creativity. Pop Art was exploding, and neighborhoods like SoHo, the West Village and the Upper East Side still offered affordable housing for a small but fast-growing band of artists, designers, musicians, writers and other young creatives. One evening, Ira and his friend Roy Silvan went to pick up Roy’s girlfriend, Jeannie, from her workplace, a boutique on 73rd and Madison called Teeny Weeny. It was indeed a tiny space, but had been made to look bigger by the mirrored mosaic covering its doors and walls. The three were joined for dinner by Teeny Weeny’s owner, fashion designer and Warhol muse, Joan “Tiger” Morse. A fashion trailblazer, Tiger was extravagant and eccentric even by the standards of the Warhol crowd. In Radical Rags: Fashions of the 60s, author Joel Lobenthal describes her as “Pop Fashion’s madcap mistress of ceremonies,” and “one of the decade’s most bizarre and prescient self-styled fashion freaks.” Lobenthal continues: “She wore rhinestone sunglasses, bird-wing headdresses, brocade boots, silver foil and white lipstick.” A well-connected socialite, Tiger had opened her first boutique, À La Carte, in 1959. Located on the ground floor of her brownstone on 63rd and Madison, the offbeat style of her designs made an immediate impact among the elites. Society ladies flocked to purchase her brocades, silks, jewelry and exotic animal skins. Tiger had even designed dresses for Jackie Kennedy, including one opulent evening gown made of pink and gold silk organza, which the First Lady wore to a benefit performance in Washington on September 6, 1962. By the mid-60s, her edgy designs included dresses made of paper, mylar and various artificial fabrics, as well as mini-dresses dotted with multi-colored fairy lights, powered by small batteries in the waist.
Tiger’s ideas were ahead of the technology available to really pull them off, and the lights often malfunctioned. She didn’t have good technicians on her staff, so she would haphazardly make it work with minimal wiring and bulbs. She was cutting edge and experimental—like her idea to make disposable paper dresses for airline hostesses. Andy Warhol writes about Tiger’s clothing innovations in Popism, The Warhol Sixties: Tiger designed that famous dress that said “Love” on the front and “Hate” on the back. And she did dresses that lit up on the dance floor, only there would always be some problem with the technology—the lights wouldn’t work or the batteries would be dead, etc. Women used to have old-fashioned problems like…bra straps showing, but now there was this whole new slew of p roblems.
After dinner, Tiger invited the three friends back to her place above the legendary Reuben’s Restaurant. On entering her apartment, Ira was “flabberghasted” by Tiger’s eclectic style and décor, a personal vision that inspired Andy Warhol to film numerous reels of Tiger and her world. Perhaps sensing the karmic nature of this encounter, Ira boldly asked Tiger, ten years his senior and widely regarded as a fashion guru, if she would “teach him.” There was something about her style — its sheer bravado, perhaps — that awakened his own creative nature. Tiger and Ira would live and work together for almost three years, during which time she had a significant influence on his creative development. While assisting with her design work and helping out at the boutique, Ira also experimented with his own ideas—like the dress he made from Monopoly dollars, or another fashioned from credit cards, strung together through holes punched in the corners. Tiger had lost her previous brownstone on 63rd and Madison, (home of “A La Carte”) due to tax problems, and was renting a triplex above Reuben’s. Andy shot one of his movies of her there, in her first-floor studio and living space, with her sitting on a chaise with a high back that fanned out like a peacock’s fan. It was something out of Game of Thrones — on a platform in the living room with steps going up to it that overlooked the street below. The middle floor was her bedroom with a huge mirror ball over the bed. On the top floor were sewing machines for dressmaking and tailoring. None of the floors was particularly big, and everybody sat on the floor — except for her in her chaise-like throne.
The whole place was her showroom and workspace, and her art was everywhere. It was hypnotizing—all the glitter from jars of beads, buttons, and sequins; and textiles from India and Burma; and the paintings, including one of Mick Jagger, on the walls. Everyone brought her their shit to trade. No one had money in those days — Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg—everyone was trading art for clothes, for themselves or their girlfriends or wives. One time, Louise Nevelson left maybe ten of her boxes on consignment at Teeny Weeny for a hundred dollars or so — and I arranged them in the window. Likewise, Mel Ramos traded Tiger a painting for clothes — his huge painting of the naked woman coming out of a Baby Ruth. Tiger gave it to me, and I took it with me when we split, but it disappeared from one of my apartments. At night we would take a taxi to dinner anywhere between 9:30 and 12:30, mostly to Max’s Kansas City, which opened in December 1965. In those early days, owner Mickey Ruskin had his own runway in Max’s. Every night artists would turn up and show their work on the runway, and everyone would comment on each one’s act; I remember Al Hanson bringing his Hershey wrapper collages to show. In 1965-66 Max’s wasn’t quite the crowded scene it would become when rock and roll bands started playing upstairs in 1970. But anyone who was anybody was there, and artists with no money were trading their work for restaurant credit. So Mickey was amassing a collection that would eventually be worth a fortune. Then there was Arthur’s, one of Manhattan’s most popular early discotheques, where we would go once or twice a week, sometimes after Max’s. The nice thing was that we never had to stand in line. One evening, Andy was doing a movie in Tiger’s apartment. At the time, I was driving a 1959 four-door hardtop indigo Rolls Royce. But that evening I got in an accident that bent the fender and left it hanging off. I was so pissed that I pulled it off entirely and brought it upstairs. Tiger, to make me feel better, said Andy would sign it and call it a work of art, which he did. She was a lot like Andy, and they were very close. Both so far out, both total trendsetters — but Andy was the one with the business sense. Anyway, eventually I took the Rolls into the body shop to have the fender fixed, and the signature got buffed off.
If You’re Going To San Francisco
Sometime in 1966, I was living with Tiger Morse and helping out at her boutique, Teeny Weeny. Tiger was working hard to make the shop look beautiful and make it a success. A lot of nights after work and decorating the window, and trying to do a sale here and there, we’d grab something to eat at Max’s and then go down to the Village, to the buttons and poster shops around Café Wha, near McDougal Street. In those days people would wear buttons that had poetry or slogans on them like, “Make Love, Not War.” So we’d go to the Village and buy buttons with these different sayings, and we’d also buy rock and roll posters—the kind that the Fillmore and the Avalon in San Francisco had started making for their psychedelic rock and roll shows. We’d find different items like that and bring them to the boutique. It was a good way to make some extra money aside from Tiger’s clothing lines. We were paying 50 cents or a dollar for them, these posters of all the groups that played at the Fillmore or Avalon. And because rents on Madison Avenue were higher, we were selling the posters for $5. One afternoon I answer the phone at Teeny Weeny, and it’s some guy calling from San Francisco. He says, “I’m Bill Graham from the Fillmore and I heard you are selling our posters for $5, and we don’t do that. The poster says 50 cents or a dollar.” I said, “We can’t sell them for 50 cents because our rent is too high and we have overhead on Madison Avenue. We have to get $5 to cover the transportation and overhead of going down to the Village.” I didn’t know him, and I wasn’t impressed so we started arguing. “Listen, I don’t want to hear this bullshit. We gotta sell them for five bucks. If you don’t want me to sell the posters, then don’t sell them to the Village, and I won’t buy them there.” I don’t want to repeat what we said to each other before I hung up on him. That evening we go back to the house, and Tiger says she’d got a phone call from the wife of Charles Whittingham Jr., (general manager of Fortune Magazine). They
wanted to do a fashion show in Sausalito. She says, “In San Francisco we can also see what the Avalon (rival venue to Bill Graham’s Fillmore) has in posters and try to work with (Avalon owner) Chet Helms and the Family Dog.” I said that sounds great. So she would arrange the trunk show and fashion show, and Mrs. Whittingham would invite people to the house. Before we left, while she was making her line for the trunk show, Tiger made me some shirts and pants — clothes to wear in San Francisco. I was like her model. She made me tight-fitting plaid pants and shirts with ruffles, fashion type things, which were cool. A week later we fly out and check into the Mark Hopkins Hotel in Nob Hill. That evening we go over to the Family Dog’s Avalon Ballroom, to the theater. It’s rocking, the stage is going with a light show. It was happening. Slides, colors, music… hundreds of people were there. We had an appointment with Chet Helms. Now, I was just looking to buy a few posters, but Chet starts explaining his problem to me. “We have 600,000 posters, 25,000 for each of 24 groups. But we don’t have the money to take them out of the warehouse where they were printed.” He was telling me all this and proposing a deal. But he said, “Before we make a deal I want to throw the I-Ching.” So we go into his office and he throws the I-Ching. The Ching was a little negative. It wasn’t as positive as we wanted it to be. The reading had obstacles. But the I-Ching is sometimes hard to interpret so we ran with it anyway. He says, “Meet me tomorrow at 11:00, and I’m going to take you across the (Golden Gate) bridge to the warehouse and we’ll talk about the whole deal.” We meet at 11:00, and I go with him in the car across the bridge to a big warehouse where the posters were printed and stored. On the way he is telling me they cost a penny and a half per poster. So I said to him, let me pay for all the posters —that’s $9,000—and I’ll give you half, and I’ll take the other half. He says it sounds good. Then we go into this huge 30-40,000 foot warehouse. The warehouse was amazing and the posters were unbelievable, stacked so neatly, 10,000 posters per pallet. Every group was there, all the big names who’d played the Avalon.1 It was a sight to be seen. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We walked through the pallets and I saw all the merchandise. The c ompany had printed the posters but wouldn’t give them to Chet until he paid for them. So I said to Chet, “Let me go back to New York and put the 1
Among the acts who played the Avalon were The Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, The Byrds, The Kinks, Vanilla Fudge, Steppenwolf, Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mothers of Invention, Carlos Santana, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Iron Butterfly, Velvet Underground, and Moby Grape.
money together, and when you come to the city I’ll have it for you.” He said he was going to Canada where he was thinking of opening another theater and would stop in New York on his way. That’s how we left it. Tiger and I stayed a few days in San Fran. We had gotten lost in the dark trying to find Charles Whittinghams’s house. There was no GPS and no cell phones in those days, and we couldn’t find a pay phone. The roads were confusing, and we were totally confused, so we didn’t make it. It was a no-show. Typical of how things would go in that day and age. Some you’d make, and some you’d miss. So we flew back to New York. Now it was really cool because I’d made the deal and wouldn’t need Bill Graham’s Fillmore posters. The day I got back my cousin Errol calls me and says he is with his friend, Jerry Brandt, who is head of music for William Morris (Agency), and Jerry wants to open up a place called Electric Circus on St. Marks. They wanted to talk to me because we had just come back from the Avalon. I said I got it down — I saw it, I know how they operate. You guys come over, and we’ll talk. I was also painting slides for light shows for the discos, places like Cheetah and Le Club, and I even sold them to another place—Le Club in Mexico City. Tiger and I would buy boxes of glass slides—50-100 a box—and work at night with hundreds of small bottles of paint, painting slides that would fit into these metal holders, which in turn would fit into the slide carousels. Now I had to raise the money. Tiger just wanted to sell a few posters; she certainly didn’t want 300,000 of them. It was just me that wanted them. Anyway, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist, Calvin Cheek. I was being pressured to go because Errol had thought I was so out there, living among these artists, that he told my parents I needed a psychiatrist. I was only going to appease my family. So at the appointment I start telling Calvin Cheek about the posters. I say, “You know, I think I’m onto something really cool, and I think it’s gonna be hot. There are these posters that the rock and roll groups are making for the Fillmore and Avalon that show when the events are and they’re really happening, like in the Toulouse Lautrec days. People love them. It’s going to be hot. I tell him that in couple of weeks both the New York Times on Sunday and Life magazine are coming out with articles on these posters, which are The In Thing. I tell him that Chet Helms is coming through New York and expecting to get money from me for the posters and we’re going to split the whole lot.
Calvin turns around — we’re sitting in his library — and pulls a book down from the shelf. It’s Alice in Wonderland, and he opens it to the page about the White Rabbit. When he opens up the book he has this wad of cash hidden inside, and he takes out $3,500 and says, “I hope this can help you.” Because he believed in me. Even though it wasn’t enough for the whole deal, I felt it was a good start. But in the end I wasn’t able to accumulate the whole amount for the whole deal. I had thought Tiger would chip into the deal, but she was always broke half the time—all she ever had in her bag were singles and syringes. That night was an interesting night. So much was happening at one time that it felt crazy. Twiggy was flying in to talk to Tiger about modeling her clothes. Andy was shooting one of his documentaries of Tiger at her apartment. Chet Helms was flying in to come to Tiger’s apartment to get the money. It must have been a Full Moon. It was the craziest story. Jerry Brandt and Errol were downstairs trying to get in but couldn’t because Tiger wouldn’t allow them to come up. She told me to go downstairs to talk to them. She didn’t like Errol. So at the same time I had to go down to talk to them for a few minutes. Then Chet Helms comes in and I have to explain that I hadn’t been able to raise all the money for the deal. Tiger was cold to Chet, almost a bit rude. All of a sudden the Ching started to come into play where everything unraveled. Chet stayed for a few minutes and then split, and the deal was off. Tiger hadn’t been excited about the poster deal. I’m not sure she wanted me to suddenly make a lot of money. And she felt I was in over my head. In the end it was a fantasy — an impossible dream because it needed more organization than I would have been able to arrange at that time and place. It was a deal that I just wasn’t ready for. But I was on target, because it was the art form of the ‘60s that would later become very valuable. And it was an amazing story with happening people all gathered at Tiger’s apartment at once — Tiger, Andy, Twiggy, Chet Helms, Jerry Brandt — some of the players who became famous in that period. It was a phenomenon. That’s the story of the rock and roll posters. And a few weeks later, Life magazine featured the posters and the Times on Sunday had a feature on them in the Arts section. And they were a WOW, just like the way I fantasized they would be. At the end of 1967 Frank Zappa called Tiger one day to ask her to do the fashions for his album, “We’re only in it for the Money,” the one that was a parody of Sgt.
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Tiger and I brought a bunch of clothes from her studio and props—like a manikin—to the photo studio where they were shooting. Jimi Hendrix dropped by and appeared on that album cover. She dressed Frank in this blue-black velvet dress with a doily collar that she had been wearing the week before. It was so tight on Frank. I couldn’t figure out how she got him into it. That photo shoot was a happening. Everything was a happening in those days, especially with Tiger involved. One of the last happenings that I remember before we split up was the two day marathon screening, over a 25 hour period, of Andy’s **** (Four Stars), at the Cinematheque on West 41st St. I slept through a lot of it as did others in the small crowd, who were there that Dec 15-16. The years with Tiger were an amazing learning experience in a creative period of time and place, the pop art scene of the 60s! It was my karma that I ended up in the heart of it and met all those people. And then I was just as lucky to get out of that scene to go on my own way, taking the essence of it with me—to enjoy life, be oneself and live creatively. After three years Ira and Tiger split up. The whole Pop Art scene, with its all-night creative lifestyle, had been an exhilarating but exhausting ride. A totally different world was about to open up on Ira’s horizon—one in which his creativity could flourish without the wild lifestyle to offset it. Halfway around the world from New York, he would step back in time, into a traditional culture where a simpler life prevailed. He would find himself working with artisans, who were still practicing and refining exquisite skills and crafts, developed over centuries.
EYE, Aug. 1968.
Where Are The Coates?
By 1968 I was working for a friend named Marcia, who had a boutique called Abracadabra on 58th or 59th between Second and Third Avenues, a few doors down from Serendipity [another famous boutique]. Movie stars and rock stars would come to this boutique. Sonny and Cher would pull up in an old limousine and Cher would come in and buy things. It was a pretty hip store, and I would dress the windows. This was some months after splitting with Tiger, and I was staying for a few days with a hooker named Madeline, though I had to go outside whenever she had clients over. I had a friend named Dagmar, a photojournalist from Germany who covered the rock’n’roll scene, who had introduced me to a black guy named Corky. One night I’m at Madeleine’s with a few people sitting around, and Corky comes in with these three embroidered sheepskin coats and a couple of embroidered sheepskin vests. Apparently, Afghan mullahs traditionally wore these coats — called postines — to keep warm while they prayed. Corky had recently returned from Afghanistan and had brought these coats back with him. Anyway, I flipped for them, I couldn’t believe them. I bought the lot from Corky for something like twenty or thirty dollars apiece. So the next day I decorated the windows of Abracadabra with the coats and vests, and a deck of cards. Marcia had installed some strobe lights and mirror balls in the window so it was a pretty trippy effect. She also had a bed in the back of her shop — back then, we didn’t sleep much so you grabbed some rest when you could. That evening I’m lying on the bed, when a couple comes in and asks her about the coats. Marcia says, “Oh, they’re Ira’s coats. He’s right there in the back.” The woman comes back and introduces herself as Anne Klein, designer of leather clothing for Mallory Leather and Suede, and the guy as Mike Kislak. His family was big in NY real estate, and Anne and Mike were business partners, who’d started the company together. They were in love with the coats and wanted more of them. They said, “Come to the Mallory office tomorrow morning around nine-thirty; bring the coats, and we’ll talk.”
I was just looking to sell the coats and make a profit, like thirty dollars or twenty more than I’d paid for them, so it felt like a real stroke of luck that someone had come in and now wanted a lot of them. So I went to see them the next day with the coats, and they paid me for the five items and told me they wanted to start off with another 200 coats and 50 vests, and they would put them into a fashion show in the Waldorf Astoria. I was to get the coats from Afghanistan, and the deal was we split everything fifty-fifty, less their overhead — although there was no official contract. I was 24, maybe 25 years old, and I didn’t know anything about the retail clothing business then. They gave me $5,000 for the first order, and I gave it all to Corky to go back to Afghanistan and buy more coats. By this point I’d become friendly with (legendary Vogue editor) Diana Vreeland, and when she heard about the coats she wanted to help me out by featuring them in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. So Diana commissioned photo shoots and articles about this terrific new fashion item, but as the publication date approached she started to get nervous. She wasn’t the only one. Corky had returned to Afghanistan with the money, supposedly to buy and ship me the coats, and that was the last I’d heard. I couldn’t get hold of him. We had a fashion show lined up at the Waldorf Astoria, and feature articles about to be published in the fashion press and no coats for people to buy. Shortly before going to press, Diana called saying, “Ira, the magazines are going to press. Do you have the coats ready?” Earlier, Corky had introduced me to his buddy, Mike Wilson, a really nice guy, and we’d become friendly. Mike lived on Third Street in the East Village, and was always listening to jazz. I kept calling Mike asking, “Where’s Corky? Where are the coats?” But Mike hadn’t heard from him either. By now I was broke so all I could do was go back to Anne Klein and explain the situation: I’m broke, the guy took off with the five grand; what are we going to do? I said, “You know what? Give me a letter of credit for $5000, and I’ll go to Afghanistan and get the coats myself. That way you won’t run any more risk, because the bank will only cash the letter of credit to purchase the merchandise.” They had no choice but to give me another $5000 since Mallory would be getting all the orders once the magazines came out. Plus I was sincere and ready to go myself. I didn’t want to let anyone down, including Diana. I still didn’t have money for a plane ticket, because back then a ticket to Kabul cost $900, a small fortune. So I went to my sister Roberta, and she loaned me $2,000 to buy two tickets. Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 42
Mike met me at JFK holding a creamy yellow suitcase in one hand and 100 jazz albums in the other. I said, “What the hell do you got there?” I mean, these weren’t little 45 rpm singles; these were those big LPs. The suitcase contained his Victrola portable phonograph. He said, “We’re taking jazz to Afghanistan.” I said, “OK, that sounds pretty good.” That evening we flew to Germany and then on to Tehran. Because we landed so late and had a connecting flight at 4.00 am, we went out to a discotheque. Tehran was really hopping; the oil money was just kicking in, and it was all a little pseudo-western, what with the women in high heels and lipstick. Before dawn, we took off for Kabul. I remember arriving in Kabul for the first time like it was yesterday. Remember, I had never been out of the country before! It was amazing! We landed at 7:30am and there was barely anyone at this small airport. Being a New Yorker, I was used to dark blue police uniforms, so the first thing that struck me was all the customs officials and police officers wearing khaki uniforms. Passing through customs and immigration, everybody’s trying to make a deal. All the custom agents, they’re asking what you’re there for so they can broker a deal. We say, “Oh, we want to buy sheepskin coats.” And they just wave us through the airport, which was little more than a lobby. So we get our visas stamped, and I’m a little scared because of these unfamiliar, kinda military-looking khaki uniforms. By now everyone else from the plane has disappeared, and it seems like we’re the last to get our baggage and leave. Out front we find a single taxi, an old black Russian car. We have no idea where we’re going so we hop in and say, take us into town, and we’ll find a hotel. The driver takes a long straight road toward town. No road signs at all. After a few blocks, Mike points out a man lying under a tree, arms crossed over his eyes, legs crossed, with a shawl wrapped over him. Mike says, “That man is in a resting yoga position; he’s meditating.” Decades later, that image still stands out as one of my first impressions. The driver takes us to a hotel in the heart of the city, a short walk from the Khyber Restaurant, where I’d arranged to meet one of the airport customs agents. By now it’s mid-morning and the streets are bustling with people everywhere, camels going one way, horses and wagons the other, a lot of animals and rickshaws but very few cars. It was really something, a sight I’d never seen before. The smells—the streets
were loaded with wood-burning kabob stands and fragrant spices. Music was blaring everywhere—Afghan music—loud, fabulous, festive. At the hotel they walk us up four flights of stairs so narrow that the guy has to put our luggage on his head. Finally we get to the room, which has a window overlooking the street. I look out, and I cannot believe my eyes. It was magical. We were hungry so we left our luggage and walked to the Khyber Restaurant, the main restaurant in town for foreigners—a cafeteria with some western food. Standing outside was none other than Corky. I’d planned to look for him over the days ahead, but what were the chances I’d run into him right there, literally an hour after arriving in town? He had two thin, inexpensive, striped dhurries under his arm, and he was with two gorgeous blonde women, obviously living it up. Mike and I were shocked. The minute I saw him I realized Corky never had any intention of sending me the coats. He’d obviously been scamming me all along, and I’d been naïve to give him the money. If he had worked with me, I would have watched everything on the New York end, and we would have both made a lot of money. Instead he took off with the money and spent it. But he couldn’t have expected me to follow him over to Afghanistan and catch him there. I stammered a bit as I asked, “Where are you going?” Corky said, “We’re leaving for India.” “Oh,” I said. “Do you have my money?” “No, I spent it.” I couldn’t get over how this piece of business had confronted me immediately — Corky standing there with these two Scandinavian-looking chicks and the dhurries under his arm — but I didn’t want to make a big scene my first hour in Kabul or get off on the wrong foot with the Afghans. So despite being nervous and pissed, I cleared the air with him. We talked briefly, then he said he was leaving town. I said, “Well, I’m here to follow up on the deal, and you are out. I’m not going to buy anything from you. I’m going to the villages myself. You fucked me. You can go!” I guess Corky thought he’d gotten away with it, walking off with his trophy women
Down to Business Mike and I went inside to eat, and as soon as we sat down the customs agent from the airport pulled up a chair at our table. It seemed that Afghan customs agents, who earned only $40 or so a month, were all looking to make extra money working with visiting business people or tourists. He told us about the village of Istalif and how he wanted to take us there the next day. But after eating we took a walk down the block, looking at the shops. One was a household shop with pots, pans, dishes and so on, owned by the father of a man our age named Noor Rahimi (who would later become a good friend). The shop also had a few sheepskin coats hanging on its wall. In a country that produced so little, all the shops stocked some of the items being made by the rural villages in addition to imported necessities from China or Japan. I asked Noor where his coats were from. He said they came from Istalif, and offered to take me there. Immediately I decided to cancel with the customs guy, but I would have to be graceful about it. His whole approach had felt sleazy, and I wanted to go with business people who buy and sell every day, not someone associated with the government. I had a much better feeling about Noor. Later that day, maybe from the smells and odors and sounds, or perhaps simply due to it being my first time in Afghanistan, I started to get sick. I think it might just have been culture shock. But for some reason, I felt strongly that I had to go somewhere where there was water. The next morning Noor came by my hotel and took us up to Kargha Dam, a beautiful lake about twenty minutes outside of Kabul. In those days there were just four bungalows along the water, one of which was for rent. A singer named Roxshana—perhaps the most famous Afghani singer of that era, like a rock star—was living in the cottage next door, and we became friends. After a couple days I felt better, and Noor arrived to take us to Istalif. Istalif was one of two places where embroidered sheepskin coats were made. The other was Ghazni, but Istalif coats had more elaborate embroidery. So that morning we headed to Istalif, about 45 minutes from Kabul. I loved the town immediately. It was so primitive and picturesque—like something from biblical times—with donkeys going back and forth, loaded with bags containing fruit and fabrics and balls of thread for making satrangi — woven cotton rugs. The shops were full of pottery and
Ira and a group of village boys in Tashquorgon, N. Afghanistan.
the sheepskin coats I’d come to buy. There were men with beautiful white beards and turbans, and everywhere there were women chatting and children running and laughing, or playing with their simple, handmade wooden toys. The village was clean and beautiful and full of really, really good vibes. Mike, Noor and I were taken behind the shops to a backyard, shaded by walnut trees with beautiful views of the Hindu Kush and the sound of flowing water. They spread out rugs on the floor, and we sat down while they brought us tea and raisins and sugar coated nuts, followed by the most delicious melons and grapes. Istalif was renowned for its 99 grape varieties. Then the kids and the men started bringing the coats, the men carrying bundles of them on their backs. They were coming in herds. It wasn’t stopping. They would make sure I had enough merchandise! Some of the women were putting finishing touches on the coats, while I sat there saying, “No… Yes… No,” until I’d weeded out about three hundred or so of the finest coats and vests. And I said to myself, “Man, what a great way to buy, sitting here eating grapes and melons.” It was so cool… the setting, the trees, the people, the smiles, everything. It felt like something from the time of Alexander the Great, something I’d never experienced or expected to. And to this day, I don’t think many have experienced anything like it.
After this, we walk back out onto the street to find this old yellow school bus with broken windows. It must have been from the 1940s or 50s. There are absolutely no cars, just our taxi driver and this yellow American school bus. We can’t understand how it got there or who it belongs to, but that’s Afghanistan! Like walking through a desert and you look up and see someone walking out of a mirage. This bus was like that, like something from a mirage. Anyway, we load all the coats on the bus, with all these kids hanging out of the windows—they want to come along for the ride, to be part of this happening—and the bus sets off for Kabul. After lunch, we follow in the taxi and head straight to the offices of Ariana, the only Afghan airline. The coats had been made by several different families, so I had maybe a dozen people with me, sewing all the labels on and preparing the bundles while I did all the marking and got everything else ready. And right there at the airline office they packed up all the coats and vests for me. I’d never seen anything like that before. Then the sellers came with me across the street to Bank Milli, the state owned bank. I produced the letter of credit; they took me to the second floor and signed the letter and gave it to the teller, who showed me the exchange rate of one dollar to sixty AFN (Afghanis, the unit of Afghan currency, also known as Afs). Ten minutes later they came out with the money—that’s 300,000 Afs—stuffed into two pillowcases. We went over to a table and emptied out bundles and bundles of cash. After I paid everybody and shook hands with them all again, I had a few Afs left over. And that was it; I knew this was the life for me. I loved how they did business. I loved the kids, always joking and laughing; they were so beautiful. And the men, too, were so gorgeous. Now that I’ve learned about Afghanistan, its people and history, I realize that I was seeing history in their faces. You go back 2,500 years to the Gandharan period—when Alexander the Great’s Greek culture mixed and intermingled with all the sophistication of Asia and the Silk Road—you look at sculptures from that time, and you can see it right there in the faces of the Afghan people. It’s that mix that makes the people so regal. Two thousand years later they still have those same faces—maybe even more pronounced. I knew it was my karma to be there. I knew I was on a special journey and that life was starting to make sense for a person like me who had never done well in school and hadn’t traveled. The humility and simplicity of people in this part of the world made me see what life was really about. It was something that I had never been in
contact with before. That is why young people in the 60s were heading east, to connect with that more simple basic essence of life. So I ended up staying for a year, interrupted only by a couple of quick trips back to New York to meet with Mallory. We had beaten the Vogue magazine deadline, and the coats were also featured in Life in July 1968, and Harper’s in August 1968. The exposure did its job, and Afghan sheepskin coats quickly became fashion’s must-have item. Within weeks, all the top fashion models, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles… they were all wearing them. By the end of the year, anyone who was hip had to have one. But I was already thinking ahead. I’d proved to Anne Klein that I had an eye for fashion and that I was business savvy and reliable so she started sending money, and I started designing.
Abdul Istalifi, Ira’s close friend, recalled years later: The market for Afghan crafts and goods was small and local when Ira first arrived. With the export market for postine, (sheepskin coats) trade was limited to tourist purchases until Ira tailored it to meet the needs of Western fashion. Then, with dhurries and kilim, his efforts really did help introduce Afghan weaving to the West. He educated people, showed them how to make their products marketable in the West. And in that way he helped build a steady market for Afghanistan’s cottage industries. In the early days, I only recall one other American concern—a company called Artweave doing textiles in Afghanistan. The few other Westerners in the trade were buying for shops here and there and not really doing business in volume. Most people would just buy a few things for themselves as they drifted through. No one else that I knew of wanted to work with the cottage industries to develop regular, continuous business. Of course, there were lots of Westerners doing drugs, but I had very little contact with that scene. My life had suddenly opened up, so I was into creating and discovering the culture. I was also into building a market. By now, the coats and vests had started a trend, and the cool people—the artists, models, actors, and rock stars—wanted more. So next we did the Gardez vests, the red velvet vests, and the Kandahar vests, and suddenly people like Candice Bergen and Jimi Hendrix were wearing them, so I started sending hundreds of vests. Next, I started making clothes. I went into Kabul and bought five sewing machines— Indian machines that looked like Singers but were basically copies—for 3,000 Afs each, and I set up a factory at the cottage in Kargha Lake. There was something
almost magical about Afghanistan. If you put the thought out that you needed tailors, somehow they would come. All you had to do was put the thought out in your mind, not even talk about it and they were there. That was how it felt. In fact, someone probably told these tailors that a Western guy had just bought five sewing machines, so there might be some work available. Either way, out of nowhere four or five tailors showed up at the house, so I drew up some designs and put them to work using materials we were having made in Kandahar. The tailors were making bodices, pants, and shirts. I was sending the clothes to New York, where Anne Klein and Mallory were distributing them. And Roxshana was singing away every night. It was cool, really fabulous. This was all in 1968, my first year in the country. Later that year, Anne Klein was busy starting her own company, though still involved with Mallory. I continued working with another Mallory designer, Monika. One day, I’m at the cottage with the tailors about 11:00a.m. We are all working away, and everything is going well, and everyone is starting to get into the groove, when all of a sudden the police pay us a visit. The commandant comes in and says, “Okay, do you guys have a permit to operate these sewing machines or a business visa, or a license to have a factory?” Of course, I say, “No.” And they arrest me! I jump up and down and lose control a little, until suddenly I realize that this really is a problem. They take me down to the police station and charge me. And in Afghanistan, word travels fast. Abdul Istalifi: “Whenever foreign dealers came to Afghanistan, all the local merchants would try to make connections, to get some of the business. The guy who had Ira arrested tried to trick him, by inconveniencing him with the arrest and then acting like the rescuing hero. Either the night of the arrest or the day after, someone sent me a message saying Ira had been arrested. I felt that it was against Afghan hospitality to harass a visitor who was trying to help the craftspeople. I knew someone in the police department and went immediately and paid about 20,000 Afs as bakhsheesh (bribe) — a lot of money in those days — to release him, because I could smell a set-up. People said to me, don’t get involved, but I did what I wanted. Ira and I became fast friends from that point on.”
Later the whole story came out. The guy who blew the whistle on me was Abdullah Said Ibrahim, a relatively rich and successful businessman. Years back, according to the story I heard, his father had been a partner in a chinchilla farm with King Mohammed
Zahir Shah (the last king of Afghanistan, ousted in a 1973 coup). The father had loaded a boat full of chinchilla pelts and then sunk it off the coast of Russia to collect the insurance He’d been caught, tried, and put in jail. Later, this same family had started a number of tanning factories in Afghanistan for the postine. Tanning a sheepskin removes the animal odor, cleans the wool and the hide, and makes it soft and pliable. When I was a kid, I used to go to House of Cromwell on 42nd Street, which sold beautiful sheepskin coats from Turkey or Israel — the two countries which even today produce the best sheepskins. Anyway, up until that point, Afghanistan had been too poor to produce a quality tanning factory. But now Abdullah Said Ibrahim and his family had built a tanning factory, and because he was trying to make a go of it, he needed orders from me because I was buying coats in big numbers for the American market. So he’d paid the commandant to bust me, so that he could be the one to get me out. I would then become his friend and give him the business. First he would put me in jail, and then get me out — a very Afghan story. Which is why, before the commandant would release me, I had to agree to have dinner that night with Abdullah Said Ibrahim. Even though it was Abdul Istalifi who’d paid the baksheesh, they only let me out on the understanding that I would go to Said Ibrahim’s house, become his friend, and give him my business. That night I went to Abdullah’s house in the old part of town, next door to the local movie theater, which he also owned. The house was huge, and in one wing he must have had something like a thousand live chinchillas in cages. He walked me through the rows of cages showing me his chinchillas, and you know those exercise wheels that hamsters have? Well, all the chinchillas were running on wheels like that, getting their exercise. Basically, the family was back in action, breeding chinchillas for their pelts again. Abdullah had even imported a chinchilla specialist from Iran because Afghans supposedly didn’t have enough experience in caring for them. So I’m standing there looking at this pelt factory, and I get to talking to the Iranian chinchilla keeper, who’s smoking this chillum pipe while checking out the chinchillas, who come alive at night. Since they’re nocturnal the guy is working nights, because that’s when he has to feed them. Then this guy offers me a toke on his white porcelain chillum. It was opium.
Ira in front of Abdul’s shop in Shar-i-Nau, c. 1968-9, with Abdul Istalifi (center) and Ghazi Khan (right) wearing a karakul hat.
I take a little toke from the chillum, a couple of drags and — Puff the Magic Dragon! I got so out of it that I suddenly remembered I couldn’t really be bothered with all this, and that I had to go, right now. So I just walked out of the chinchilla wing, across the yard and somehow flew over — or maybe walked right through — this fourteen-foot door. I started going and just didn’t stop. Abdullah Said Ibrahim was looking for me, but I was out the door, down the road, and gone baby gone. I caught a taxi back to Kargha and just skipped bail, skipped Abdullah, skipped everybody. I was skipping! The next day they didn’t really bother me. There was some minor grievance, but I just said to Abdullah, “Look, I’ll try you out for 100-200 coats and see how it goes.” I was still going to keep buying coats from Istalif and Ghazni. So I tried out the coats from Said Ibrahim’s tanning factory, but it didn’t work out because they couldn’t pull off the treatment — the coats lost their authentic look. Technically, they were in their infancy, and it wasn’t worth the difference in the money. He also had a hard time with embroidery and dealing with the women. He was ahead of himself; he couldn’t produce even though he was trying to run a factory, to do business on an industrial scale. Later I heard Abdullah had sent his chinchilla specialist back to Iran.
Apparently, the guy got so stoned smoking opium that he kept forgetting to feed the animals, and so all the chinchillas died. When I started out, hardly anyone in New York had heard of Afghanistan. Most of the travelers that arrived were Europeans, who came overland. Although there were very few Americans, I became very friendly with two Canadian couples: Peter and Kornelia Brown, and Robert and Rosina from Victoria, BC. Rosina Usatch: When I first went to Afghanistan it was quite a culture shock. There were no good restaurants and few decent hotels. I stayed in a place that had a bokhari (a small charcoal heater), and for dinner they chopped up a dead goat that had been lying in the corner all evening. I was horrified, because they wouldn’t even chop it up until someone wanted to eat it. Everywhere I went, I kept hearing about Ira Seret, the big buyer who was already a legend. Anytime I wanted to buy, all the best stuff was put away for him. All the shopkeepers, particularly his friend, Abdul Istalifi, were waiting for Ira to come. I would see fine dhurries, silver belt buckles, the best Bokhara robes, all stacked up in the back room. “Can’t I buy one of these?” “No, they’re for Ira.” Year after year, Ira would get twenty, Rosie would get one. He always got the best, but I was never hung up about getting top grade. And that’s why Ira and I always got along. He wasn’t selling his best pieces; he was a collector. He also taught and influenced people, especially his friend Abdul. When they first met, Abdul was selling antiques and old guns, Kuchi dresses, and copper ware. There were very few textiles, and nobody was doing anything with dhurries prior to Ira’s involvement. But Ira brought dhurries back from Pakistan and showed Abdul pictures of Navajo weavings, things like that, taking the time to teach him what had value, what to look for. Eventually, they formed a very close bond, as close as brothers. So Ira created not only a market, but the source for it as well. It had never occurred to Abdul, Mirayoz and others to take these old things out of the chests and sell them. Similarly, though scholars had long collected Afghan items, they rarely scoured the bazaars for top-quality traditional crafts — as Ira had, and as I did after him. A lot of people followed on his heels, but Ira really was the first to look for and collect these fine old things, to understand the workmanship and quality, the different styles and techniques, the inherent value of these wonderful, handmade artifacts. And within a couple of years, the New York firm Stark Carpet had built an international reputation selling the dhurries Ira supplied to them.
All that Glitters isn’t Gold
When Mike Wilson and I were still living at Kargha Lake, a telegram arrived from Mike Kislak of Mallory Leather. It said he was coming to Afghanistan the following week, to stay for seven days. The Afghan coat fashion had hit New York and was just blowing people away, so Mike was excited to come and see it for himself. I thought he maybe wanted to grab control of it, but anyway, I picked him up at the airport and brought him back to the apartment, and made up a bed for him with curtains for privacy, because at that time we only had one big room. It was summer 1968, and the ceiling was absolutely covered with flies. Mike Wilson had the jazz albums going, and the fans and flies were going, and the swatters were going, too. It was movin’. We had one of those plastic tablecloths on the table, probably from Russia or China. So we’re sitting around talking business and fashion and how everyone is loving it, and blah blah blah, lots of stories, when Mike Kislak starts taking out these cans of tuna fish and stacking them on the plastic tablecloth. He had maybe fourteen cans, like he was ready to hang for a week, at two cans a day. I guessed he didn’t want to eat much local food to avoid getting sick. That night after dinner we come back and we’re just hanging out when he says to me, “What can we put in the coats?” I have no idea what he means, so I say, “What are you talking about?” He says, “What should we put in the coats, you know, to fill up the coats?” After a moment, I realized what he meant. In those days, hash was very cheap in Kabul, anything from five to ten dollars a kilo. But the hash trade was for the most part controlled by the Afghan customs, who would sell it to you so that they would know who was trying to smuggle it out. Customs would let people get away with smuggling it out the first time so they would come back with a load of cash and try again. And the second time, as they tried to smuggle it out, the customs officials would bust them.
Vogue, Sept. 1, 1970, The New York Collections. Gold leather coat trimmed in silver braid, designed by Ira in Kandahar.
Of course, you could buy it almost anywhere: at the tourist hotels, tea houses, even from shopkeepers. And you could smoke as much as you wanted, and they would only bust you if you tried to take it back out, to export it. But getting busted meant jail time—anything from two months to a year—unless you paid baksheesh to get out. I knew all this, and had absolutely no interest. “Just because there’s gold in the street doesn’t mean you have to pick it up”—that was my motto. Once you mix your work with drugs, you’ve got a problem. So it didn’t even cross my mind to get involved. I was crazy about the people; I was there to work and make beautiful things. That’s why I was able to stay and create cottage industries and continue working with and for the people. So, kind of shocked, I turn to Mike Wilson and I say, “Kislak, I think, is looking to put hash in the coats.” Then I say to Kislak, “Look, Mike. You’re a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey, and I don’t think it’s gonna fly. Have you ever seen an Afghani jail? They’re terrible, believe me. I don’t think we should do it. It’s not my style. We should just drop it.” We never said another word about it. But for a savvy New Yorker, who owned a big company and was already doing really well, to come to me and suggest a thing like that? It really blew me away. But we let it go, and Kislak flew home a week later.
Back In The New York Groove
Though I stayed in Kabul for the first year or so, I flew to New York a couple of times for a few days to take care of business. And whenever I got back to New York, I would take textiles to Diana’s Vreeland’s office at Vogue, and she would direct me to various designers, calling beforehand to arrange the meetings. After the original order of sheepskin coats had been shipped, I was working on new ideas for the future. I realized that while it had sheepskins, Afghanistan did not have good quality, beautifully tanned leather. So in New York I bought some large pieces of gold leather and took them back with me, then worked with Afghan tailors to design a gold leather coat, trimmed in 1/8th inch silver braided cord that I bought in the bazaar. I took it to a master vest maker in Kandahar who was out of this world. I really outdid myself with that coat. It was incredible— partly inspired by the Gardez vests with their gold trims, and partly by the pop art infatuation with mylar and silver. Eventually I brought the finished coat to Diana’s office. She took one look at it and, without a second’s thought, called Maximilian Furs, a famous couture furrier, and sent me over there. Madame Potok, who’d founded the company in 1922, loved the coat. She lined it with white ermine, and Diana featured it in the September 1970 issue of Vogue in a double-page spread. Diana also connected me with designers like Oscar de la Renta. She would simply say, “Oscar can see you at 11.30” and give me the address. He bought robes and hand embroidered yardage that I’d had made in Istalif. Using patterns the women embroidered onto the sheepskin coats, I figured out how to use metal sheets to stencil those patterns onto fabric. Near the money bazaar I bought several 40-yard bundles of solid color fabrics, brought the bundles to Istalif and had it cut into workable pieces, got a local metalworker to make me some large metal stencils, and finally I stenciled Opposite from top left : Antique Bokhara robes collected in the late 1960s: Velvet embroidered with gold; Silk ikats; Russian chintz linings; White Turkmen chirpy; Gold brocade (top second from left); Lower left- rare camelhair embroidered coat from Badakhshan (the coat presented to Ira by the Aga Khan. See pg. 63) 57
different patterns on each ten-yard length. The Istalifi women finished the stenciled fabric by embroidering it in their homes. Oscar loved that fabric, and bought all that I had produced. So one day in 1969, I’m back in the apartment I had at the time on 47th Street between Ninth and Tenth, in Hell’s Kitchen, when Diana calls me up and says, “I want to bring some friends over.” So I say, “Diana, are you sure you really want to bring them over here?” She said, “Yes, I want them to see your apartment.” It was a third floor walkup, $60 a month, next door to a funeral parlor. What she and other people loved about that apartment was what I would always do with these funky places; I’d create such an outrageous environment that people would forget where they were. When you go to an Afghan house, they have all these decorative cushions and pillows and rugs on the floor, and they are so hospitable—serving you tea and raisins or sweets. And you just sit there in awe, oblivious to where you are, and pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. And I was a good environment maker, so I’d make it like that and just blow people away. So you’d turn up in Hell’s Kitchen, supposedly one of Manhattan’s grittiest neighborhoods, and walk upstairs to find all the sumptuous colored fabrics draped everywhere, and suzanis and tassels and collages, and the living room draped in tents. I had a slide show, using the radiator as a screen. It had wrinkles but it worked! About seven that evening Diana calls me and says, “We’re coming over.” In Hell’s Kitchen, the kids used to play roller hockey in the street, and savvy drivers would avoid my neighborhood because kids would often hit the cars with their sticks as they passed. My window overlooked the hockey game, so I look out and see two big limousines — one white, the other black — pulling up in front of my building. I go down to greet them, and say, “Welcome. Come on upstairs.” And I walk up three flights with Bill Paley, President of CBS, and his wife Babe, who I’d later become good friends with, and who introduced me to Ambassador Bill Van den Heuvel, (father of Katrina Van den Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine). Then there’s Oscar de la Renta, who was just starting out, and his wife Francoise. And of course, Diana Vreeland,. They walk in and the whole apartment was done in tents and silk embroidery, suzanis and ikats. The main room wasn’t very big, maybe only 12 ft x 14 ft, and in the middle I had a shipping crate covered with a rug on which I served tea while we sat around it on rugs and cushions.
Then I started telling them about Afghanistan because I’d just come back. For the next hour and a half I just told stories about how amazing the people were, how beautiful they were and the way they lived. I told them stories about the different provinces, about the handicrafts that each of the villages made and about Istalif too and they loved it. Then Bill said to me, “I gotta go to the bathroom.” So I said, “Bill, I gotta take you downstairs.” Because in that building the bathroom was on the second floor, and it’s like a closet, literally four by five, with no light in there at all. You didn’t get much for $60 in New York City, not even in Hell’s Kitchen. But I had one of those silver clamp lamps so I say, “Bill, I’m gonna have to hold this lamp because there is no light in here and nowhere to clamp it.” He says, “No problem, Ira.” So I’m holding the light over him so he can pee, and he says to me, “Those boots that Diana likes are so beautiful.” He meant these purple Uzbek boots, fully-embroidered — maybe from Mazar. They were gorgeous, covered in embroidery, in tiny delicate stitches. So he says, “Ira, I gotta treat her. Tell me, I want to buy those boots for Diana.” He’s peeing and I say, “No, no, Diana has been so good to me.” He says, “Please, Ira I’m having the best time and I want to give her a gift, to thank her for bringing us.” I say, “Okay, fifty bucks.” Now he’s peeing with one hand and taking money from his pocket with the other, so I help him take a fifty from his wad and I’m still standing there, holding the light, thinking, “This is the President of CBS, peeing in my funky bathroom with me holding the light so he doesn’t miss the bowl.“ And he tells me this is the best time he’s had in a long time meaning the last two hours. We go back upstairs, and he gives Diana the boots as a present. Then Babe tries on some chapons, which are Afghan robes, and selects a silk one. I remember it was summer because it got dark late, and it was a very cool experience with very creative people, who at that time were also the hip people. Diana called me the next morning to tell me she and everyone had had a marvelous time and a lot of fun.
An Eye for Beauty, a Feel for Display
During that first year in Kabul, Ira spent a few months at the small cottage on Kargha Lake before moving to a more spacious house in Kabul. To continue creating clothes with the tailors he needed room for his sewing machines and fabrics, and space to stock coats and vests prior to shipping. Ira’s friend Noor helped him find a roomy house to rent on De Afghanan Road, close to bazaars and shopping areas like the famous Chicken Street. In Ira’s new neighborhood, people would often bring old, valuable items — beaded shawls, embroidered textiles, silk robes — and sell them to local shopkeepers and street vendors. Soon, Ira started collecting these beautiful yet inexpensive items. Once word got around about this Westerner and his tastes, people began bringing beautiful things to his house. Ira found it hard to turn down such incredibly detailed, time-intensive workmanship which, in those years, was still so inexpensive. Even rare and exquisite items in excellent condition could cost as little as a few hundred dollars. With the little money he had left from his monthly living allowance from Mallory, Ira would also scour local markets and shops, buying pieces that caught his eye —the beginning of his personal textile collection. The textiles that Ira began to collect represented many of the tribal groups that made up Afghanistan’s multiethnic society. Diverse ethnicities have mingled in the region for thousands of years, coming and going through invasion or migration since well before the Mongol invasion. Geographically at the heart of Central Asia, Afghanistan was also at the heart of the Silk Road linking east and west, making it a hub for trade from all
Opposite : A few examples of exquisite Silk Road handiwork collected in the late 60s: Uzbek Lachai needlepoint squares, chain stitch embroidered squares and shield; Bokhara Uzbek belt collection.
directions. Surrounded as it is by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Iran and Pakistan, it has absorbed people from ethnic tribes that populate these neighbouring lands. Pashtun and Tajik make up the majority of Afghans, while Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Gujjar, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri and others also make Afghanistan home. Though handicrafts for export may be labeled as Afghan, they would more accurately be attributed to the specific tribal group that made them. Each ethnicity is known for its unique and rich designs that have been passed down for generations. While some handicrafts made in Afghanistan are specifically associated with the city where they are made, such as Mazar-i-Sharif dhurries and Kandahar embroidery, others are attributed to the ethnic population that made them, such as Uzbek and Turkmen. In his home on De Afghanan Road, Ira would hang these treasures from the walls and ceilings throughout the house. Soon, every wall was covered with curiously sculptural handmade items, each an artwork in its own right. Fabrics were draped along the walls in flowing patterns; textiles, robes and dresses were collaged together in mixed media format. On seeing this artfully curated display, Ira’s friend Abdul said, “Wow, a shop like this would be great!” While it was common practice for bazaar traders to hang their garments and textiles haphazardly in their tiny stalls, the selection in Ira’s home was arranged with a window dresser’s eye, and the feel of a New York City boutique. Years of working in the city’s fashion industry and hanging out with brilliant visual artists had taught Ira the art of display, and Abdul immediately foresaw its impact on business and tourism. When Abdul first started out in business, he’d quickly become frustrated by the parochial attitude of his business partners. Like many Afghans, he felt, they were backward-thinking and encumbered by conservative tradition. Whenever he suggested some new way of producing or presenting merchandise, they would complain that he had ‘gone crazy’ Finally, in frustration, he broke away to run his own shops. In Ira he found a fellow visionary with the most innovative ideas he’d ever known; one who shared his dream of updating traditional Afghan crafts for an international market. Abdul had previously owned a small shop in Istalif, but had since moved all his antique guns and artifacts to a shop in Kabul, and was now doing tremendous business with a dealer from Italy. Abdul started out selling mostly antiques, but increasingly locals had
started to arrive at his shop offering special textiles — because they knew he was buying for Ira. Abdul had excellent taste, and had learned Ira’s tastes as well. One of their few problems was that Abdul sometimes found it difficult to keep up with Ira’s rapid pace. As word spread, traders started scouring the entire country looking for things to bring to Abdul’s shop for “Mister I.” Meanwhile, others, looking to seize part of this fast-growing market, would try to pry Abdul away from his partnership with Ira— not understanding that their friendship went much deeper than a simple business arrangement. Indeed, over the years various would-be competitors have continued to try to split Ira and Abdul’s partnership — even after we had settled in Santa Fe, and Ira and Abdul still worked together from opposite sides of the world. One day in the early 80’s, a nephew of Abdul’s named Raz Mohammad came to Ira’s shop in Santa Fe claiming that Abdul had died, and so Ira should now work with him. Unconvinced, Ira phoned Abdul to tell him the story. To illustrate the deep bond between them, Abdul often repeated a story to his sons Ali and Omar about the early days. One lunch time, he and Ira were so broke they had just a piece of bread between them. They split it in half and shared it. Their relationship has never been purely about business; taking care of each other has always come first. Near the end of my first year and a half in Afghanistan, I got very sick. I had moved from Kargha Lake to Kabul, where I was renting a house for around $80 a month. There was only one supermarket in Kabul, a mini supermarket in Shar-i-Nau named Aziz that sold canned goods from the U.S. commissary and chocolates from Switzerland and Germany. So I would often eat canned tuna, but the problem was that you could catch hepatitis from the cans. And very few people even knew what hepatitis was, and there were few doctors to treat it. Anyway, I was at a buzkashi game at the big stadium in Kabul when I got sick. It was the first game I’d ever seen, and it must have been a major competition because King Zahir Shah was there in the royal box, and there were hundreds of horsemen and horses. There was only one set of bleachers about 100 feet long, and I had a pretty good seat. It was a spectacle! There was one team from every province, each team wearing the colors of their province. The field was as far as the eye could see, and the teams were riding in from all directions, likes rays of the sun or spokes on a wheel the horses and riders coming in straight lines from all directions. The horses have amazing jewelry on leather and silver and gold on the bridles and
stirrups. The riders were strong, rugged, rough looking. There was music, the sun was shining, and it was an amazing sight to see the 29 teams lining up in front of the King’s box to present themselves. I was absolutely shocked. One of the teammates takes the goat and throws it in the middle of the field, and then the game is on. It’s a dangerous game for both riders and horses, and when a horse would break a leg, they would bring a special crane to lift it up and carry it out—and some would die. Teams were eliminated and the eventual winning team would win a sum of money. But I’m not sure how long I stayed as I started feeling dizzy, and I had to go out near the entrance area so that I wouldn’t throw up in the stands. I was upset and disappointed that I couldn’t watch the whole game but I had no choice but to take a taxi back home. Pretty soon I realized I had gotten hepatitis from canned tuna. For a while I just lay in my bedroom on these fur blankets… it was pretty organic, far out living, with the suzanis I’d started collecting hanging on the walls. I thought I’d eventually get better, but instead I kept getting sicker, until it felt like I might die. So there I am, lying in bed half-dead, when there’s a knock at the door. It’s someone with an unbelievably beautiful present for me—a long, thick camel hair coat, embroidered with really happy colors and floral designs—from His Highness Prince Karim, Aga Khan IV, the Khan of Afghanistan’s Badakshan province, and Nizari Ismailis worldwide. Through his emissary who brought the gift, I was told that The Aga Khan wanted me to come visit him when I got better. By this time, like everyone else, he knew I was there for the cottage industry. So it was an introduction as well as recognition of my work. But I was young, and didn’t really understand who the Aga Khan was. He was also young at the time, and had only recently launched his Aga Khan Foundation. Of course, the Foundation is now a huge organization that funds development projects in the poorest parts of South and Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East, supporting programs in the fields of environment, culture, microfinance, health, education, architecture, and rural development. But at the time, I was too young and too sick to realize the full significance of this gift. In fact, I was so sick that shortly afterwards I took the plane home in a wheelchair. All the time I was sick in New York, I kept thinking about Afghanistan… I couldn’t
Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci
wait to get back. It was like being a racecar driver, where you need that next race, that fix. No one knew anything about Afghanistan or really understood it, especially my parents. While they didn’t really get it, they could see that I was happy, and they liked that. During the Pop Art it was high times and things had been kind of crazy, but this brought a focus, because it was something I really loved. It helped that I’d gotten some press from the coats; having your name in famous magazines like Life, Look, and Vogue gives you a certain credibility, and my parents could see I had something going. As soon as I was well enough to walk, I went over to Mallory’s offices to settle up. When I asked, “So, how much did we make?” they said, “You know Ira, it’s terrible, but we didn’t make any money.” I said, “How is that possible? I sent you thousands of coats, maybe ten thousand.” They told me the coats had smelled bad so they’d had to sell them off at cost or half price. It seemed like a tall story, and it was the first time I’d heard about any of this. Also, I knew for a fact they’d been selling them for cash out of the back room, because I’d heard all the models for Wilhelmina and Ford were buying them like crazy, right there in the back room. It was hard to believe — not a dime for the entire year I’d worked, building up their company. I went down to the showroom to check, but there were not many coats left on the racks. I left, shocked and discouraged. But I walked out and never looked back. It may have been a bad loss, but only in dollars and cents. I’d discovered a new way of life and work. Only, now that the coat business with Mallory and Anne Klein was over, I needed to come up with a new idea. Almost immediately my thoughts turned to Mike Wilson, who’d stayed behind when I flew home sick. When he came out to Afghanistan with me I’d told him I would give him 20 percent commission for handling books and records. He would be the company’s bookkeeper. But when I didn’t return immediately with the money, Mike decided it was time for him to come home as well. Next thing, he calls me from a New York jail looking for bail money. I find out that he’d flown back with some hash stuffed in his bongo drums. So I was really upset. Just because we were both now broke and needed to start something new, that was no excuse for taking such a crazy risk. So I go down to the jail with the bail money—in fact I think I had to borrow the money to give him and explain to him that Mallory kept all the money they owed and refused to pay me, but that if I ever do get paid I will give him the percentage like
Ira in the rare camelhair coat he received from the Aga Khan, Christmas, 1984.
I’d promised. And then I told him, “Listen, I’m going to give you this thousand dollars, which is all I have, for your bail bondsman. But we can’t work together anymore, because you know I was always against this kind of thing.” So I hand him the money, and he hands me a piece of lapis lazuli and says, “Look, I’m really sorry. I know you’ve given me all your money, and this lapis is only worth fifty, maybe a hundred dollars. Keep it as a thank you for helping me get out of jail.” So I stare at this beautiful piece of lapis lazuli in the palm of my hand, and I’m thinking, “How am I going to do this? How can I bring this blue gemstone to America?” It felt like a good omen, and perhaps a way to get back to Afghanistan. And right there, I had a premonition, a hope, that this could be my next business venture. Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci
Lapis Lazuli: The Philosopher’s Stone “From around 2600 BC, lapis lazuli and other precious stones traveled the Lapis Route from Afghanistan to Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq and Kuwait). Lapis was one of the most highly prized precious materials, used to decorate temples and priestly households. Much of ancient Egypt’s ceremonial jewelry was made by the superb craftsmen of the ancient cities of Afghanistan [and] the mines of Badakshan in northern Afghanistan were the sole source of lapis lazuli, the most precious stone of the ancient world.” — Andy Hale & Kate Fitzgibbon, Jewelry of the Ancient Lapis Route.
At the time, my cousin Errol was rockin’ the city. He was getting ready to open Le Drugstore nightclub and bar-restaurant on 64th and Third, and was engaged to marry Margo Hemingway. Errol was friends with Uva Harden who’d launched Ford’s male model agency, and his wife Barbara Carrerra, who made movies. It was through this connection that I met Syd Baer, a successful textile merchant, unmarried, who hung out with a lot of Ford models. Syd was looking to invest in something, and I sold him on lapis lazuli, the hot new gemstone from Afghanistan. Syd just liked the idea. Neither of us knew anything about lapis, but he went with me because he could see how successful I’d been with the coats, that I was an entrepreneur. Even though I hadn’t made money with Mallory, it was my work in Afghanistan sending thousands of coats that had made the fashion a big hit. He gave me $50,000 to bring back 500 kilos of lapis lazuli, which we’d sell in New York. So I bought a plane ticket and was off to the races. After two months spent recovering, I went back to Afghanistan. Now, in order to export lapis I would either have to buy a license from the Ministry, which wasn’t cheap — or I could avoid the bureaucracy and take it out from Badakshan on camel or donkey—through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, in Pakistan. So I knew this guy who worked for Ariana Airlines called Nick Bean, who was around my age. I hooked up with him to buy the lapis for me. Everything is based on premonition anyway, but especially at that age, when you don’t really know what you’re doing or who to trust, you have to go on gut feeling. I liked Nick and had a good vibe about him. So I made
a deal with him for 500 kilos of lapis at $100 a kilogram, or $50,0001. And our plan was that we would have it transported from Afghanistan to Peshawar on donkey caravans, using the different tribal groups that ran that trade route. If you go through this No Man’s Land —Landi Kotal — you’ll come to a certain village, and there’s a setup there, something like a tollbooth. Goods carried by caravan have to use the camel routes, and along the way you have to pay tolls to the locals — like bandit tolls. I had no idea how many donkeys it would take to carry out 500 kilos or how long it would take, so there I was in Kabul, trying to keep busy with other work for months, anxiously waiting for word that the lapis had arrived in Peshawar. In Afghanistan, of course, people are on their own time, meaning whenever it works out for them, since there are always problems like sick animals, piracy, weather conditions, etc. But eventually it got to the point where the lapis was weeks late, and I was getting very nervous that it wouldn’t arrive at all—afraid that something had happened to it, thinking it might have been stuck up, pirated, or lost. Finally I took a bus to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, and a taxi from there to the Khyber Pass, and then drove out into God knows where on dirt roads, watching all these people, so many people, like ants, as they came across the Afghan-Pakistan border. It was a hallucination to think that I could possibly find the caravan bringing my lapis! It was crazy to go out looking for it, thinking I might actually run into it. I was just so desperate and scared of losing it — desperate to find it. There were people with heavy knapsacks, women with big bundles tied to their backs — but no camels. I was very worried that I wasn’t seeing any animals, but I didn’t realize then that the camels and donkeys took a higher path through the Pass, while people took the lower path. I was starting to think this was another episode like giving Corky money for the coats… that someone might have now taken the lapis money and disappeared the same way Corky did. I was having déjà vu while looking at all those people coming and going across the border. Even though Nick felt the people he contracted with could be trusted, I had doubts whether I would ever see this lapis. So I was shocked and relieved when eventually the lapis arrives in Peshawar, and we fly it out to New York City. Nick and I celebrated that night at the Intercontinental Hotel! Then I fly back to meet it. I really thought I’d done all the hard work just getting the lapis out of Afghanistan, but the real hardship only started when it arrived in America, because I was so naïve. My real problem was that I knew nothing about 1
Previously regulated by the Afghan government, the output of lapis mines has been uncontrolled since the Soviet invasion, leading to a market glut. Afghani lapis is now much cheaper than it was in 1969 and is used abundantly in costume jewelry.
lapis. I had no idea that there are all these grades and qualities — A, B, C, and D — and $100 a kilo was the price of a mediocre grade. If you buy bulk and it’s not the best grade, you’ve got a headache, because it’s much harder to sell. At first I tried to sell it by the kilo, but people weren’t buying 10 or 20 kilos of medium grade uncut lapis. The stones are judged by their external color, and buyers don’t like stones with white on them. Which was unfortunate, because I had pieces like that the size of a human head. So because I couldn’t sell it by the kilo, I’d have to cut it into cabochons (the standard polished elliptical cut for opaque gemstones). So I found these Brazilian guys who knew how to cut stones, and one of them had a broken-down lapidary in a farmhouse out in the country in upstate New York. He took a big stone the size of a head and cut it in half, and we were all shocked: the whole inside was the most beautiful blue, practically no white at all. So I also learned you can never tell what’s on the inside from the outside. He started cutting it down, and I would leave for a while and return to find the best parts of the stone gone. One weekend I went out there and realized that the guy and his girlfriend were in cahoots: they’d been cutting up the best lapis and stealing it from me! When I confronted them they acted like I was imagining things, and then the paranoia set in, and it started to feel like something from a horror movie, something that could end badly! So I got out of there in a hurry — and lost a trunk full of lapis in the process. But two of his workers, also from Brazil, who hardly spoke English, wanted to come work with me and teach me. I hired those two guys, and we turned my father’s garage in Yonkers into a lapidary for a few months, cutting the stones for rings. I start going down to 47th Street — the jewelry district — and selling these cabochons. Dealers start buying — by the gram. So I’m selling these cut and polished stones for something like $20-$30 dollars a gram—which, believe me, was not much money for all the work we were doing. I realized that’s why all the cabochons in the West come from countries like India and China. So I thought, “Okay, I better start making bigger stones, because I can get $150$200 dollars for big stones, for the same amount of work.” Nobody had seen big lapis stones on 47th Street up to then; it was all small stones. So I start selling them to the dealers, and all of a sudden everyone is coming to 47th Street, looking for the big stones, because now there’s a new fashion for jewelry with these big lapis stones. And I’m still not making any money.
Gradually, I started to learn myself, and soon I was cutting and polishing and setting stones myself, working long into the night, At one point, I made a lapis heart about six inches high, and had a famous New York goldsmith wrap a gold lion around the heart. Later, when I was living on 86th Street, I would sell that piece to somebody — I can’t even remember who — for something like $3,000; today it would be priceless. But at the time I still owed Syd Baer $50,000 and had no idea how I was going to pay him. Eventually, I moved the lapidary stone cutting tables and wheels that I had put together down to the apartment on 47th Street in Hells Kitchen. I didn’t want to travel back and forth to Yonkers. So I set up in my apartment upstairs. The heat didn’t work too well in that building, and working with water circulating—it was freezing. Winter was setting in when I got an order from Baby Jane Holzer, who I was friendly with at the time. She wanted to give her husband Lenny a present, a backgammon set in lapis and malachite. So there I was in the freezing cold, cutting and working these two sets of chips in lapis and malachite on this machine, and she keeps telling me, “Oh, you have to get this backgammon set done for Christmas!” I thought, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I really wanted to get back to Afghanistan. This wasn’t for me — working in Hells Kitchen in this freezing cold apartment and the whole nine yards. I was in bad shape. The situation was bad, really bad. I had tried everything to make the money to pay Syd. But it didn’t matter how much money I made, because I was spending it all on blades and tools and materials to make more stuff to sell. It was a hard business, and I didn’t want any part of it. So I went to Syd and told him upfront. I said, ‘Syd, listen. I just don’t think we’re going to make any money right now. But I’m going to make the money and pay you back. I’m going to figure it out.’ It took some years, but eventually I paid him back the full amount. All I could think was how crazy it was that I’d got caught up in all this. So I put the rest of the lapis in boxes and stored it away. By now I knew that I wanted to do something different, something more exciting — like the rug business, the dhurry business. Then one day Baby Jane Holzer calls me up again and asks me to come over to her house. Baby Jane was a Warhol Superstar and Vogue model with dozens of magazine covers to her name, married to a real estate developer. She was a big deal. So I turn
up at her big apartment, with the walls lined with paintings by all the pop artists, and she’s sitting there with the housekeeper, who is combing her long blonde hair while we talk. She points and says, “Can you find me this type of rug?” It was an animal figure dhurry that she’d found at Stark Carpet, one of New York’s best rug dealers. She was thinking of starting to import them herself. I said to her, “Sure. This is much easier than cutting lapis. This is a no-brainer. In Afghanistan all the donkeys have these on their backs.” She wanted me to go partners with her, but she seemed reluctant to give me the advance I needed. She seemed a bit on the fence. So I just said, “Yes, yes, let me think about it,” to her proposal, and then said goodbye. The housekeeper was still combing her hair when I left. It must have been good karma that the very next day my cousin Ilene tells me that Mrs. Nadia Stark wants to see me. Ilene, an interior decorator, was working at the time for David Barrett, a famous decorator, and was friends with John and Steven Stark. She made an appointment for me to go up to the showroom at 979 Third Avenue, in the famous Decoration and Design Building. Stark Carpet was the largest fine carpet and rug company in America. Mr. Stark had passed away, and now it was run by Nadia and the two boys, John and Steven. So I go see Nadia, who pulls out three fine, flatwoven cotton dhurries that Mr. Stark had found in London before he passed away in ’68. The first piece is a Noah’s Ark dhurry, the kind made for the British when they still ruled India, a hundred years ago. The British loved Noah’s Ark, I guess for the Christian Biblical theme. But in 1970, because they were so rare, the price tag of a Noah’s Ark dhurry was $60,000. And they had a customer for it, so they wanted to know if I could find some more. My ears perked up. They wanted the really good old dhurries. I look at the Ark and I say, “Noooo problem, Mrs. Stark. This is right up my alley.” They’d heard about me and knew I’d been over to Jane’s house and that she was looking for dhurries too. We all sensed that dhurries were going to be a hot item — the next big fashion. So I was honest with her, and told her straight, “Right now, I’m really broke.” And she said, “If you think you can find these and also some kilim, we’ll advance you $15,000 and a ticket.” Stark was a big, serious company but willing to invest in me and take a chance. They gave me the money, and I let an old girlfriend stay at my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and got packed up to leave. Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 72
Magic Carpet Ride
On my way to Afghanistan I stop over in Tehran. Under the Shah, Iran was westernizing faster than Afghanistan; girls wore high heels and tight skirts, there were discos, it was bustling. I took a taxi to the rug market in Ferdozi Street where I bought some beautiful kilim runners, thirty or forty pieces, had them wrapped up and shipped back to New York immediately. I was nervous and scared about the purchase because it was the first time I’d done anything like this. I wanted to get feedback from Stark because I still wasn’t sure I could trust my own judgment yet. For a start, I had been sent out to buy cotton dhurries, and these were wool, but I really liked these 50 or 60-year old Kurdish kilim runners — like Senna kilim (kilim from Senna, capital of Iranian Kurdistan) but more tribal. In Afghanistan they say that if a rug catches your heart, you know it’s a good rug, and I was working on instinct, buying rugs that gave me a good feeling. And while Stark liked that first batch of rugs, they told me to keep looking for cotton. Still, it confirmed that I was on the right track and could trust my instinct. When I arrived back in Kabul I went to see Abdul, who’d gotten me out of jail. Abdul was selling antique Khyber Pass guns, double barrel rifles, mother of pearl items, antique vases and cups, in a shop catty corner across from the Blue Mosque in Shar-i-Nau. So I go to “Sofi’s shop” —people called him Sofi—and show him a picture of satrangi, the Dari word for dhurry, because I didn’t know anything about dhurries. For a day or two it was very hard for Abdul to understand what I was looking for, particularly since I kept using the Indian word, “dhurry”, and those cotton weavings are called satrangi in Dari and Farsi. Then we take a drive out to Istalif, where he had another shop. In Istalif I saw a donkey go by with a funky little satrangi sticking out of the saddle bag, and I tried again to explain to Abdul. I point to this kind of ratty, roughly woven, really small striped piece, and I tell him, “Like that! — but bigger, finer, with designs.” It took another five days, but he finally got the picture and started collecting satrangi. This was a typical example of how language barriers often caused confusion. But somehow Abdul and I always managed to finally understand each other. The name, Opposite: “The Magic Carpet,” that very first and finest dhurry Ira ever found, 4’x6’ made in an Indian prison before partition. Based on a Caucasian design. 75
satrangi, has always been a bit of a mystery. It could be one of three things. Firstly, satrangi is pronounced just like another word, Satranji, spelled with a “j.” The Indians suggest that the word satranji/satrangi comes from the game, Satranj, which is their name for the game of chess. And in fact many great Indian and Afghan dhurries had chessboards woven in the center so that men could sit on the floor and play right there on the rug. Others suggest that the name means one hundred colors: “Sat” means hundred and “rang” means color. So this makes sense too. The third theory links satrangi to the word “Sat” as in hundred and “ranj” as in hardship. So there, satranji means “a hundred days of hardship.” Dhurries were always made in jails by prisoners as a means of rehabilitation, teaching them a skill to use other than crime after their time in jail. So “satrangi” in that context refers to a hundred days of hardship, weaving the rug in prison. And, in fact, that is about how long it takes to weave a good dhurry, probably with two or more weavers sitting together on the horizontal loom. Anyway, I went back to Peshawar where I met a man named Major who was in the Pakistani army. He owned the Intercontinental Hotel, where I was staying, and after we got talking I told him what I was looking for. A day or two later we drive south in his white Mercedes four-door sedan to Multan1 in the southern Punjab. Major stops at a mosque with a big wall around it. The mullah comes out — great turban, long white beard, beautiful face — and comes over to the car and talks to Major about satrangi. He says he has one in the mosque and brings it out. He holds up this 4 ft x 6 ft dhurry with a traditional design called Green Leaf. Out of nowhere there’s a bolt of lightning, followed by a roll of thunder and then some more lightning, more and more… but no rain. At this point, I’d never bought a dhurry. Abdul had started collecting them, but I told him to keep them at his shop. So I was actually a little confused because although it was a beautiful rug, the weave was so tight I couldn’t tell whether it was machine made or not. But they assure me it was hand woven, so I ask, ‘How much does he want for it?’ The mullah says 100 rupees, so I tell Major to pay him. The mullah folds up the dhurry like a little package, so fine it’s like paper. The lightning is flashing, the thunder is rolling, and now the rain starts pouring. 1
Multan is reputedly one of the world’s oldest cities, the “City of Saints” conquered by Alexander in 326 BCE
Opposite: Ira and Sher Mohammad inspect a Qashqai dhurry in the compound of a village leader. Aqcha, Afghanistan.
We drove back to Peshawar in the rain, maybe six hours, and when I got up to my room I had to open the rug again. I just couldn’t get over how magnificent it was… the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid my eyes on. I called it “The Magic Carpet”. And that’s how, for 100 rupees or about $10, I bought this rug, made before partition in a British run Indian prison, that would eventually be the focus of an article in Hali, the textile trade magazine. In the years since, I must have bought roughly 10,000 pieces, but that first dhurry, which came to me like a gift—like something out of a genie’s lamp!— is still the best piece I have ever seen. It felt as if a voice had whispered in the mullah’s ear, “Sell this to Ira because this will be a good stepping stone for him to go on to build cottage industries and help people. This is the gift that starts him out in this field.” The experience was surreal. I brought it back with me to New York, and though I wish I could have kept it, I was a rookie back then. It was priceless, but I needed money to keep working, so I sold it to Stark Carpet for $2,000. Five years later, around the time Sylvie and I met in January 1974, I’m walking quickly past Rose Cummings’ shop, this famous antique shop on 56th and Park Avenue. And there in the window I see this same dhurry on the floor, under a Napoleon desk that must have weighed two tons, with an antique white suzani laid on the desk. I couldn’t believe they’d put this heavy thing on top of that paper-fine dhurry. So I go in and ask Rose how much she wants for the rug and the suzani. She says $4,500. I knew something was wrong because I’d sold it to Stark for $2,000 and I knew Stark works on triple or fourple. So I say, “I don’t have money on me, but let me leave a deposit and tomorrow morning I’ll go to the bank.” The next day I brought her the money and took the rug and the suzani. Then I call Jack Soskin, a manager at Stark, who was well known throughout the market. By this time I’m making so much money that I was carrying Stark’s paper. I would give them $150,000-$200,000 worth of merchandise, and they would give me postdated checks, which I used as working capital to keep building the business in Afghanistan. But I knew something was wrong with this rug. So I call my friend and say, “Jack, listen to me. I found the Magic Carpet in Rose Cummings’ shop.” And he says, “Oh, it was stolen a few months ago. Some salesman put it in a suitcase or briefcase because it folded up so nice, and walked out of the store. And he probably sold it to Rose.” But then Jack says, “I’m not going to say anything, and you can keep it Ira, because I know you love it.” I had made so much money for the company that he was happy that I, of all people, had found that rug. It was almost magical how it happened and Jack knew I was meant to
Ira, Ramazan and Sher Mohammad discuss the purchase of a Mazar-i-Sharif dhurry in front of our room at the Balkh Nights Hotel in Mazar-i-Sharif.
have it. After five or six years experience, I realized how incredible the Magic Carpet was, and it came back to me. I still own it today. And I still don’t know how Major found that mosque way down there in Multan. After returning from Multan with Major, I found a few more dhurries and then started working out of Kabul with Abdul. By now I’d learned that every province has its own typical design and color way, and that these dhurries or satrangi were being woven in Afghan and Pakistani prisons. So Abdul went into the prisons to look at the records, because it seemed that the commandants were giving them as gifts for favors and the prisons were selling some as well. A lot of families would even order custom sizes and colors from the prison weaving program. In order to gain access to the records, Abdul would take gifts or baksheesh to the prison commandant—stuff like cigarettes, chocolates, and so on—and enough to distribute to some of the weavers as well. And then he’d go through these huge old ledger books containing detailed, handwritten records of every weaving and whether it was sold or gifted, along with the address of whichever family received it.
So Abdul starts visiting prisons and looking at their records—which list the designs, too—and then trying to track down each name and address. Later on Abdul would send his agent, Sher Mohammad, to go into the prisons to find out who had what. Then we would drive from province to province trying to locate these dhurries. Each province had its own design, and many of them were beautiful, but the dhurries from Mazar-i-Sharif were the most amazing pieces, so I collected as many as I could. Another strategy was to travel to a village and go to the chai houses and the dukon shops, and say aloud, “Satrangi wala, looking for satrangi. Do you have any kadim satrangi, (old dhurries)?” And someone would say, “Oh, my cousin has one—blue, indigo, red striped—you’ll find him ten doors down on the left.” So you’d go and knock at the door and ask, “Can I see your satrangi?” It was totally hit or miss, but if it was a good one, then you’d try to negotiate. One day we found the address of a commandant from Bamiyan who’d received a great Mazar piece 50 or 60 years earlier, and Sher Mohammad said, “I’ll go to fetch this rug for you.” It took him two days on rough roads, including a donkey ride, until he finally reached the house. Another two days of rugged, grimy travel and he finally returns, dusts himself off with a dramatic gesture, and says, “Sit down.” We sit and he tells me the story. It was a very difficult house to find, and he was tired by the time he reached it. But in traditional Afghan style, he picked up a stone and went tack-tacktack on the door. A woman opened it and inside, behind her, Sher Mohammad could see a donkey lying on its side near a waste drainage ditch, with — he immediately recognized the pattern—a tattered scrap of this Mazar satrangi on its back! He apologized for bothering the woman, made his excuses and left. Sher Mohammad, always a loyal employee, had originally worked for Abdul, going out on the road to villages searching for dhurries and textiles, which were put aside for Ira. Later, Sher Mohammad managed the weaving factory that opened in 1975 and became Ira’s personal “road-man”—continuing to search far and wide for dhurries and textiles. On many occasions he would bring Ira to a house in a remote area to see a special dhurry he had located, and the following ritual often unfolded: Ira would negotiate with the men of the household, but after a deal was struck the women would come Opposite : Early 70’s- beginning of the dhurry fashion in home décor. Two Stark Carpet ads in Architectural Digest featuring dhurries shipped by Ira. Previous spread: Dhurry masterpieces collected in early 70s. Left pg.-Oversized dhurries (9x12 +) made in Mazar-i-Sharif prisons c. 1940s-50s. Right pg.-Parcheesi and pictorial dhurries made in prisons in India, most c. 100 years old. 83
running out yelling, “Shireen, shireen.” This literally means ‘sweet’ but in this case was a request for their share, or baksheesh. In this context the word means more of a tip. Ira would then give the women another 500 Afs or more. Word of mouth also often yielded results. People would hear what Ira was looking for and bring rugs to the door every morning to see if he liked them, and if so, they’d negotiate a deal. Afghans were always surprised to find a foreigner interested in buying dhurries. The satrangi, or dhurries, were quickly becoming the hot new fashion in interior décor. Stark was even advertising them in Architectural Digest. And yet satrangi weren’t highly valued in Afghanistan and India, and were often used as mere padding under pile carpets. Afghan people who sold their satrangi would use the money to buy themselves a new rug or carpet. Prices of dhurries were based on size, roughly $3 a square foot. So pretty soon we’d collected hundreds of pieces. Meanwhile, in Lahore, Major introduced me to the head of the prisons in the Punjab region—Colonel Ejaz Hussein. A compulsive gambler, he loved the racetrack, although he always seemed to lose. And he wasn’t the only one. A lot of the sons and grandkids of the Pakistani maharajas, the princes and nobles, were also big gamblers. The maharajas themselves were older and more traditional, but these heirs loved to go to the racetrack, where they would lose tens of thousands of dollars. And then they would sell their family heirlooms — the good rugs and palace carpets — to feed their gambling habits. So Colonel Ejaz managed to buy or get a lot of these on consignment, and always had great dhurries waiting for me. And since he oversaw the prisons, he would have someone look up whoever had bought or received the dhurries made in various prisons over the years, and what kind of dhurry it was — geometric, floral, or figurative—with animals or peacocks, etc. Then he would contact the owners to find out if they wanted to resell these dhurries, and many of them did. And that’s how I lived two years in Lahore, working with Major and Colonel Ejaz, collecting dhurries while working on the tents — which would become my next success.
A Thunderbird In The Desert
One day someone took me to see a tentmaker named Ruludu Mohammadin on Circle Drive, in the heart of Lahore. He had a huge operation that made tents for the military, for various governments, and even for refugees. But he also made tents for parties: brightly-colored, appliquéd Gulgari tents, traditionally used for weddings. I was buying blue and white striped goods for Stark, and this company was supposed to have blue and white striped dhurries, which were used for the flooring inside these tents. The dhurries themselves turned out to be too thick, but when I saw the tentmakers sitting there stitching an appliquéd tent for a wedding, I said, “Wow, that is amazing. What an item!” A four-sided tent with a top cost $150, so I ordered one in red, green, blue and yellow, and another one in yellow, blue and white. I had some pillows made to go with them, a bedspread or two, a hammock, and a batch of extra panels, and brought the lot back to New York, to the apartment on East 86th Street that I had rented as soon as I had been able to afford a nicer place. When Diana Vreeland saw one of the tents rolled up at my apartment, it was a wow for her too. It wasn’t even set up, but she immediately loved it, and suggested I meet Angelo Donghia, an interior decorator who had decorated one of Ralph Lauren’s houses in the islands, and whose company, Vice Versa, was known for interior fabrics and wall-coverings. She called him and set up a meeting. Diana had a gift for matching up talented people she felt would work well together, and then lending her support through magazine articles. Angelo and I clicked right away and became partners, and we set up one of my tents in his apartment. It fit perfectly in the 18 ft x 20 ft living room of his brownstone. As I set it up, with all the accessory pillows, tablecloths, a hammock, and even my fox fur blanket, he flipped over the transformation of his white space and wanted it left up for photo shoots. Then we moved it to Bloomingdale’s, where Barbara Dorsey set it up, and it won best room setting of the year.
Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci
By Spring of 1971 the tents had featured in Vogue and Look magazines, and were selling exclusively at Bloomingdale’s — which advertised them as: “Far Out, Far Eastern”. Pretty soon these hand-stitched appliquéd tents had become so popular that demand outstripped our supply, so Angelo and I made a deal with Bloomcraft, a high-end fabric manufacturer. We would do all the designs and collected a royalty on sales, while Bloomcraft would produce and market our entire line of Gulgari tents and accessories. These were more affordable than the hand-stitched originals, but they were also very far out, very bold and colorful1. I spent 1971 and 1972 going back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan, collecting rugs, robes, and textiles. I was living in Gulberg, an upscale residential suburb of central Lahore, in a beautiful little house with a big garden that I rented from a judge whose hobby was growing black roses. After a while Angelo Donghia and his boyfriend, clothing designer Clovis Ruffin, came to visit me, to see my design process for the Gulgari wedding tents. They stayed with me for a while, and then I took them on a two-week ride through Pakistan and Afghanistan. I remember going through the Khyber Pass, and Angelo and Clovis sitting in the back with blankets over their heads, they were so scared. Everybody had guns and turbans, and they were hiding. To be honest, these were volatile times in the region. After declaring independence in March of 1971, Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan) spent pretty much the rest of the year fighting the West Pakistan military. Towards the end of 1971, India joined the Bangladeshi forces, and together they defeated what is now Pakistan. So I was caught up in two wars during that time. But what I remember best from that trip is the day I bought a few dozen 50-yard bolts of Russian chintz in a Kabul textile shop run by Sikhs—fabric that Angelo and Clovis would later use in their design work. All in all, they had a great time. They had never traveled in the East before and, knowing the terrain so well, I was the perfect guide. Meanwhile, because I’d finally started to make money, I wanted to do something special for Abdul, who had been such an amazing friend, and so good to me. So on a business trip back to New York, I went to a car auction in Bordentown, New Jersey, and bought a 1969 Thunderbird as a gift for him, and shipped it from New York to Karachi. Then I flew to Karachi and picked it up, and drove it through the Sindh 1
Remnants of these fabrics still occasionally appear for sale online under the Vintage Fabrics listing, with “designed by Angelo Donghia and Ira Seret” printed along the selvage edge.
Opposite from top left : Vogue, March 15, 1971. Lower left to right: Look, 9-21-71; House and Garden, April,’71; Two from right: House Beautiful, Fall, 1972. 87
Desert to Lahore, about 750 miles northeast, (a 17-18 hour drive in those days) and from there another five hundred miles northwest to Kabul. It was an amazing car, a white two-door hard-top with red leather interior, attracting attention everywhere it went! Crowds would gather to stare whenever I stopped. I was probably crazy to drive alone through the desert, but I didn’t think twice about it back then. Looking back it was definitely a risky thing to do. What if the car had broken down in the middle of nowhere or run out of gas since gas stations were few and far between? There was no direct highway to Lahore, so a few times I got lost. But whenever that happened, I’d slow down and yell out the window to a villager or group on the roadside asking, “Which way to Kabul?” And sometimes two people would point in different directions, and I’d have to guess which one of them looked smarter. Villagers were always eager to help, but sometimes they sent me the wrong way. I couldn’t get radio reception, and of course there was no GPS to guide me. And being dyslexic, I’ve never been a good map reader. I can’t remember if I stopped the first night in Multan, but I know I was afraid of the car getting stolen so I think I napped inside the driver’s seat and continued when it was light again. But eventually I made it to Lahore and found the Ambassador Hotel, where I paid an attendant to watch the car while I slept. From there I knew my way by heart. Of course, the Thunderbird was even more conspicuous in Lahore than in the desert. Back in Lahore, I started hearing rumors that a war with India was about to break out, so after a couple of days rest I was anxious to leave and return to Kabul. I drove for another couple of days alone through Pakistan, stopping in Peshawar to visit my dhurry supplier, Major, at the Intercontinental Hotel there. I reached the Pakistan side of the border at the Khyber Pass just as the Indo-Pakistani War broke out. The border guards were saying, “What the hell are you doing with this car?” They were all walking around it, looking and thinking it was cool. This must have been around December 3rd 1971, the official start of the war. Eventually they said, “Go, get out of Pakistan! Go to Afghanistan!” I guess there must have been an order to close the borders, because when I arrived at the Afghan border, it was already closed: everyone was sitting drinking tea around potbelly stoves. But for some reason, they let me through anyway, saying, “Go, go!” I kept driving to Jalalabad, and then on to Kabul. Back in Afghanistan, I felt safe again. Afghan people were more laid back... curiOpposite from top left : Look, 9-21-71; Gulgari tent by Ira, set up in Angelo Donghia’s apartment, model wearing Zandra Rhodes. In Radical Rags, by Joel Lobenthal, 1990. 89
ous, but laid back. Compared to Pakistan it felt like Miami Beach, nowhere near as intense. So I couldn’t wait to give the car to Abdul, having brought it ten thousand miles just to see his expression. Somehow, I finally arrived in Kabul around 5.00 pm in this white Thunderbird. But there had been one problem: gasoline. In America you always take for granted that you’ll find a gas station, but I needed gas and hadn’t seen a gas station along the road. Earlier, I had bought a five-gallon can of gas at a little place next to a teahouse, but it wasn’t quite enough, and a few blocks before reaching Abdul’s shop the car ran out of gas. Luckily, an old baba (grandfatherly man) told some kids to help me push the Thunderbird the rest of the way. I had called from Peshawar to say I’m on the way, so Abdul and Ghazi, his assistant, were in the shop when we rolled up: me and ten kids, pushing a dust-covered, gleaming white T-bird with red leather interior. Ghazi brought tea with a little bowl of sweets and then went to get some gas while Abdul was checking out the car parked on the curb. Then, shortly after I’d given Abdul the keys and he had driven around Shar-i-Nau a bit, he comes back to the shop and the phone rings. It’s Prince Nadir, King Zahir Shah’s son. “Abdul!” he says. “Where did you get that car?” We knew what this meant: he wanted it for himself. So the question was, Should we or should we not sell it to the Prince? It was one of those sagas, back and forth for a day or so. Afghans are very gracious and humble and would never refuse someone so high up. That was the dilemma and a matter of Afghan custom and respect. You’re talking about the King’s son, after all, and he was infatuated with the car, obsessed by it. In my heart, I didn’t want Abdul to give it up. And I’d come such a long way with it to give it up so quickly! But it was like a good rug, waiting to get snatched up. So Abdul was conflicted, because he didn’t want to offend my generosity either. But who knew what the ramifications might have been if Abdul had refused the Prince. And then there was also a certain prestige to selling this luxury car to the Royal Family. Abdul had helped me in my success and I had wanted to let all of Kabul know how much I appreciated his work and friendship. To be honest, if I had thought it through, I might not have even bought him the car. But I had acted on my desire to bring him something really unique and cool. Finally, we drive the car to the Palace and they open the gates. Prince Nadir walks around and checks it out and says to Abdul, “Can I buy it from you?” You can’t refuse the Prince of Afghanistan, so Abdul reluctantly sold the car—below cost just to make him happy. We went back to Abdul’s shop, where Ghazi again poured us some green tea. Whenever we would see the prince driving around town in that white Thunderbird, we’d smile and laugh and say, “The Prince is coming!” 90
During the late 60s and early 70s, as the clothing, furnishings, décor, art and jewelry of central and southern Asia became increasingly fashionable, Ira was perfectly situated to develop the era’s “ethnic chic” aesthetic. The high-end handicrafts and traditional garments he was sourcing – colorful ikat silk robes with chintz linings, hand-embroidered boots, exquisite vegetable-dyed textiles — were new and exciting, unlike anything else then available in Western markets. And his passion for these beautiful discoveries was infectious. Word spread fast. “Empress of Seventh Avenue,” Eleanor Lambert, — a central figure in American fashion and media, who had founded the Council of American Fashion Designers in 1962, and initiated the 100 Best Dressed List— wrote about Ira’s travels and treasures in her nationally syndicated column. Meanwhile, friend and mentor Diana Vreeland continued to help him with her vast network of connections and knowledge of the fashion industry. Whenever I returned to New York I would always let Diana know I was back in town, and interesting times often followed. One night in November 1971, I was with my cousin Errol Wetanson at Syd Baer’s house on 62nd Street, one of those streets lined with fabulous brownstones. Oscar de la Renta and his wife, Francoise, lived a few doors down. So Errol had brought The Cockettes over to Syd’s house. The Cockettes were a psychedelic theater group from Haight-Ashbury, freaky guys who wore outrageous drag — all made up with lipstick, fabulous hats and amazing outfits. They were in New York for a three-week stint at the Anderson Theater on 2nd Avenue in the East Village.
Vogue, April 15, 1970.
I’d spoken to Diana and knew she’d be at Oscar’s that evening. So I went over to their house to see if they wanted to meet the Cockettes, and they said yes, so we all walked back to Syd’s. Diana couldn’t get over the Cockettes’ outfits and makeup, and immediately insisted that I take her to see their show later that week. We went and had a great time, and she really loved their exotic drag and extravagant style.
Diana would also invite me to dinner at her apartment, which was decorated in her favorite shade of red. I remember arriving one evening, and she was telling me that Kennedy (I can’t remember if she meant Robert or Jackie) had been there two nights before, so the place had been searched top-to-bottom by the Secret Service or whatever agency checks to make sure everything was okay. I didn’t register who… but even back then they took precaution. Diana had helped me with the sheepskin coats, so she was there for me right from the beginning. She would send photographer Berry Berenson to shoot the pictures with me for Vogue. Berry and her sister, actress Marisa Berenson, were granddaughters of the great couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. So Diana sent Berry to my apartment whenever we did a Vogue photo shoot, and we were friendly. It was a real shock to learn that Berry Berenson had died on 9/11 on flight AA11, one of the planes that were crashed into the towers. Years later a guy came into my shop in Santa Fe wearing a 9/11 nametag on his wrist. We were talking and when he said he was wearing it for Berry Berenson, I got chills down my body, and told him I had worked and been friendly with her. Anyway, by this time I’d started to make a small name for myself in fashion, what with my work featured in fashion magazines. I’d moved out of Hells Kitchen and was leasing a beautiful apartment on East End and 86th Street. And I’d started fixing that up, but slowly, because I would only come back to New York to sell things and collect money, spending a month or so in town before leaving again. Actually, the very first time I came back to New York from Afghanistan it was a real culture shock. For a start, everything looked very different. Afghanistan had never had any advertising — no billboards or posters or neon signs — so my eyes were no longer used to all these words and pictures screaming at you wherever you went. And after a year, I’d also picked up some local habits and brought them back with me. One time, I remember I was wearing a safari jacket, and I went into a supermarket and filled up my shopping cart, and at the checkout the lady said, “That’ll be $25.” And I said, “Will you take $22?” I started bargaining, because by now it was instinctive, it was how you did things. But this is in a New York supermarket. I said, “Take $22 or I won’t buy it!” And she just said, “WHAT?!”
Ira’s new place on East 86
and East End Avenue was decorated wall to wall and ceil-
ing to floor with the Silk Road treasures he had collected in Afghanistan. This created a collage-like interior environment that was not only unusual for its time but foreshadowed today’s Boho Chic look and lifestyle. Dazzlingly rich and colorful, Ira’s extravagant interior captured the imagination of New York’s fashion set, further helping to shape the burgeoning ‘Ethnic Chic’ style of the era. It was Diana who initially encouraged me to move out of Hells Kitchen and find a better place to showcase my things, a more upscale place to sell out of. Eventually, I found the apartment on East 86th Street. It was six or seven rooms, one of only two apartments right off the elevator on the 12th floor, overlooking the East River and Gracie Mansion—very chic! And yet the rent was really reasonable! I fixed it up beautiful — the ceilings, the walls — everything was covered with patchwork fabrics. I had that place for several years, and really enjoyed working on it night and day, whenever I was in New York raising money and selling. I made it so romantic. Diana came up and said, “Ahh, your work reminds me of Whistler’s Peacock Room.1” Everybody came to hang out—lots of fashion people. Diana would bring people up there regularly, particularly Oscar and Francoise, and Babe and Bill Paley, who could now see how I had taken the creative work to another level in a place where I had more space to work with. Babe brought Bill Vanden Heuvel, a diplomat and father of Katrina. Oscar was Diana’s favorite; she would send him often. Halston came one day and wanted something that he could use in his designs. He said, “I need something to get into Vogue. I’ll even take a horse blanket.” The things from Afghanistan were on fire in those days, but by then I had nothing left—I was cleaned out. I told him I’d give him first shot of what I brought back on the next trip. He was the last one to come before I packed up and left. 1
James McNeill Whistler’s exquisite paneled dining room, hand-painted and decorated with metallic gold leaf in the Anglo-Japanese style, was originally commissioned by a British shipping magnate. It is now part of the permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Brunschwig and Fils were on the 11th floor of the D and D building, the same floor as Stark Carpet. They were the biggest textile company at that time, bigger than Schumacher. In fact, they are still big. One day I went to Stark and said I was going next door to introduce myself, because maybe they would be interested in royalties on some fabrics. So I went and introduced myself to Mrs. Brunschwig. This was 1971 and I was very young; I had so much energy, I was on the move. So she was so excited to see me because she knew I was bringing in all these old dhurries—the fashion. I was hot in fashion, so she wanted to come up to see where my work is. So I invite her up to my place on E. 86th Street. The doorman calls up: the Brunschwigs are here. They come up in the elevator and I open the door. I see this old man who looked like 90, he was so frail, sitting in a wheelchair, and this little chubby woman wheeling him out of the elevator into the hallway. This man being wheeled in looked so sick, his head tilted to one side. The two doors from the foyer into my living room were collaged with Bokhara backgammon boards along with these Russian painted metal icon frames. I would keep the doors closed and then open them when someone came. The yellow, blue and white Gulgari tent was in one of the bedrooms, and my dining room was the killer of killers. I never had such a dining room like that: all four walls decorated with camel pieces, with tassels, shells, buttons and glass beads woven and sewn into them. At that time, using camel trappings for interior decoration was very unusual and it had a very hip tribal feeling. The dining room also had suzani tapestries on the walls, and the needlepoint patchworked furniture I had designed. It was so gorgeous. I was still working on the fireplace with little ancient bronze animals and lapis and stone and patchwork fabric. I had the dhurry on the floor that John Connally bought from me years later in Santa Fe. I’d patchworked the whole flat ceiling, stapling the pieces into the ceiling. Where every fabric joined another I wanted to outline it with hanging tassels in each corner. The tassels on the ceiling were long, hanging down into the room, with the multicolored silk threads and silver and gold threads reflecting the lights. Anyway, I had to go to get more tassels, and so I made one trip back to Afghanistan during this project just for the tassels. I went through every bazaar for ten days to clean out each shop Opposite : Ira’s dining room at E. 86th St., Manhattan, c.1971. Decorated with camel trappings from N. Afghanistan, Turkmen woven tent band, Uzbek suzani wallhanging and curtain; Dining table (above) and parsons table (below), covered in Uzbek needlepoint, tassles and silk ikat— the first pieces of furniture Ira designed; 97
Collaged ceiling detail- E. 86th St. apartment. Lapis Lazuli on the wall.
of tassels, which exist in all types, beaded, crocheted, some very elaborate bunches, all different lengths, and a lot of richly colored silk — but old looking, not new and shiny tassels. Ten days in Kabul just to get tassels. In those days I was going back and forth so much that the extra pages stapled into my passport folded out like an accordion. I had married my girlfriend, Brigitte Bernard, but the constant work on the apartment and traveling all the time, and the constant flow of design clients coming up… it just didn’t work out. We divorced. In the living room I had built a platform with four pillars wrapped in ikat fabrics all around. I covered the platform with rugs and cushions and fur: Berry Berenson came up and took the photo of me for Vogue on that platform, sitting on that fur blanket. It was something out of Scheherazade, like those Orientalist paintings. I had a tent on top of that and a suzani that looked like solar system planets that was so gorgeous, which Doris Blau later sold. The platform was about 14 ft. x 14 ft The living room must have been 30 ft. x 30 ft. It was huge for New York. I had two windows overlooking 86th Street about 4 ft x 6 ft. The windows were two or three feet above the ground, so I built steps going up to them, with cushions and fabrics so you could sit and look over Gracie Mansion. Between the windows I made a Tree of Life with fabrics and textiles. I would cut out the pieces and patches, and
sew them into the fabric, and make collages with bird and animals. Branches would go into the windows. I put stained glass into one window, so it felt like a church—the six-foot stained glass that I later gave to Father Francis’ Church on the Mount in Woodstock. You could open a door, which was the stained glass door, and you could sit inside the window. When you opened the door it was wow, all these fabrics inside looked like a happening. The other window was where I would sit. I took a green and white ikat slip-over robe with a belt and hung it against the side so it looked like a man, and another one like a woman on the other side, a gold fabulous robe for the woman. So they were looking at each other inside the window from each side inward. I’d lie on the cushions and pillows, and I’d watch the tugboats go by on the East River. ...She rolled the old man in, Mr. Brunschwig, the founder of the company. He looked like he didn’t have much time left. In fact, I found out later that he passed away in 1971, shortly after visiting me. They came in and their mouths dropped. They look around and can’t believe their eyes. She walks him over to the window, where I did the two people facing each other and the birds and sky. She was like in a stupor of delirium and didn’t know where to look first. She sees the green ikat dress and says, “Oh this dress is so beautiful” and asks, “Can I take a little snip with a scissor please?” And being young and innocent and naive, thinking this old man could die right here, I said, “Of course, let me help you.” Then they left and they manufactured a fabric from the little snip, a whole line of fabrics. And of course, they didn’t give me a royalty.
Previous Spread : Following spread: Ira’s living room with raised platform and pillars. Every inch of ceiling and wall collaged with embroideries, ikats, and tassels hanging into the room. (Abdul Istalifi, Ira, and Brigitte Bernard). 101
Coat Of Many Colors
So I was getting ready to go back to Afghanistan, and my friend Naomi Greenspan was taking care of the place for a few months until I could close up to leave. At this time, my cousin Errol was engaged to Margo Hemingway, and we were all at a party one night when I got a call from Naomi. Zubin, a designer friend, had brought Sylvie up to the apartment. He hoped to impress Sylvie by introducing her to the embroidery and patchwork and fabrics, because she sewed and did patchwork herself. Anyway, Naomi called me and said, “This one you should meet.” So I spoke to Sylvie on the phone and asked if she could come back the next night. The truth was, I was taking the apartment down and closing it up, and I needed someone to help me sew together all the silk and embroidery ceiling panels that had been stapled up. And she said she would. She was curious. So the next evening Sylvie came back. As soon as I saw Sylvie walk through the door with her coat on, I saw the cross stitching of how she patched each piece together with an embroidery cross-stitch—how she used different colors to offset each color velvet. Then I saw the colored glass faceted stones, how she set them into the velvet with fabric around the front so they wouldn’t fall out. I was quite taken back by the amazing work. And even the African fabrics and Persian miniature pictorial fabric that she had used were amazing. When I met Sylvie and saw the coat, it was Joseph’s coat (of many colors) in disguise, a great hit. I hadn’t seen anything like it before—a robe of art. She looked radiant coming through the door. I had to play it cool by checking out the coat first and Sylvie second, even though I was really checking Sylvie out first. I was inspired and sensed just from looking at her coat that she was an amazing person. When she came in and took off her coat I looked at Sylvie and I was even more impressed. She had on this long flowing orange/gold panne velvet skirt and had a nice bohemian hippie
Caption: Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis
look that took me aback: not “out there” hippie, but bohemian. And she was so real and had a great aura. I showed Sylvie around the apartment and told her that I was closing this place up, and then I asked her if she might be free to help me put my ceiling panels together. It had taken me so long to put the place together over many trips back and forth to Afghanistan, and everyone loved what I had done in the apartment. So it had been very hard for me to take it down. But it was like a Tibetan sand mandala— impermanent—and I didn’t need it anymore. She also loved the embroideries and textiles I had all over the place, and I told her some stories about Afghanistan. She said she happened to have some free time from her PhD program. Then I saw the magic of Sylvie, when we started talking about needles and threads… I knew we had something in common to start a friendship off with. Needles and thread symbolize the art of joining. And we’ve been pretty much together since that first night. Sylvie had an apartment on Barrow Street in the West Village, and we went back and forth together. And eventually I asked her to come with me to Afghanistan, to take a ride.
I still remember my sense of exhilaration and newfound freedom as our taxi crossed the Triborough Bridge en route to JFK. Not only was I taking a break from academic work in order to express my creative spirit, but I was also involved in an exciting new relationship. Of course, this wasn’t my first overseas adventure — I had traveled alone in Europe many times to visit family or study. But if I hadn’t already journeyed solo through Mali in an open jeep, I might have been nervous about setting off for somewhere so remote and foreign. Besides, I felt an invisible hand was leading me, and that I had the best possible guide for this journey to the other side of the world. And so, having known each other barely seven weeks, Ira and I left for Afghanistan on March 9, 1974. Although I could sense a life-changing adventure ahead of us, I had no idea how radical this departure would prove: that I would never return to Columbia and my PhD program, but instead we would build a new life together, one of simple beauty and constant wonder. And I couldn’t have imagined that our idyllic adventure would end so abruptly under the dark clouds of impending war, nor that Afghanistan would become the site of one of the most defining geopolitical struggles of our age. Having visited Africa not long before, I was already up to date with the necessary vaccinations for Afghanistan. Not that I ever worried about getting sick; in those days I was naively convinced that everything would always work out as it was meant to. And so, though light on medicines and first aid items, I made sure to bring a plentiful supply of six strand embroidery threads in a wide range of colors, as well as sewing needles for my work. Our flight involved a one-day layover in London, during which we visited the British Museum, before boarding an Ariana Airlines flight to Kabul. Ira had flown back and forth so often that the itinerary was routine for him, but it was new and exciting to be traveling together. Opposite : Top-Istalif farms in winter, middle- Istalif; Ira watching a storm over the Hindu Kush from Istalif Hotel. Bottom left-Turnoff from highway to Istalif. Lower right-tea at a local shop in Istalif. Following spread: Breakfast on rooftop terrace of Istalif Hotel with view of Istalif village, c. March 12, 1974. 105
It was still winter as we flew into Kabul on March 11th. From the plane windows we could see endless layers of rugged snow-capped mountains, stretching west to east, all the way to the Kabul Valley. As we exited the airport, I took a deep breath of Kabul’s cool, dry mountain air. In the taxi on the way to town, I began to take in the landscape, the adobe mud constructed buildings, and particularly the people and their distinctive style of dress: the way the men wore their turbans, their long shirts covered by coats or vests, and the women in their chadors, or head-to-toe burqas. There were also nomadic “Kuchi” women in colorful flowing dresses ornamented with beads and jewelry and long headscarves. I was immediately captivated by the mystique of this ancient city, which had stood at the crossroads of history for over 3,500 years. It felt like another world, and I was mesmerized. We took a taxi directly to Abdul Istalifi’s shop in Shar-i-Nau. I had already heard so many stories about Abdul, and it was clear that he was much more than a friend; he and Ira shared a bond like brothers. While I had not yet learned any Dari, the Farsi dialect most widely spoken in Afghanistan, Ira conversed in it with ease. Clearly, finding an English-Dari dictionary-phrasebook would be my first task. After greetings, tea and introductions, we climbed back into the taxi. Ira had wanted to show me his favorite place in Afghanistan first. Following a sun-drenched 45-minute drive, a long stretch of it shaded by huge mulberry trees arching over the road, we turned left onto a long, straight, dusty dirt road. Farmland stretched out to each side, and snow capped peaks were visible in the distance. After a few miles, the narrow road began winding its way up through the hills to Istalif, famed for its restorative mineral springs, patronized by kings and commoners alike for centuries. The Istalif Hotel had sweeping views of the mountainside village to the north and magnificent vistas of the Hindu Kush to the east. (Today all that remains is a burnt-out shell, but in the 70s the hotel had 20 rooms and hosted dignitaries from the capital). Sitting there for tea or breakfast, we always felt like we were on top of the world. From the hotel the road went back down the mountain towards the river, and over a small bridge barely wide enough for one car. This bridge had been built for the community in the 1950’s by Abdul’s father, Haji Amir Mohammad. With its wooded hills, mountain streams and bustling main bazaar, Istalif was enchanting. Its shops were full of traditional turquoise and green pottery, small rugs, silver jewelry and, of course, embroidered sheepskin coats. One day shortly after our arrival, a
dealer arrived at our hotel with an appliquéd tapestry to show Ira—a magnificent 8 ft x 10 ft Tree of Life design with gold embroidery. Made in King Amanullah’s royal workshops in the early 1920s, its rich blue border featured multicolored flowers and birds around a gracefully branching golden tree. Ira always made instant decisions when something caught his heart, and this object certainly did. As he would often say, “In life when something catches your heart, you will always enjoy living with it.” The arrival of that masterpiece felt auspicious— a sign of good things to come, and to this day it is a treasure of our collection. We stayed in Istalif through Nawroz, the Afghan New Year, which falls on the first day of spring. Although Ira and I were tempted to set up a workshop right there at the hotel, we knew that Kabul was better suited to our needs. And so, after a few more days of acclimatizing to the environment, we drove back to Kabul. At some 6,000 ft above sea level, surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush, Kabul is one of the highest capital cities in the world. Back then it was a peaceful city — gradually modernizing, yet with evidence of its ancient past and historic traditions visible everywhere. Shar-i-Nau, which literally means the new part of town, was filled with restaurants and shops. Along tree-lined streets, houses and gardens were hidden behind adobe walls. In the 1970s there were still few cars so traffic and pollution were not a problem. Black Russian taxis were a common sight along with karachi walas
— men who pulled simple flat wooden handcarts loaded with all sorts of goods.
The few Westerners to be seen were mostly world travelers on the so-called hippie trail, en route either to or from India and Nepal. Most Westerners actually living in Afghanistan were staff for foreign governments or NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), Peace Corps volunteers, or scholars such as Louis and Nancy Dupree.1 By 1974, a number of Western buyers had also arrived in search of handicrafts and clothing. These were mostly buyers who had their own shops in Europe, the U.S. or Canada. They operated on a smaller scale than Ira and were not living, as he was, nearly full time in Afghanistan. Ira considered Afghanistan his second home and had established a mix of creative artistry and entrepreneurial business that was unique to him and depended on personal relationships that were built over time. I saw that he felt deeply rooted in the country, though he always considered himself a humble and lucky guest, happy to be able to work with the people.
Tree of Life Tapestry, Afghanistan 1920s.mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis
Because Ira felt so at home, the city seemed friendly and welcoming to me as well. Indeed, by 1974 Ira was well-known not just in Kabul, but throughout Afghanistan, having spent the years since his arrival in 1968 scouring the country for beautiful artifacts, and helping to build Western markets for its amazing handicrafts. Wherever we went, people knew and recognized Ira with his unmistakable style and flamboyance. Besides being confident and capable, he had a great eye and impeccable taste, and his talent as a designer was flourishing. Opposite from top left : A magnificent 8 ft x10 ft Tree of Life tapestry with gold embroidery arrives at Istalif Hotel. Made in King Amanullahâ€™s royal workshops in the early 1920s; Ira &Sylvia-Shar-i-Nau; Downtown Kabul near Eid Gah Mosque. 111
The Patchwork Tent
Having settled into a nice upper floor apartment across from Shar-i-Nau Park, where kids played basketball, Ira and I were excited to combine our respective talents on a new project—something that would be fun for us to work on together. We decided to make a patchwork tent. In the local bazaars, we were amazed to find mounds of embroidered and beaded textiles, salvaged “scraps” of old clothing and regional handiwork from all over Afghanistan and Pakistan. We found embroidered bodice fronts, cuffs, collars, beaded strips of all sizes, fine needlepoint in bold patterns and colors, belts, hairpieces, intricate panels of Rajasthani dresses, and countless beaded Kuchi buttons. Kuchi buttons are discs with beads stitched in patterns onto 3-5 inch felt padding, which were commonly sewn onto Kuchi nomadic women’s dresses. I learned that women embroidered their uniquely individual, traditional motifs on garment openings — cuffs, sleeves, bodice fronts, hems, etc — not purely as decoration, but to protect themselves and their children against the evil eye. They believed it could come from anywhere and harm in countless ways. This idea of embroidery serving the purpose of psychic protection was a new way of seeing embroidery for me, and I was struck by the depth of its meaning. Of course, a woman’s needlework skills and accomplishments also enhanced her standing in the family and community, and many special embroidered pieces were made for dowry chests. Yet somehow these amazing fragments had traveled all the way to these small Kabul shops, where we found them, piled up, waiting to be discovered. Inspired and excited, Ira and I envisioned these shapes as the building blocks for something new. We bought everything that we could use for the tent panels and laid out this colorful array in our studio overlooking the park. We figured that if these beaded and embroidered pieces could protect their wearers, they could equally safeguard our tent!
Khyber Pass, oldest known pass since ancient times, connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan (or Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent).
On Easter Sunday, April 14th, we set out on an epic journey to have the outer walls of our tent constructed in Lahore. We took the Grand Trunk Road, the longest and oldest major route to India, traveling by bus via Jalalabad, through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar in Pakistan. This route was very familiar to Ira, but for me it was an exciting new adventure—my first time through the Torkham border connecting Nangahar Province with the FATA of Pakistan (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), one of history’s most famous border crossings. Then through the switchbacks of the fabled Khyber Pass, a major Silk Road transit route, and the scene of battles and marching armies ever since Alexander the Great first passed through. At the bustling Torkham border, wonderfully decorated trucks were lined up, waiting to pass through. I was in awe of these hand-painted trucks, which were mobile works of art. Some boasted multicolored designs depicting the most amazing scenes, others were painted with optical illusions to trick the cars driving behind them. Most were embellished with chains, sculpted metalwork, tassels, beaded pieces inside the cabs, plastic decorative lights — the whole effect very psychedelic!1 1
Years later, in 1998, Ira and I would be commissioned to paint and decorate an “Afghan Truck” for the new Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando. A blue shell of a truck shaped like those Afghan-Pakistani cargo trucks was sent to Santa Fe, where we worked with a team for several months until it was completed and shipped to Florida.
Two days later, we took a taxi from Peshwar to Swat, sometimes called the “Switzerland of the East” for its picturesque mountains and rivers.2 It was a beautiful spring day and we rode for twelve hours through lush green valleys, past farmers working the fields with oxen. En route we found some of the traditional black, red and pink embroideries indigenous to the area. From Swat, we took another taxi to Rawalpindi, the old garrison city adjacent to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. There we boarded a stand-by flight to Lahore. We were carrying a heavy bundle of 1,200 of the traditional Kuchi beaded buttons with us, which we planned to have sewn on the ceiling by the tentmakers. Unlike my embroidery needles, the tentmakers’ long needles were strong enough to pierce the thick felt padding that backed each of the beaded stars. In Lahore, Ira and I placed the order for our twelve-sided, six-door tent. We used a company with which he had worked before—one that supplied tents to Saudi Arabia and the Red Cross. We outlined a five-pointed star pattern for the 1,200 beaded buttons to be sewn onto the domed canvas ceiling. Since the tent would take some time to complete, we planned a trip by taxi to Kashmir for a houseboat vacation on Dal Lake. First we visited Amritsar, India, Sikhdom’s holiest city, and home to the Golden Temple, which is only 30 miles east of Lahore and 15 miles east of the main border crossing between Pakistan and India, the Wageh border. On April 20th we hired a taxi, intending to take a long overnight drive from Amritsar to Srinagar, a popular tourist destination in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. At over 9000 feet above sea level, the area is famed for its lakes and waterways fed by the high Himalayas. But we were forced to stop at midnight — a truck had broken down and was blocking the narrow two-lane road ahead. Our taxi driver took us to an outdoor teahouse, lit by a few hanging light bulbs. We watched the chai wala as he mixed the chai, pouring it back and forth high over the large pot like a small waterfall. After a few cups of his delicious sweet brew, Ira and I dozed in the taxi for the next five hours until the road was clear. This turned out to be a fortunate delay, because the rest of the ride, by daylight, offered such spectacular vistas of lush terraced hillsides and green mountains that it would have been our loss to sleep through such a scenic drive. Dal 2
Strife came to this once tranquil region of northern Pakistan when the Taliban took control in 2007, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Though the government reclaimed the area in 2009, many people had fled permanently and much of the Swat culture was destroyed.
Opposite: From top left : Driving through Landi Kotal, PK, highest point in the Khyber Pass; Ira in Swat, PK, the “Switzerland of the East”; Swat Valley poppy fields; Srinigar, Kashmir, India.
Lake was particularly enchanting, so we rented a houseboat with rich red Kashmiri carpets and a cushioned roof deck for viewing the scenery. From this vantage point we were ferried through floating gardens of water lilies, lotus flowers, and hydroponic vegetable gardens. While we traveled, Ira tried to find weavers who he thought would be able to reproduce the “Magic Carpet”—that very first and absolutely finest cotton dhurry he had found. Yet despite following several promising leads, we could never find weavers capable of reproducing such exquisitely fine work, particularly in cotton.
The truth is that the weavers in Kashmir, who were men, didn’t weave dhurries or kilim much anymore. They were weaving a chain stitch style, as well as carpet. But while we were on the houseboat, people would come by in rowboats with merchandise, and one of these people had a beautiful old white background Bokhara suzani, which was perhaps 70-90 years old. So we didn’t find flatwoven rugs, but we found antique textiles instead. However, while searching for dhurries, our guide offered to show us Jesus of Nazareth’s supposed resting place, a run-down shrine with an iron fence around it, not nearly as carefully tended as the shrines of Sufi masters in Afghanistan. There are accounts in numerous books that Jesus survived the crucifixion and journeyed to the East, where he spent his remaining years in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, although houseboat travel was very romantic — by night we sat on the roof deck, gazing at the stars — our food was a problem, as it was probably cooked in lake water that hadn’t been boiled. One evening I became a shivering bundle of aching muscles and diarrhea, and sickness mingled unpleasantly with feelings of displacement. I felt every sound from our surroundings inside my head with heightened awareness: women washing pots or pounding the wash along the steps of the canals; children splashing; the sounds of ducks, chickens, goats; the rapid ticking as we passed a tailor seated cross-legged before his task; dawn chants echoing from a mosque tower microphone; the oarsmen calling out to each other. For four days I was miserable, and though I’d started to recover by the 27th, I was still very weak. We were sorry to cut the trip short, but as soon as I was well enough to travel, we flew back to Amritsar and took a taxi back into Pakistan, crossing the Wagah border just before closing time and arriving in Lahore that evening.
There, we started putting the finishing touches to our tent. I spent one very hot day outside, scrubbing the beaded ‘Kuchi buttons’ in buckets of water with the tailors. We woke each morning at the Ambassador Hotel to the riotous singing of thousands of birds in the trees outside our window. Ira knew Lahore well, and took me to famous sites like the 17th Century Mughul Badshahi Mosque, and the Lahore Museum, where the famous Gandharan “fasting Buddha” is on display. (Parts of northern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan along the Swat and Kabul river valleys are rich in Buddhist archeological sites, such as the World Heritage Site of Taxila. Following Alexander’s invasion, the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara flourished here, and its statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas bear an obvious Greco-Roman influence.) Now assembled, our tent was huge: 12-sided with a domed top, and 16 feet in diameter, it weighed some 300 pounds. We rented a van to take it back to Kabul, where we would finish the tent panels with patchwork and embroidery. On May 5th, a day before the Full Moon and a few days before Ira’s 31st birthday, we set off. Arriving back in Kabul, we hired four women, whom we worked alongside every day in our spacious room. We enjoyed the work so much that we even worked late into the night, sometimes with no electricity, laying out embroidered and beaded scraps to create the tent doors, which resembled fantastic gateways or temple entrances. These collaged doors faced inward in a twelve-sided circle of wholeness, open to all directions and symbolizing the twelve signs of the Zodiac. This holistic shape was designed to encourage centering. The creative process didn’t always proceed smoothly. Many times work had to be taken apart, meaning several hours or even an entire day might be lost. But by the end of the month we had completed the twelve panels. Two panels still needed additional stitching, but we intended to complete those when we got back to the U.S. While the tent was our main focus, I had also made quilts and dresses on this trip, designed with secondhand velvets found in the bazaars. Some of these dresses I would sell later that summer to Julie Artisans Gallery, a wearable-art clothing store on Madison Avenue. The tent was a wonderful project, our first joint artistic endeavor, and marked the start of a lifelong creative partnership. We had constructed this fantastic nomadic dwelling to match our mobile lifestyle, but it also reflected a still unconscious wish to build a more permanent life together.
We returned to New York so that Ira could take care of business. While he no longer had his apartment there, I still had my studio apartment on Barrow Street. But this was the hippie era, and Woodstock, only 2 hours, was not only known for the nearby music festival five years earlier that had come to define a generation, but also for attracting colorful, creative people. Much like Santa Fe where we would later settle, Woodstock was an artists’ colony. We resonated with its thriving creative counterculture. During the last years of the Vietnam War, peace, love, harmony, beauty, and Be Here Now were still the mantras. This was a place into which we could easily have settled, but Ira’s calling— and mine, I discovered— was not on the east coast, but returning to the EAST —continuing to bring back cultural artifacts that were generating countercultural trends in the West. But that summer of 1974 we set up our enormous, opulently embellished tent on a friend’s property in Woodstock, and commuted into the city when necessary. We had pitched our tent in a wooded area near our friend Suzi Kimmelman’s house, where we could cook meals and shower. Friends would come and hang out, and we shared big picnics under the trees. Meanwhile, we continued our work, often employing friends to help sew. I was still making patchwork velvet clothing and quilts, and we started a 15 ft x 8 ft patchwork tapestry, spreading it out on the grass near our tent on sunny days. Whenever Ira and I visited the city we would scour the basement of Sheru Enterprises, an amazing bead emporium on West 38th Street, and our “one stop shop” for all the colored beads we needed. There we would buy kilos of Czech and French faceted metal and crystal beads in silver, gold, metallic turquoise and green — as well as all kinds of curious specialty beads to be put aside for use in future projects. Opposite from top left : Ira rolls out the 60-foot length of twelve tent panels, Woodstock, NY; Top right: The patchwork tent interior (photo from a later set-up in Santa Fe). Every other panel was designed to roll up, letting light in from any direction. 121
Most of our belongings and the textile collections were in storage at Morgan Manhattan, a high-rise storage facility on Third Avenue and East 80th, where Ira had rented a large unit for years. (Occasionally, he would encounter Salvador Dali in the elevator, and had once joined Dali and two of his life models for a late night meal of Eggs Benedict at the famous Brasserie on East 53rd Street.) Besides the storage facility, our other regular stop was a health food store around the corner, where we got fresh squeezed juices. By September we’d given up the West Village studio and rented a house in Woodstock, on Mead Mountain, planning to stay awhile. Those months leading into winter were quite beautiful. A rushing stream wound through the property, and our house was nestled among trees across from wide-open meadows, where our two recently-adopted German shepherds, Warf and Weft, would run and play, and where I found a series of four leafed clovers — always a good sign! Soon the land was blanketed in snow. As soon as we moved in, Ira set up his lapidary in the basement and started cutting the lapis lazuli stones left over from his business venture with Syd Baer. But this time, instead of wholesaling his stones, he made small angels and crosses that he sewed onto his latest creations — a large, heavy, deerskin beaded bag, and two beaded cradleboard “papooses” inspired by traditional Native American designs. Though neither of us had ever been west of the Mississippi, intimations of our future life in the west—our next chapter—were coming to us unconsciously via art and imagery from that region. I continued to sew patchwork clothing and engaged some local lady friends, Jai and Amy, to make pillows. I also began to study astrology during this time with a respected local astrologer, Mary Orser. The psychological dynamics of its symbolic language fascinated me, though I had no intention of becoming a professional astrologer. Still, decades of study have given me powerful insights into my own family and relationships and a deeper understanding of life’s cyclical nature. That fall and winter we began going with friends to the Church on the Mount, the little chapel atop Mount Mead, founded in the 50s by a British archbishop known as Father Francis. Today it is a Woodstock Historical Landmark. Ira volunteered to help Father Francis — then nearly 90 years old— by driving him to his appointments or sweeping his walkways. One day, Father Francis was surprised to learn that Ira smoked cigaOpposite from top : Working on what would become the “Unicorn Tapestry” outside the tent on Suzi Kimmelman’s property. Woodstock, August 1974. Lower: Ira outside the tent, Woodstock, Summer, ‘74. 122
rettes—a habit that seemed to sustain his fast paced energy, but which I always urged him to quit. Looking him sharply in the eye, Father Francis simply said, “You smoke?” And that was the end of it: his pointed question and tone of voice were enough to shame Ira out of his bad habit. He quit cold turkey and has never smoked again. I was impressed by Ira’s willpower and also grateful, as the second-hand smoke had been getting to me. We celebrated that Christmas with our close friends at a candle lit Christmas Eve ceremony officiated by Father Francis in his glowing, humble chapel. The frail, elderly priest in his traditional black robes and British accent was fondly referred to as the “Hippie priest of Woodstock,” and his colorfully dressed congregation did not take the precious moment that evening for granted. Father Francis passed away four years later in 1979. Father Francis would sometimes visit a Russian orthodox monastery near New Paltz, where he had many friends. One day in late January, just before we left Woodstock to return to Afghanistan, he asked Ira to come along with him. Ira was deeply impressed by this self-sufficient community of brothers, who grew their own food and made beeswax candles and religious artifacts to support themselves. He purchased a 12-inch orthodox cross from the monks, which later would inspire him to create a beaded painting in Afghanistan.
Opposite from top left : Beaded deerskin “ceremonial style” shirt, made by Ira using Kandahar beaded panels, shells tied into the tassels, Uzbek needlepoint panels. Ira stitched everything by hand and cut the lapis angels on his lapidary. Lower- SW inspired beaded bag and papoose made by Ira, Fall, 1974, Woodstock, NY. 124
Though the New York market for dhurries was thriving and quality pieces were fetching high prices, Stark was not selling them as fast as Ira was shipping them — especially the beautiful antique pieces he was now finding. Soon, rival companies were showing interest in working with Ira because dhurries were now in all the home décor magazines. Stark Carpet wasn’t buying much anymore because I’d filled the showroom with so much merchandise that they weren’t selling it as fast as I was sending it. The years with Stark had been fabulous because I would go out, buy, bring the merchandise back and they always paid right away. Nadia, John, Steven, Stan Baer and the other salesmen were such nice people, it was really a remarkable relationship. It was the first time being in business that I ever worked with people who were so nice. There was a good trust between us. Even to this day as I still work with John and Steven. We’d had a good run, but now, after five years, they were full. So I started freelancing and buying on my own. I had already stopped supplying Doris Leslie Blau in 1973. When I divorced Brigitte, she and Doris Blau became partners in certain merchandise that I left them. In the divorce I gave away a lot of my merchandise that I’d bought, because I had just wanted out. But I was enjoying being free, and I knew I could find more rugs. It’s like Sai Baba’s vibhuti, it kept manifesting.1 And the rugs would manifest whenever I went after them. I had really started to get into the rhythm of knowing what areas to go to and how to find merchandise. I’d set up pretty good relationships overseas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I was really on a roll. 1
Indian holy man and guru Sathya Sai Baba (1926—2011) would often materialize vibhuti (holy ash used in Hindu religious ceremonies), apparently out of thin air. His devotees considered these manifestations a sign of his divinity.
Opposite : Ira, carrying his I Ching, buys a Maimana kilim-Downtown Kabul, along the Kabul River.
There was a potential deal to supply Harmony Carpet, another company in the D & D building on Third Avenue. But I had no organization or partnership in New York, where I needed someone to receive and watch the merchandise that I would buy. I knew a guy from Long Island, a couple years older than me, Barry Hornig. I didn’t know him that well, but prior to meeting Sylvie we had had a strange experience one day in a real estate office where Barry was working with a realtor named Steve Levin. Steve Levin’s office was on the ground floor of an apartment building. It was maybe 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon, and the door was open a little. The three of us were just sitting around when this guy walks in, thin and wiry, maybe 30 years old, and points a gun at us and says, “Everybody go to the ground!” There was a bedroom, and he put me on the bed face down, and Steve and Barry face down on the floor. Steve Levin starts talking to the guy, asking him, “Why are you doing this? What are you feeling?” The guy said he’d come back from Vietnam and he was broke and crazed out of his mind. He was a junkie. After ten, maybe twenty minutes, Steven talks him out of his stickup or whatever you’d call it, and asks the guy what he wants. He wants money, so we all empty our pockets — no one had big bills — and the guy turns around, puts the gun in his coat and walks out. There was no doubt that I thought I was going to die. He had stuck the gun in my back as he told me to keep my face down into the bed. It was the scariest moment in my life, thinking that all he has to do is squeeze the trigger. When he walked out it was a huge relief, and we were in shock, and though I didn’t know Barry or Steve that well, it was what you would call a bonding situation. The three of us could have been killed by this crazy guy who walked in with a gun. The situation created a bond of camaraderie. We had survived. We were alive. Some months after that incident I said to Barry, “Listen, I’m going to go back to Afghanistan, and we can go partners on some merchandise that I send back. I need someone to watch the rugs and money to make sure I get my share because I’m overseas, 10,000 miles away, and it’s pretty hard to trust people.” I said to him, “Get a book and you’ll just relax and little by little we’ll see how it goes with Harmony. I’m not so sure that it’s going to work out. Harmony Carpet is not like Stark Carpet, but let’s try it.” It was very nonchalant. Barry was leaving real estate to try something different, I think. And I wanted to explore this potential new deal, hoping it would be a
success like Stark. But if not, I’d go on to the next thing. At the time all I cared about was being free to go back to Afghanistan and to enjoy working there, building cottage industries.2
In January 1975 Ira agreed to the deal with Harmony Carpet and we prepared to go on another buying trip to Afghanistan. The company was also interested in having us set up a weaving factory for custom orders so Ira formed a three-way partnership. Ira would contribute roughly 100 rugs on consignment, and would continue to personally collect and ship rugs from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Harmony Carpet owner Bernie Siegel would merchandise the rugs from his showroom, while Barry Hornig would handle sales of the jointly-owned merchandise — the original consignment of 100 rugs— as well as the hundreds of others being shipped regularly. Barry also would take custom orders and generally ensure everything was organized and accounted for. Importantly, he would also regularly wire money from sales so Ira could keep buying. At least, that was the plan. Ira’s sister Roberta, a writer and Ph.D, kindly offered to work part-time with Barry in the showroom, maintaining the books and keeping track of stock. Meanwhile, Ira and I formed our own LLC, which we named Weaving Destiny, after the Three Fates of ancient Greek mythology — Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos — who were believed to spin, measure and cut the threads of our human lives. With the plan in place, we flew out of New York on February 3rd, traveling with a stack of books and a huge metal trunk that we’d checked as extra baggage, brimming with all the antique beads we’d collected. We soared into Afghanistan over the always breathtaking snow-covered mountain ranges, and drove into Kabul on roads lined with mounds of snow. Even the brilliant sunshine felt freezing, and I knew it would be a challenge to stay warm for the rest of the winter, relying only on crude potbelly stoves. Though traditional adobe buildings retain heat, the single-paned windows offered virtually no insulation, and in the evening most families huddled around charcoal-burning stoves, (bokhari) with blankets over their legs to create a tent-like warmth until bedtime. I couldn’t remember ever feeling such biting cold before, although with enough layering I got used to it. 2 A cottage industry is a business or manufacturing activity carried on in a person’s home, often by family members. In Afghanistan Ira set up these handicraft industries and prepared the work in his own living space, employing craftspeople who could take the work to their own homes for completion.
Once again, Ira’s first stop on arrival was to see his best friend Abdul, who could always be found in his shop in Shari-i-Nau. While we’d been in New York, Abdul had remained Ira’s main contact and source of business information and updates, although connecting by phone in those days, especially to somewhere like Kabul, was no simple matter. More often, they exchanged letters regarding the supply of merchandise. So our first thought was to catch up on the news. Then came the excitement of seeing what Abdul had saved in his back room during our absence. Large fabric-wrapped bundles were brought out and untied, and the newest treasures laid out before us. It felt like Christmas. That accomplished, we settled into our simple room at the G ulzar Hotel. By now, rug and textile buying was second-nature to Ira. After years in this rugged country he was familiar with the people, the routes, and the connections, while Afghans knew him as a regular and trustworthy buyer. People would bring pieces to the door on a daily basis, mostly dhurries and kilim, the staple of his business in New York. But he also scoured local shops and bazaars every afternoon, and often took to the road. Over time, Ira had become known to the locals as “Mr. I,” which always translated in my mind to “Mr. Eye” — an appropriate nickname for someone with such a gift for zeroing in on the hidden jewels of the marketplace and instantly discerning the finest quality items. Riding down the street in a taxi, Ira would suddenly ask the driver to stop because he had spotted an interesting piece folded in a pile at the back of someone’s shop with just a sliver visible — a piece that hadn’t been there just the day before! He retains a photographic memory of practically every rug or textile that has ever passed through his hands. This talent is rooted in his deep love of craft, and feeling for the nuances and subtleties that make each piece unique. In fact, while I was a lifelong reader of books, i.e. “texts,” Ira was a reader of textiles. Both words share the same latin root, “textere” to weave. Pen and needle are similar pointed instruments used to impart messages onto cloth or paper. He would read the imagery of the textiles that passed through his temporary ownership as cultural stories, or lessons to be read and memorized. One time we were both looking at an Uzbek embroidered square together. Ira said to me, “Years ago I had one like that with five Opposite From top left : Ira and Hagi Yacoub sharing the day’s market news, Shar-i-Nau, Kabul; Abdul at the opening of his shop in Kabul, c.1969; Abdul’s driver Qodrat (who smoked too much hash and went crazy), Abdul, Shaswar, and Ghazi Khan, witnessing a signed contract; Abdul in his shop showing Khyber rifles to clients from Germany; the two “kingpins” of Kabul, Abdul Istalifi and Hagi Nurisher. Sometime in the mid ‘80s. 131
roosters.” I look again and what had looked like an odd embroidered shape to me, was suddenly visible as a single stylized rooster. Knowing Ira would drive by at least once a day, some shopkeepers would hang new rugs outside their shops like flags to attract his attention, the literal red cloth before this Taurean bull. They knew what he was buying and how to make him pull up sharply. Fortunately, there was little traffic in those days! Hagi Yacoub, whose shop was on the main street, parallel to the park, supplemented his efforts by running out and waving to greet Ira’s car as it came down the road. Traditionally, shop owners offered a main meal at midday to their employees, many of whom would be living and working for months at a time away from their home villages. Inevitably, Ira would be invited into the various shops for chai and sugar-coated nuts, and sometimes the midday meal, traditionally from a pressure cooker that had been filled early that morning with lamb and vegetables. This would be served with naan (bread), fresh from the local naan wala’s tandoori oven. Abdul had his own niche in the marketplace, selling antique hardware including old guns, rifles, shields and swords from the Khyber Pass — a lot of it probably much older and more valuable than I realized at the time. Taxis would pull up to Abdul’s shop loaded with bundles of swords, all kinds of antique guns, etc. I had no interest whatsoever in any of this hardware — I saw it as cold, hard steel — and thought his customers must be crazy as they sat there saying yes and no, like I would do with the coats. Of course, in retrospect I understand that these were all parts of history. Anyway, Abdul was rocking so much with that business that he didn’t concentrate as much on textiles as other dealers, because he had a built-in market for the weapons with Italian and German wholesale buyers. But when it came to collecting for me, particularly during times when I was away in New York, Abdul’s shop was a hub where merchandise arrived every day, left on consignment for a month or more until I was back to say yes or no. And he really understood what I was looking for, too. Doing business was a trip. Once a price was agreed, a shopkeeper would pull out his abacus and do his calculations. To this day I can’t figure out how so much business was conducted using an abacus. Every shopkeeper used one for daily accounting tasks and writing up invoices. It was a total mystery to me, just like today when I watch people using their iPhones; I don’t use a computer or an iPhone.
Another thing I didn’t really expect when I started working with these shopkeepers was that, decades later, I’d be working with the next generation — the young sons I had seen in the shops helping their dads, boys who would grow up to take over their fathers’ businesses. Several of the people I work with closely today were only five and six years old when I first met them. Not every family connection had a happy ending, though. A week or two after arriving in Kabul for the first time, I had met Nurisher. In Kabul’s marketplace, Nurisher was the Godfather of the pile carpet business. All the Hazaras, Turkman and Uzbeks would bring their merchandise to him. His father, an antique rug and jewelry dealer, had started the business many decades earlier, and Nurisher, a good person and a solid businessman, had built up a big European clientele: when the fashion for unusual textiles took off, he captured the market. Nurisher’s brothers worked with him, and each specialized in different sectors such as jewelry, carpets and textiles, or antiques. That first day I walked into his shop I also met Nurisher’s family, including his youngest brother Khalil, who was leaving the very next day for California. I recall I was wearing a khaki safari shirt with pockets that I’d had tailor-made a couple of days after my arrival. Everyone had to have a look, and that was mine at the beginning, before I took on some of the local dress and let my hair grow longer. Afghani tailors would fit you in the morning and have the clothes ready by the afternoon. They proudly produced a beautiful, made-to-order job. Many years later, when everything was over, after 10 years of being in Afghanistan, Sylvie and I traveled to California for the first time and visited Khalil at his Los Angeles shop on Melrose Avenue, called Ariana Arts. Although I had only met him that one time, we renewed our karmic connection and Khalil visited us in Santa Fe a number of times. A typical Afghan, he was gentle, kind-hearted, good-natured, and a good friend to many people — an amazing person. He was also a wheeler and dealer, and one of the top Afghan dealers in America. In the 70s, many people came to Afghanistan and got mixed up with drugs, and overdosed or ended up in jail. So it was ironic that Khalil got mixed up with drugs in America, a sad story that cost him his life. But he badly missed his brothers and the life that had been lost after the wars began. He had been the only one from his immediate family to go and live abroad, so he was very isolated. Even now, I really miss him.
Old Roads, New Directions: Finding Chak 13
L ater that February of 1975, we headed north. When traveling within Afghanistan’s borders we went everywhere by taxi, mostly in Abdul’s black Russian car with the silver roof, driven by his driver and full-time employee, Ramazan. Taxi trips with Ramazan were invariably sound tracked with his mix of Afghan pop and traditional music. Though for the most part I loved those beats and sounds, I was sometimes tempted to override Ramazan’s tastes with cassettes of western rock bands. But I refrained out of respect and the idea of “Be Here Now.” Ramazan took us first to Mazar-i-Sharif, then on to Balkh, and on the way back we stopped in Khulm, also known as Tashqurghan, which is east of Mazar. Tashqurghan was once the most important trading city in the region, with its domed Uzbek style adobe houses and famous covered market. Wandering through the cool passageways of this old bazaar, built in the 1800’s as a major trading center for merchants crossing from India into Central Asia, we felt as if we had stepped back in time. I can still visualize the artisans sitting on earthen hearths in the dim light, hammering away at their craft. Sadly, that memory will have to suffice because the bazaar was destroyed in 1981 by the Soviet Army in a reprisal attack against the Afghan resistance — an act of cultural vandalism. We were fascinated by Tashqurghan. On a later trip during pomegranate season, Ira’s friend Kholdor — a dealer who worked with Abdul and regularly brought handicrafts down from the north — invited us to sleep over at his house in this village. His family compound, hidden behind a softly curved mud wall, had a large fruit orchard, including a grove of pomegranate trees. After an evening feast of lamb and rice, we were treated to his amazingly sweet pomegranates. Some botanists say Afghanistan has more variOpposite from top left : All photos except bottom left taken along the road between Multan and Bahawalpur. Bottom left: Women begin an indigo and white dhurry on a cot loom, Chak 13. 135
Irrigation canal near Chak 13, S. of Bahawalpur, Pakistan.
eties of pomegranates than any other country. Certainly Afghans have cultivated this fruit, a symbol of fertility, since ancient times, and certain regions, including Tashquorgon and Balkh, were famed for their large, juicy, bright red pomegranates. In many places, corner stands serving fresh pomegranate juice were a common sight. Though pomegranate juice has since become a fashionable superfood, at the time I had never seen or tasted it anywhere else. From March 2nd to the 16th we traveled in Pakistan, first by bus to Peshawar, and from Peshawar by hired taxi to Lahore, then south to Multan. Ira wanted to explore Multan in Punjab Province because he recalled that the town was also known for its appliqué artisans. The appliqué panels from which Ira had produced his popular line of tents in 1970-71 had actually been made by artisans from Multan. Ira hoped that we might also find striped dhurries in Multan. We were unable to find any, but our driver took us to a fascinating historical site near a university, where Alexander the Great had been pierced by an enemy’s arrow during a battle to take a fortified c itadel. Alexander survived the arrow but died four years later in Babylon. The next day we continued our search for dhurries, driving a few hours south to the next big town, Bahawalpur. Nearby we encountered the village of Chak 13 for the first time.
Chaks were farming villages divided around water irrigation canals, created under the British Raj. While exploring we noticed a man on a bicycle with an indigo-blue cotton dhurry bag slung over his shoulder. Ira immediately wanted to find out where the bag was from and who had made it. He knew that whoever made the bags must also be making dhurries, since it looked like the bag had been cut from an old worn out rug. So he had the taxi driver chase after the bicycle, racing through chaotic traffic, honking his horn. When we finally caught up, the man told us that all the women in his village made these bags, and indeed the rugs too. He led us to his mango-growing village, where we found local women weaving indigo-and-white dhurries on four-legged cots called charpois, meaning “four feet.” These relatively lightweight cots used for sleeping and lounging are found everywhere in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and traditionally double as looms. A weaver ties the warp threads longwise around the wooden legs, then weaves the weft crosswise while sitting on one end of the cot. This way, the resulting homespun cotton dhurry is perfectly sized to use as a bedspread, or cot cover. Ira was excited because weaving with natural indigo was uncommon and it seemed that this Chak distinguished itself by weaving this particular color combination. As soon as he saw the 3 ft by 6 ft cotton weavings that the women were making, Ira knew he had found what he was looking for. Like a detective following clues, he had spotted the bag that led us to these beautiful geometric patterned indigo and white dhurries, We bought what was available and placed an order for more. Over the years we would collect hundreds of these dhurries, not just indigo-and-white geometric styles from Chak 13, but others in vibrant pastels and folk art patterns from neighboring villages. Originally we had planned on returning to Multan that evening, but it grew late. Having made friends, we were invited to stay overnight, share a meal, and discover more about this lovely adobe village and its talented artisans. The world seemed much less dangerous in the 70s; a sense of trust prevailed so we gladly accepted the hospitality of the village elder, Chaudry Sahib. Our only discomfort was over the chicken killed specifically for our supper — another gracious gesture by our host, but one we could have done without. Farm animals are precious in local villages, so while we felt honored and expressed our appreciation, we ate slowly, to avoid being served numerous helpings and to leave some of the treat for others. Over supper we exchanged stories, our taxi driver acting as interpreter. Being naturally gregarious, Ira loved the hospitality and generosity of both Afghan and Pakistani culture, and was always right at home sitting on a carpet or a cushion, sharing tea or a meal with hosts.
The village had no electricity, so we were shown to a room with cots and a kerosene lamp, and went to bed early. Our taxi driver slept outdoors on one of the charpois. We woke at dawn to the sound of roosters and women sweeping the sun-baked mud courtyards. A young woman brought milk chai and breakfast to our room. Then we began working with the women on orders for their beautiful weavings. The men in the village were puzzled, wondering what value we saw in these lowly, homespun dhurries. “Why don’t you teach the women to make carpet?” they asked. That was the general perception throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, where wool and silk carpets were prized, while cotton dhurries were viewed as the floor covering of common folk. We told the men that we would be back in a month to see how our orders were progressing. Before heading home, we took a detour into the nearby Sindh desert, where we happened upon a group of festively dressed and bejeweled Sindhi nomadic people, dancing and drumming in a joyous wedding celebration. Later, we passed other wedding parties traveling on camels! One never knew what amazing sights would appear, mirage-like, during a trip through the desert. Once a month, in order to renew our tourist visas, we were required to leave Afghanistan. We had been travelling through the Khyber Pass only as far as Peshawar, Pakistan, about 180 miles from Kabul. There we could apply for a new visa at the Afghan Consulate and pick up our passports the next day. But now we planned to continue working with the women of Chak 13, and this new route east of Bahawalpur would add another five hundred miles each way and several more days to that monthly journey. Though the roads were rough and the ride less than comfortable, we never seemed to mind. Pakistani roads were narrow, cheaply constructed and easily damaged, and full of potholes from heavy traffic and monsoon rains. Since there was minimal if any investment in new tarmac surfaces or heavy-duty highways, it was more expedient for sub-standard roads to be continually repaired by migrant road repair crews. Any road journey through Pakistan would inevitably present a predictable scene: settlements of families living in encampments alongside whatever road they were engaged in repairing. Adults — mostly women — did the heavy labor, carrying and laying loads of bricks, while little children ran around in dirty, ragged clothing. Opposite from top left :Women of Chak 13 string cotton warp threads onto a cot loom to begin a dhurry; Ira with wife and daughter of our host, Chaudry Sahib, and village “elder” Sardaran (left of Ira). Next spread [left page]: Sindhi or Saraiki nomadic people celebrating in the desert; [right page] Village people traveling by camel to the sound of flute music. 139
The roads were so poor that on a later journey in our VW van, as we were passing through a construction zone, the road beneath us simply gave way! Our van got stuck and started to sink as if we’d run into quicksand. Shocked and terrified, Ira and I jumped quickly out of the vehicle. This was in the middle of nowhere: with no phones for miles and certainly nothing like a service station! So we were amazed when a crowd of about twenty men hanging around on the roadside rushed over and lifted the van clear of the sinkhole and onto firmer ground, as if they had done this many times before (which in fact, they probably had). It was a close call, and we were thankful to these men, who felt to us like superheroes swooping to the rescue. We were also relieved that our vehicle wasn’t damaged and that we weren’t stuck there indefinitely, as we might have been. Crossing back into Afghanistan, one noticed an immediate difference. The cities and towns, even the rural villages along the winding Kabul River Valley, felt less densely populated. The roads were calmer, there were fewer people, and no throngs of curious onlookers gathered around us at the roadside tea stands. Pakistani children would stare at us like an alien species leading me to wonder what they heard at home about “foreigners”, Afghans, in contrast, were accepting and tolerant—more reserved, yet always friendly and hospitable. And compared to driving in Pakistan — a hectic and intense process, requiring great focus — Afghanistan’s traffic was a relief—not least because we could revert to driving on the right side of the road. Back in Kabul we moved into a suite of rooms on the second story of the Gulzar Hotel. Mrs. Gulzar, a friendly German lady, was married to an Afghan, and their hotel was popular with world travelers (aka “WTs” or “hippie trail-ers.”) From our suite, a set of stairs led up to a round, open pavilion with gorgeous views of the snow-covered Hindu Kush Mountains.
Opposite : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci
Stitching Cultures Together
Since the weather was still wintery, Abdul kindly let us use a large workspace above his shop to start our next project. Ira was feeling inspired by the designs of the American Southwest. He found similarities and resonances with Eastern patterns and designs, especially since both cultures were known for wonderful beadwork. The huge beaded bag and cradleboards he had made in Woodstock had been his first combination of Native American forms with Afghan beaded elements and lapis lazuli. The symbolic and artistic synergies of the American Southwest (our future home) and Central Asia (the culture in which we were immersed) were finding their way into our psyches, and seeking creative expression. Traditionally, the Navajo people create paintings using colored sand to express with symbolic images for specific healing purposes. Thinking about this led us to the idea of substituting beads for grains of sand in order to make a series of beaded “sand paintings.” We chose these mandala designs as a means to experiment with a technique using copper wire and beads. After this initial series, we would take the technique into more original territory. This project would make use of our enormous trunk load of beads and metallic threads, as well as the colored beads we had found in local bazaars. So we stretched ten separate 3 ft x 5 ft canvases, painted them with solid background colors, and began work on a series of beaded paintings with a group of local women — Rahima and her mother, who we called Mother Rahima, Nusea, Sharifa, and Nafar Jan —all of whom would continue to work with us over the next four years. We were grateful to Abdul for initially introducing us to Rahima, and fortunate that she brough her mother and the other talented women from her circle of friends to join us. Ira decided to outline each design with copper wire, stitched to the canvas. The firm wire outline made it easier to fill each area with beads, stitching them down a few at a time. By the time the snow had melted and spring arrived, everyone had mastered the technique, so we moved the project from Abdul’s space to the pavilion above our hotel room to take advantage of the good weather. Opposite from top left : Mother Rahima stitching beads on a “beaded sand painting” design, part of an experimental project to develop a beading technique, Spring, 1975. 145
Preparing shipment of beaded “paintings” in a custom metal trunk.
While the ten sand paintings were being completed that summer, we began work on several far more intricate 3 ft x 5 ft tapestries that would take several years to complete. Among these were my double heart piece, Ira’s Tree of Life, and the “Sundance” mandala. On deerskins we had purchased in New York, we also created two more pieces: Ira’s Haida Northwest Coast design, and my deerskin dress front, inspired by an Egyptian collar with which I had fallen in love at the Metropolitan Museum. The mandala piece featured dancing figures and angels, all of which needed the tiniest possible beads to fill in facial features, arms, and clothing. It’s design began when Ira took the wooden crucifix he’d bought at the monastery in New Paltz and traced it onto a blank canvas, four times in each of the four cardinal directions, radiating out from the center. Later, a Texan friend we had met in Kabul, Martha Thompkins, brought us a gift of some exquisite, tiny beads she had found at a Paris flea market; they were the exact size and colors we needed to finish the facial features of the figures in these pieces. Neither the tapestries nor the sand paintings were created to be sold. We still have them today, except for two that we gave as gifts. One went to Abdul and another to our friend, Terry, who helped us buy our first commercial property in Santa Fe. Those pieces were labors of love, experimental art pieces using our own innovative beadwork technique. However, we soon realized that these new skills, applied to indigenous Central Asian-Afghan designs, might be developed along more commercial lines. Opposite from top : Rahima, Nusea, Maryam and Nafar Jan stitching beads onto stretched canvas panels- Gulzar Hotel rooftop pavilion. Spring, 1975; Lower left: Ira’s Haida design outlined in copper wire and embroidery thread. (Finished piece on previous page) 148
The Dream Ring and Other Ancient Treasures
Ira always had almost intuitive connection to the exquisite handicrafts that passed through his hands or ended up in his collection. Eventually, he started to notice a pattern: some of the most amazing and spectacular dhurries arrived on or around Full Moons. As a student of astrology, I also found it remarkable that so many great pieces had a tendency to arrive in the days preceding a Full Moon. Not just rugs, but other treasures found their way, some dating from recent times, others from the ancient past. There were even unexpected jewels to be found among otherwise mediocre goods. One street trader would set out his wares near a park in Shar-I-Nau and sit there among his Uzbek textiles from the North, and an odd assortment of Coptic textiles pinned to a clothesline behind him. Though obviously very old, these Coptic pieces held no interest for Ira. But this merchant would frequently show us strands of fine, tiny ancient lapis lazuli beads, as well as incredible strands of coral beads and small, greenish turquoise ones. These were so inexpensive that we bought every strand we could. Ira started incorporating the beads into his beaded tapestries, outlining the eyes on the deerskin Haida design with lapis beads, and filling in the little church on the Tree of Life piece with coral, lapis and turquoise. This trader also offered us strands of small white stone beads that he said were 3000 years old. Ira alternated these with lapis beads of the same size in his Haida design. Kabul’s streets were not exactly lined with gold, but it was not uncommon for us to stumble across extraordinary items, each with its own special story. We felt increasingly connected to our work, and through our work to each other, bonded on a psychic level. Without the distractions of media, computers, and smartphones, the psyche can more easily focus on the work at hand and comment on it through dreams and signs. For example, one morning, Ira woke up and recounted to me a dream he’d just had: Opposite from top left : Tree of Alchemy by Ira. Ancient lapis, turquoise and coral beads on gold painted canvas background. Lower panel imagery from Egyptian Book of the Dead with hieroglyphics “Live life, not shalt thou die. Thy body to earth, they soul to heaven. “ 151
The Queen of Sheba came to me in the dream and said she was going to give me a present, a gold ring. It was an amazing ring, but in the end I gave it back to her and didn’t accept it. That same morning, after waking from the dream, I was walking with a friend in Shar-i-nau, on my way to a shop. I would often see crippled people in the street who walked on their hands, because their feet were so deformed, and what always struck me was their determination, walking on their hands, using leather to protect the skin. That morning I saw one of these guys. All of a sudden a dealer came up to me in the street and showed me a gold ring with the image of a lion lying together with a lamb. It was a shiny gold band with beautiful workmanship. The man wanted two thousand dollars for it, which at that time seemed very expensive because we didn’t have that much money. So I went to Abdullah, the heavy guy who had a shop nearby, and asked him to tell the dealer that I had good credit, to vouch for me, and let me take it home to show Sylvie. So it was ironic that I’d had this dream about a ring, and then a few hours later I’m bringing this ring back to the house. Sylvie tries it on and it fits her perfectly, like it was made for her. But I was concerned whether it was really ancient, or a new ring being passed off as ancient, so I took it to Abdul’s shop and he brought it to a jeweler, who said it wasn’t original. Because money was so tight for us then, and there were doubts about its authenticity, a day later I reluctantly gave the ring back. That was the reason why I didn’t accept the ring, even though Sylvie loved it. It fit her so well and was so beautiful, with such a powerful image on the front, that even if it hadn’t been ancient, we loved it. It was a one of a kind ring — a lion lying with a lamb! I’ve never seen anything like it again. Later, someone said they’d sold it for $10,000, and it turned out to have been real. I dreamed how the whole story would unfold. The synchronicity of dream and waking life that day felt like so much else in Afghanistan—awesome and magical. But in fact Afghanistan’s ancient, mythic history lay just beneath the surface of every farmer’s field. In the 60s and 70s, ninety-five percent of the people in Afghanistan were farmers. Every season they would plow up or dig up treasures from antiquity in their fields— gold artifacts like the ring, beads like the lapis ones we were buying, and other remnants of the past. Since ancient times beads have been used for adornment and for healing as the stones were believed to have particular Opposite from top left : Details of “Tree of Alchemy” with lapis, coral, turquoise and agate beads on gold painted canvas.
beneficial qualities. Beads have been a trading commodity since people first figured out how to drill holes in stones. Lapis, coral and turquoise, favored by the Egyptians, traveled across the Silk Road to Egypt. Afghanistan, at the crossroads of the ancient world, had an abundance of beads and gold left behind in the ground. In retrospect, Ira should have shown the gold ring to Louis Dupree, the most respected archaeologist and historian of Afghanistan, who with his equally renowned wife, Nancy Dupree, lived and worked there for decades. Ira had known them both well since his arrival and a visit to their house for tea was always an enlightening experience. Louis’ scholarly writings, reports and books were stacked all over the floors—on every inch of horizontal surface. Louis, who passed away in 1989, wrote Afghanistan. Published in 1973, with an epilogue from 1980, it is still recognized as the best survey of Afghanistan ever written. Nancy also has written numerous books on Afghanistan. One time Ira did bring an artifact to Louis to identify—an ancient seal that he had gotten from Abdul. Ira had thought it was Egyptian, but Louis recognized it as a Bactrian seal —from the region of northern Afghanistan that Alexander the Great conquered with great difficulty between 329-327BCE. Later in Santa Fe Ira had it made into a ring, which he still wears today. The spring months flowed with creativity and accomplishment. We continued working in the pavilion above our rooms, and Ira bought textiles in the bazaars and shipped them regularly. But we were still paying rent on the Woodstock house we shared with our friend Ann Mundy, and our belongings remained there. So in mid-May I flew back to New York, where Barry Hornig and his girlfriend, Marylou, helped me load a U-Haul truck and move our things to our storage vault in the city. Woodstock’s hippie culture was still thriving, and it was good to see friends, but I was eager to get back to Afghanistan, especially since I would be returning with news that Harmony Carpet was ready to send us custom orders as soon as we could set up a weaving factory.
Our belongings from the Woodstock house in one pile in front of storage hi rise in NYC. May 1975.
The Summer Of ‘75
While I was away in New York, Ira had been busy looking for a suitable site on which to build our weaving factory. At that time Afghan law stated that foreigners could not own the controlling interest in a factory. However, our friend Sher Mohammed was not only capable of managing a factory but also owned a wheat grinding facility in the historic city of Balkh, twenty kilometers west of Mazar–i-Sharif. Eventually, Ira found and rented a piece of land right in the center of Balkh. The three-acre lot was ideally suited to our needs and perfectly located — right behind the teahouse next to the park—with the turquoise-tiled dome of the Green Mosque t owering overhead. Eager to begin, he ordered lumber and immediately began constructing an L-shaped building to house the fifteen large horizontal looms for weaving flat-woven dhurries and kilim. In 1975, Balkh was a small, quiet town of a few thousand people with no hotel or tourist facilities. The ruined wall that ringed the former ancient city was a constant reminder of its rich and epic history. Once known as Bactria, Balkh is one of the world’s oldest cities, and in the 6th century BCE it was home to the Persian prophet, Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who lived, taught, and died there. Three centuries later, the city was conquered by Alexander the Great, and by medieval times it had become the cradle of Persian poetry and literature. The poet Rumi was born there in 1207 but fled with his family to Turkey to escape the Mongol invasion. In 1220, Ghengis Khan’s hordes sacked Balkh, a devastation from which it never fully recovered, although fifty years later Marco Polo still described it as “a great and noble city”. Before the Mongol invasions, Balkh had been a center of Buddhist erudition with numerous monasteries and stupas. For centuries after it continued as a crossroads, caravanserai, and trading post for the Silk Road caravan trains that cross-pollinated the languages, crafts, inventions, and even religions of Asia and beyond. Opposite from top left : Summer workshop under the long grape arbor at the back of Gulzar Hotel parking lot where hippie vans would camp, separated by hanging dhurries for privacy. 157
Today it (Balkh) is a minor provincial town in remote parts of Afghanistan. Once, though, it was — with only a little exaggeration — the spiritual centre of the world. The Greeks had known it as the city of Bactria or Bactra – it was an illustrious centre of Hellenic learning and a place where Greek knowledge cross-fertilized with learning from the Indian sub-continent and to some extent from China as well. Then, for many centuries, on top of its Hellenic heritage, and Zoroastrian influence before that, Balkh became an important centre of early Buddhist monasticism. Then Islam arrived and under Muslim rule the city became a centre of Islamic learning. It was thus a melting pot of diverse spiritual systems. It is geographically remote and yet, across the ages, it had become a meeting place for Greeks, Persians, Indians, Arabs, Turks and others, and it developed a reputation as a centre of cross-cultural esoteric thought. As a city, Balkh was rich but never powerful – its power and influence was spiritual and intellectual, not political. — Dr. R. Blackhirst, Prof. of Philosophy, paradisereporter.blogspot.com It was this timeless aura and spiritual energy that drew us to create our new venture there. The factory was built just steps away from the shrine of 15th century Sufi master, Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, and the tomb of renowned 10th century female poet, Rabia Balkhi. For us, Balkh’s vibrant heritage as a melting pot of diverse cultures was palpable. Yet even today, few people outside Afghanistan have ever heard of it. While construction was underway in Balkh, Ira and I continued our work in Kabul, still based at the Gulzar Hotel. During July and August, the air was crystal clear. That summer must have been a dry one because we decided to rent the area beneath a grape arbor that belonged to the hotel owners. Having known Ira now for several years, Mrs. Gulzar had become accustomed to his unusual ideas. The grape arbor was about 8 ft wide and perhaps 50 ft long, and ran along the back wall of a parking lot designated for the hippie camper vans and buses. It was somewhat like an RV park! Once we’d hung dhurries on the open side to separate us from the vans and buses, we set up the charpois and an A-shaped white pup tent, covering the ground with rugs. This made a priOpposite from top left : All photos under the grape arbor except Ira washing rugs with his crew in a back of the Gulzar Hotel.
vate and very relaxing environment, the perfect workspace. We also set up a little tape recorder to play music—a lot of Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones as well as some New Age and Indian music like Ravi Shankar. But while working with the women, we tended to defer to their tastes, playing more Afghan music. The Afghans clearly found Western rock just about as intolerable as we found their favorite high-pitched female Hindi pop stars! After work every evening, we retired to our hotel room, taking our more valuable belongings with us, and every morning we returned with our projects to the arbor. Our regular group of female workers arrived at 10 a.m. every day. Rahima, Mother Rahima, Maryam, and Nusea sat with us, sewing beads onto whichever projects Ira and I were working on at the time. I worked on clothing and quilts, giving some of the work to be completed by the women at home. Thanks to the ever-accommodating Mrs. Gulzar, Ira was able to rent another part of the hotel to wash those dhurries that were being prepared for shipment. Throughout this productive period, we were still preparing to start work in Balkh at our weaving school. We preferred to call it a school rather a factory, since everyone involved would be learning from one another. Later, at some point, we simply began calling it “the factory,” even though it had no machines or mechanized processes, but was instead an experimental place of creativity —everything from the dyes to the hand-chiseled beams from which the looms were constructed, to the spinning of the threads, was done by hand. Meanwhile, we worked for several months under the grape arbor, either cooking on a little one-burner stove or going out to eat our favorite Afghan food in local restaurants like Marco Polo in Shar-i-Nau. We often got together for dinner with Abdul and his wife Zabaida, a wonderful, intelligent friend who taught law at Kabul University. She came from a large family of highly educated siblings, and having earned her Master’s Degree in Law, had intentions of attaining a Ph.D. She hoped one day to become a judge! But Zabaida’s studies were put on hold with the birth of sons, Omar, in 1976, and Ali, two years later. During a trip north in July to oversee the construction of the weaving school, we stayed as usual at the Balkh Nights, a two-story hotel in Mazar-i-Sharif with a large grassy area, surrounded by service buildings. Because of the mid-summer heat, Ira and I decided to sleep outdoors and fixed up a makeshift tent. But the next morning I was physically unable to get up, as if glued to the earth by some powerful magnetic force. I was sick, but had no idea what I’d contracted. We had arrived in Mazar by taxi with our driver Ramazan, who now had to rush us back to Kabul. Noting that my skin had 160
a yellowish hue, the doctor promptly diagnosed hepatitis. It was obvious I would need bed rest for a while, so Mrs. Gulzar agreed to let us put our bed outside the room in a back wing of the hotel, adjacent to a long open breezeway. I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way there, and could rest during the day in the fresh air. And while sickness now separated me from work I had been really enjoying, I appreciated having time to read and study astrology books, which remained a growing passion. I lay recovering in that outdoor bed, wearing a necklace of two-inch stalks from a turmeric plant, said to have medicinal properties. The necklace had been strung together and given to me by Zabaida to proRecovering from hepatitis in a bed set up in a breezeway of the Gulzar Hotel.
mote healing, a common practice in Afghanistan for those with jaundice or other symptoms of liver
disorder. I was happy to wear it, grateful for anything that might help. I also had my hair done one day, when Ira brought over a young, outgoing Kuchi1 woman, whom we had befriended. Her nomadic group would camp in the nearby hills with their sheep and camels, and she wore Kuchi beads, loads of jewelry and a long, colorful dress. She painstakingly braided my hair in hundreds of thin braids, which I would take apart a few days later—leaving me with a full head of wavy hair. Adjacent to our grape arbor “studio” was the parking lot with its huge shade trees. World travelers from the U.S. and Europe, en route to various destination in South Asia, parked their vans and buses there. Ira, in hopes of cheering me up, came over to my sick bed in the breezeway one day and said he had found someone I would really like. So I went with him back to the parking lot to meet a young woman called Cyndy, who later changed her name to Sitara and became our lifelong friend. Cyndy and her boyfriend, Eric, had traveled overland from Europe and were living in a converted two-story Mercedes truck. They had done a beautiful job on the truck interior: everything was handmade, including the custom carpentry, and it even had a nice cushioned roof deck. Eric, who had traveled to the east to study sitar in India, also had a Volkswagen bus that he would later convince us to buy. [How they ended up with two vehicles, I don’t know] As I recovered, I enjoyed getting to know Cyndy, an artist and musician with a great sense of style, who would play guitar and sing, and we would talk about astrology. 1 Kuchis are Afghan nomads who migrate seasonally with their herds of goats and sheep. Years of war, population growth, and land disputes have taken a toll on their way of life.
Rugs, Not Drugs!
Shortly after that happy encounter, we met Mahbouba Rassoul, a beautiful Afghan woman who lived in a fairytale house with a walled courtyard full of white doves, around the corner from our hotel. Mahbouba, who was related to the recently-deposed Afghan royal family, would also become a lifelong friend, and both she and Sitara would move to Santa Fe shortly after we did. In contrast, there was another hippie who we befriended in the campground, an American named Adam, who became a real pain. He was a skinny, messianic raw food fanatic who constantly badgered us to eat raw food — which of course can be a good thing, until it becomes an obsession. Like many others, he was sending hash back to the States. But worse, Adam had convinced himself that Ira was the country’s biggest hash dealer, and would not leave us alone, incessantly pressuring Ira to “reveal his sources.” One freezing winter’s day, he even followed us from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif and confronted Ira at the Balkh Nights Hotel. Adam was crazed that day, thinking that I was this amazing drug dealer and he couldn’t get over that I never would get caught and could hide it so well. He persisted in annoying me with this nonsense. I had no idea what he was talking about and I started to get angry and told him he was off the deep end and tracking the wrong trail. It was quite a scene in the middle of the Balkh Nights courtyard during a time when everything was frozen, no running water. I thought it was the strangest thing that he would come up in this weather when no one was around, looking for me to tell him secrets when I had none. The fact that he wouldn’t believe me got me angry at this guy, with his long sandy hair up-in-a knot-on-his-head — a cool looking hippie who was really a dick. Adam flat-out refused to accept that Ira was dealing in rugs, not drugs. This weirdly ironic situation reinforced our fast-growing belief that we should be wary of becoming too involved with travelers before getting to know them. So while we were friendly and open to making new friends, we were also careful to avoid people who had shady agendas, and resolute about retaining our focus on work and creativity.
At the end of September, a few days after returning home from a long trip to Bahawalpur, Pakistan, we drove north through the golden splendor of fall landscapes to launch our weaving school. We now had a beautiful, brand new, L-shaped adobe building with big windows and lattice ceilings made of aspen beams, complete with fifteen floor looms, space for storing thread and other materials, areas for dyeing yarns and for drying them, and our very own design studio.
I guess the most creative breakthrough for my work with dhurries and kilim was the idea to open a factory and create a cottage industry for new dhurries. In order to do custom orders you had to have a factory and skilled weavers. We thought about going to the prison areas and hiring the prisoners when they got out; basically, I wanted to start up wherever I could find the best weavers. We ended up in Balkh because Sher Mohammad, who would be our Afghan partner, had a wheat factory right next to the location we chose to build on. And we knew that Alexander the Great had set up a capital in Balkh, and Rumi was born there. And it was close to Mazar-i-Sharif, which had a prison — and weavers. So we did it with no help. We had $5,000 to invest and rented land behind the teahouse—a famous teahouse on the square, where for centuries famous people had hung out. We built fifteen looms and were so excited to start this cottage industry. But it turned out that the prisoners from the Mazar prison, when they got out, didn’t want to weave anymore. They were tired of weaving, turned off of it. So suddenly I had a calamity on my hands. I had built this factory in God knows where — forty miles from the Russian border, in Balkh. And none of the former prisoners, even for $150 dollars a month, wanted to work. Back then, when the cost of living in Afghanistan was much lower than today, even $100 a month was considered a very good salary. So we were all set, everything was finished and ready to go — and standing idle. I’d put potbelly stoves by each loom for heat. The word went out that we were just sitting with these looms and no workers. Then one day, out of nowhere, a group of men arrived, men of the Wardak tribe, Pashtun people from central and eastern Afghanistan. They just appeared, walked in like a mirage. One guy had a white beard. So I showed them pictures. “Can you
Opposite from top left : The weaving school that Ira built (below) on a three acre lot behind the tea house on the main square in Balkh, in the shadow of the Green Mosque (towering above the factory wing). 165
weave this?” “Oh yeah, no problem!” These guys were freelancers. In the winter they would travel to Pakistan and just knock on people’s doors and ask, “Do you want to have a rug made? Do you want to have a rug woven for your house?” And for the next 30 days they’d sleep outside the house while they wove the rug, and then they’d go on to the next house. Somehow word got to them. Maybe they were weaving in Aqcha, close by. Or maybe they were at the teahouse next door, and someone told them about this new weaving factory. Anyway, they all came in, and we talked awhile and we made a deal. When I told them we needed more weavers, they brought more family members and friends. They were all musicians too, so suddenly the place started singing. And that was the beginning of the factory. A remarkable story. And they made great rugs. The weaving school opened with 60 men, including dye masters and part-time teenage apprentices to prepare balls of thread for the weavers. There were also two local high school art students, Alemshah and Khairullah, who helped us in the design room. I was the only woman among all these men. People have asked me what this was like. In those days in Kabul, women could choose to wear the chador or not. In fact, many city women could be seen wearing western clothes, and were educated, working professionally to better the country. While traditional values regarding women were stronger in the provinces, the weavers still accepted me as Ira’s partner. They assumed we were married and were comfortable working with me—as I was with them. They understood that Western women are free to interact with men outside their immediate family, and soon saw that I was there to work and create beautiful rugs on an equal footing with Ira and each of them. In the factory we all worked as a team, and the men also allowed me take pictures of them working at their looms, which I loved to do because each had such presence and character. I was at ease with everyone and appreciated their talents and skills. Both Ira and I would frequently let the weavers know what impressive work they were doing, particularly with the figurative designs, which they mastered quickly, even though prior to working with us they had woven only geometric designs. Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earciagni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earciagni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur
On October 12, 1975, shortly after opening, I wrote in my journal, Ira has his nose to the grindstone, working, organizing, teaching, and scaling designs onto warp threads. The enormous experience gained while watching and learning from the women in Chak 13, Bahawalpur, Pakistan, picking up details of dhurry-making, is now applied in Balkh. Ira’s quick mind and hands help to get work done and generate energy. Our first custom rug was for Gloria Vanderbilt. She asked for a particular design with pigs and elephants on it, so we made it, and then the factory started rocking. That fall and winter we were living in Mazar-i-Sharif in a little hotel room, and as soon as it got dark we’d go to bed — just put a few pieces of wood in the potbelly stove, and get under the covers. As well as the factory, we also had our other cottage industry in Chak 13, in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, but we still didn’t have a business license yet, which is a long story. It was beautiful getting up early in the snow. We would go to work in a horse and buggy with the bells on the horse’s neck ringing merrily. It was fabulous, but people couldn’t believe we were doing this simply because we loved it. Everyone thought we must be drug dealers, everyone thought I was the biggest drug dealer in Afghanistan. The commandant and his men would come and search the factory, and I’d tell them, “Help yourself. We really love Afghanistan, the work and the people, and we want to teach cottage industry. We believe in what we are doing.” Of course, they never found anything because there was nothing to find. Yunas Rafiq in the Ministry of Planning used to say, “I can’t believe you are the only person who just opened a factory, didn’t get any permission, just did it in Balkh. You have taught us more than all these books on the shelves — they were just proposals that didn’t amount to much.” Towards the very end of our stay he told me the Shah of Iran was coming on a state visit, and he wanted two of our rugs from the factory to give as presents. But he still couldn’t get over that we just built it without any permission or permits, something no one had ever done before in Afghanistan. That really surprised him. But who was I going to ask to get permission? They would have just taken my $5,000 as baksheesh and not even let me open up!
Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 169
We were using American businesses to market our products, mainly flatwoven dhurries and kilim, and they were now becoming very fashionable. Once the demand is there for the product, you can really build cottage industries. The industries that grew up around the dhurry fashion then spread to Pakistan and India because of competition. Blue and white became fashionable. I’d found and shipped a lot of old blue and white dhurries, and once one company had it, others wanted the same. Some of the great blue and white rugs that I had collected ended up in design magazines, in the homes of Billy Baldwin and Ralph Lauren… and then the demand just spread from there. Today dhurries are commonplace and sold everywhere, but this was when the fashion first started. When the weavers arrived, they brought their musical instruments — drums and rabab, which is a stringed instrument that you pluck — and they would play in the teahouse at night. You have to be a pretty good musician to weave a rug. You need good concentration and strong, nimble fingers, because setting the looms was hard, skillful work. And it’s like tuning up, because when you set the loom, you can’t pull the warp too tight, and you can’t let it be too loose. It all has to be the same rhythm and tempo. You have to be able to pluck it really nicely, play it all the way through. It has to be put together like a melody. Sylvie and I tried dyeing, experimenting with how to dye the natural colors, and both of us picked up the skills quickly. We used onionskins, walnut shells, pomegranate skins, indigo of course, and madder root or cochineal for red. Our dye master was always bringing burlap bags filled with roots, leaves, twigs, barks, berries and flowers. Sylvie was very talented in embroidery and hand sewing, and used a lot of her time for hand sewing. That’s what Sylvie originally liked about me — that I could sew too! High School Home Economics, where I’d first learned to sew, really paid off for me, though at the time I was embarrassed to be in a class with so few guys. Also, Sylvie and I both had a lot of patience for painstaking projects. It wasn’t about whipping out products. There were commercial projects and then there were the special pieces that took years.
Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci
Art On The Run
It took us seven months to really establish the weaving school, an intense and exciting period of work. Except for our monthly trips to Kabul and Pakistan, we worked at the weaving school from sunup to sundown, six days a week. Our goal was to make new dhurries and kilim as fine as any of the vintage and antique samples we had on hand, and to fill custom orders for New York. We insisted on high standards and quality control. Frequently, whole sections of a rug had to be taken out and rewoven, which did not please the weavers. On top of that, we often had to deal with the weavers’ individual emotions and power struggles for superiority and attention. The dye master had such a mind of his own that getting the exact colors Ira wanted was a constant challenge. But all in all, harmony reigned, and the sound of the weavers chanting along to the steady tapping of their carpet combs, or shanai qaleen, was entrancing. Although our presence at the factory seemed constant, we were still traveling back to Kabul once a month to get cash for payroll, and to check on the work there. Then we’d continue on to Pakistan to renew our tourist visas, and some months we’d drive all the way to Chak 13. (SEE MAP) Things were moving so fast that the work felt like “Art on the Run”, and two eclipses in November certainly energized our creative activity — a solar eclipse on November 3rd, and the Full Moon eclipse on November 18th, 1975. The day of the lunar event, we visited Sayid Abos, the elderly numerologist and astrologer, who sat under a tree in the park, and who was said to be an exiled “king” from Bokhara. The Balkh town park is situated adjacent to the 15th century Timurid-style “Green Mosque” on the west and the ruins of the arched gateway of the 17th century madrassa (school) on the east side. With his long white beard and piercing eyes, Sayid Abos had an aura of insight and wisdom. He seemed to us a master of both divination and the esoteric knowledge Opposite from top : Nomads bringing sheep through a pass, somewhere along the road north, before or after Pul-i-Khumri; A friendly greeting from a young man on a donkey; Sheep Crossing, along the road east to Jalalabad. 175
Sayid Abos, the venerated “numerologist” who spent his days in Balkh’s town park, offering readings and wisdom to the locals. It is said that during the Civil War of the 80s he left and never returned.
contained in the weathered books stacked next to him, books he would bind in a cloth and carry home in the evening. He helped the people of Balkh with their problems much like a therapist, but he exchanged his wisdom for whatever small donations were offered — a highly evolved spirit. The locals referred to him as Malang Abos, and we had no doubt he was a Sufi mystic. Although we asked nothing specific, after consulting his thick old books Sayid Abos predicted a June baby for us. Naturally, Ira and I assumed he meant the coming June— which meant I would have been pregnant at that very moment, which I wasn’t. We were perplexed. The next day, we left for Kabul and Bahawalpur in our VW van. We had been reluctant to give up traveling by taxi to the north, in part because Ramazan had driven Ira everywhere within Afghanistan for years. But having purchased the VW van from Sitara and Eric, Ira hired Ramazan to work at the weaving school as one of our regular crew alongside Sher Mohammad, Ewaz, and Abdullamid. The latter two were good natured, hard working Hazara men that Ira had originally found at the Blue Mosque in Shar-iNau, working as day laborers, but who now worked with us full time. These four would also go out on the road collecting rugs and textiles, for which they earned commissions.
Meanwhile, Sher Mohammad ran the factory day-to-day, taking charge whenever we were away. Sher Mohammed was from Panjshir, a beautiful valley north of Kabul, home to the country’s largest concentration of ethnic Tajiks. The name, Panjshir, means “Valley of Five Lions.”1 We were grateful to Abdul for introducing us to Sher Mohammed, a dignified and elegant individual, whose name means “Lion of Mohammed,” and whose loyalty, powerful presence, and strength of character gave us such confidence. He always gave his best and really cared about the success of every endeavor. Proud, straightforward, and trustworthy, he had Ira’s total confidence, and they worked together exceptionally well. Every month from fall through spring, we drove our VW van with Ohio plates, back and forth through the 12,000 foot Salang Pass. The two-lane 1.6 mile long Salang Tunnel cuts through the Hindu Kush, linking Charikar and Kabul in the south with Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz in the north. Built in the 1960s by the Soviets, it is the only pass linking north and south that remains open all year. Driving across this high pass in winter sometimes felt risky, especially in whiteout conditions without snow tires or four-wheel drive. Even on sunny days the blinding glare off the snow was often so intense that I would shut my eyes, while praying that Ira could see well enough to navigate the sharp turns. Sometimes the van would skid on the icy surface, but we barely paused to consider such dangers. We couldn’t afford to entertain fears because so many people were depending on us. One time, right after the March Full Moon, we found the Salang Pass jammed with cars and trucks waiting for an avalanche to be cleared. There are roughly 250 avalanches in this region every year, giving this high pass and its tunnel a treacherous reputation. (In 2010 a similar avalanche killed 178 people.) The tunnel was dark and claustrophobic; despite window slits at the entrance and exit, the only light in its long interior came from car headlights, and there was no ventilation. Further to the north, earthquakes and rockslides often occurred near T ashqurghan, particularly in the narrow gorge leading into the village from the south. But, like it or not — as we often joked — the Pony Express had to get through! It would be another year before we obtained a business visa, which would need renewing only every three months. M eanwhile, money for payroll could not wait, so we were obliged to make that monthly trip to our bank in Kabul, where we hoped wire transfers from New York would be waiting. 1
This area was also home to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan national hero who would lead the Northern Alliance against the Taliban until his assassination two days before 9/11.
Driving through the Kabul Gorge, heading east from Kabul.
Despite the hazards, our rides north or south were often memorable, and sometimes remarkable. On December 19th, a Friday, and thus a Muslim day of rest similar to Sunday for Christians, we experienced an awesome drive north with barely another vehicle on the road, just animals and village people. The music we chose in the van always set the mood. One cassette in particular, by a 70s Argentine-Uruguayan group called Urubamba, provided the perfect accompaniment to that exhilarating drive, where every turn in the mountain road opened up new vistas and valleys. The lack of gas stations, road signs, billboards, and trash — in fact, the complete absence of any 20th century indicators other than the asphalt road surface — gave those journeys a dreamlike quality. We felt as if we were flying through space, over mountains and valleys, until we landed at our weaving school. There, awed by the progress of our first woven pieces, we started to realize the enormous potential of this enterprise we’d undertaken. It was nearly Christmas; winter had come early, and we were settling in for a long winter’s work.
Opposite:: top left, middle left and lower : The Salang Pass and mountain village near the Pass; Right- Our trusty VW van in Multan, PK; Sylvia at overlook viewing spot along the road north. Top left photo by Don Meier.
During our months in the North we took time to explore the living history of our surroundings. Adjacent to modern-day Balkh, the ancient walls known as Bala Hisar or the “high fortress”, built on foundations dating from the first century BCE, encircled the site of the ancient city, now just a vast open space. Local teams of horsemen would assemble in this huge arena to play wild games of buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport. Believed to have originated in the Oxus basin of Bactria—this very region where we worked— buzkashi has certain similarities to polo, but instead of a ball it is played with a stuffed, headless goat, specially treated and filled with sand to make it very heavy. One Friday afternoon, one of our teenage apprentices, the son of one of our weavers and an impressive horseman, invited us to watch him play. The game was wild, awesomely dangerous, and very exciting, though it was hard to grasp the rules, if any existed! Rather, it seemed like a complete free-for-all, with clouds of dust trailing the galloping horses. Even the duration seemed arbitrary; some games would last the afternoon, while others could go on for days. Aqcha was another nearby market town, where it felt as if time had stopped, and local faces, dress and daily rituals seemed to reflect scenes from antiquity. Lumbering camel trains, loaded with straw or other materials, were a common sight along the road as we drove from Balkh to Aqcha, a distance of 45 miles. Proud looking men carried deep red Turkmen carpets on their shoulders to sell at the bazaar on weekly market day. There they would buy skeins of beautiful blood red yarns and return home, where they or the women in the household would weave more carpets. Though the Turkmen people are a minority concentrated in northern Afghanistan near the border with Turkmenistan, their traditional ruby red carpets have always been highly prized throughout Afghanistan. On the international market they are simply known as Afghan carpets and are among the most eagerly sought. Opposite from top left : Buzkashi played in the now empty ancient city of Balkh surrounded by walls from 1st century BCE. Following pages-Nawroz celebrations in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Normally, Mazar-i -Sharif had a small town feeling (though its 2015 population is close to 700,000), but for Afghan New Year, or Nawroz, pilgrims from all over the country converged on the Shrine of Hazrat Ali (aka Ali ibn Abi Talib). It is one of the country’s most popular pilgrimage sites and the resting place of Mohammad’s sonin-law. Mazar-i -Sharif translates as “Tomb of the Exalted”, and the Hazrat Ali tomb is contained within the fabulous and famous Blue Mosque, built in the 15th century and sacred to both Sunni and Shia.1 During the festival of Nawroz, twinkling lights adorned the mosque grounds, while music poured from packed teahouses into streets teeming with visitors. Nawroz is a pre-Islamic celebration, with roots in Zoroastrianism which once dominated Afghanistan and Iran. Among all Afghans this spring celebration is still a highly anticipated event following the long winter. On that cold, grey March 21st, Ira and I were surprised to find a carnival and circus tent had come to town, the likes of which had probably existed for hundreds of years. Indeed, each homemade wooden carnival ride looked as if it had been ridden, repaired, repainted, and recirculated for countless decades of festivities. But these primitive, cobbled-together rides brought as much joy to the local kids as any modern amusement park. In photos I took of the children spinning around seated on roughly hewn horses, the boys can be seen dipping over as if trying to touch the ground. In fact they were pretending to be buzkashi riders reaching down for the dead goat. Though we were foreigners, Ira’s naturally outgoing nature and easy rapport meant he was well known to the people of Mazar-i -Sharif. After returning each day from the factory in Balkh, we took our late afternoon walk through the vegetable market, Ira constantly interacting with locals. We would always stop at our favorite juice stand for fresh carrot juice — Ira’s heavily mixed with fresh garlic to ward off infections. Carrot juice and garlic are both said to build resistance to sickness, and we were rarely sick. Young children carrying platters of bolonee, the ubiquitous Afghan street food, would recognize us, and offer us these freshly-fried turnovers filled with potatoes and leeks, homemade by their mothers. This snack would tide us over until we returned to our hotel room and cooked some rice on the little hotplate that served as our kitchen. Opposite from top : Carnival ride with boys pretending to be buzkashi riders; A circus performer in the big tent. Mazar-iSharif. March 21, 1976. 1
About 85 percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslims. Sunni and Shia are divided by a dispute over the succession of the Prophet Mohammed, rather than any great difference in core beliefs. The Shia dispute the legitimacy of the first three Caliphs — successors to Mohammad — and believe Ali should have been first, whereas the orthodox Sunni insist that Ali was indeed fourth in line. Traditionally, the Sunni-Shia divide had never been an issue in Afghanistan the way it is in other areas of the Middle East.
Most days we would visit our favorite naan wala, Mukim. Bread, or naan, is a staple of the Afghan diet. People line up to buy it, carrying home stacks of it several times a day. Baked fresh for each meal in tandoori-like clay ovens below ground and eaten immediately, naan is discarded when even a few hours old, but never wasted. Leftovers are fed to birds and animals. Our daily bread in Kabul was excellent, but here in the North the naan tasted even better; we were convinced it was the best in the world! Other local naan bakers made eight inch-round, puffy, traditional Uzbek bread. Vendors carried it on large trays— 40-50 to a tray — to sell in the marketplace. Each stack of bread was wrapped in a colorful, finely woven striped kilim to keep it warm. While kneading fresh dough and then slapping the pieces, two feet long and ten inches wide, onto the inside of the oven with a long wooden paddle, Mukim loved to laugh and joke with Ira — whose broken Dari he seemed to understand perfectly. Ira would sometimes request unconventional additions to his bread, like raisins and walnuts. Mukim always obliged happily, though this seemed odd to him, since Afghans had been baking bread the same way for thousands of years. Sometimes friends would visit us at the Balkh Nights Hotel—always a welcome treat and an excuse to dine out and relax. One such evening at the end of March, Mahbouba and her husband, Enayat, arrived from Kabul, where she was working on several handicraft projects for us, including quilts, beaded belt buckles, and patchwork skirts. On a normal day, we would rise early to be at the factory when the weavers arrived. Before purchasing our VW van — and sometimes even afterwards — we would go by horse and cart through the back streets from the hotel to the bus station for the bus ride to Balkh. A few times we took the horse and cart all the way to the factory, and each time it was a wonderful adventure, the sights and sounds spellbinding. With the onset of winter, snow and fierce winds blew across the steppes from the North; we were just a short distance from the then-Russian border (today Uzbekistan). I can still recall, around 7:00a.m. one bitterly cold November morning, sitting bundled up in our buggy, the horse bells jingling and the first snow falling heavily, as shopkeepers lit their bokhari stoves to keep warm inside their open shop stalls. Driving the main road between Mazar-I-Sharif and Balkh twice a day, early morning and late afternoon, we were invariably presented with curious, unforgettable sights, Opposite from top left : The daily animal traffic which inspired a line of rugs we called “Afghan Traffic”.
such as a pale-colored donkey carrying a black baby goat, tucked into a sack. One evening on our way home we ran into a Turkmen wedding party, a train of camels and men on foot, trundling east along the roadside. The women, dressed in tall traditional headdresses, were seated in wooden carts slung on either side of a camel’s back. While Ira exchanged friendly greetings, I tried shooting photos out the window, through the glare of a setting sun. Workdays at the factory were long. Occasionally I stayed behind in our hotel room to relax by reading, writing in my journal, or working on a velvet patchwork quilt with an eight-pointed star motif. I had met a woman named Shireen Jan who raised silkworms at home, on long tables covered with worms munching on green mulberry leaves. Between our visits to her house, she would sew up sections of this 8 ft x 8 ft star quilt for me. Shireen was a creative, industrious woman with a kind and supportive husband. As with many Afghan families, one of their children had died of an illness, and when I photographed the family they held a cherished photo of their sorely missed son. We had decorated our hotel room with rugs and tapestries, and felt cozy under our heavy covers even on those freezing nights when our little potbelly stove went out after we’d fallen asleep. In Kabul we had often stayed up late into the night working on projects, but in the much colder North, we adjusted to nature’s rhythms, getting up at daybreak and going to bed when it got dark. Looking back, we were being driven by the demands of our work and willingly adjusted our schedule to make the factory a success. On some level we felt an urgency, and with that came the motivation to push ourselves. No wonder the authorities were suspicious of us! Who else, they assumed, would inhabit a “Closed For Winter” northern hotel in the depths of a freezing winter, except someone motivated by illicit profit? Friday, or Juma, is the Muslim world’s day of rest, so Ira and I would also take Juma off. Our favorite Juma activity was walking through the tranquil gardens and grounds of the Blue Mosque, among pilgrims visiting the shrine of the Sharif Ali, the grounds and skies filled with thousands of white doves in massive flocks. Visitors who bought a tin plate of seed for the doves, could enjoy having these exceptionally tame birds land on their heads and hands. Doves have been raised and fed on the Blue Mosque’s grounds since its construction in the 12th century, making the current flock the direct descenOpposite from top left : Blue Mosque and Shrine of Hazrat Ali; Ira and I (and Ira, r) feeding the magical white doves on the Blue Mosque grounds.
dants of doves from 900 years ago. It was said that if a dove of any other color flew over the mosque, it would instantly turn white. Indeed, there were only white doves to be seen. The intricately painted blue tiles covering the Mosque’s walls and arches were breathtaking. The entire scene was such a sumptuous visual wonder that I was inspired to make a Blue Mosque quilt with a fully embroidered Great Mosque of Mazar-i-Sharif in its center. The white dove became the signature of our weaving school’s dhurries and kilim, and is still an image we use in all our work today. In fact, we found inspiration for our weavings everywhere we looked. From our ground floor hotel window we watched the endless variety of traffic along the street, fascinated by the daily procession of camels, donkeys, sheep, horses, and their owners. This constant parade inspired an entire line of dhurry designs we called “Afghan Traffic.” Sights and sounds were often surreal or otherworldly. On November 15, 1975, I wrote in my journal: Twenty-four brown wooly camels just paraded past this window. The heavy clanging bells they wear still ring in the distance. Their march has a soothing sound, not like the 100-odd grey-clad soldiers we heard trodding by as we awoke this morning. A heavy morning snow storm, the first of the year, makes for a magical ride in the horse and buggy with bells jingling and villagers calling to us as we pass by, on our way to catch the bus to Balkh. A beautiful gold and orange blanket covers an old white-dressed baba in turban, whose ankles are bare, his feet in dusty black galoshes. The white bundle sack on his back distinguishes him even more. Every day I never failed to be captivated by the graceful bearing of Afghan people— their stylish and elegant clothing, the layers upon layers of patches that covered their coats, jackets and vests—a style born of thrift and an urge to preserve rather than replace. Just as trash was never seen on the highways prior to the war years, so discarding the old had never become a cultural habit as it had in the West. Worn clothing was not simply replaced, but repeatedly patched with any available fabric, lending a unique style to each garment that could never have been contrived.
Opposite from top left : Turkmen men carrying traditional carpets to Aqcha Market Day. (photo by Sitara); A juwalee or day laborer for hire refreshing his face at the well, wearing layers of ragged and patched garb. Lower two-Aqcha Market Day. 190
Malangs: Mendicant Sufi Mystics
Malangs [are] mystics and mendicants, for whom God is said to provide. Distant from other Sufi mystics, malangs live outside mundane society. They own nothing and are always on the move. They belong to no order. They wear Arab headdresses and tattered clothes festooned with amulets, [and] carry begging bowls and ritual staffs. — Dr. Whitney Azoy, cultural anthropologist and former U.S. diplomat in Kabul
Ira and I were particularly fascinated by the malangs — wandering Sufi holy men, whose patched garments were worn layered or in tatters. These ascetic mystics were revered by the locals and believed to possess mystical, healing powers. Wandering through the world but not of it, they were easily recognized by their shabby, patched clothing, beads, and the ritual objects they often carried: an incense burner, a bag of medical roots and branches, or pouches full of esoteric objects. They were generally given alms by the people and often carried begging bowls carved out of gourds and hung with a chain. We would see malangs meditating near holy sites, and there was always one by the gate of the mosque. Some were shrine keepers, guarding the tombs of saints. Such shrines were scattered throughout Afghanistan, with numerous flag poles planted in the ground to mark the spot where a famous mystic or holy man is buried. As Louis Dupree remarks in his definitive book Afghanistan, “Almost any stone thrown in Afghanistan will hit the shrine (ziarat) of a pir, khwajah, or other name-saint.” As flags are added by devotees, a crowded display of new and tattered flags reaches upward attracting even more visitors — a concept similar to that of Tibetan prayer flags, which send prayers into the winds. Locals would come to make offerings and request protection, ask for advice or a divination into the future from the shrine-keeper, usually a malang himself. Opposite from top left : From top left- A malang in Aqcha with patchwork vest, headdress and ritual objects; A malang guarding the tomb of a saint at the entrance to Balkh (photo by Sitara); Malang carrying bundles of roots and medicinal herbs, Mazar-i-Sharif; another wandering mystic with his walking stick. 193
I was continually amazed by the extraordinary style that resulted from the randomly patchworked clothing worn by malangs, mystics, and ordinary poor, hardworking Afghans such as the day laborers. This unaffected beauty inspired and influenced my own patchwork creations. While in the West, hippies were turning patchwork into a style, here I saw patchwork in its original eminently practical form. Although born of frugality and necessity — holes were patched to extend the life of garments worn daily and cleaned maybe once a week at most— I saw this style as a brilliant expression of creative recycling—making something new from the worn-out and weathered. Even the most “shabby”, torn garments spoke volumes to me. They conferred distinction, enhanced personality and character, marking out their wearers as unique individuals. Of course, in those days creative frugality could be found in all aspects of Afghan culture. Repairing and recycling were a way of life. For example, the craft of repairing broken pottery was elevated to an art form. When two of our favorite “barber shop” mugs from the States were shattered, we took them to a master artisan, an old baba who sat on a blanket by the roadside. He placed long metal staples and a gluey paste in the mugs’ cracks, transforming them into born-again, functional works of art. Once repaired, we retired them as relics to be treasured, and still have them today. Similarly, any trash or food scraps that might be tossed by a roadside would be picked over in succession by a living waste recycling service of camels, horses, and donkeys, until nothing was left. This, of course, was long before the arrival of single-use plastic bags and the detritus of war. While plastic bags were available, they were valued and reused. Thus roadsides in Afghanistan, where limited resources were husbanded efficiently, always appeared pristine. This absence of visible waste and advertising signage further contributed to the curiously timeless aura of the region around Balkh, Aqcha, and Shebergon. Sometimes we felt like time travelers who’d stepped back into a distant century. Naturally, we couldn’t stop thinking, “What an awesome place for our weaving school!”
Opposite from top left : A malang listens at one of two tombs of revered “saints”, (Seyed Abib Jan Agha and Seyed Najim Jan Agha) near the telecommunications building in Mazar-i-Sharif; Middle left and right: Malang shrinekeeper in front of his “treehouse” next to the shrine of a saint. Baskets of offerings sit atop a table next to the shrine. 194
Just as most Americans are oblivious to the Muslim calendar, so Christmas was not a holiday in a predominantly Muslim country like Afghanistan. However, we made it festive by working on the first of a series of 9 ft x 12 ft silk tapestries, based on Ira’s astrological sign of Taurus. Ira and I had been reading about the Ancient Egyptian period as the astrological age of Taurus, one of the great ages in the astrological phenomenon known as the Precession of the Equinoxes. While the Earth turns once a day on its axis, this axis itself rotates, completing a full 360° approximately every 26,000 years, and passing through each astrological sign as it turns. For example, we are now on the cusp of the Age of Aquarius. We named this tapestry “Abracadabra”, after the ancient ritual incantation incorporating the Egyptian words Ab’r, “the bull,” and achad, meaning “the only”, Achad is one of the Egyptian names for the Sun, which shines alone, outshining all other stars whenever it appears. Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians regarded the Zodiac as a series of furrows through which the great celestial bull dragged the plow of the Sun. Mystical ceremonies marked the appearance of the Sun in the sign of Taurus at planting season, and as the bull gradually gave way to the next constellation, the incantation Abracadabra was repeated, omitting one letter each time, until it disappeared. Based on this symbolism, we designed a bull on a celestial background, flying over a huge Sun made of gold, silver and copper, surrounded by white doves and a border of symbols. Using the French metallic threads we had brought from New York, Ira and I sat with the weavers as they followed the sun rays Ira had drawn onto the warp threads, using paper patterns made in our studio “art department.” They filled in each multitoned sun ray with alternating arrows of silver, copper, bronze and the deep indigo background with stars. Seeing Ira twirl the glittering gold threads onto spools with the help of an apprentice was like watching an alchemist at work. Opposite from top left : “Abracadabra” tapestry based on the sign of Taurus, woven in Balkh weaving factory between 1975-6. Silk warp and weft, French gold, silver, copper and bronze metallic threads. 197
Our logo and rug signature—the white dove, inspired by the doves of the Blue Mosque.
We shared the imagery and symbolism from our books on ancient Egypt with the weavers, and they became aware of their participation in a group art project—a new experience for them. This creative energy warmed our long building far better than the crude barrel stoves we’d set between the looms. Made from old steel oil drums, the stoves gave off a cozy warmth, but the building’s insulation was crude and firewood was in short supply, so we bundled up with layers against the biting cold, brought on by strong winds over the plains and the Oxus river, from the Russian steppes just 40 miles north. Afghans always impressed me as a tough breed, unfazed by harsh conditions. They seemed to tolerate weather extremes with equanimity, never complaining and often wearing the same layers in both winter and summer—through both cold and hot. It would have been wimpy to be anything less than stoic in their presence! We gamely bundled up with layers against the biting cold, brought down from the Russian steppes by strong winds over the plains and the Oxus river. That December, though isolated from family and friends, Ira and I felt the spirit of the season; it was as if we were living out the myth of Santa and his elves at the North Pole. Only, instead of shiny wrapping paper around packages, we were wrapping glittering gold and silver threads onto spools, arranging baggies of colors for the weavers to work their magic with. Our days buzzed with energy as we shared jokes in a festive, creative atmosphere. By nightfall, we’d be back in our freezing room with our little stove, sole guests in a hotel, whose water pipes had frozen solid. It would take us another five months to complete the Abracadabra tapestry. Opposite from top left : “Spinning gold” -Ira works with Ramazan and an apprentice to wind gold thread onto spools; BelowAbracadabra on the loom and detail (lower left); 199
The Weavers Unravel
At the beginning of every new project, the weavers would bless the new work with the traditional dedication, “Bismillah-e-Rahman-e-Rahim” — meaning, “God the merciful and compassionate.” Cutting a finished rug off a loom was also a ceremonial affair since it meant releasing the spirit of the piece to fly forth on its own journey. We loved the image of our carpets flying off into the world — via Kabul airport and on to New York — with the energy of the weavers, who had strummed and chanted their own prayers into each piece. The very first piece we cut from our factory’s looms and sent into the world was the custom order for Gloria Vanderbilt. Subsequently, we were able to fulfill many special orders from renderings sent from New York. We were also experimenting and creating many original designs for the American market. Our “Afghan Traffic” series of earth-toned rugs, for example, featured marching rows of sheep, camels, horses and flying doves — the creatures that we saw every day on the roads, or in the case of the doves, flying around the Great Mosque. The weavers had never before created such representational images of living creatures — only geometric or floral designs — but they were eager to please and curious about the designs we were creating. The Wardak men also sought personal attention, and were prone to bursts of complex hierarchical politics that required adroit navigation. They could be proud and aloof at times but competed nonetheless for approval, which we offered generously, thanking them and telling them repeatedly, “Khub ast,” (“It’s good!” or “That’s great!”) with much smiling and nodding of heads. And though whenever I took photos they would usually try their best to look very serious, I could sometimes catch them laughing. Opposite from top left : Ira, Sher Mohammad and weavers inspect the first rug to be cut from the looms—a custom order for Gloria Vanderbilt, through Harmony Carpet, NYC. 201
Musicians playing at the teahouse adjacent to the weaving factory.
We’re into the factory in Balkh for some time, and all of a sudden there were two groups. One was based around Baba, which means old man. He was about 40 or 45 with a white beard, absolutely beautiful, composed just like a yogi. He was a little slower; he wasn’t as fast as this guy Khausak, who’s about 30-35, and flamboyant. Khausak was the leader of one group, and Baba was the leader of another. All the senior weavers had brought in their weaver sons and cousins, so there’s a division mostly along family lines. One day the stars were at a certain point, and Khausak says, “I’m going to leave if Baba stays.” And I say, “Ah-hah.” Because Khausak was the faster weaver, he thought I was going to make Baba leave. So the next day he gives me the ultimatum, “Is Baba leaving?” I needed them both and had to think about it. We all sat outside, and I say to Khausak, “I’m not going to let him leave. Even though he is slower, Baba is more consistent and he just keeps going. He doesn’t stop in between. You stop in between even though you are faster.” I said, “I’m not going to ask him to leave, because I like him. If you want to leave, you can leave.” Opposite : Two Wardak weavers at work: Baba (above) and Khausak (below) — star weavers— each head of his respective clan of weavers. 202
Khausak was like the star; he was the best weaver, the fastest, the Babe Ruth of weavers. He was shocked that I thought it out after a day and said, “No, I’m going to keep Baba because I know he’ll stay with me and he’ll be consistent, and even though it’ll take an extra day or two, I’m going to hang with him.” And Khausak got up, walked around, and went out for a cup of tea at the chai khana. This was a teahouse next to the factory, a place where men would hang out and talk over tea and Afghan music — something like the local bar, minus the alcohol, of course. Anyway, he talked to his family members a little, and then he came back, and told me he’ll stay and work with us, and that was the end of it. I’d had to really think how I was going to handle that situation so that I didn’t end up losing both groups. I had to really think it out, that I’m going to stick with the one who will be more consistent and caring at the end than the movie star. And it worked out fine, and it was never mentioned again. Khausak realized a power play wasn’t going to work.
Afghans have always viewed foreigners with a certain pragmatism. Despite the fact that Ira had spent nearly nine years in Afghanistan at that point, we were still widely viewed as temporary guests; after all, foreigners simply didn’t stay in Afghanistan! Thus, the work and steady income we provided was also seen as a temporary thing that could end at any time. So many of those we worked with had a short-term view, a practical interest in taking advantage of a well-paying situation while it lasted. In this particular case, Khausak (even though he was a tribal kinsman to Baba) sought to promote his importance to our enterprise, possibly in order to get a raise in his monthly salary.
The weavers test you. Khausak wanted to get rid of Baba to get the raise and be the movie star. Meanwhile, Ramazan was telling us that he was going to start a new business and needed money — but it turned out to be something completely different from what he’d told us. Everyone wanted to get ahead. It was a similar thing when, instead of being direct, every once in a while they would create some drama to get attention. The nice thing about those ten years in Afghanistan was that you really had time to think. You had no distraction — no radio, no TV — just you and the Afghan people. No cell phone, no computers, no laptop, nothing. It was just living one-on-one with the people, and you really had time to think about what you were doing. And that was the beauty of it, not having all the luxuries.
Dis-Harmony In New York
Those first four months of 1976, working in Balkh and living in Mazar-i-Sharif, were the start of seven months of concentrated effort to make the factory a success. Meanwhile, back in New York, troubles were brewing. Barry Hornig, Ira’s partner at the Harmony Carpet showroom, was often late in sending money from sales of our merchandise, and communication with him was difficult. After all, we were staying in a local hotel with no access to a phone. Even if we’d had one, making calls to the U.S. was a difficult, lengthy and expensive process. So Ira’s first stop on his morning rounds would be the bank, to check if money had arrived from New York. If not, the second stop would be PTT, the telegraph office, where he would fill out a handwritten form. Each word would cost several dollars, but at least Ira could get his message to New York immediately, and often it was just a single word: Money! Eventually, a frustrated Ira mailed a letter to Barry, asking him to come to Afghanistan for a meeting, to work out exactly what was going on back home. So on April 22, 1976, Barry flew in from New York to join us on our monthly drive to Bahawalpur. After several days of talking through New York business affairs while driving our Pakistan route, Ira realized that Bernie Siegel at Harmony Carpet was withholding money owed to the partnership in order to pay his rent and overhead. Consequently, Barry was having problems at the showroom. Ira immediately cut short the Pakistan trip and flew back to New York with Barry on May 2nd. The following Saturday, Ira and Barry, aided by Ira’s lifelong friend and accountant Robert Ganer, executed what became known as “The Raid” — entering the Harmony showroom after-hours to remove the merchandise belonging to them, about two-thirds of the rugs owned by the three-way partnership. It was May 8th, Ira’s 33rd birthday.
Harmony Carpet wasn’t paying us even though we were making a lot of rugs in the factory and sending them the merchandise. We must have sent them 350 rugs. So I said to Sylvie, “I got to go back to New York for a few days. I’m going to leave you to finish up the rugs at the factory.” I thought, no problem, you have to do what you have to do. I fly into New York, and no one knows I’m coming. Harmony was in the D & D Building on Third Avenue. So I have a meeting with Barry and Robert, and we decide we have to take back 200, maybe 250 rugs that we owned and had given on consignment. A lot of companies take things on consignment and don’t pay, and then don’t give them back. It might seem odd to bring your accountant on a rug heist, but he told us that if they had no records of what we took, it would torpedo any potential lawsuit they could bring against us. We make a plan to go in around 7:00 a.m. on that Saturday and take our rugs out of the building. We rented a truck and parked it outside. The showroom was on the 11th floor. Barry had a key because he was working there, so we go in and take the elevator up and start bringing the rugs down in these huge canvas-lined “laundry” carts. You could get about 15-20 rugs into each cart, so we made about ten trips up and down. After he scoured the filing cabinets to remove all traces of the merchandise we retrieved, Robert waited downstairs in the getaway vehicle with the motor running. We were afraid that a suspicious security guard or an early arriving employee would spot us. We knew we could get arrested so we moved fast. There were police guards in the building, and we said, “We’re just moving our merchandise out.” Next day, Bernie Siegel goes into the showroom and sees the rugs gone. We call him and he says, “You stole my rugs!” And I say, “No, they’re my rugs! I just took back my rugs.” I told Bernie that now that I’d taken my rugs back, we had to part ways. The next Monday morning, Bernie’s lawyers called our lawyers and eventually we settled for a nominal amount that Bernie still owed us from sold merchandise. The news soon got around New York and another rug company, Patterson Flynn and Martin, offered to represent our dhurries and kilim. Harry Patterson frequently traveled to India to spend time with his spiritual teacher, the famous master Sai Baba. Harry was not the kind of guy you would imagine to be a devotee of a famous guru in India He appeared conservative and straight, but had this other side to him, which we loved! It was a good fit for us. I didn’t want to get burnt again.
New York is noted for burning people, especially when you are overseas. Stark Carpet was great to me, I never had any problems there, and so was PFM, but in New York many people will neglect you when you’re not around. People forget you, they think you’re never coming back. Then they think they own your merchandise just because it is in their showrooms, and they are selling it. They forget about you. But it was a great heist, an amazing heist, because we were taking back what actually belonged to us. The next day everyone was talking about it, the whole decorating market was like, “Wow!” And no one had even known I was in town. Suddenly I heard there’d been an earthquake in Afghanistan, and I was really nervous that Sylvie was caught in Balkh, and I was trying to reach her. But of course, communication was slow and difficult.
News of the earthquake triggered Ira’s fear and anxiety, and perhaps a sense that it may have been unwise to leave me behind, even though we had agreed the best way to handle our emergency business situation was for him to fly directly to New York. But eventually he managed to reach me by phone and… I was fine! I had been driving north with Sher Mohammad, and had hardly even felt the earthquake.
While Ira dealt with business in New York, I remained in Afghanistan to see that all the pieces on the looms were completed and brought to Kabul for shipping. Sher Mohammed, Abdul and others did their best to help me in Ira’s absence. Ira had hoped a woman named Sydnee, a young American hippie traveler whom we’d met at the Gulzar Hotel, would keep me company. But a few days after Ira left, she was busted for drugs along with her boyfriend Peter, and taken to the women’s prison. I visited her there once or twice, surprised at the crowded, noisy scene of women chatting and washing clothes; they were confined to a small area but not in cells. Sydnee and Peter were caught attempting to export hashish. Local authorities were often aided by U.S. drug enforcement agents in apprehending smugglers, but in his memoir of the era, Terrence M. Burke, former Acting Director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who operated in Kabul from 1971-73, explains how difficult it was to obtain convictions and imprisonment for those caught smuggling drugs to Europe and the U.S. Given their meager incomes, Afghan officials up and down the chain of command were far more interested in extracting baksheesh than enforcing justice. Though not privy to the details, I suspect Sydnee and Peter paid off a commandant or prison official in order to be released quickly; they left the country shortly thereafter. Perhaps with hindsight it’s not so difficult to see why the authorities were always so suspicious of our weaving school and export business. It seemed that anyone staying in Afghanistan, particularly hippie travelers, for any length of time, was deemed suspicious until proven innocent. Before I met Ira, in 1971 or ‘72, Agent Burke — who later gained notoriety for his rendition of Timothy Leary from Afghanistan, to stand trial in the U.S. — was suspicious that Ira might be involved in drug smuggling. But after thoroughly checking out Ira’s shipments, and getting to know him personally when they
Caption: Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis
were seated next to each other on an Ariana flight from Beirut to Kabul, he came to a different conclusion —which he describes in his memoir, Stalking The Caravan: A Drug Agent in Afghanistan 1971-1973. There was someone I viewed as a mystery man…a young New Yorker, Ira Seret. I’d spot Seret going in to carpet merchants and handicrafts shops… Seret was obviously several cuts above the usual civilian Westerners in Kabul. He appeared to be living there full time. I had noticed bills of lading for air shipments he had made from the Kabul Airport. I had several shipments checked upon their arrival in New York. They were always clean and held some of the best of Afghan crafts. Even the Customs declarations were correct, which was amazing for a shipment from Afghanistan… [I] had decided [Ira Seret]… was either the smartest smuggler in Afghanistan or one heck of an entrepreneur. It turned out to be the latter. (pg.170) It was quite a surprise when Terry Burke contacted Ira out of the blue in 2014, having googled his name. He eventually signed a copy of his book for Ira, with the dedication: “My favorite suspect.” The myth of Ira as a major drug dealer of the era has followed us down the years, with some people, to this day, still making insinuations and spreading rumors, which feels ridiculous. But there can hardly be a stronger refutation than the written testimony of the DEA’s head agent in Afghanistan, a man whose job it was to hunt down and capture traffickers, using all the considerable means available to him!
A Lone Woman
I had expected Ira to return quickly from New York, but dealing with the Harmony breakup and realigning the business took longer than expected. It was a challenging time. With Ira no longer present, the men I had worked alongside so freely were starting to relate to me quite differently. Their dedication and diligence did not waver, but paranoia set in among them now that I was managing the factory. As long as Ira and I were together, we fulfilled the traditional Afghan model of a woman accompanied by her male partner. But even though they knew Ira had left to deal with an emergency, the men couldnâ€™t understand his leaving his wife behind. Obviously, western women were not held to the same standards as Afghan women, and Afghan men had grown used to seeing western women traveling alone, even outside Kabul. Nonetheless, this new situation provoked consternation among our team. Each night I stayed in our room at the Balkh Nights Hotel, getting up before sunrise to take a bus to the factory, as this was the least conspicuous way for me to travel. The weavers were anxious that someone might see me; the factory was under frequent surveillance because we did not yet have our license to run it. The men were also uncomfortable with the idea of a woman venturing out alone, even in broad daylight! So I arranged for the horse and buggy to pick me up pre-dawn to take me to the bus. For the most part I appreciated their protective attitude toward me and, indeed, the entire operation. They were not only concerned for my personal safety but also worried for our factory, which the authorities kept coming to inspect. Still, the situation challenged their more traditional views â€” I was a lone woman, traveling unaccompanied in a region that frowned on such behavior. Still, knowing and trusting me personally, they were more concerned about how this would be perceived by outsiders, and whether consequently, I might run into difficulties.
On May 8th, Ira’s birthday and the day of “The Raid”, I was driving north from Kabul with Ramazan and Sher Mohammed. In the car, I had a cage containing two of Mahbouba’s kaftar or (doves). The white dove had become our emblem, our logo, not just because flocks of them flew overhead, but also because the white dove has always symbolized peace, love, spirit, beauty, and inspiration. On our arrival in Balkh I took the doves into the factory and released them. Now we actually had a pair of white doves in our factory-school, perched happily on a beam until Abdullamid could build them a birdhouse in the yard. Abracadabra, the 9 ft x 12 ft silk dhurry we had started just before Christmas, was nearing completion along with several other pieces. My letter of May 12th to Ira provides a progress report, and a picture of our daily concerns: The bell (above the flying bull) was taken out and I drew a new one in its place. There are four to five men working on the Taurus piece day and night and it should be finished Saturday. Ramazan and Sher Mohammed will be back in a day or two. I think after I send the shipment to you I’ll close the room in the Koochie Hotel and come back up here. It’s hot but indoors is fine. I’ll be back in time for payroll. I’m getting the Egyptian piece together but it looks like it’ll be about 16 feet long and 10-12 feet wide. Mausak and Baba’s brother will be finished with the Afghan Traffic plain stripe in one week so they should work on the special order kilim. Khausak is working on the other special order. I scaled it out at home and it’s looking good. The two Mazar pieces are gorgeous and the Qashgai with green is also beautiful. I took all the wool to the rangmailen’s (dye master’s) house way out on the edge of the desert and saw his operation there — something else! Wool will be ready on the 20th. Everyone asks about you and especially this week weaver Sher Mohammed and his crew are working as though you were right there on the loom. Abdullamid told everyone you were in Pakistan. I gave Sher Mohammed (weaver) the picture of you and him shaking hands — he loved it!! I was lucky to spend as much time at the factory as I did before the local commandant lost his patience on May 17th and said he would lock everyone up if the doors weren’t closed. Abracadabra was just being finished, and I was hanging around, eager to see it cut off the loom, but our trusted manager Sher Mohammed said I had better leave, so I went. To make things confusing, we had another Sher Mohammed at the factory. And so a day or so later, the weaver, Sher Mohammed, and an apprentice brought the Abra-
cadabra piece to my hotel room, and we cleaned it up and wove the ends. Four men working overtime had finished the piece quite beautifully in ten days. It rained the next day and there were avalanches on the pass, so I spent that day embroidering Ira’s birth chart into the zodiac circle and was pleased at how it came out. On the Juma before the piece was complete, Sher Mohammed, the factory manager, arrived from Kabul with letters from the Ministry saying our license was nearly complete. However, the local authorities in Mazar-i-Sharif and Balkh refused to recognize them, stating frankly that they did not believe we were there only to weave satrangi and kilim. Again they searched the factory, and again found nothing, but they would not be convinced that we had nothing to hide. Obviously, Afghanistan was not a cohesive political entity where orders from the capital city held sway in the provinces. Every town administrator had a mind of his own, and all too frequently, a strong opinion. Reflecting the country’s history as a loose tribal “federation,” local politics often trumped the dictates of the central government in Kabul, which felt distant and weak. Since the authorities in Mazar-i-Sharif had already decided they “had our number,” they also felt entitled to stall the issuance of our factory license indefinitely. This made our manager, Sher Mohammed, very angry. He felt helpless and frustrated with the ways of “Afghanistan-Bananistan”, as we would sometimes call it. I discussed with him that this mistrust was an instinctive reaction to foreigners like us, who didn’t fit the image of business people in formal western clothing. Afghan culture tends to identify people with their group or tribal affiliation, and dress plays a part in this pigeonholing. Ironically, in the 60s and 70s, Afghans had adjusted to the influx of western hippies by catering to their interests—with hashish high on the list. Ira and I clearly looked more like hippies than conventional business people, especially because “artist” was not a category that was recognized at all. So I told Sher Mohammed we would need time and patience for the authorities to get to know us. It felt strange to be in our room in Mazar, alone save for the few hundred flies who hummed around me. In twelve days, I went to the sabzi bazaar, or veggie market, only three times, and reported to Ira that he had left at a perfect time right between food seasons — there were no carrots left, and the summer fruits were not yet ripe. The veggie bazaar was like a local farmers’ market, supplied by area growers. While fruits and
vegetables were essentially abundant in their respective seasons, one could not rely on produce from other parts of Afghanistan or elsewhere during the off seasons. This was truly eating local! On May 21st I took the rugs from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul for shipping by Ariana Airlines. Hoping Ira would be back soon, I moved our things to another hotel. Our room at the Koochie Hotel had not been terrible, but by now I was swollen with fleabites, including my right eyelid. As the weather grew warmer, the bugs proliferated — not just fleas and flies, but scorpions and spiders as well. After another ten days, we realized Ira wasn’t yet ready to return, and that I would have to fly back to join him in New York instead. So I packed our belongings again and stored them at Abdul’s shop. I knew that Sher Mohammed, Ramazan, and the weavers could keep the factory going, while our team of sewing women in Kabul had projects they could work on at home. And Sher Mohammad was capable of dealing with any harassment by the Mazar authorities. This consisted mostly of random searches with occasional closures for a few days. After all, he was, at least on paper, the Afghan national with 51 percent ownership, so he was invested in maintaining day-to-day operations. In early June, after more than a month holding down the fort, I flew back to New York, excited to soon see Ira and catch up on all that had transpired for both of us during the past month. Ira and Barry were triumphant at having saved their rugs from confiscation, but the hard realities of a new business model were still to be worked out. While waiting for a new partnership to be finalized, Ira and I hauled our “Twelve Gateways” tent back up to Woodstock and set up camp. Ira dragged the bundles, weighing over 300 lbs, to a flat spot in the forest behind Mary Orser’s house. Our artist friend, Carol Herzer, had filled the nearby woods with an installation of God’s Eye yarn weavings, some of them up to five feet across. Popularized as craft projects in the 1960’s, indigenous peoples have used these diamond shaped God’s Eyes—symbolizing the power to see into the unknown— in rituals for millennia. With our tent set up amidst dozens of these colorful yarn weavings staked against trees or hanging from branches—the surrounding forest felt mystical and enchanted. Setting up this tent was no easy matter! It required intricate staking and, when rain threatened, a plastic cover had to be thrown over just to make sure water didn’t seep inside. We ran electricity to the tent, plugged in a little TV, and watched movies at
night — a luxury after so many months of life unplugged. Sadly, I have no photos of this camping vacation; a number of negatives were lost in the course of our many moves during those years. With the guidance of Mary Orser, I continued my astrology studies, and in the city I met several times with Ruth Ray, the astrologer who had initially drawn up charts for Ira and me, noting many auspicious connections. I was continually observing the real life manifestations of transits and progressions to our charts. Like many in the ‘70’s, I was fascinated with esoteric and mystical traditions. Our life in Afghanistan provided a unique setting in which to integrate insights from these traditions into our work -- in a place where such knowledge was still a part of everyday life. Books we traveled with included the I Ching and Tarot, works by Rudolph Steiner, Alice Bailey, and the nowwell known Sufi mystic poet Rumi. Before our return to Afghanistan we stocked up on books at that most amazing New York bookstore, Samuel Weiser’s— the oldest occult bookstore in the US.
Licensed At Last
By the end of August 1976, having finalized the contract with Patterson, Flynn & Martin, (PFM), located in the same D & D building as Stark and Harmony, Ira and I returned to Kabul. This time we settled into the Green Hotel, opting for its nicest room, which faced a long patio and an expansive garden, where we hung our crude hammock. Whereas the Gulzar hotel was closer to the cityâ€™s edge, the Green Hotel was in the heart of Shar-i-Nau, and more convenient for local shopping trips, particularly to the veggie market (the sabzi bazaar).The hotel garden had a water spigot, and served as our kitchen, a place to wash our veggies for salads or stir fries, and do our dirty dishes afterwards. We cooked on a hotplate in our room. By now, our gastrointestinal systems had adapted to the local water. On September 1st Ira had a meeting with Yunus Rafiq, Director of Private Investment in the Ministry of Planning. Ira looked impressive in the three-piece black velveteen suit he had borrowed for the meeting. Though we had been through all the correct procedures in applying for a business license with our lawyer, Hadi Karim, we were still seen as hippies, who needed to be thoroughly vetted to ensure we were not involved with drugs. It was only after the report cleared us that we learned we had been the subject of an Interpol investigation. Our presence in the North throughout the fall, winter, and spring of 1975-76 had obviously aroused more suspicion than we had imagined! Presumably, the belief was that no one could endure such harsh winter conditions, without some nefarious motive. By this logic, the factory had to be a front for drug smuggling. Of course, we were somewhat naĂŻve not to expect the level of suspicion and intrigue involved. As DEA agent, Terrance Burke, revealed in his memoir, throughout the entire country, various authorities were stalking dubious individuals, who were setting up bogus business deals. But if we had applied for the license before building our factory, it would probably never have been built. Ira knew only too well that greasing the wheels with baksheesh would have quickly consumed our start-up money.
With Harry Patterson, Oct. 1976; A PFM ad featuring dhurries Ira shipped and a Balkh factory dhurry.
At that September 1st meeting, Yunus Rafiq expressed surprise that we had done so much work without obtaining the proper permits. Because all the investigations into us had amounted to nothing, he said he was determined that we should get our license and our business visas. Still, several more months of red tape would follow before authorities in the North officially cleared us of suspicion and signed off. Opposite from top right : Opposite: From top right: Office of Hadi Karim, lawyer handling our application for a business license; Green Hotel garden, reading the Bible; Cotton skeins of yarn for the factory hanging to dry, Green Hotel; Ira in a borrowed suit, preparing to go to the Ministry of Planning! 217
A Different Kind Of Project
The holy month of Ramadan had begun on the New Moon of August 25 , the day th
before we flew back from New York. Ramadan begins eleven days earlier every year. When it falls during the summer months, with their much longer days, fasting from dawn to dusk is much more arduous. Participation in the annual month-long fast is one of the five pillars of Islam, required of every Muslim. Pregnancy, travel, and illness are all reasons to be excused, but any days missed are expected to be made up sometime later in the year. During Ramadan, nobody with whom we worked could eat, drink, or even let anything touch their lips, between sunrise and sunset. In solidarity with the women who worked with us daily, and the men Ira employed — and to have some appreciation for the experience — we decided to participate in the fasting ritual. We soon discovered that to forego even a sip of water for an entire day is an intensely challenging exercise in self-denial, one that increased our respect for the discipline and self-control required of all Muslims. To endure Ramadan, most Afghans rose before dawn for sehri, a large breakfast that would have to sustain them through the work day. But we rarely managed to get up that early so we were all the more eager for sundown, having skipped breakfast. We kept busy all day to suppress thoughts of food or drink and make the time pass more quickly. As the call to prayer echoed from the nearest minaret and the last sliver of light disappeared over the horizon, we would often join Abdul and Zabaida — who had welcomed their first son Omar on August 2nd while we were in New York — for iftari, the sundown meal. In the third week of Ramadan, about mid-September, Ira and I struck out again in our less than trustworthy VW van, which required frequent repairs. On the road we were unable to fast every day, although since we were traveling we were officially exempt. Still, I don’t think we ever made up our missing fast days as any conscientious Muslim Opposite from top : Ira with our cat Kuchi, driving east, somewhere near Khyber Pass; Afghanistan’s Torkham border crossing into Pakistan. 219
would have. Following a brief visit to Kandahar1, we set off on our monthly sojourn to Pakistan, where we spent the Eid holidays that conclude Ramadan. Eid is the great feast after the fast, marked by celebrations and family gatherings, but we spent it quietly in Lahore, reading and relaxing at the Ambassador Hotel. On September 17th, the day before my 30th birthday, we were on the road to Pakistan, heading for Chak 13, where the villagers were weaving our cot-sized indigo and white dhurries. But having crossed the Afghan side of the border at Torkham, the busiest border crossing between the two countries , we found the Pakistani side already closed, which meant an overnight stop in the no-man’s land between, until it re-opened the next morning. This may have been the first time we slept in the van; it was certainly a rare occurrence. We had a little food with us and were able to buy tea and naan at a local stall. And so I awoke on that milestone birthday in our VW van, having slept between two borders. There was something symbolic, I later realized, about spending that night in the liminal space of a border crossing — neither one country nor another, but the threshold between two states. It seemed synchronistic, reflecting my shift from one decade to the next. I was crossing a threshold into a new phase of life—one that would be occupied with motherhood and domesticity. Back at the Green Hotel in Kabul later that month, besides our daily work with the women, we were having skeins of cotton yarn dyed for the factory, hanging them to dry in the hotel garden from clotheslines strung between the trees. As with Mrs. Gulzar, the Green Hotel’s owner indulged our need to spread out our work, probably because we were steady-paying guests, staying in his best room. It was during this time that we met a young American woman named Zuleikha. She had come to study dance and music with Ustad Hashim Chishti, an internationally renowned master of Indian and Afghani classical music, beloved throughout Afghanistan for spreading this beautiful art form. Zuleikha, also a student of mysticism and Sufism, was traveling with an American Sufi scholar named Yusuf (born George Cameron). Yusuf knew the Sufi religion and its history, and was full of interesting infor1
While Kandahar has since gained notoriety as Taliban HQ, home to Mullah Omar, Ira describes Kandahar in the 70s as a “western town, but more like some place out of Lawrence of Arabia. Camels parked in one area, horses in another, donkeys in their own area. The animals had their own parking spaces. Camel caravans would drift through town, horse and carts and three-wheeled rickshaws filled the streets.”
mation.2 After returning to the States, the two invited Chishti and his brothers to the U.S., where Zuleikha toured and performed with them. One day that fall, as we walked through the sabzi bazaar, Zuleikha noticed how the many odors in the marketplace were making me nauseous, and immediately suspected I was pregnant. Ira and I had been thinking about having a baby for months. We had decided to trust the stars that it would happen at the right time. As it turned out, it seemed that Sayid Abos, the distinguished Balkh numerologist we had consulted in the park, had been correct in his prediction of a June birth, after all. Since he had not specified a year, and it had not been June 1976, we simply assumed he had been wrong. Now the pregnancy was confirmed, and the estimated due date was mid-June, 1977. Despite the fasting I had gotten pregnant sometime in September, during Ramadan. Finally our Afghan friends would not have to keep asking us when we were going to have children! On October 14th, the day before my 30th birthday, we were on the road to Pakistan, heading for Chak 13, where the villagers were weaving our cot-sized indigo and white dhurries. But having crossed the Afghan side of the border at Torkham, the busiest border crossing between the two countries3, we found the Pakistani side already closed, which meant an overnight stop in the no-man’s land between, until it re-opened the next morning. This may have been the first time we slept in the van; it was certainly a rare occurrence. We had a little food with us, and were able to buy tea and naan at a local stall. And so I awoke on that milestone birthday in our VW van, having slept between two borders. There was something symbolic, I later realized, about spending that night in the liminal space of a border crossing — neither one country nor another, but the threshold between two states. It seemed synchronistic, reflecting my shift from one decade to the next, and my crossing a threshold into a new phase of life, one that would be occupied with motherhood and domesticity. Two days later our lawyer, Hadi Karim, came to us with papers and applications to fill 2
Yusuf would later connect with our friend Mahbouba Rassoul, by then divorced. They moved to Santa Fe in 1979, not long after we had. Tragically, Yusuf died in Morocco in 2003. Zuleikha also settled in Santa Fe, drawn by parallels with Afghanistan in altitude, climate, adobe architecture and culture. As a dancer who weaves together stories and myths of world cultures, Zuleikha’s artistry would eventually win her a global following. As teacher and humanitarian, through her foundation The Storydancer Project, she now works with disadvantaged women in South Asia and New Mexico. Her very popular “Rumi concerts” — in collaboration with Rumi scholar Coleman Barks and renowned musicians — are performed throughout the U.S. Zuleikha has been honored with several humanitarian awards, including the Images and Voices of Hope Media Award for outstanding work in the world promoting positive personal and social change. To this day we remain close friends.
Torkham connects Nangarhar Province and the FATA, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area.
out, and we were asked to supply details of the factory’s Five Year Plan. It was exciting to imagine our factory growing over a five-year period, and a week later, we received the letter granting permission to work. But that excitement was dampened when Hadi informed us that until the authorities in Mazar-i-Sharif had also received that letter we could not resume work at the factory — the interminable red tape of bureaucracy! Luckily this delay was a brief one, and Sher Mohammad and Ramazan even managed to keep a few looms going in secret. Larry Thompson, Economic Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul during that era, recently provided background on the tremendous difficulties that we encountered as entrepreneurs in Afghanistan: I recall Yunus Rafiq. I met with him often to talk to him about American investors. It was difficult for Americans to get a business license. Yunus’s heart was in the right place, but there was a lot of opposition in the government to foreign investors. However, I recall that just before the coup, Yunus was very upbeat because [President] Daoud had made a decision to encourage foreign investors and businessmen. With our license now approved, people working at the American Embassy and in the official community suddenly began to take interest in us. At some point, we even met with the American ambassador, Theodor Eliot, and were invited to dinner parties, and social events at the Staff House and various American diplomats’ homes. Among those we met were Kay and Larry Thompson, David and Barbara Bloch (David headed the Embassy’s Consular Section), Carroll Floyd (head of the Embassy’s Economic Section) and his wife Barbara, and Karen and Bruce Ehrnmann (Bruce was a rotational officer at the Embassy). At Thanksgiving spent with American friends we felt tremors from the devastating earthquake in Çaldiran, eastern Turkey, some 1,500 miles away. These were the first but not the last earthquake tremors we would experience in Kabul. Sometimes, the floor of the house would move beneath us.
Journal entry for December 7, 1976: Last night satiated a certain longing for ‘a taste of America’ that we have indulged in for twelve days, since our first visit to the Staff House for Thanksgiving. In
almost two weeks we’ve had a few pieces of pumpkin pie, lemon chiffon pie, turkey, a taste of tuna, real ketchup and relish, yummy pancakes and French toast with maple syrup and some other American favorites. Last Friday we even took part in the delightful buffet lunch at the Intercontinental Hotel for the first time since we’ve been in Kabul. We’ve been stepping out to dine in the western world as opposed to our regular veggie soups and salads prepared on our home cooker. Last night we were invited to Larry and Kay Thompson’s4 home in Wazir Akbar Khan, a neighborhood of large, well-equipped modern homes where most diplomats live. After several weeks of indulging in American pleasures, we were ready to start roughing it again. We set out for Balkh and a ten-day concentrated work trip. Our focus was on another all-silk 9 ft x 12 ft tapestry, inspired by our “Afghan Traffic” line of cotton dhurries. This huge, flat-woven dhurry would be magnificent, with 100 percent silk for both warp and weft (a rare combination), featuring rows of multicolored birds, fish and shells in shades of turquoise, indigo, and gold.
Journal entry, December 13, 1976: We were working late that evening. By 8:00 p.m. all the elves in the workshop had done such a job drawing and coloring patterns, and preparing threads. Plastic baggies of threads were tacked onto patterns on a big story board, each containing spools of colored threads assigned for each of the fish, shells or birds to be woven. Ira was out on the looms laying out samples of our threads — a sparkling array — next to Baba and Gul Rassoul’s all silk loom. Spool after spool of silk, gold, copper and metallic were spun. There was magic in the materials. Everyone was bound together in the spell.
Earlier that day we had shared a very special lunch. Ramazan — who prided himself on being something of a gourmet — had cooked a kadu (squash) in the Afghan style, with garlic and homemade sheep’s chakar (a kind of sour cream) that Ewaz had brought back from his Eid holidays in Hazarajat, the region of central Afghanistan that is home to the Hazara people. Best of all, the kadu had been grown over the previous year, in a small garden tended by Ewaz & Abdulhamid on our factory grounds. 4
Kay was a Peace Corps medical officer and nurse.
On our return to Kabul I was now several months pregnant, and it was time to take health matters seriously. Unlike Ira, I was not always careful about what I ate, and throughout my pregnancy had indulged my cravings for Afghan food. But I was shocked when, that first night back at the Green Hotel, I eliminated two eight-inch roundworms. Anxiously, I sought medical advice from Wendy, one of two midwives staying at the hotel, and our nurse friend Kay Thompson. Both told me not to worry — the parasites had been expelled, and there might not be any more. Kay brought me medicine to flush out any eggs, while Ira teased me about the box of Wheaties I had insisted on trying and some persimmons I’d eaten that also may well have had worms. I was suddenly aware of the risks I’d been taking with certain foods—like the fruit I would sometimes neglect to wash carefully. Having never experienced dysentery or major intestinal problems, I had blithely assumed some kind of immunity. My assumption had been proven wrong. Though determined to eat more carefully, I still craved kabuli palau, a richly spiced rice and meat dish with raisins and shredded carrots, and longed for aushak, a ravioli dish with yogurt and mint. So several times a week Ira and I would go for dinner at the Marco Polo Restaurant in Shar-i-Nau, whose comfy booths were softly lit by camel-skin lamps. Meanwhile, the other midwife at our hotel, Barbara, loaned me a copy of Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin, one of the founders of the American home birth movement. I was fascinated by this now classic primer, then newly published, and later bought my own copy, reading it several times. I knew that all the women we worked with gave birth at home and could have written such a book themselves. Yet at the time I failed to appreciate the irony of reading a book about home births in a country where all but a handful of women gave birth at home, and where hospital deliveries were a recent innovation.
Christmas And Women’s Work
By December 20
Ira and I were working on our large tapestry, with its needlepoint
border and embroidered elements taken from the patchwork ceiling Ira had made at his apartment on East 86th Street before we met. This tapestry had traveled with us from Afghanistan to New York and back again several times since. Before departing again for New York we were giving the women, who would continue the work at their homes, detailed instructions on how to embroider the unicorns after we left for the West in January. This 14 ft long x 8 ft high tapestry was surrounded with a wide border patch-worked in Uzbek Lakai needlepoint, embroidered scenes, tassels, and beadwork. Onto blue velvet in the middle the women would embroider in white cotton thread, two five-foot tall unicorns with horns touching. Later we added pine trees in gold thread, coming out of the unicorns’ backs. Though the design concept had arisen unconsciously, Ira and I were both consciously drawn to the symbolic mythology of unicorns: mystical, wild, reclusive, and elusive forest creatures, always associated with benevolence, magical powers of healing, wisdom, and long life.1 Initially it felt good to resume work on this tapestry after so long, and the unicorn design we had originally intended for a rug now seemed perfect for a wall piece. Later that day, though, with the tapestry spread out across our small room, we started briefing the women on another “homework” project involving beadwork panels, and everything started to feel difficult and chaotic. Sher Mohammed dropped by, and for a while I switched between getting lunch ready and working with the women. Though we all loved working together, some days just didn’t go smoothly, and this was one of them. Ira was also frustrated because both our bead trunks were still stuck in customs. That 1
The unicorn is “a visitor from the inner world, the psychic realm… his strangeness, his intensity… is somehow combined with the power to heal and to conquer the poisons of life. [The unicorn] lives in the dark, hidden places of human nature… and appears only fleetingly… in our ordinary day-lit world. He is known to creative people, who welcome his powerful dynamic energy that is penetrating and single-focused, like his one perfect horn.” — Taschen Book of Symbols, 2010 page 696
evening we wondered aloud whether we were doing the right thing to leave all this work behind and return to New York for the next few months. Would the work get done without our being here? Would it be done correctly? Even after preparing everything and leaving clear instructions, would the result be what we expected? It was almost Christmas, but we were far removed from families back home and the traditional gift-giving mania. Living in a Muslim nation we had learned about Islam’s essential tenets, such as tithing and praying five times a day while facing Mecca, and the practice of remembering God at regular intervals during the day had impressed us deeply. Of course, there was never any notion of us adopting Islam — nor any other single religion. Though Ira and I shared a Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage, we had always been fascinated by the “universal myth” identified by Joseph Campbell, and the way it finds expression in all religions. Still, as Christmas approached, we were drawn to the story of Jesus, and began to read the Bible and the Essene gospels. Inspired by Christian iconography, Ira began to create his own beadwork Jesus icon. The men and women with whom we worked knew that Ira was Jewish, and I was Christian. They were quick to note that Jesus, called “Isa” by Muslims, is revered as a prophet in the Koran, which also acknowledges his God-given power to perform miracles. So there was no disapproval of Ira’s iconographic beadwork. Jesus, they said, had brought the new teaching to the Jewish people.
Journal entry, December 23, 1976: [Today] feels like a lucky workday for Ira as he flows with his Christ icon, placing twelve beautiful disciples onto the Master’s coat—beautiful Byzantine faces. Rahima begins to copper wire the auras and the currents seem to set the piece in motion. Rahima, her mother and Maryam are indeed angels, so pure in soul qualities and full of light. We look forward to every day they are there. There really is no problem leaving work for them to carry out. The crux of our hesitation is that we enjoy watching each step of growth as the piece becomes whole — it’s hard to go off and not see it grow.
Opposite from top left : Winter at the Green Hotel- patio outside our room; Ira’s Christ icon in progress—with copper wire outline embroidered in place; Ira- Christmas, Green Hotel, Shar-i-Nau, Kabul. 227
Iraâ€™s Christ icon, a year later, nearing completion.
Journal entry, December 24, 1976: Ira and I awake to snowfall, listening to liturgical music and reading the gospel. Our cat Kuchi is curled up in peace at our feet, alone again after the girls snatched up Billie yesterday to help out at their mice-infested house. The last of her litter, the lazy butterball favored son is weaned at last to give Kuchi a rest before her next litter arrives in a few weeks. The hotel owner, Gulshan, prepared a turkey dinner, which was festively shared with guests on Christmas Eve.
Journal entries, Christmas Day, December 25 and 26, 1976, at the Green Hotel: We had asked the women to come today so it was a regular day of work in that sense, each day being valuable to us now. Working on the Christ icon felt appropriate and we felt the women could join us on this holiday. Maryam arrived on time but Rahima and her mother were an hour late, 10:30. They come late every morning and I donâ€™t say anything. I know it takes them 1.5 hours to get here, they
have told us. But today I made a semi-joke that they arrive always closer to lunchtime. Oh oh!! …Rahima sits in stone silence and when lunch is ready refuses to eat. Ira says, “Oh, who are you mad at?” And his teasing makes her cry. I said, “It’s me she’s mad at, because I said something about coming late.” I’m feeling terrible, like a real villain. Ira and I discuss it and he says don’t take it too seriously, so later on I apologize and tell them I should have asked why they were late or if someone was sick. But then Rahima’s mother, as usual, runs through her string of excuses and even though the air was cleared, I feel we’re back where we started. Because every time we’ve asked them to come on time after being late, they are late again. And sure enough, the next morning, December 26, they are late. We understood that Rahima and her mother probably could not get away from the house in time because of their other obligations. Women who worked outside the home were still expected to take care of all their home and childcare duties, a struggle women seem to face in every culture the world over. However, unlike their American counterparts, Afghanistan’s extended families usually lived together in compounds, so there were always extra hands to help with the children or the chores. While the women were expected to do double duty, the men of the household were nonetheless supportive of the women working outside the home. Their sewing skills and creative talents also gave them status and respect in their households because they brought in much needed income. The young women who worked with us were valued to such an extent that their parents were reluctant to marry them off at an early age. While employed, their economic value to the family was greater than any dowry that might be offered for their hand in marriage. Rahima and her mother had already told us that they did not want to work in a tailor shop, or for anyone else, as long as we had work for them. And they very much wanted us to give them homework that winter, while we were away. In those days, homework — women’s home contract labor — was hard to come by and paid a pittance. But the women who worked with us were always highly paid, and their homework equally well compensated. Of course, it was important to set a price in advance for each project finished at home, because the women worked at different speeds. For example, Rahima’s mother was meticulous but slow, making it hard to judge the amount of time she had actually put
into a homework project. Also, with large extended families, some drama was always unfolding, and life crises seemed to constantly intrude into the women’s lives, demanding all their attention. Journal entry, December 26, 1976: Recently Rahima’s uncle, her brother-in-law’s father, died in Panjshir. For more than a week Rahima and her mother were involved in cooking and entertaining the hundreds of guests who came each day and jammed into their house to pay respects. Not to mention the thousands who had to be served in the hometown in Panjshir itself. Her brother had to give out money to everyone who attended the funeral!! These are the family life crises that Dr. Louis Dupree talks about — strong social customs that put a family deep in debt. Then the whole family feels pressure to bring in something from somewhere to make up the loss. So that is part of the reason why Rahima is counting her work very highly lately and why her mother jokes that Rahima won’t get married until she is thirty. And really her family cannot afford to lose her to some man’s household. At any rate, these family crises come up and work stops. And daily life definitely interrupts the flow, so work taken home is priced by the job with extra at the end if it meets expectations… I really love the three women. They are solid, trustworthy and full of love. They are so happy that I’m having a baby at last and they even offered to deliver it here for us. But I have to be aware from day to day of the undercurrents of feeling that go on within the ladies and within myself so that regular give and take does not become misunderstood. Our problems are really minor. On the last day of the year Ramazan surprised us by appearing at the Green Hotel. Ira was just trying to call the factory in Balkh to speak with him, when he walked in. He wanted to talk with us about moving the factory to Kabul. Ramazan knew that our Five Year Plan for the factory had included the opening of a second location in Kabul, but he seemed to be urging a move instead. Yes, we agreed, we had experienced harassment from the authorities in Mazar-i-Sharif, but difficulties arise in any enterprise. That would no longer be an issue now that we had our business license. As for the distance between Kabul and Balkh, and the frequent need to travel back and forth, it was much more of an issue for Ramazan than for us — we loved the drive in both directions. And finally, having worked so hard to establish the factory in such a unique and awesome
Rahima and family: Rahima- left, Mother Rahima and husband- right.
location, Sher Mohammed, Ira and I were fully committed to its success right where it was — in Balkh. A few weeks later, however, Ramazan’s real motivation would become apparent. For now, we had weathered the factory’s biggest challenge, when Ira had been obliged to return to New York and recover his merchandise from the Harmony Carpet showroom. Without the custom orders that provided a major part of the factory’s income, we’d endured several lean months while we transitioned to PFM. We had kept the factory running with our own money in the absence of sales revenue. However, when PFM’s Harry Patterson came out to see us in October on his way to Sai Baba’s ashram in Brindavan, India, we had a very productive visit, taking him north to see work in progress on the looms, including original designs for his showroom and custom orders. It was a promising partnership that we hoped would lead to more growth. Our “Afghan Traffic” series of flatwoven cotton and wool rugs had become very popular. Perhaps in a year or two a second weaving school location would be needed.
New Year And The Urge To Expand Journal entry, January 3, 1977: For the last five days Ira has been dreaming, thinking and acting to explore alternatives to only dealing in textiles and rugs. He feels ripe for a change to absorb his interests. At first I wasn’t sure what was in the air, but Ira wanted so much to meet the man at the Intercontinental Hotel1 who was buying raisins for Sunkist in America. So we drove up there for the buffet lunch hoping to see him but realized we only had 500 Afs, not enough for two buffet lunches. Ira insisted I have the buffet while he would have an omelet. As we left Ira was lucky enough to run into the “raisin man” coming in from the tennis courts. After introducing ourselves, Mr. Lauretson was very friendly, open and enthusiastic about what he was doing in the villages to produce better quality raisins. We then visited with Abdul and Zabaida, where [after talking about Ira’s new interest in local commodities] Zabaida showed us her store of local herbs, seeds and spices, and we agreed to go shopping the next week for an assortment. The next day Ira asked Ramazan to take us to Kabul’s largest dried fruit market, where we found raisins that one never sees in the smaller bazaars. Then we drove over to the Ariana Airline offices and found Mr. Seberwol, the director, in his office. He was receptive, cordial and obliging. Ira was curious about how raisins were being presently shipped to the US. We were told they went by air to Frankfurt, then by boat to New York and California. This was not the cheapest route. Mr. Seberwol told us about a more efficient route, involving the many chartered cargo planes flying to the Arab States with equipment for oil rigs. These planes flew back to the U.S. empty and could be commissioned at little cost. Ira was most interested in the possibility of buying a plane and starting a direct air cargo route to Kabul for food commodities. Mr. Seberwol was slightly surprised but said it could be arranged. After an afternoon at Larry and Kay’s house, ideas started to Opposite from top left : Ira and Ramazan visit the dried fruit bazaar in Kabul, Jan. 1977.
Kabul’s first five-star luxury hotel (opened 1969) is situated on a hilltop with sweeping views of the city. The hotel remained open throughout the decades of war, even when badly damaged. On June 28, 2011, nine Taliban suicide bombers attacked, leaving at least 21 people dead, including the attackers. The hotel has since been restored.
take shape. I started to consider another potential product for export: the amazing natural tooth powder made of charred almond shells used by Zabaida’s family, its recipe taken from an ancient Persian medical text owned by Zabaida’s mother. An amazing woman, Zabaida’s mother had had 17 children, 12 of whom survived to adulthood, all of them smart. Little wonder she was named Afghanistan’s “Mother of the Year.” Journal entry, January 7, 1977: Last night we visited again at Zabaida’s house. Her mother, who was there, is so beautiful, mystically in touch, and knows all natural remedies using local herbs, whereas so many Afghans are turning to pharmacies. She always dresses in lovely beige suits. Her presence is healing. Our interest was not limited to raisins. Since mulberries were not particularly well known in the U.S., Ira and I wondered if the Afghan dried fruit bars known as talkhan could be a commodity of interest. These are chewy, mulberry fruit bars that many Afghans carry around for a quick boost. The original energy bars, talkhan kept the Mujahideen going during their mountain battles against the Soviets, who thought the Afghans were eating rocks, the bars were so hard. We bought bags of dried mulberries and spent a number of days with the ladies, particularly Rahima and her mother — who came from Panjshir where most talkhan is made — preparing talkhan in our little hotel room. We ground the dried mulberries with a few walnuts in a mortar and pestle, then placed the mix on trays in the sun to dry before cutting it up. (Like raisins, talkhan is traditionally dried on village rooftops.) Journal entry, January 9, 1977: We are invited to dinner at the Bennetts’, an exceptional couple who created Ariana Airlines. They have led a blessed life of joys and service to Afghanistan. At their home we met Mary MacMakin, who was opening Kabul’s first health food store and had extensively searched out and worked out presentable clean organic products of Afghanistan. She gave us packages of her granola mixture, and unsulphurized, fully cleaned apricots. She was doing what we were getting excited about doing. Ira and I shared some of our discoveries with Mary2 as well. 2
Mary MacMakin would become one of the few Westerners to remain in Afghanistan throughout the decades of war, serving as a physical therapist in the hospitals of Kabul. In 1996, moved by the suffering of widows under the Taliban, she started an NGO called PARSA to provide services to disabled Afghans, widows and orphans. Mary’s inspiring, selfless work and that of her NGO continues today.
Herbalist, northern Afghanistan.
Ira and I made a long list of the various Afghan nuts, seeds, and dried fruits and vegetables we might be interested in exporting: dried apples, pears, figs, melon, pistachios, tomatoes, and eggplant; pomegranate concentrate, the almond shell toothpowder; and of course, talkhan â€” to name just a few. We also planned to learn, when we were back in the States, how to make tahini, hoping to return to Kabul with a hulling machine for sunflower and sesame seeds, and a commercial seed grinder . The night after our dinner at the Bennettsâ€™, my unconscious mind seemed to comment, through a memorable dream, on the ever more expansive activities we were becoming engaged in: We were with a number of people in a top floor apartment, looking out the window. Suddenly, the sun popped up over the horizon like a ball of fire â€” so swiftly that everyone gasped. As it rose it divided into two sections, like two parts of a seed or nut. Everyone went out onto the rooftop, and from our right came a herd of reindeer, prancing and jingling through the sky, sweeping past us in a wide circle and then across the city, flying low over the buildings. Again from our right, there appeared hundreds of angelic, outer space-like figures flying, dancing, performing
acrobatics, filling the air. It was incredible to see the city skyline populated with these magical beings, each moving to its own rhythm, a fabulous animated scene. Then a buzz was heard and the sky was filled with a mile-long flock of giant doves with beaks like the Concorde jets. Someone said to lie low, and everyone dropped to the floor because the birds were flying so fast and low. Then we all crawled on our stomachs to the doorway and slid back into the house. I was among those who, in emergency fashion, pulled people inside by their arms. One lady said, “Boy, this trip east was too much!” The following day I reflected on the dream while beading the “Sundance” mandala with Rahima and Maryam. It occurred to me that the flying beings resembled the dancing figures on this beaded tapestry. The reindeer reminded me of our Christmas experience in the Balkh workshop, which had felt like Santa’s toyshop. I thought the Concorde-beaked doves might have signified the cargo planes that would fly the commodities abroad if we were to get into such a line of work. At the very least, the birds recalled the white doves that had come to symbolize our weaving school. Looking back from the perspective of almost forty years later having studied the ideas of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others, I also recognize the archetypal images of that important dream, images that point not just to the life we were living at the time, but the unfolding of our greater life work over the decades to follow. The sun represents the archetypal solar light of individuation—the Self. The new dawn pops up like an emergence from the womb, heralding a new life—this amazing life that Ira and I were sharing. The single sun, dividing in two like two parts of a seedpod, symbolizes fertility, growth, potential and creativity. Those were indeed formative years in Afghanistan and the early beginnings of a colorful life in creative partnership. The reindeer and Santa archetypes are said to trace back to the Siberian shaman flying off on a mystical journey. In the 60s and 70s many young people like us, who were fascinated with the East, were also studying the esoteric traditions. The images of our beadwork and silk weavings were reflecting larger archetypal realities of another culture. They were influenced not just by Afghan culture, but symbols of ancient cultures.
The Ramazan Saga
It was time for us to return to New York and take care of that side of the business. For Ira, especially after what had happened with Harmony Carpet, it was important to periodically check in with the company, take stock of the inventory he had shipped, and look at the books. As a wholesale supplier living overseas, it was essential to establish a regular physical presence in the showroom, speak to the salespeople, and make personal connections. Ira had frequently visited Stark Carpet in the years working with them, but never Harmony. Visiting PFM, Ira would enter the showroom wearing his typically cool garb, reminiscent of someone out of a Persian miniature. His maroon quilted velvet coat was trimmed in needlepoint and tassels; the patchwork velvet hat I had made him had a white dove feather sticking up on top; and his extra-long black, fuchsia and gold shawl he wrapped twice around his neck. The entire effect definitely made a lasting impression! Looking the part of a magical bard, he would entertain the staff with stories about Afghanistan â€” piquing interest in, and enthusiasm for, the products they were selling. On this particular trip, Abdul and Zabaida flew as far as Germany with us, where Abdul hoped to collect a large debt owed to him by a dealer. Ira had offered to accompany him on a surprise visit to the dealerâ€™s warehouse outside of Cologne. But the night before we left, as we were packing for our trip, another Afghan drama unfolded.
Journal entry, January 19, 1976: We hardly slept last night after putting the last pieces of odds and ends in order for the trip and clearing the air of any lingering emotional hassles, this time centering around Ramazan, who for six days confronted and pressured us on an emotional bargaining level until last night the truth came out, and the case was resolved. When he first returned from his home on the 13th, he complained that Ira had loaned him 30,000 Afs for his marriage, and now he felt this lady, like his previous wife, was not such a bargain either. He felt perhaps another large sum had been cast to the winds and seemed to be blaming us for loaning him the moneyâ€Ś!!
The following night, Ira told me Ramazan was going to stay to oversee the factory instead of Ewaz and Abdullamid, so that Ramazan, who needs the money more, could earn the amount we have allocated for factory upkeep. He always cries to us of his lot in life, supporting a family of ten or more, none of who are working age. He has a seventy-five year old father who has taken a young wife, and continues to have little children! Ramazan needs to take home a lump sum each month, he tells us. We do sympathize with his plight and obligations. But then he says he cannot handle the factory alone — he would have to get another man. Then he finally admitted, after suggesting he would also have to work nights because his take-home salary wouldn’t suffice his needs, that maybe he could make more money as a driver, or working in Iran or Kuwait. For hours we discussed these other possibilities. Ira and I were very enthusiastic, hoping that he really could make the money he needed working elsewhere while we were away. Then he said he needed to work for someone who would lend him 5,00010,000 Afs on the spot at any time if his family needs help suddenly. We told him we would be happy for him if he could find a better situation than we are able to afford. But it seems everything he said was a bluff to see how far he could press Ira to help him. This other benefactor didn’t exist; he was challenging Ira to be that for him… to feel sorry for him. We said he has his family to support and we have our family of workers, who are all equal in our sight… The next day his discontent came out. He really didn’t want to work elsewhere, and why wasn’t Ira willing to do better? Ramazan already owes Ira money to begin with. Ramazan hinted that his experience with us and our techniques might be of value to someone else… Ira told him he won’t be blackmailed, that just because Ramazan’s father is choking him doesn’t mean Ramazan can choke Ira. Somehow language barriers did not prevent all this conversation. Then came the heavy session when Sher Mohammed arrived and Ira asked Ramazan to explain the situation. It went on and on as I tried to pack, entering and leaving the room from time to time… by this time he seemed to be bargaining so desperately that we weren’t sure he could be completely relied upon after we left. As the evening wore on, I left to wash some dishes after Ramazan had walked out crying, pursued by Sher Mohammed. Yet when I returned the three were again sitting on the floor and Ira was congratulating Ramazan. I thought, “Wow, they
Ramazan (left), Ira and Sher Mohammad at the Kabul Airport sending off a shipment.
struck a bargain!” But no, Ramazan had taken Sher Mohammed and Ira around the corner and shown them a nice space he had rented: he was going to open a tailor shop with his four cousins, all tailors. This must have been arranged some time earlier; he already had the keys. And the six-day charade about seeking work elsewhere if he couldn’t earn enough at the factory? Apparently, he had simply wanted to be on Ira’s payroll to use the money to set up and operate the tailor shop, but couldn’t tell us that was why he needed the extra money. Luckily we hadn’t given in. Whenever Ira had said to me, “Am I wrong?” I honestly felt he was right to stand his ground. And so the truth was forced out, and we were off the hook and relieved of a burden and a trap. As we left this morning, accompanied to the airport by Sher Mohammed, we were again overwhelmed by his great friendship and trust in us. He is a gem. The tremendous uncertainty and difficulties of these four and a half months, not knowing the future of our weaving factory career or partnerships, were a grand test to show us where each person we work with is at. Friendships and loyalties had been put to the test, and now we knew who we could rely upon. In the end, having failed in his attempts to manipulate us, Ramazan chose to continue working with us after all, though not full time. He needed the income to support his old father’s ever growing family and we understood that the pressure of familial expectations had made him crazy. The final break would come a year later.
Germany, New York… And Aruba...
January 19, 1977 was a New Moon, a good time to initiate a new activity. Our plane took off around 1:00 p.m., after the sun had finally thawed the snow-covered runways. We were happy to be spending at least a few days with Abdul and Zabaida, who hoped to collect money owed to Abdul by Lothar Heubel, a German antique gun dealer with a reputation for ruthlessness. The four of us landed in Frankfurt that evening and slept in airport lounge chairs before catching an early train to Cologne. There, we took a taxi directly to Heubel’s enormous antiques warehouse in a rural suburb, surrounded by pastures and horses. Abdul’s sudden, unannounced presence shocked Heubel, into a stuttering state. We spent the next two days in a charming, nearby pension, while Ira and Abdul hashed over tactics for recovering Abdul’s money. Finally, pressured by the situation, Heubel paid Abdul in part, while much of the rest would never be collected. He told Abdul, “I’ll give you this money now, but please don’t bring him (Ira) along again.” A few days later, after visiting with my cousin Birgit and her daughter Maya — who had come to meet us from nearby Bonn — Ira and I left Abdul and Zabaida in Cologne and flew on to New York. At first we stayed with Ira’s parents in Riverdale, near the Bronx. The trip into the city was so long and exhausting that one evening, on the express bus back up to Riverdale, we fell asleep and missed our stop. Fortunately, a friend of Ira’s cousin Errol helped us find a sublet. We landed in a SoHo loft that belonged to Ohne Zee, another world traveler, who trained Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal. She was away when we arrived, but when she returned, we all stayed together for the next few months. Her amazing space was decorated with Tibetan temple banners that hung around a huge upper sleeping loft, accessed by a ladder. A large, exotic pet bird roamed about freely. Opposite from top left : Tent made of dhurries and Maimana kilim— in a tree on the beach, Aruba, April, 1977.
“Afghan Traffic” dhurry hanging in Irwin Talber’s boutique, Aruba. April, ’77.
One night she invited Dennis Hopper over to join us in watching a video of a Tibetan Buddhist “sky burial”—a post-mortem ritual that would normally never be filmed. In remote and mountainous Himalayan regions, at altitudes far above the tree line, there is no wood for cremation, and the impenetrable rocky ground makes burial impossible. And so the bodies of the dead are dismembered ceremonially, the limbs and organs cut up and offered to the elements while prayers are recited — and vultures look on, in anticipation of an easy meal. Some time earlier, our host Ohne1 had been privileged to witness and film this ritual in the high mountains of Nepal. Ira worked very hard over the few months we were in New York, consolidating both the inventory at PFM, and our collection of rugs and textiles in our Morgan Manhattan storage space. That April we were invited to bring a selection of special rugs to the Caribbean island of Aruba, for a textile show in a very hip boutique owned by Irwin Talber — a friend of Errol and his wife Margo Hemingway, both of whom accompanied us on the trip. Initially we were all guests at a big house on the beach, which belonged to a guy named Bernard. 1
Ohne visited us in Santa Fe about ten years ago, and we shared many fond memories. But when I googled her recently to get in touch again, I was distraught to learn that she had been killed by a neighbor in a botched robbery.
But once Ira and I found a windswept tree in front of the house — the only tree on this long, treeless, private beach — we decided to set up a tent with some of the Maimana rugs we had brought with us, and sleep right there on the shore. We also had my patchwork quilts with us, which we used as sleeping bags.2 Thinking back, I cannot imagine why we traveled to the Caribbean with such heavy quilts — unless perhaps, being our favorites, we had simply added them to the huge selection of rugs that were shipped for the show. It certainly seemed that on every trip east or west — or in this case, south — we were accompanied by heavy baggage. Fortunately, in those days overweight baggage charges were much less punitive. At any rate, the quilts were perfect for sleeping in our beach tent! That impromptu beachfront tent was amazing — it almost seemed to emerge from thin air — and with our tape deck and music, we created a beautiful pop-up space where Errol, Margo, and the others would hang out with us, rather than at the house. One of Ira’s vocations has always been that of tent-maker, creator of inviting environments on the go. Wherever we were gypsying, he would personalize the space with color and texture, even if only on a pop-up basis. I have always loved that part of Ira, and it is probably why the change to commodities trading never materialized; exporting dried fruits and nuts didn’t stir the same passion that he has always felt for things of handcrafted beauty. Anyway, on this trip he had been too busy dealing with his primary business, so the raisins would have to wait. One year later it would all become academic, when political events ended our stay in Afghanistan. That first night on the beach, we watched and listened to the roaring waves of a Full Moon tide, rising turbulently right up to our feet until about midnight, the moon and seas pulling at each other like cosmic magnets. I was already seven months pregnant, so when we returned to New York it was high time to pack up and fly back to Kabul, and settle in for the birth. Finally we had our business license and so, could legally rent a house We were excited to imagine spreading out beyond our typically tight little hotel room. Friends and parents wondered aloud why we weren’t choosing to have the baby in New York, given the undoubtedly superior medical facilities. But we were eager to get back to our work, and the people with whom we worked. We knew they were probably also wondering if we might stay through the birth, and beyond. After three productive, exciting years together, Ira and I were both invested in the life we had cre2
Though the term didn’t exist back then, this was our version of “glamping,” or glamorous camping.
ated in Afghanistan, which by now felt more like home to us than New York3. While Ira had long viewed Afghanistan as home, now too I felt it was truly my home and the place I wanted to have my child. Our life, our work, awaited us there. My parents lived more than half of each year in Manhattan, where my father worked as captain of Malcolm Forbes’ yacht The Highlander, which docked on the Hudson at 79th Street. In those days, everybody who was anybody — from King Hussein of Jordan to Prince Charles, along with celebrities of all stripes — would be invited to receptions, parties or short cruises on The Highlander. Naturally, then, there was something of a culture clash when Ira and I in our Afghan-inspired hippie clothes visited my parents’ Park Avenue apartment. But neither they nor Ira’s folks tried to dissuade us from returning to Afghanistan for the birth. So with less than two months remaining, we flew back to Kabul. We arrived back on April 21, 1977. Abdul helped us find a lovely house around the corner from his own in Qalay Fateh Ullah. After he also helped us with the lease signing, we moved in on May 5th, barely a month before Isaiah was due to arrive. The house had lots of light, a swimming pool, a large walled garden and a lucky feeling to it. Abdullamid came down from Balkh, and Ira soon had four men washing and cleaning rugs in the bottom of the empty swimming pool, which from then on would frequently serve that purpose. It was a time of many visitors. Even though at this point in the pregnancy I felt a need for some alone time, I was grateful for the wonderful people in our lives: the women; the juwalees4 who came to clean rugs; Abdul and Zabaida; and the many friends we had made. When we had lived in the hotel a stream of rug dealers and business people came to our door every day, and there was a touristy vibe, a lack of personal space. By comparison, the privacy and serenity of this walled-in house and garden seemed a blessing. Traditional Afghan houses and gardens are quite distinctive, surrounded as they are by high mud walls that afford the women and family a secure, private space. So I was surprised to find a photo in Architectural Digest, perhaps a year later, of just such an adobe house, protected by the same softly curving mud walls. Surprised, because the house in the photo was not in Kabul, but in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was profoundly struck by the aesthetic similarities. 3
Though it was our third year in Afghanistan together, it was the ninth year Ira had spent there altogether!
Juwalees are day laborers for hire. The name derives from the word juwal, the name of the roughly woven bags they use to carry things from one place to another.
Through Kabul’s international community Ira and I found Lamaze birthing classes. After attending two sessions we thought we had the technique down pat; I had brought many birthing books with me, and was reading everything I could about home births. Through the grapevine we also found a very experienced midwife — a British woman named Jenny Tripp, who worked at a large hospital called the Noor Eye Clinic. We felt very confident in her. On June 3rd, the Juma one week before the birth, a group of us went to picnic in Istalif with Mahbouba, her little boy, Shahin, and her friend Bruce. Abdul and Zabaida brought along a female buyer from New York, who was accompanied by two young women, Barbara and Judy. Picnics are a favorite Afghan pastime, and Istalif has been a favored picnicking site since the days when Babur, the first Mughul Emperor, enjoyed elaborate picnic parties on its shaded riverbanks in the 16th century. We sat under trees, where everything was lush and smelled wonderful. We splashed in the stream, then shared fruit and cheese. And when it seemed like we might be in for a little shower, we hiked through the dense forest of walnut and cherry trees to the house of one of Abdul’s in-laws, a man named Haji. Everyone lounged in his main room, drinking tea and talking. What wonderful hosts the Afghans are, how welcoming to guests and strangers alike! Around 5:00 p.m., we began our trek back to the village. As we came into a clearing, a bright rainbow appeared, and high above its clear prism colors, a second rainbow arc — a double blessing. Ira and I befriended the young woman named Judy, who shared my interest in astrology and p hotography. I asked her if she would like to photograph the birth, and when she agreed, I gave her some of my birth books to look over, in order to tune her into the process. On June 6th, Ira set off on a rapid three-day trip to check on the factory in Balkh, wanting to squeeze it in before my due date around the 20th. I was a little nervous about his leaving, but had noticed that Mercury was entering Gemini on June 11th, and for some odd reason felt that this baby would have Mercury in Gemini (a ruling planet). So I told Ira there would be no problem because the baby wouldn’t arrive until at least the 11th, and most likely around the due date on the Summer Solstice. He phoned me from Balkh, and returned on June 8th. The following night I was awakened several times by slight contractions.
A New Life Begins
The real contractions started around 11:00 p.m. on the night of the 10
had dinner with friends at Payam, an Italian restaurant, and dessert at another Italian place called Tritoni’s. Ira was hungry, and though I was feeling contractions, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. By morning I was breathing heavily and feeling pressure, but surprisingly when the midwife Jenny arrived, the contractions stopped completely. After examining me she felt that the baby wouldn’t arrive until evening, and left again. Ira was ready to send the workers home, but I thought it might still be a false alarm. So the men continued cleaning rugs in our empty pool, while the women worked in the living and dining rooms—a typical workday. Maryam arrived with the beaded cross mandala just in time to shed its energy into the space where Isaiah would emerge, and the always cheerful Nafar Jan just happened to be there that day. A light-hearted 26-year old mother of ten, not unusual for Afghan women, she exuded confidence. Though she hadn’t worked for us in two years, she was there that day to remind me how she had cried through all ten of her deliveries, and “how good the pain is,” because it means the child is coming. Though she didn’t think my breathing practice was a good idea — she felt it interfered with the natural flow — I knew I could rely on these women should our midwife not return in time. I was happy that my labor had not disrupted the normal working rhythm in the house. All the accounts I’d read of people hanging out and waiting for baby — as congenial as that may be — were not my style. I enjoyed hearing the faint voices and gentle hush of wet brushes as the men scrubbed the rugs. Meanwhile, the women were sewing in the workroom, Ira was in and out of the bedroom to check on me, and our sheep, Gussy, was outside the bedroom window, maaah-ing just a little more than usual. Opposite from top left : Karamali washing Gus, one of our pet sheep, in the garden; With baby Isaiah; Dhurries drying on the grass after a good washing. 247
Just as Jenny Trip was arriving earlier that morning, Zabaida had also arrived, as if she’d known intuitively what was happening. A close friend with a protective, neighborly spirit, Zabaida had often called me from her office at Kabul University to see how I was feeling during the pregnancy. When Ira told Abdul that he thought it was happening, Zabaida had showed up with buckets, plastic and a few other items, prepared to take time off work. But when the contractions subsided and Ira called the workmen back, Zabaida decided to go back to work and return later. Around 2:00 pm Maryam and Nafar Jan came in, and I was shocked when they told me they thought I’d have the baby within the hour. I told Ira, who left to pick up Judy, the young photographer from the Green Hotel. He returned with Judy and Barbara; I was happy to see them both. We thought it best to notify our midwife Jenny, and ask that she come a little sooner, rather than after work. Someone tried to call her at the Noor Eye Clinic, but its single phone line was continually busy. We finally succeeded in leaving Jenny a message, asking her to come right over. By almost 4:00 pm Ira was getting frantic, worried that he would have to catch the baby himself, but I was certain the ladies could handle it if Jenny didn’t arrive on time, and knew all would be well. At 4:10 pm, Jenny arrived and set right to work, and soon after Isaiah was born at 4:45 pm. Jenny said a beautiful prayer, kneeling next to Ira and I as we shared our first moments with Isaiah. An hour later Abdul, Zabaida and her sister came by. Zabaida helped prepare bedding for Isaiah’s cradle, on the floor next to our bed. Some of the women came in to greet Isaiah before they left work, and Mahbouba arrived as well. Ira and I were in awe—full of amazement and wonder at the miracle of life and love. We held and beheld Isaiah for hours, in glowing candlelight after the sun went down. In the days and weeks that followed, motherhood was a learning process, but as I wrote in my journal, “Every act of caring for this fresh, holy, pure being — and learning to care — has had a transforming power over my being.” Becoming parents, Ira and I entered a new phase of life.
Oppositet : Women having lunch with baby Isaiah asleep in a cozy lap; Women working on Unicorn Tapestry in the garden while babysitting Isaiah, who is under the white fabric asleep.
Two For The Price Of One
In the 1970s, there were 200 Jews living in Kabul; today only one remains. During the wars that followed the Soviet invasion, the entire Jewish community emigrated to Israel — save for one man, Itzhak Levy, who stayed behind to protect the city’s only synagogue. Then another Jew, Zabulon Simentov, returned from Turkmenistan. Bizarrely, the two men could not get along, and had each other thrown into prison by the Taliban by making wild accusations against each other. Released again, they lived at opposite ends of Kabul’s run-down synagogue until Levy died in 2005. The carpet dealer Simentov, born in 1959, lives alone in the synagogue on Flower Street in Shar-iNau, and has become known as “the last Jew in Afghanistan.” There was still a Jewish community in Kabul when we lived there. I would go to the sabzi bazaar, and I would see the Star of David on the door whenever I passed the temple. One day before Isaiah was born, I knocked on the door of the synagogue, which was on a side street off the main street of the bazaar. A woman opened the door and summoned the rabbi. He said, “No problem! Don’t worry about a thing. If it’s a boy just come and get me.” Well, Isaiah comes. It’s a boy and in the Jewish religion you gotta do the circumcision on the eighth day. So I’m running a little late, and on the eighth day I’m at the temple knocking, tack tack tack, and the woman opens up and I say, “Is the rabbi in?” “Nooo, the rabbi went to Herat to buy carpet.” I say, “What are you talking about? The rabbi’s a carpet dealer? I need him now for a circumcision. What kind of rabbi goes to Herat to buy carpet?” So I said to her, “I’m in trouble.” She said, “Well, he’ll be back in a few days.” I said, “No, it has to be done on the eighth day.” I go home and tell Sylvie the rabbi is not there and I’m nervous, so I come up with an idea. I hop in a taxi and go to the hospital and tell the driver to wait for me, I’ll be right back. I find a doctor there and tell him, “Doctor, I just had a son and the rabbi won’t come and I have to do a circumcision and a prayer.” I say, “Listen doctor, come with me.” So he grabs his little black bag and jumps in the taxi and we go back to the house. Sylvie brings Isaiah, and we set up the table and the doctor says to me, “You hold the feet.” So I hold the bottom of the feet, and Sylvie is
holding the arms. The doctor pulls out a needle for a shot or something and Isaiah is crying his ass off. All of a sudden he goes clip, clip — two clips — and I drop to the floor and almost faint. I get up and I’m still holding Isaiah’s leg and I say to the doctor, “Doctor, it’s supposed to be one clip in Jewish,” and he says, “Oh, I’m a Muslim, he got two clips.” So Isaiah had a Muslim circumcision because the damn rabbi was in Herat. I literally fainted. Sylvie saw me go down. Poor Isaiah was cry-y-y-ing. So he got a Muslim cut. And so little Isaiah came into the world with three major religious influences in his life: he was born in a Muslim country to a Christian mother and a Jewish father. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that he would grow up to practice Buddhism. After the birth, our work continued, and the following months were exceptionally creative and productive. In our living room we hung a fabulous crocheted hammock that we had bought in Aruba, until we eventually hung it outside under a grape trellis. It was a great place to rock Isaiah. When Ira wasn’t washing rugs in it, we filled our small pool and invited friends and neighbors — Abdul and Zabaida and their family, Mahbouba and little Shahin, as well as friends from the Embassy — to come over for a swim.
During Ira’s trip north, just before Isaiah’s birth, he had been excited to discover a hand-woven indigo fabric in Tashqurghan, where all the men wore long indigo turbans in every shade from dark to faded, resembling nicely worn denim.1 On our way back to Kabul we stopped at the famous covered bazaar in Tashqurghan. Metal designers were tapping out their designs on copper plates, the boots were hanging, it was something out of The Orientalists, 2 so colorful and beautiful. All of a sudden I see a water bearer with a goatskin filled with water on his back. The spout is on the bottom for pouring water. He was walking by with a hand-woven, linen-like indigo blue turban wrapped around his head. I was with Ramazan and Kholdor. Kholdor was about my age, a beautiful old soul, a very special person, always smiling and laughing. He would come to Kabul every month and bring Abdul various textiles, many of which were eventually sold to me. Some came from his native village Tashqurghan, others were from Mazar and other northern villages. I remember that he was always so regal. When he rode his bicycle his back was always so straight and proud as he looked straight ahead. I said to Kholdor, “Ask the water bearer if he wants to sell his turban.” The man was so excited to be able to sell his old turban, because it had holes in it and was sunbleached. He unwrapped it delicately and laid it on the floor onto a blanket. People were standing around watching this transaction, flabbergasted that this Westerner was buying this old ratty carabos (hand-woven linen) turban. Before you knew it, othOpposite from top left : Indigo turban fabric—a natural dyed hand-woven linen— washed, folded, and spread out in the garden. Summer, 1977.
Natural indigo dye has been used all over the world for millennia to dye fabric blue. It was referred to as “blue gold” for its trading value.
In art history, the Orientalists are 19th century western painter-travellers who depicted “oriental” themes in their works.
Washed indigo turbans hanging to dry around the yard. Summer, â€˜77
ers started unwrapping their turbans and throwing them into the pot. Word spread like wildfire, and within fifteen minutes I must have had dozens of turbans on the floor. Kholdor was paying paying people 50 and 100 Afs as they tosed them onto the blanket. When we had a pile Kholdor said, â€œStop. Now that I know what you like, I can buy them and collect them for you.â€? These were the most beautiful turbans, softened by years of wear. I was in awe that I could find this collection of fabrics. So we packed them up and put them in the trunk of the taxi, thanked everybody, and Kholdor said he would bring down more the next week. We began making clothes from them, but not for commercial sale, because in the end there were not that many more turbans to be found. It was just the excitement of that moment that had enabled us to purchase the ones we did collect. It was by no means an unlimited supply. Some of the turbans that Ira collected were torn, but the fabric was soft and aged perfectly. We also bought some new ones from villagers in Tashqurghan, who dyed and wove them on long looms. All were given a good washing and hung out to dry on lines hanging all over the yard, creating a sea of indigo cloth, draped back and forth across the garden.
Ramadan began on August 16 . Even though I was nursing, out of respect for those th
with whom we worked, Ira and I decided again to join in their month-long fasting ritual. Now that Abdul and Zabaida lived around the corner, it was easier to share an occasional dinner together at sunset, either at our house or theirs. For the Eid celebration, Abdul brought three musicians — a rabab, tabla, and harmonium player — to our house, where a festive dinner was laid out on a rug on the floor. Though our knowledge of Islam was limited, and our interest in religion more concerned with exploring the universalities of all faiths, it felt better to participate with our friends in this annual ritual than to set ourselves apart. Though Ira’s policy was to discuss neither religion nor politics, whenever the subject of religion did arise, we often heard respect expressed for “People of the Book” — that is, for Jews and Christians, whose stories and traditions predate Islam and are represented in the Koran. Our Afghan friends and associates were aware that Ira’s religious heritage was Jewish, and mine Christian, but they regarded our religious traditions as part of a lineage of faith that had culminated in, rather than opposed, the teachings of Islam. The tolerance of those times has since been eroded. The freedom fighters who arrived from Middle Eastern countries in the 1980s brought their very different fundamentalist ideologies with them. The more tolerent Islam we experienced in 1970’s Afghanistan drew much from peace loving, mystical Sufism. The numerous shrines of Sufi masters were popular pilgrimage sites, where people made offerings and supplications, seeking protection, blessings, good fortune, or specific favors.1 Shrine keepers would give people special prayers, often verses from the Koran, sewn into triangular pieces of embroidery called tawiz, and worn inside a vest or jacket for protection. Indeed, our newborn Isaiah had received tawiz from our friends for this reason. 1
These could include such boons as “control over a loved one; increased sexual prowess; protection from bullets in a feud; protection from the evil eye, and others.” (Dupree, p. 105)
Whereas some of our friends, like Yusuf Cameron, were engaged in a spiritual journey centered on Sufism, we were drawn to the spiritual without committing to any single path — an outlook reflected in the names we chose for our three sons— Isaiah, Ajna and Sharif. Nor did we follow the path of so many travelers on the hippie trail, en route to meet spiritual teachers in India and Nepal, who sought transcendent experiences through the ubiquitous hashish. Our spiritual teachers would arrive much later—after Isaiah, Ajna and Sharif had grown up, made their own journeys from West to East, and discovered Buddhism. Our sons would bring back — literally to our home — Buddhist teachers of great renown such as Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the late master Ribur Rinpoche. Those first months of Isaiah’s life were idyllic and peaceful. Our house with its lovely garden, the friends and co-workers who were like family, the creative work that seemed destined to keep evolving — it was an amazing time! We had entered a new phase of life and felt abundantly blessed. An exciting development that began during this time was a project we dubbed “rug rehab”. The dhurries that formed the staple of Ira’s early business were still underrated in the East, woven primarily as padding to be used under more valuable carpets. But thanks to Ira’s great eye, tremendous enthusiasm and astute marketing, they were increasingly valued and sought after by decorators in New York—an interest that kept growing as Ira kept the shipments flowing. Realizing that many otherwise lovely dhurries were simply too worn or damaged to purchase for export, we launched a cottage industry built around rehabilitating old rugs. For a few dollars Ira would buy broken, stained and soiled flatwoven rugs that had once possessed great character, most of them striped or geometric in design. These distressed dhurries were laid out either at the bottom of our empty pool or on our stone patio, and scrubbed and washed day after day. They were then hung out to dry, with the strong Kabul sun magically fading seemingly impossible stains. Finally, our crew of women needle workers would take over, covering the remaining holes and faded stains with embroidered stars, animals, birds, butterflies, flowers and nature scenes. The process was complex and labor intensive, but our “rags to rugs” process transformed these dilapidated dhurries into unique works of art, worthy of any home. In fact, New York designers soon started ordering these special rugs from us. They would ask for the ones with “all those embroidered stars and moons on them.”
Badly stained diagonal dhurry before “rehab”; Right: After “rehab”, the completion of a year-long embroidery project: “Life of the Afghan nomad and Native Americans”.
As a patchwork artist I have always loved reclaiming and reusing beautiful pieces of textile, and now we were reclaiming entire dhurries that were otherwise destined for the scrapheap or a donkey’s back. I was so impressed by the venture that I designed a hand-embroidered diploma for Ira, awarding him a “Doctorate of Rug Rehabilitation”. The greatest of these rehabilitated rugs was a huge 9 ft x 12 ft diagonal dhurry, which turned into a major project. Ira had never seen a dhurry like this, with a simple diagonal line separating a pale coral red triangle from a pale indigo triangle, and a zigzag border contrasting the two colors. A truly magnificent specimen, it was also heavily stained: reclaiming and restoring it would be a major challenge. After a thorough washing, we began drawing images over the stains, dividing the triangular halves with scenes from the lives of nomadic Afghans — the Kuchis — on one side, and nomadic Native Americans on the other. Each side was filled with the symbols and emblematic forms of its respective culture, so one side featured Afghan tribal patterns and Turkmen jewelry, while the other depicted Native American beaded moccasins and pottery. Looking at the finished piece, nobody would have guessed the extent of the staining that lay beneath this imagery. By the time we had to leave Afghanistan a year later, we had barely completed this dhurry, entitled “Life of the Afghans and Native Americans.” With its playful, storybook quality, it seemed obvious that we should dedicate it to Isaiah—a gift for his first birthday.
A Family Visit
In late October 1977, Ira and I packed again for New York, to introduce our new baby to his grandparents, and raise money to continue the work in Afghanistan. Since we lived on a tight budget and could not afford to pay rent during our absence, we reluctantly gave up our lovely house and stored our belongings with Abdul. Back in New York, it was clear that my parents were still adjusting to my lifestyle choices: an unfinished PhD at Columbia, Ira’s long hair and our ethnic-looking clothing, and the fact that we were still unmarried. But they found Isaiah irresistibly adorable and so, as usual, the new baby made everything else seem less important. Ira’s parents were similarly thrilled to meet their new grandson. Ira’s sister Roberta already had one son and another had been born a month after Isaiah, so these little cousins also met for the first time. Naomi Greenspan, the potter who had briefly lived with Ira at his place on East 86th Street, now lived in a large loft on Church Street in Tribeca. After our initial few weeks staying at my brother’s fifth-floor walkup studio on Riverside Drive, Naomi invited us to move in and share the rent during our remaining three months in the City. Having brought our big unicorn tapestry back with us, we hung it in her living room. It must have weighed at least 100 pounds, and would return with us to Kabul in February. From time to time we would drive up to Woodstock and spend long weekends with Sitara (our friend from Kabul) Zubin and his wife Shahastra, and other friends. In the city, Naomi would spend hours at a time at her potter’s wheel, while I was often at home with Isaiah working on my own sewing projects, including clothing for the baby and a Christmas present for Ira —one of the many special shirts I made him over the years. Ira, working diligently to sell a large collection of dhurries, spent several days with John and Steven Stark of Stark Carpet, who were again ready to restock their dhurry inventory. On the Full Moon just before Christmas, he closed a significant deal with Opposite from top left : Isaiah’s christening at the Church on the Mount, Woodstock, NY; Top right: Visiting Sylvia’s parents’ apartment, NYC. 261
Stark that would enable us to return to Afghanistan and fund all our ongoing projects. On the same day he read aloud to me from the newspaper about a strange new sonic “boom” phenomenon on the East Coast. These loud booms, which shook houses, may have been from supersonic aircraft, though their origins were hotly debated and remained a mystery. To Ira they seemed to be a sign to leave New York. “It’s time to go,” he said. We now had the means for expansion in Afghanistan — perhaps another weaving factory in Kabul, or new projects in Istalif — and were considering various ideas and hopes. But it took another six weeks before Ira could conclude a contract with Phoenix Carpet to handle the rest of his mushrooming collection of dhurries and kilim; PFM could only handle so many. Shortly before departing New York we bought numerous items to ship back: photographic darkroom equipment for a darkroom for me; several 50 lb bags of soybeans; more beads and embroidery threads; books from Weiser’s bookstore; music cassettes; a new typewriter, and of course, some toys for Isaiah.
A New Home In Kabul
Our trunks dispatched via Pan Am, we flew back with Isaiah and landed in Kabul on February 12th. While we searched for a new house to rent, Kay and Larry Thompson invited us to stay with them, in a neighborhood favored by Embassy staff and diplomats. We were grateful, not least because their spacious two-story residence had all the conveniences of a western home, but also because Isaiah, who had been terrific on the long flights, would come down with his first fever a few days later. Kay, Larry and their children Amy, 13, and Chuck, 10, were all very hospitable. They made life in the Foreign Service seem enviable on certain levels, especially since early exposure to foreign cultures had clearly broadened their children’s horizons. As usual whenever we left the country, we had been required to leave our van in customs. After picking it up we were soon back in action, meeting with the women to inspect the work done in our absence, and then with Sher Mohammed, Abdul, and everyone in the market. We also returned to find Ramazan up to old tricks, this time attempting to extract a ransom payment for a rug, as well as severance pay, so that he could finally quit working with us and buy a taxi. After Larry Thompson helped facilitate a meeting between Ira, Ramazan and Sher Mohammed at the Embassy, it was Abdul who helped Ira negotiate a settlement with Ramazan for one “Lak” (100,000 Afs). Ultimately, despite all the problems, Ira and Ramazan parted as friends, and everyone was relieved. During years of working together we had developed a tremendous warmth and closeness, a bond that transcended any personal issues. Meanwhile, our search for a house grew frustrating — until Dan and Julia placed an ad for us in the Kabul American, the diplomatic community’s newspaper. This resulted in another lovely house, again with a pool and large, walled garden. As soon as we moved in, Rahima, her mother and Maryam brought the large diagonal embroidered dhurry on which they had been working at home. Nusea arrived also, and after making curtains for the big windows, we settled down to work on beading and embroidered tapestries. And as always some special patchwork clothing, including yet another fabulous velvet shirt I was planning as a gift for Ira’s 35th birthday.
I also started another velvet patchwork quilt at this time: a blue and turquoise one with a fully embroidered mosque of Mazar-i-Sharif as its centerpiece. This became a favorite that later hung in our house. Meanwhile, Zabaida and others would often accompany me to the secondhand bazaar in search of old velvet clothing that would turn up in Salvation Army bundles, piled high on long rows of tables. We would select a wide array of colors, and take them home to be washed and cut up for my patchwork clothes and tapestries. Many of Kabul’s bustling bazaars specialized in one particular item or commodity — raisins, beads, birds, household goods, used and new clothing, textiles, auto parts, or even vintage rifles… you name it! Salvation Army clothing from America was an especially big business; containers full of used clothing were regularly shipped to Afghanistan, where local dealers would purchase bales by the ton, to be sorted and sold in vast bazaars across the nation. Afghan men in particular supplemented their traditional dress — baggy pants and long shirts — with jackets, overcoats and sweaters from these bazaars. With our 50 lb bags of soybeans, we began making tofu from scratch. Using The Book of Tofu, another 70s classic, we tried out different recipes, testing this new protein on our crew. Their feedback was unanimous; they all thought it was a really odd “cheese”, much like panir, the soft curd cheese that is similarly hung in cheesecloth to drain and is a familiar ingredient in regional dishes.. With sheep and goats’ milk abundant in those days, the Afghans probably wondered why we were bothering with this complicated alternative. Though they indulged us by trying it, we were slightly discouraged at their lack of enthusiasm.1 Our sheep Gus and Gussy (gusband is Dari for sheep), who had vacationed in Istalif during our absence, were brought back to their new garden home. Sheep make wonderful pets, and ensure that the lawn never needs mowing. Gussy had just birthed a baby lamb. The three sheep were Isaiah’s playmates in the garden as he crawled about on all fours. We all felt awful, though, when on March 27th, poor Gus ripped his tail on some wire, and we had to get a doctor to come by and stitch him up. 1
In recent years, USDA government programs have attempted to introduce soybeans to Afghanistan as a food crop and source of oil. But $34 million dollars later, a Fox news report of July 2014 found that Afghans dislike the taste of soy products, and “measures to push the superfood onto the culture have tanked.” Despite limited success in convincing bakers to add protein-rich soy flour to their bread in order to combat rampant malnutrition among women and children, and a soymilk factory that is nearing completion, Afghans still seem resistant. One obvious problem is that soybeans are not suited to Afghan farming practices. In a June 2014 report, John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, stated, “What is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could reasonably have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided.” Had we been asked, we could have told the USDA to save its money!
From top left: Maryam hanging cloth diapers to dry with Isaiah; Rahima with Isaiah; Karamali carries Isaiah in an Indonesian beaded baby carrier; A walk in the hills above Shar-i-Nau. 265
Going for a walk with our sheep and Isaiah around the neighborhood, Shar-i-Nau.
It was spring, so we planted seeds and flowers; Afghans take great pride in their gardens and adore flowers. We bought a French hen and built a chicken coop, and the chickens and sheep grazed and ambled around the lawn. Friends came for dinner parties: Dan and Julia, Kay and Larry, Kornelia Brown from Montreal and her mother Elizabeth (both German), Abdul and Zabaida, and Robert and Rosina — who were expecting their first baby. People who have lived in ex-pat communities abroad sometimes say it can feel like living in a fishbowl because everyone in these tight knit circles seems to know everyone else’s business! This was true in Kabul as well, where many lifetime friendships were forged through the shared experience of living in another culture. Our circle of friends widened during this time: even Yunus Rafiq invited us to a party at his house, which we attended with baby Isaiah. As one of the few people in the Daoud government who favored foreign investment, Rafiq liked us because he recognized Ira as an entrepreneur. Ira always felt that the Afghan government, fearing economic domination, had resisted foreign investment to protect indigenous industries for Afghans. It seems we were granted our business license because our enterprise was already successful, and it employed Afghans. However, when Yunus asked him to donate rugs from our factory as gifts for the visiting Shah of Iran, Ira had to politely decline, explaining that all our rugs were either custom orders or already sold. Ira was not at all comfortable with the idea of one of our precious rugs going to the Shah, anyway. And though none of us knew it at the time, forthcoming events would soon dash Yunus’s hopes of a more liberal Afghan economy, and crush any chance of economic investment and progress. 266
The Light Begins To Fade
On March 24
at 8:00 pm we sat out in the garden, and over the course of s
everal tranquil hours watched the total lunar eclipse. In retrospect, this powerful eclipse probably heralded the violence that would explode in the weeks ahead—a tipping point in Afghanistan’s modern history that ended decades of peace, stability, and gradual progress.1 On April 3rd Ira and I took Isaiah on a road trip to Mazar-i-Sharif, where we met with Sher Mohammed and visited the factory. There we admired dhurries in progress, including the beautiful “third eye” rainbow-striped series. Having had our fill of the Balkh Nights Hotel, we stayed (this time) at a lovely hotel, consisting of a cluster of individual cottages, surrounded by beautiful landscaping. After introducing Isaiah to all our merchant friends along the main bazaar, we then crossed the street and strolled through the vast grounds of the Blue Mosque. As always, we fed the huge flocks of white doves, which delighted Isaiah. I had started shooting lots of black and white photographs, mostly portraits of our extended family the men and women who worked at the house. Soon I was developing my own negatives in the new darkroom we had set up. Since I’d never developed photos before it was mostly trial and error, though Ira found a young man from one of the local photo stores who helped me get going. Ira continued his daily rounds in search of dhurries and kilim. Meanwhile, our house’s covered carport was swamped with mounds of raw cotton, grown in the north around Kunduz. A young man sat spinning it into yarn, to be woven into rugs at our factory2. 1
In his book Afghanistan, a Cultural and Political History, Thomas Barfield divides 20th century Afghan history into three eras, with the 1978 revolution dividing the latter two. Barfield identifies 1929-1978 as the country’s longest period of peace — followed by 1978-2001 as its most violent and destructive era, one of war and anarchy.
A 9 ft x 12 ft dhurry requires 20-30 lbs. of cotton.
Isaiah and Abdulhamid hanging out in our garden with the sheep.
Looking back at what was to follow, it seems ironic that we had just started to relax, to ease ourselves into a small measure of domestic comfort and tranquility. After the years of struggle â€” the monthly turmoil of exiting the country to renew our visas, harassment by government officials, problems with New York business partners, and our ever-present financial uncertainty â€” things were finally going well. Our business was secure, our family was growing, our creative and artistic aspirations were being realized, our circle of friends was expanding. Life was peaceful. We felt established.
End Of The Beginning
That Thursday started like any other day with birds singing in the trees, sunshine in a blue sky, children laughing in the streets. But April 27, 1978 would unravel in terrible ways, sending shockwaves through the nation, and ultimately the world. It would also reveal to me how everyone deals differently with sudden stress and fear. Ira and I had never given much thought to Afghan politics or discussed it with others; Afghanistan had always seemed so calm and peaceful, and we had both been so busy working and creating that the country’s geopolitical situation had hardly registered. While the coup caught us by surprise, others had seen it coming — like our friend Larry Thompson, Economic Officer at the US Embassy. Larry later told us, We had a clue that something was happening. About a week before the coup, a communist leader [Mir Akbhar Khyber of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA] was assassinated, and to protest his death thousands of Afghans — mostly students from the university — had staged a silent march down the streets of Kabul, right past the American Embassy. A few of them shouted out anti-American slogans as they passed. Three of four days later, the Daoud government arrested several top communist leaders in Kabul in an effort to put down any uprising. However, they didn’t arrest all of them and the ones who stayed free were able to organize a military assault on Kabul. That said, we didn’t believe that Daoud and his government were seriously in trouble, as we thought the communists were fractured into two groups and fighting each other. But they came together for the coup, and afterwards they promptly began to fight each other again. The two groups were the Parcham and the Khalq. The Khalq initially won the fight for power, but after the Russians invaded they favored the Parcham. I recall that most of the leaders of the coup were killed in internal struggles within a few months. That morning Ira and I drove to the sheep bazaar with Maryam to select another sheep for the house, a process akin to adopting a pet from a shelter — except the bazaar was a big open field, where sheepherders and farmers brought sheep to buy and sell. To identify whose sheep belonged to whom, children brushed big blobs of paint onto each
sheep’s wool in signature color combinations. Ira chose a sheep, and Maryam held onto it in the back of the van as we drove home. Later that day Rosina and Robert came to visit. Rosina, who was designing clothing for her shop in Victoria, B.C., had just given birth to their first son, Aaron. Rosina and Aaron stayed with Isaiah and me at our house that afternoon. Ira and Robert drove into town in our VW van to exchange money at the money bazaar, where Sikhs and Afghans would exchange all types of currencies. Only they never made it that far. Approaching the city center, they passed large crowds marching down towards the U.S. Embassy. A bit further along the Kabul River, where dealers would hang their rugs over the walls, cars were honking as traffic crawled to a standstill. Suddenly an Afghan with a turban, a fierce tribal type, approached the van and pointed his Kalashnikov assault rifle into the driver’s side window, which Ira frantically rolled up. Fearing for his life, Ira turned and said, “We better get out of here!” Robert said, “Let’s go!” For what seemed like an eternity they crawled along in traffic, until they could make a left turn up a side road. Fueled by a panicked rush of adrenaline, they raced back to our house at top speed. Finding the gate locked, Robert, a tall man, leapt over the wall and opened the gate for Ira. They rushed into the house with the news of these shocking events, although we still had no idea what was going on. We turned on the radio and heard warnings to stay indoors. Abdul and Zabaida, closed up their shop and came home to their house around the corner. That morning, Zabaida recalls, Abdul and his family had heard gunshots around the city. Word spread that there was fighting at the Presidential residence, the Harg Palace. Everyone felt anxious and nervous, but since few people at that time had ever experienced war, nobody knew what to expect. Next, the government radio station was taken over by the Communists, and an unfamiliar announcer declared that President Daoud Khan had been killed. His body, said the announcer, had been laid out in the Harg Palace and all were invited to come and see it for themselves. Many people, perhaps disbelieving, actually went to see the corpse. According to Zabaida, anyone associated with the monarchy or the Daoud government began to panic, and many fled for their lives1. We all agreed that Robert, Rosina, and their baby Aaron should stay at our house until we had more information. Ira and Robert created a makeshift bunker for us 1
Recently, Abdul and Zabaida’s son Ali spoke with his mother and her sister Nurit about those days. Zabaida recalled that about two months prior to the coup, President Daoud Khan (who had seized power himself in a 1973 coup against his own cousin, King Zahir Shah) had been suspected of the assassination of a major figure in the communist party, and had ordered that the death be announced on public radio. This act sent shoc waves through Kabul’s political factions, triggering public protests. While many believed that some form of political change would inevitably result, nobody envisioned another fully-fledged coup d’état.
by lining the walls with stacks of carpets that had been waiting for export. Noticing that Ira was still shocked and somewhat frantic, and in an effort to stay cool-headed, I decided to start cooking. While Ira prepared for the worst with typical attention to detail, I started baking bread! Probably in a state of denial, I thought that building a carpet-bunker was overkill, despite the fact that by now we could hear gunshots, explosions, and planes screeching low overhead. There were, after all, two babies in the house — newborn Aaron and 10-month old Isaiah. The sound of explosions in the distance continued through the night while we tried, with limited success, to sleep. Meanwhile, the various radio stations all played a non-stop mix of traditional and modern Afghan music, interspersed with announcements heralding a new regime that would bring all the typical Marxist benefits to “the workers.” Never before had Afghans heard such blatant propaganda. I remember thinking that the music selections gave the impression of a celebration—that the songs had clearly been chosen to make everyone rejoice and feel happy. In fact, the music was so terrific that I even inserted several blank cassette tapes, recording as much of it as possible. While our conversational Dari was fairly good, it was hard to understand the rapid-fire radio announcements. So it wasn’t until the next day that we learned that President Mohammed Daoud had, indeed, been assassinated in the Presidential palace along with several family members, and his regime overthrown by pro-Communist rebels. Obviously, the coup had been planned for a Thursday so that the next day, Juma, would be one of rest and prayer, with businesses closed and people at the mosque. The new Communist regime, sympathetic to and tacitly supported by the Soviet Union, started airing anti-American rhetoric on the radio, and Afghans became increasingly afraid to be seen with us. Suddenly, people who normally visited Ira openly during the day were so nervous that they began sneaking through our gate like thieves. Even the women, who still wanted to come to work, would try to dash in when no one was looking. When we explained to Sher Mohammed and others that a Marxist group had seized power, he was initially unfamiliar with the philosophy. When we explained it, he dismissed the idea, saying, “Oh no, noooo! Never!” It simply wasn’t a possibility, he insisted. “If a heathen (i.e. non-Muslim or Russian-influenced) group were to take over Afghanistan,” he told us, “we Afghans would die to the last man to prevent it.” To emphasize his point he held up five fingers and slowly pressed down each one until he was showing us a fist. “Impossible,” he reassured us.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
I can still hear the passionate sincerity of those words, which turned out to be prescient. Once Communist ideology came into conflict with centuries-old traditional values, outraged Afghans resisted fiercely. As Sher Mohammed had predicted, the Afghan mujahideen, or “freedom fighters” as they became known in the West, rose up to rid the country of the “heathen” Communists and their Marxist reforms. Indeed, they proved willing to die until the last man. What Sher Mohammed could not have foreseen was that the mujahideen and Afghanistan itself, would become proxies in the last great power struggle of the Cold War. He could also never have foreseen that the mujahideen’s struggle would draw Islamic fighters from many other countries, turning tolerant Afghanistan into a training ground for foreign Muslims with extremist agendas — a situation that is still playing out today. Barely a year after the coup, the Soviet Union was “invited” to intervene militarily, in order to prop up the failing pro-Soviet regime of Hafizullah Amin. During the following decade of war, Soviet bombers obliterated entire Afghan villages, and destroyed nearly all of once-verdant Kabul’s trees, including its surrounding apricot and peach orchards, to remove any cover for mujahideen snipers. Meanwhile, tens of thousands fled the fighting by crossing into Pakistan, the more fortunate making their way to Europe or the U.S., while the rest occupied vast refugee camps on the border. Smaller numbers also fled to Iran. Despite their superb guerrilla tactics, the mujahideen were ill equipped to fight the Soviet army. Some fighters were even using rifles dating from the 19th century British occupation — the type of antique guns that Abdul had sold to collectors! In fact, the mujahideen only prevailed thanks to covert support from the U.S., U.K., Saudi Arabia and others, facilitated through the Pakistani security agency (ISI), and in particular the U.S. Stinger ground-to-air missiles that turned the tide, enabling the mujahideen to shoot
down marauding Soviet gunship helicopters. 1And of course, the mujahideen ranks were soon swollen with foreign fighters, eager to wage jihad alongside their Muslim brothers against the Soviet “infidels”. Pakistan shares a long and historically volatile border with Afghanistan—a line demarcation delineated by the British in 1893 as the Durand Line. During the Afghan-Soviet war, the Pakistani government saw an opportunity to exert control over its neighbor’s affairs. Regarded by the U.S. as a trustworthy intermediary, Pakistan insisted that all funds to support the mujahideen be funneled through Pakistani Islamist parties. This gave those parties enormous power and influence in the overcrowded Afghan refugee camps within Pakistan, which were full of young men desperate for money to feed their destitute families. By offering cash incentives, the radical Islamists recruited thousands to the cause of jihad. At the same time, charities funded by fundamentalist Wahhabi Sunni Muslims from Saudi Arabia were busy building their own conservative brand of madrassas, religious schools, in these same refugee camps. Though some schooling was provided by NGOs in the camps, those services fell far short of the need. For the majority, the madrassas provided the only education available to young Afghan boys from refugee families — and many impoverished Pakistani families as well. Never mind that they taught only radical interpretations of Islamic texts that were culturally foreign to Afghans and Pakistanis. Desperate for any education that might help their children, parents were only too happy for their sons to attend, assuming their children would be at least offered a good moral education. Historically, madrassas had been venerated, even progressive, educational institutions known for furthering developments in art, medicine, and mathematics — particularly during the golden era of Islamic civilization. But from the time of the Russian invasion and rise of jihad to repel it, the foreign Wahhabi fundamentalists used the respected tradition of madrassas as an institutional cover to further their own political agendas — effectively brainwashing vulnerable refugee children, who grew into adulthood in the camps. This fundamentalist extremism was first directed at the Soviet Union but gradu-
ally turned against the U.S. and its Western allies. Many madrassa graduates joined 1
Charlie Wilson’s War, tells the story of the little known individuals who influenced the US government to covertly fund stinger missiles and other weapons to the Afghan “freedom fighters”. The film portrays behind the scenes manipulations by Charlie Wilson, Texas socialite Joanne Herring and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, which succeeded in turning the tide in favor of the Afghans in their war against the Soviets.
Al-Qaeda, which steadily sent its recruits through the porous Pakistani frontier into Afghanistan to support and influence the mujahideen. In some areas of Afghanistan, local leadership was completely wiped out by these foreign fighters, who were intent on their own version of jihad — one that had almost nothing in common with the desires of most Afghans. Even after the retreat of an exhausted and humiliated Soviet army in 1989, there was barely a moment’s pause before the advent of another decade of armed conflict as the country spiraled into a vicious civil conflict. The mujahideen forces who had remained united against the Soviets, now spintered into rival factions. Some backed by Pakistan, —they engaged in a bitter struggle for control of the country. During the Afghan Civil War, indiscriminate and relentless bombardment of Kabul pulverized the city, with thousands of shells and rockets destroying almost its entire infrastructure. This once beautiful old city, which we had loved so dearly, was left a barely recognizable cluster of rubble. Then came the Taliban, also formed by madrassas-educated young men, followed by 9/11 and the invasion of U.S. troops — and yet more conflict. The only undisputed result of all these years of war and anarchy has been the seemingly endless suffering of the Afghan people, the death of at least 1.5 million Afghans, and what seems to be the irrevocable destruction of their uniquely rich and historical culture. Sher Mohammad had been tragically correct in his prediction of the Afghan response to any “heathen” attempt at domination. Ultimately that fierce retaliation opened a Pandora’s box full of competing foreign influences seeking to impose disparate political and religious agendas. Today, a generation of Afghans has never known peace, and many believe that the beautiful culture we once knew is more alive in the diaspora than in Afghanistan itself.
Having renewed our three-month business visa just prior to the coup, Ira and I decided to lay low for a few months and wait to see how events unfolded. Initially, the mood seemed slightly calmer, but even by June 11th, the day of a big celebration for Isaiah’s first birthday, guests still felt insecure about coming to our house — although no one wanted to miss the party. We had invited everyone who worked for us, Abdul and Zabaida, and their entire extended family, and the various families from the U.S. Embassy we’d befriended over the past year. We held Isaiah’s party in the garden, with balloons everywhere, a large birthday banner, lots of food, party favors, and a big cake. But we knew, deep down, that this was as much a farewell gathering as a birthday celebration. Still, whatever might be going on beyond our garden walls, it was a beautiful and joyful day within them. We were busy finishing our projects and shipping trunks full of rugs and belongings back to New York before our departure date of July 19th (incidentally, the day when Isaiah would take his first steps). Those first months following the coup were deceptively tranquil. The new government, led by Nur Muhammad Taraki, wanted to maintain the appearance of normality, and thus avoid provoking any rebellion against its communist power grab. But as we got ready to leave there were already rumblings of a resistance movement, and the increasingly fraught sense that things might get a lot worse before they got any better. To add to the drama, on June 26th Ira felt an acute abdominal pain. The next day we went to see Dr. Sutherland, a Canadian doctor who had volunteered for a three-month stint with Care-Medico, a program run by the leading humanitarian organization, CARE. He diagnosed appendicitis and said he might need to operate. Ira’s pain subsided initially, but at brunch at the Floyds’ a few days later, it returned. That evening Dr. Sutherland came by the house and, noting the appendix might burst at any time, made arrangements for Ira’s admission to Jamhuriat Hospital the next morning, July 1st at 8:00.
Celebrating Isaiah’s 1st Birthday — a farewell gathering at the same time. June 11, 1978.
The doctors at Jamhuriat were known to treat Afghanistan’s upper classes, and were certainly well trained, but the hospital had inferior equipment and minimal supplies by western standards. Both Ira and I felt reassured that Dr. Sutherland would perform this emergency surgery, assisted by two visiting female anesthesiologists from North Carolina. Still, throughout the two-hour operation, I was fearful and nervous, worried something had gone wrong. And I was hardly reassured when I saw Ira immediately after the surgery: he was still groggy and white as a sheet. That night, Isaiah and I lay alongside Ira’s rickety hospital bed, on a cot someone had rolled in for us. I was awake half the night, and Ira barely slept. Aside from the spartan conditions, the whole environment was tense and anxious. Even though two months had now passed since the coup, the nurses told us that the cries of pain we could hear from down the hall came from people injured in the coup’s aftermath. I went back and forth between the house and hospital the following day, leaving Isaiah at home in the care of the women, but we both returned that night to sleep again on the uncomfortable cot. Despite his large incision, Ira managed to get up and start walking on July 3rd, though he was still not fit to be discharged. The next day, Dan and Julia invited Isaiah and me to a Fourth of July picnic by the AID compound’s pool — a brief but welcome diversion from all the stress. Ira came home the following day. To express our gratitude, Ira presented Dr. Sutherland with a beautiful rug from our factory.
As Ira recovered, we began our final preparations to leave. Fortunately, we still had enough time on our visas to wind down our affairs without drawing too much attention. After the coup many people were leaving. But I was glad to have three months left on our business visa to gather my thoughts and time to tie up our affairs. Shortly before our planned departure I had to go get our exit visas from this new government. I put on a brave face with Sylvie, like I’m just going to go do it. But in fact I was freaking out, especially when you hear stories and rumors and everyone was upside down, trying to escape. I just went because I had no choice. I had to face the music whatever might happen. I had no idea what to expect and didn’t sleep the night before, worrying about the possibilities. What are they going to say? They might have said, come back in a day or a week. Leave your passport here, like they did sometimes in Pakistan. I didn’t know if they would arrest me because I’m an American and they don’t like Americans. It was an unknown, one of my most scariest times because I went alone. I took Sylvie and Isaiah’s passports up there with me. I didn’t want Sylvie to go because if anything would happen with her and Isaiah it would be terrible. I never revealed to Sylvie how nervous I was or how I was feeling. There were legitimate reasons to be fearful. Some people I knew who thought they might be targeted by the Communists had to be smuggled to Pakistan, hidden in trucks through the Khyber Pass, and they killed our Ambassador1 a few months later—things like that. It’s hard when you are in a foreign country, especially when one government has been overthrown and there are no rules and regulations, everything is up to the person questioning you, especially when they are supposedly anti-capitalist, anti-American. So I was very scared going up to the visa office because I had absolutely no idea what would come out of it. And when you see tanks and military at every corner along the way, it was intimidating. I was even scared leaving Sylvie and Isaiah at home, fearful that they could arrest me, or do anything they want. 1
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs was killed in an exchange of gunfire following a kidnapping attempt in Kabul, February 1979.
A lot of people in my position might have gone to the U.S. Embassy to ask them to get the stamp for me. I could have gone to Larry at the Embassy, but I had no idea if they would have done it, or if my position might have been endangered by using them as a shield to get the visa, as if I’m hiding something, so I had to do it on my own. To be very honest, we had a business going there; they could have made up something like I owed taxes or duties. These were all things that went through my mind, when I couldn’t sleep the night before— a million things they could have questioned me with. So I go in and sit down at a desk in front of this young man, about 23 years old, with short dark hair. A few other men working nearby also seemed very young, as if they were part of the new group of Communists, who had taken over and were now suddenly in charge. I was so focused on explaining my situation and that I had a new baby who I wanted to take to see his grandparents, and that I had to leave because I had just had an operation. I said that we were here working in cottage industries. At first the guy pulled out a file on me, which was surprising. And after I finished talking, then he started to talk to me and said, “I know all about you.” He knew where the factory was, what we were doing there. He said, “You were really nice to the Afghan people; you did a great job and we want to give you the exit visa without any problem. And I want you to know one thing—Afghanistan appreciates what you have done and you are always welcome here, because you really helped the people.” It felt like he had been waiting for me. I was totally shocked by how much he knew about us. Did the file tell about the Interpol investigation and how we had been cleared? They knew I wasn’t a spy and that I didn’t work for any government or any agency. The guy said they had been watching me, even when I was in Balkh. I never figured out how that could have been possible… unless this young guy behind the desk had worked in some department in Mazar-i-Sharif as a clerk where we had come under scrutiny. It seemed that the Communists knew I was in the country for a good reason — trying to teach and build up trade with America. I was shocked how extraordinarily nice to me they were. Maybe these Communists wanted to show a good side that they were for the poor people, for the working people. They were coming in as socialists and here I was building cottage industries to
give people work and build up handicrafts. They had to make their new society work, so maybe I was some symbol of doing good that they wanted to acknowledge and pursue. They were already meeting with resistance for some of their new ideas, like educating women. So he stamped the visas into the passport just like one, two three. I was shocked how easy it was. Even in Pakistan, when we used to renew our visas every month, they would say come back tomorrow and leave your passport here, and I would worry if I’m gonna get my passport the next day while sleeping in a hotel in Peshawar or Lahore. They could have said come back in a week. But when he took out the stamp and went POW, POW, POW, I couldn’t believe my eyes, especially after that sleepless night thinking of all the reasons why it wouldn’t happen. It was like my good karma in Afghanistan was repaid because I did good there. Having always been straight up about the work I was doing, it really paid off in that moment. I floated—I literally floated out of that office. I came running home to Sylvie so excited that they gave us the exit visas, and we were free to go. Even though we were leaving with hopes of returning, I sensed in my heart that this time it was different. It was the end.
It was true that we always intended to return. Change had swept the country, foreigners were leaving, and the nation was permeated by a mood of instability and uncertainty. But never for a second did we imagine that this would lead to decades of war. On the day of the coup, twenty months prior to the Soviet invasion, Ira and I had been on a roll, with no intention of moving back to the States. Our weaving factory in Balkh was humming with custom orders from New York and rugs of our own design, and we were constantly coming up with exciting ideas for future projects. But though it would take us a while to comprehend it, that day was the beginning of the end for our Afghan adventure. Three months after the coup we were granted our exit visas. We left our remaining belongings to be safely stored in Abdul’s shop. Sher Mohammad would keep the weaving factory going in the north in our absence.2 We had no idea, as we bid farewell to friends and colleagues, that we would never see most of them again.
Sher Mohammad kept the factory going during the worst times of the Soviet War, until the late 80s. He was once present when rockets hit the factory. With increasing insecurity, weavers abandoned ship and Sher Mohammad was forced to do so as well. Today a supermarket fills the large three acre lot which was home to our weaving factory.
After a four-day sightseeing detour in Istanbul, Ira, Isaiah and I returned to New York in late July, where we sublet a couple of apartments in quick succession, first on the Upper West Side, and then on Christopher Street in the West Village, a neighborhood that we loved. We spent many hours at our storage facility—“the vault”—as Ira was wholesaling to Bloomingdale’s and other clients. Because we had friends and family in the city, there was always the possibility of staying there long-term. That would have been the easy default option. Isaiah loved the playground at Washington Square Park, where he would swing in a trance until I’d have to tear him away. Those who raise kids in New York City are obliged to spend a lot of time in public playgrounds; Ira wasn’t sure that was how he wanted to raise kids. Then he had an idea: “Why don’t we buy an RV and travel around the country?” Though neither of us had been to the western states, we were both fascinated by the arts, culture, and history of the Pueblo Southwest, and had often employed its imagery and symbols in our design projects. In early October we answered a classified ad in the New York Times and bought a used Pace Arrow RV from a Long Island fireman. We kept it in Woodstock until Ira could rent a garage near our apartment, and spent the next weeks redecorating its typically tasteless interior. We would always decorate our living spaces with wonderful textiles and bold patterns. Since we were going to spend considerable time in this RV, I sewed curtains and seat cushions using big, bright blue and pink flowered chintz from the Kabul bazaar, while Ira made a rug tent for the cab and the rest of the interior. After reupholstering it entirely with chintz fabrics and dhurries, we set out in November on a road trip that would last almost six months. Opposite from top left : Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis naturia peligenia qui totatur? Ovitassed qui occum quis cuptatur autem earci 283
Having spent so many days behind the wheel in our VW van in Afghanistan and Pakistan, taking to the road in the U.S. felt like a natural progression of our semi-nomadic lifestyle.1 Now we discovered RV parks and a much more expansive way to travel in our rolling home — or as my parents called it, the “Land Yacht”. Not only was the RV far more comfortable than the VW, we could also cook and sleep in it. Isaiah was about 16 months old, and since kids were not yet required by law to wear seat belts, we tucked him into a couch-like seat wrapped in his down comforter, where he happily enjoyed the scenery. Despite the relative homogeneity of U.S. towns and suburbs, Ira and I were excited to be discovering fascinating parts of the country. First we drove south, visiting friends along the way— like Suzi Kimmelman in Virginia, on whose Woodstock property we had pitched our tent in 1974 — all the way down to New Orleans. Then we visited Dallas for business, and drove on to Arizona, where friends were living in a New Age community called Healing Waters. Finally we made it to California, where we visited some Afghan dealers, who had settled in the States, including Nurisher’s brother, Khalil. We also met people in the interior design community. We took Isaiah to Disneyland and spent time at the beach. New Year’s Eve 1978 was a freezing, snowy day, and I was nursing a very sick Isaiah in the RV as we first drove into Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were intrigued because many friends had already suggested Santa Fe might be the place for us. Since Ira’s mom had a best friend whose son, Barry Kaye, lived here with his family, we parked the RV by his house and paid a visit. With the weather hovering around 18 degrees, Barry and his wife showed us the town. For Ira it was love at first sight! He sensed immediately that he wanted to live here, and I had a similar feeling, though I still wanted to consider our options. The adobe architecture, the mountains, the wide-open spaces, and high desert landscape, the big skies and brilliant sunshine — all of it spoke to us, reminding us of our beloved Afghanistan. Santa Fe, then a city of 41,000 people, had not yet become the tourist destination it is today. It was very low key back then, especially in the winter, but it was noticeably full of artists and creative people. Everywhere we went, in restaurants and galleries, everyone was so friendly, and there was a community feeling similar to the one we had enjoyed in Woodstock. We had decided already that Woodstock was not the right place for us to settle, as it had been too moist for our textiles, creating problems with mold. On the other hand, Santa Fe felt like Woodstock in the West — with blue skies, 1
To this day Ira enjoys driving our small RV, which, he says, handles with an ease reminiscent of our old VW van.
sunshine and a much drier climate. It also offered a healthy, organic lifestyle, and was relatively affordable.2 Still, we had more traveling planned. We had brought rugs in the RV to sell, and Ira was also buying rugs from dealers and antique shops along the way. We still needed sales to support ourselves. So we set off again for California, connecting with our old friends Zubin and Shahastra. They too were in transit and would join us in Santa Fe
in the fall for one year before settling down in Ojai, CA. Then we drove up the coast to visit Sitara, who now lived in San Francisco, but would soon follow us to Santa Fe. Even back then California felt too congested, and we hated driving on freeways. The options spun through our minds. Should we check out Oregon? Go back to New York? Santa Fe kept pulling us back. We decided to return to Santa Fe in late March, and started looking for a home with the help of an American Sikh realtor named Gurudain. While I thought we should probably start by renting to get a feel for the area, Ira was certain he wanted to buy right away. Even if the situation in Afghanistan were to improve and allow us to return, Ira felt we still needed a permanent base in the States. By now we had another baby on the way, and I suppose the nesting instinct had kicked in. When Ira asked Gurudain to find us a house with mountain views, he showed us a large “fixer-upper” that fit our budget (only $10,000 down) on a great hilltop property with a 360° vista. We had thoroughly enjoyed our months on the road with Isaiah, but with the new baby due in October, it was time to settle in. Leaving our RV at a campground we flew back to New York to gather our belongings, storing the better part of our textile collections and carpets in the vault at Morgan Manhattan. On April 22, 1979, after five years together and almost two children—with two friends and Isaiah as our witnesses—Ira and I were married under a huge old tree in Mead Meadow, Woodstock, by our astrologer friend Mary Orser. Back in Santa Fe we closed on the house and moved in on May 12th. It seemed we had found the perfect place to raise a family. With zero experience in construction or home remodeling, Ira set to work on our fixer-upper, while continuing to work the phones with his wholesale clients in New York. He brought two pet goats for the new backyard, which had taken 100 sticks of dynamite to carve out of the hillside, and we planted our first garden. Ajna, our second child, was born at home on October 19th. 2
In 1979, original local families still lived in the historic East Side district before the area became too pricey. There was even a real Five and Dime on the Plaza, and a bus station where the Coyote Cafe would eventually be built.
Bringing It All Back Home
By 1980, Santa Fe was beginning to emerge as an international tourist destination due to its growing reputation as an artistic mecca for an eclectic mix of creative people. It was perhaps most popular with Texans, who preferred spending their summers in the cooler high desert. That first spring brought an opportunity to sell our rugs in a courtyard craft market on Santa Fe’s East Alameda Street. There was a woman who must have heard that I was a supplier from Afghanistan. She started coming up to the house, taking things on consignment like saddle bags, small rugs, kilim and dhurries, and Turkmen camel trappings. Every day or sometimes every other day she came back to take more and pay for the consigned pieces, anything from $200 to $600 a day, and we would use that money to fix up the garden, or the portal we were building. She was selling every day, and it was great, because we were busy getting organized in our new life, fixing up the house we had just bought, and this was extra “found money” to help us out. After a few months she came in one day and said that her father, who lived in D.C. was sick and she had to go back to be with him, so she was leaving town. I said to her, “Show me where your shop is.” I went with her downtown, and when I walked in it was amazing. It was the courtyard on Alameda Street, which would become our place of business for nearly the next twenty-five years until we consolidated to our Galisteo Street location. It reminded me of an Afghan serai with its high walls, benches, and three doors onto Shelby and Alameda. It had such a vibration and turned out to have been the site of an old opera house back in the 30s. The owners had just picked up the opera house and moved it to another location. Now it was like a small flea market with a handful of vendors selling jewelry or different items. It was quite beautiful and so unique. Opposite from top left : The courtyard location on East Alameda St. (corner of Shelby) that was our first shop, 1983. (photo-David Marlow) 289
This woman, I can’t remember her name, settled up with me, and brought everything back that she still had on consignment. I told Sylvie, “I’m going to try out her spot and see how this works out.” I said, “Let me go down there and bring some better quality things, bigger pieces, because it’s easier for me to handle bigger items. The first day that I took this woman’s spot in the courtyard, that was when I met Neil Simon, the Broadway playwright— our first sale! After lunch at Periscope, he came out and the courtyard entrance was right next to the restaurant. He bought two Pajnshir dhurries in indigo blue, white and a little coral…. It was an auspicious beginning. The vendors were just paying day to day. It seemed like a good location, so I asked the owners of the property, Bob and Dorothy Holmes, if they wanted to lease the whole courtyard for a year. They leased it to me. It was mostly a summer place for the day-to-day vendors, and I was offering to lease it year round for a full year with a couple of years’ option. We started doing really well, spreading our rugs all over the 5,000 square foot space, even in the winter if it wasn’t snowing. We wanted to feel out the property first. Then we leased the adjacent building. That’s how it started. For the first time, Ira had a retail outlet. He had supplied Stark Carpet, Doris Leslie Blau, Harmony, PFM, and others with thousands of the most fabulous dhurries and kilim from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the courtyard market provided a completely new direction. Instead of shipping from Kabul to U.S. showrooms as a wholesale supplier, Ira was now on the receiving end, importing the wares himself, working closely with his good friend Abdul, and others in Central Asia. Having recently left Afghanistan—“land of Sufi mystics and saints”—we were pleasantly surprised when the summer after we settled into our hilltop home, our neighborhood was serendipitously populated by a group of American Sufis. We were happy to have the hills around us infused with Sufism’s message of universal oneness of all faiths and the interrelatedness and wholeness of all life. Yusuf Cameron, the Sufi scholar we had befriended in Afghanistan, had moved to Santa Fe with Mahbouba, and eventually they built a house one hill over from ours. One day Yusuf brought Pir Vilayat Khan, head of the Sufi Order International, to our house for a visit; Pir Vilayat and his secretary, Terry Peay, (or Shannaz, his Sufi name), liked the epic mountain vistas of the Santa Fe foothills, and were contemplating relocating from California. Pir Vilayat Khan soon moved with wife Taj Inayat and their three sons to a home just a few hilltops from us. Terry and wife, Pythia, and their three sons also moved nearby, along
with several other Sufi families. And Martha Thompkins — our Texan friend from Afghanistan who had brought us beads from a Paris flea — bought a house on the other side of our hill. At one point, many of our near neighbors were Sufis… above us, below us, around the corner. We all became close friends, celebrated holidays together, and our gaggle of energetic boys grew up playing together. The neighborhood was hopping with friends, but sadly these Sufi families gradually moved back to the east and west coasts1, and Martha returned to Houston. We learned that while many people are magnetically drawn to this enchanting land, they later realize that bigger cities are more conducive to earning a living. Sometime in 1981 Terry, a real estate whiz, helped us structure a deal that enabled us to purchase the downtown courtyard and adjacent building on thirteen percent interest over twenty years. Our mutual friend, Baroness Taj Alexandra von Barnekow, initially wanted to open a couture clothing boutique in the building, and her support helped secure the down payment. Shortly afterwards, however, Taj had second thoughts about the boutique. Eventually she told us, “You take the building and the lot, and instead just make me some furniture and decorate my house.” She flew in a decorator from San Francisco, Chuck Winslow, with whom Ira furnished the house, using not only our rugs but also some very special new pieces — the very first chairs and couches that Ira had upholstered using dhurries and kilim. Thus began a new fashion in furnishing, and a Seret signature design. Ira became the first designer to pioneer the use of flat-woven rugs as upholstery and furnishing fabrics, rather than just as floor coverings. There were some who considered it almost sacrilegious to cut up handmade rugs, but because of his firsthand experience producing flat-woven rugs, Ira viewed them as hand-loomed textiles that could be cut and stitched like any other fabric. Opening up a new world of design, he began creating fabulous couches, chairs, chaises, and other furnishings in these unique, traditional textiles. Our colorful courtyard was soon featured in Architectural Digest and Town and Country. An ever-changing visual feast, it started to attract interesting people. John Connally2 and his wife, Nelly, walked into the shop one day. They had just bought a house on the Old Santa Fe Trail and asked me to come look at it. There were about sixteen rooms and he said, “Put rugs in every room.” He would come 1
The Peay family moved to D.C., and though Terry and Pythia separated, we are all still like family. Pythia, an author and journalist, is my closest friend, and we talk weekly by phone.
The former Governor of Texas and wife Nelly rode in the limo with JFK and Jackie on that fateful day in November. He was also shot in the back.
sit in the courtyard and hang out. He really enjoyed it. A lot of people would come sit around and relax. It was a happening. So we started to become friends and every weekend he would bring his guests — movers & shakers from Dallas like Trummel Crow, Barnes, Henry Beck and so on — and they would buy. I had two great dhurries. I told him the story of when I was in Lahore one day and Ejaz had taken me to a governor’s office where there were these two amazing 16 ft x 18 ft dhurries, and I bought them both. I gave one to Doris Blau to sell in the new gallery she was opening in New York and I used the other in my living room on East 86th Street. John saw that one at the shop in Santa Fe and wanted to buy it. I told him it had belonged to the Governor of Lahore. It took two months for him to negotiate for this rug. He would tell me to sharpen my pencil and say, “I’m going to give you my phone number in Houston and you call me when you have really sharpened your pencil.” One weekend he finally bought the rug and had it sent to his house in Austin. Some years later, I get an auction magazine featuring that very same rug, spread out in his living room. I was excited to have a chance to buy it back. The day of the auction I’m on the phone, bidding. It goes up to $20,000 and finally it brings $60,000. I told the woman on the phone, “Oh, he only paid $11,000 for it, and he told me to sharpen my pencil.” The woman answered, “That’s inflation for you!” A few weeks later, John was back in Santa Fe looking for more rugs. Business thrived thanks to Ira’s deep and abiding friendship with Abdul. They conferred daily — by mail, or occasional phone calls, which in those days had to be reserved with an international operator. Ira could count on Abdul’s excellent taste, and relied on him to continue shipping beautiful rugs and textiles to Santa Fe. Despite almost intolerable challenges, Abdul had remained in Kabul to support his extended family. However, in February 1989 — just as the Soviet army completed its withdrawal from the country — he made the difficult decision to send Zabaida and their sons, Ali and Omar, to live in London. It was as if Abdul sensed the impending chaos of the civil war and the terrible bombardment that reduced much of Kabul, to a ghostly, burned-out skeleton of itself. With the birth of our third son Sharif, on April 27, 1983, our family was complete. Though we still held out hope for an eventual return to Afghanistan, with each year our Opposite from top left : Colorful cotton dhurry rugs spread out in the East Alameda courtyard. Below: The shop at 147 East Alameda. Ira added on the right two-story portion in 1983. 293
roots grew deeper into New Mexico’s soil. Slowly at first, but then increasingly, the wonderful crafts of Afghanistan began to flow into our new hometown. The Eastern rugs and furnishings perfectly complemented Santa Fe’s iconic adobe architecture and indigenous handicrafts, with their distinctive geometric patterns. When we arrived, Southwest style was already an eclectic blend of Native American, Hispanic and Old West. We couldn’t help but be thrilled by the way the patterns, earthy colors and handcrafted materials of the East complemented, echoed and even enhanced the multi-cultural character of Santa Fe. All of it together created a heady East-West blend that was fast becoming an integral part of an evolving Santa Fe Style. Ira built on friendships and partnerships that he had developed over the years in Afghanistan and Pakistan to expand into other regions — primarily Turkey, India, Tibet, and greater Central Asia — always in search of beautiful handcrafted textiles, furnishings, handicrafts, and materials for his ever-evolving designs. Meanwhile, his newfound passion for building and construction developed throughout the 1980s. By 1985, he had begun work on an all-stone “guest house” on the lot adjacent to our hilltop home. My contribution, since I had no real interest in the chaos of construction, was to design and paint colorful tiles for the new kitchen and bathrooms. We bought a kiln, and over the next eight years I pursued my new interest in ceramics. In 1989 we purchased an empty lot on Galisteo Street, where Ira built a two-story building with antique carved pillars, that looked as if it had stood there for centuries. We opened this as a second retail location that fall. In the early 90s we acquired three adjacent stores on the same block, expanding the site to almost its current size. Eventually, the “Seret and Sons Rugs and Fine Furnishings” store, home grown from Ira’s taste for the handmade arts of Central Asia and India, would evolve into an emporium of museum quality furnishings and architectural elements. Here, we like to think that visitors walking in for the first time get a little taste of the amazement that Ira first felt so many years ago when he first encountered the bazaars of Kabul. In August 1993, having spent eight years constructing the greatly expanded stone “guest house” that would actually become our main home, we bought a cluster of buildings on East De Vargas Street. Three years later these had become a bed and breakfast named Seret’s 1001 Nights. Over time this grew into The Inn of the Five Graces, a boutique hotel, —showcasing Ira’s signature design style, a synergistic blend which had grown increasingly bold, complex and sophisticated. At the Inn Ira combined a kaleidoscopic mix
of cultural elements: Afghan suzanis and carpets, ancient Tibetan chests and painted panels. Couches and armchairs upholstered in plush pile or flatwoven carpets nestled alongside wood-burning adobe or river rock fireplaces. Even the flatscreen TVs would have slipcovers of embroidered silk. With each year’s remodel, the design ideas evolved to another level. In the late 90’s, Ira and I began to design oversized bathrooms and decorate them with lavish artisanal mosaics constructed from our vast collection of pottery shards, salvaged from various countries. We even had sinks crafted from semiprecious stone in our overseas workshops. Each bathroom took months to execute. Our intention was to create contemplative environments where, surrounded by sublime hand-crafted artifacts, our guests would be soothed, inspired and rejuvenated. Having learned the true meaning of hospitality from our wonderful Afghan friends, we also hoped each guest at the Five Graces would feel as though they were being welcomed into the home of good friends. Of course, Santa Fe itself has continued to grow, from the relatively modest artist colony that we discovered in 1979, into a major tourist destination, that draws people from all over the world. In the decades since we arrived, thanks to Ira’s eye for beauty and talent as a designer, countless unique handcrafted pieces have found their way into homes across the U.S. and around the world. Meanwhile, The Inn of the Five Graces, has been named “Number One Small Hotel in the U.S.,” among several other accolades. Just as Afghanistan felt like part of our destiny, so does Santa Fe. These two places — on exactly opposite points of the globe— share the same altitude and weather, similar local plants, and almost identical adobe architecture. Both are surrounded by high mountain ranges, and echo each other through the patterns and themes shared by both the traditional arts of the multi-ethnic Afghans and the native Pueblo peoples of northern New Mexico. The similarities are almost uncanny. Bringing the East to the West through the beautiful handiwork of traditional cultures, Ira’s mission since 1968, has become our life’s work. And thanks to the artifacts and textiles that Ira has always treasured and loved to share, many people who may never get the chance to visit Afghanistan — once home to some of the world’s most exquisite weaving and needlework skills — have still been able to experience some measure of its rich and joyous culture.
A Stitch In Time
Even while we expanded the network of countries with whom we worked, our connection to Afghanistan remained strong. Shortly after the 1978 coup, the U.S. State Department imposed a punitive 45 percent duty on all Afghan imports, labeling Afghanistan a Communist country. Naturally, this made it increasingly difficult to import directly, and eventually Afghan trade with the U.S. — which had grown steadily through the 60s and 70s, particularly in the handicraft sector — ground to a halt. For Afghans, this was a terrible blow since the majority had traditionally earned their livings either through farming or handicrafts. For Ira, too, this increased duty was a game changer. It became increasingly difficult to work with Abdul, since the weaving industry was shifting to the refugee camps in Pakistan. Rugs crafted by Afghan refugees living in Pakistan were being shipped with “Made In Pakistan” labels, and were of course exempt from the 45 percent duty. In fact, Afghanistan’s entire carpet industry was negatively impacted by the export of Afghan-made carpets under the Pakistani-made label. Even after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the heavy duty on direct exports from Afghanistan continued through the 90s, ultimately contributing to Afghanistan’s complete economic collapse. In frustration, we wrote letters to Congress throughout the 1990s to no avail.1 The Civil War and consequent utter lawlessness made communications with Abdul more and more difficult, even for his family in London. In 1987, Abdul finally visited us in Santa Fe, and we took him to the Grand Canyon and up the Californian coast. In 1991, two years after moving Zabaida, Omar, and Ali to the UK, Abdul was able to visit them in London, and from there he and Zabaida — who until then had not seen each 1
Increasingly horrified by the “David and Goliath” struggle between the Afghan people and the USSR, and the millions of displaced refugees, Ira and I, together with Sharon Miller, another Santa Fe oriental rug store owner, formed a New Mexico chapter of the Afghanistan Relief Committee, Inc, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. The ARC’s aid was designated for medical assistance to Afghan refugees, financial assistance to the Khyber Hospital in Peshawar, specifically to its prosthetics unit, and to Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors withou Borders), the French organization which provided medical care in Afghanistan throughout the wars. Our efforts included a benefit event on Nov. 1st, 1981 at the historic La Fonda Hotel..
other and had barely spoken in the two years apart — flew into Santa Fe. Both trips were a particularly special time of reconnection. Abdul shared stories of the unbelievable suffering and hardship that had become a part of daily life in Afghanistan. Even though he certainly had the means to escape the horrific conditions of the war years, Abdul had chosen to stay, in order to care for his large extended family. This meant separation from his wife and sons. Countless Afghans were forced to make similar painful choices, changing the lives of so many families. In Santa Fe he felt relieved and grateful to be in a peaceful place, and fully enjoyed the simple pleasures and comforts that so many of us take for granted. Towards the end of the 1980s, the State Department began a goodwill program, sponsoring groups of Afghan dignitaries to tour the U.S. and learn about our culture and institutions. Santa Fe’s Council on International Relations invited these groups to make Santa Fe a regular stop, and asked us each time to host a dinner. The first of these dinners took place in May of 1990, and our Afghan visitors were all high-level mujahideen leaders or commanders. These twelve guests were regal and dignified, yet gracious and humble representatives of their country — the typical Afghan elders, were remembered. We invited them to dine at our hilltop compound, which, with its Afghan doors, columns and pillars, overlooking hills and valleys, was reminiscent of Afghanistan itself. We were joined by several CIR members and friends. Hassina Yussouf, Mahbouba’s cousin, and a renowned chef cooked an Afghan feast, which we served on a huge rug spread out on our grassy courtyard. Noor Rahimi, Ira’s first friend in Afghanistan, came all the way from Dallas, where he had since settled. It was a splendid evening. After dinner the temperature started to drop, so Ira brought out a dozen antique Bokhara robes for the men to throw on. Our youngest son, Sharif, then only six, brought out his Lego helicopter to show these seasoned veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war. The two State Department translators, who accompanied almost every group— Daud Ayazi and Latif Insaf—were wonderful people, whom we looked forward to seeing with each subsequent group of visitors. Between 1989 and 2010, we welcomed dozens of visitors from Afghanistan, ranging from business leaders and provincial governors to religious leaders and mullahs. Many were visiting the West for the first time and often expressed their pleasure at seeing the beauty of Afghan culture showcased for others to enjoy at our home and businesses. Ira Opposite from top left : Ira and Abdul Istalifi, during his visit to N.M. in 1987; At the Grand Canyon (with Ajna).
Group photo with Afghan visitors— former high-level mujahideen commanders—on a tour sponsored by the State Department. Dinner hosted with CIR at our home, Santa Fe, May, 1990.
inevitably tried to interest them in ideas for cottage industries or businesses, to open their minds to creative ideas and possibilities. He always encouraged them to be hopeful, explaining that there is always a market for beautiful handicrafts. Meanwhile, the millions of Afghans who resettled in various western countries, have created a vast Afghan diaspora, one that has salvaged what it could of Afghan culture, even as the country was torn apart. We like to think that our home and shop played some part in preserving the wonderful treasures of Afghan artistry, and sharing them with the world. I sometimes see Ira as a “show promoter”. From his first place in Hell’s Kitchen to his Sheherezade-esque apartment on East 86th Street, from his meticulously curated shops to the boutique hotel in Santa Fe, Ira has produced a vast and multilayered display, putting the most sumptuous and exquisite arts and handicrafts within popular reach. In the process Westerners have been allowed to see close-up, to feel, even to possess — the spectacular beauty of Afghan and Central Asian handicrafts. As Ira once said, “I had to bring it all back, I loved it so much.”
In August 1997 the beautiful mountain village of Istalif, where Ira had first fallen in love with Afghanistan and its people, was destroyed by the Taliban. Its location on the front line of their battle with the Northern Alliance made it a strategic liability, so the Taliban torched the entire village, scattering 97 percent of its population. This beautiful, fertile village, with its archaic charm and gentle pastoral lifestyle, was reduced to a ghost town, and its inhabitants became refugees in Kabul or Pakistan. Following the U.S. invasion and defeat of the Taliban in 2001, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for a new beginning, with Western support for reconstruction. Unfortunately, Istalif was not on the agenda, with governmental funds prioritized for more populated areas. Nor were there any NGO projects or funds allocated to Istalif. NGOs tend to create projects in villages that have basic infrastructure. Istalif at that time had none, so its chances of aid were roughly zero. In May, 2003, to help us celebrate Ira’s 60th birthday, we invited Abdul to Santa Fe. Zabaida and their younger son, Ali, flew in from London to join us. It had been twelve years since Abdul and Zabaida had seen each other, and twelve years since we had seen them. It was a poignant reunion for all of us and a chance for our three sons to get to know Ali. Acutely aware of Istalif’s plight — it had received no aid in the two years since its liberation from the Taliban and was still basically a ghost town — we brainstormed how we might help the village. By now Abdul was an elder of Istalif, and his strongest desire was to see his hometown rise from the ashes. Due to his deep sense of responsibility Abdul had never fled the chaos of his homeland.1 Now in Santa Fe, Ira and Abdul put their heads together and concluded that the best way to revitalize a village would be to jumpstart its economic 1
Abdul’s bravery and loyalty had always deeply impressed us. In the 1980s when the Communists had threatened to seize a large commercial property he owned in the now thriving Khair Khana district of Kabul, Abdul invited all the poor Istalifi people living as refugees in Kabul to turn up and build homes on this land. Rather than fight to save it from the communists and risk having the property confiscated, Abdul made it a gift to his displaced fellow villagers from Istalif. His compassion and caring earned him the respect of his entire commnity. Even today all of Abdul’s family members in Afghanistan live in houses bought or built for them by Abdul.
base. The strip of shops near the main mosque, once the center of the local economy as a famed hub for tourists seeking local crafts was now a street of rubble. So Ira, Abdul, Ali, Zabaida, and I decided to reconstruct 120 burned-out shops along this main marketplace. Throughout 2003, we attempted to implement the reconstruction through an existing NGO, Shelter for Life, which specialized in sustainable housing for displaced persons and disaster victims. But since Shelter for Life’s costs were three times what we could afford, Ali and Abdul decided to contract the work themselves, enlisting the villagers to help clear the rubble—a huge part of the task. This brought the project in line with our budget of $150,000 — a trifle in the realm of development projects. Numerous village meetings led to a community plan, and eventually to a cooperative effort to clear the wreckage of the destroyed shops. Ali remained in Istalif with his father, overseeing the daily work as project manager, and filming the transformation and revival of his ancestral village. His documentary footage shows the sheer enthusiasm of those involved. One owner, whose bombed-out shell of a shop was at the far end of the street, feared that construction might stop or money run out before his shop was rebuilt. He would plead with Ali daily that his shop not be forgotten, and Ali had to continually reassure him that we had every intention of completing all 120 premises. In September 2004, Ali wrote a report: Every day begins with prayers, followed by a breakfast of grapes with bread and green tea, followed by work. You see young guys to old men and even some very young boys, cleaning rubble and putting it on the backs of donkeys, as if you are watching a place that has been like this for thousands of years. We are giving the villagers the old bricks to use for rebuilding their own houses. I see a confidence building in the people since the project has started… When you have reconstruction in the middle of the village market in front of everyone’s eyes, it has a huge psychological impact on the people, giving families the encouragement to return. In six months, the marketplace of 120 shops — sixty on each side of the street—was rebuilt. Even before the project was completed, some of the locals — a lone vegetable vender, a blacksmith — were so eager to open businesses that they moved into recently finished shops while construction farther along the street was still in progress. By the
Caption: Caption text tk here. Magni velitatem quiasitaes essuntotate earum idebisinis et mod mintia voluptatur aspitatis
spring of 2005 the entire street was open for business. Ali recalled, “It was like seeing an old dried out tree being watered and slowly coming back to life and blossoming.” The water in this case was hope and the confidence it brought with it. The project’s strength lay in its guiding principle — to build on people’s strengths, and give them a foundation from which to help themselves. The reconstruction of Istalif’s main commercial center gave many families the encouragement and hope they needed to return. Thousands began rebuilding and settling back into their gutted and abandoned homes. Potters once more began practicing their ancient craft, one that historians believe may date back to Alexander’s time. With the heart of the town beating again, and its unique turquoise, green and gold pottery, and other handicrafts for sale, tourists began returning to this picturesque spot, to shop and take in the scenery. Istalif could once again capitalize on the strength of its great artistic tradition and reclaim its cultural identity — a vital lifeline in a time of transition to modernity.
The personal connection made this reconstruction different from government-sponsored projects was the personal connection. And, though funded by friends abroad, it was a home grown project, planned and overseen by a village elder and his son and executed with local participation. It is not necessarily how much money is available that brings results, but rather efficiency, creative thinking, and perhaps, love — understanding the needs of a community and getting locals actively involved in rebuilding their lives. If a project can build confidence, its impact will be stronger and enduring.2 It has now been ten years since the entire length of the once famous Istalif bazaar was reconstructed. For us–the entire Seret family—it was like coming full circle from nearly 40 years earlier, when Ira had first become enchanted with this beautiful village and its people. We felt so fortunate to be able to reach 10,000 miles back and help, all those years later. The legacy of this project, accomplished with enormous heart and enthusiasm, will hopefully live on in Istalif’s history.3
Ali recently posted his short documentary film on the reconstruction of Istalif on Youtube. The images and moving soundtrack capture the essence of a unique post-war journey to rebuild a destroyed community. www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaJ3u0SBz8E
In 2007, the Seret family’s Jindhag Foundation sponsored a booth at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market (the world’s largest market of its kind), which brought Istalif pottery to the U.S. for the first time. Remarking on the reconstruction of Istalif’s market and the pottery’s appearance in America, CNN International featured this “Afghan Success Story” in a four-minute segment: see it on www.jindhag.org. Abdul’s son, Ali Istalifi, represented Istalif’s potter families that year, and again in 2008. The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, representing folk artists and artist cooperatives from over 60 countries, is the flagship event of the International Folk Art Alliance based in Santa Fe, NM. I served as a Board member from 2009-2014) http://www.folkartalliance.org/mission/)
When he first landed in Afghanistan in 1968, Ira was smitten by the beauty of the landscape, people, and lifestyle. But he had no idea this wonderful country — and in particular, the village of Istalif — would shape the course of his entire life, and that of his family. Even less did he imagine that 19 years later Istalif would be razed to the ground, its people given mere hours to gather their belongings and flee. Ira could never have foreseen that his life and Abdul’s would diverge so radically, nor that he would settle on the opposite side of the earth from Afghanistan. Nor could he have known that he and Abdul, would come together after so many years to rebuild and revive Istalif from the ashes. While many young Westerners traveled purpousfully to the East to seek spiritual teachers, Ira found inspiration through a fated encounter with Afghanistan. Coming from the high energy of New York, he encountered a mystical, mesmerizing place — and then introduced me to his wonderful discovery. Together we experienced a unique adventure during the last years of the Golden Age of Afghanistan’s modern history — a time when the sense of witnessing history was palpable. It was a unique moment, a confluence of beauty, tolerance, and generosity that had somehow survived for centuries. But the storm clouds were already gathering on an unseen horizon, and monumental forces conspiring to destroy the harmony of Afghan life. Today, the endless tragedy of war and barbarism have all but destroyed this precious cultural fabric, and pulverized countless historical treasures — from iconic landmarks like the teapot-domed bazaar of Tashqurghan, to priceless world heritage treasures like the giant Buddha of Bamiyan. Even the country’s yet unearthed and unexplored cultural heritage is threatened. A recently discovered ancient Buddhist monastery complex in Mes Aynak — with 1,000 Buddha statues, huge temples, and giant stupas covering thousands of acres — may be bulldozed to oblivion by a Chinese copper mining operation which won a 30-year con-
tract to mine the site. The documentary film, Saving Mes Aynak, claims that “discoveries at the site have the potential to redefine the history of Afghanistan — and the history of Buddhism itself.” (www.savingmesaynak.com/about) The days of innocence, when hippies could travel overland from Europe by bus, driving through Asia Minor and Central Asia before descending into India, those faraway days when and Ira and I could roam freely throughout this conservative, yet wonderfully hospitable country — ended on April 27, 1978. The events that shook Kabul that day continue to reverberate outwards in waves of destruction and chaos, with no apparent end in sight. But after all these seismic events, will there eventually be a new balance—a return to peace? Amid all the gloom there are still rays of light that might indicate a brighter future. Like Ali Astalifi, many Afghans, whose families fled to the West, have since returned, to help rebuild their hometowns and resurrect endangered traditional arts. Another example is Rangina Hamidi’s initiative, “Kandahar Treasure”, which has revived an intricate form of embroidery called khamak, and created a sustainable livelihood for 400 local women. Both Ali and Rangina have introduced the traditional folk art traditions of their hometowns to Western buyers at the prestigious International Folk Art Market Santa Fe (see footnote above). Reviving craft traditions is analogous to saving endangered species. It is of particular importance to Afghanistan, where handicrafts and farming once anchored the majority of the economy. The list of endangered folk art traditions is a long one, with some dating back through traditional apprenticeship lines to ancient times. For example, Herat glass making and Herat silk weaving are both on the verge of disappearing, each practiced and preserved by only a single family. Since the 1970s, the number of skilled Afghan weavers has fallen by 50 percent. Naturally, many of the younger generation of Afghans, particularly in the cities, are more interested in cellphones, Facebook, and popular culture. While technology is undoubtedly necessary to Afghanistan’s development, the introduction of modernity after decades of conflict has made it even less likely that the tradition of laboriously handstitched treasures, intended for a dowry chest, will continue. As the UNHRC-supported program of “phased voluntary repatriation” of Afghan refugees proceeds, many families who have earned a living weaving carpets in Pakistani
refugee camps are returning to their homeland. It is a homecoming, but an uprooting at the same time. Many will find new jobs and abandon familial weaving skills that have been handed down for generations. Udoubtedly, some will still continue to weave, but the numbers will fall with each passing year. With the influx of foreign cash since 9-11 to support war and reconstruction, people’s traditional livelihoods been eroded and superseded. After the US occupation ends, employment will likely soar in the mining and resource extraction sectors, but we believe that indigenous folk art traditions are vital to a people’s identity. Our family— Seret & Sons and The Inn of Five Graces—businesses strive to sustain those traditions from all over the world. Ira and I consider ourselves blessed to have lived, loved, and worked in Afghanistan during the last flourish of its Golden Age. Our work there gave us profound aesthetic and spiritual satisfaction, and we expected to stay much longer than we did. Fate took us to the opposite end of the earth, where we have carried forward the work begun during those formative years, always evolving but forever connected in our hearts to Afghanistan, the country that gave us inspiration for a lifetime. The silk, cotton and wool threads woven and embroidered by the hands of artisans in the East continually weave themselves into our souls, enriching our lives in the West. I will always remember the goodnatured-ness, kindness, and gentleness of the Afghan people. If you didn’t have a penny in your pocket, you would be welcomed with hospitality. And likewise, if the hosts did not have a penny in their pockets, they would still offer hospitality. In America, most people are afraid to open their doors. In Afghanistan, everyone opened the door. Today the trust is gone. Once, people knew each other, knew each other’s families and traditions. Now nobody knows who’s who any longer, or who is watching. And then so many good men kind, honest men so many of them died. The mutual respect and peaceful coexistence, that’s gone too. Now in the computer age, the Afghanistan we knew is gone with the wind. We were just lucky to experience those nearly 11 years, the last decade of the Golden Years. That is why our lives are so enriched, because we experienced something in Afghanistan that most people will never know. We tried not to take it for granted, life in a place that still felt ancient and peaceful… In the 60s most people didn’t have any idea where Afghanistan was and now they will never have the chance to experience what it was like when it was so peaceful and tranquil and timeless. That’s history. 316