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Thu 22 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Uphill battle

Non-proft Turquoise Mountain was at Index promoting Afghan architectural woodwork and other traditional crafts. We caught up with Shugufa Yousofzai and Andrzej Pawelec to learn more.

Non-profit Turquoise Mountain was at Index promoting Afghan architectural woodwork and other traditional crafts. We caught up with Shugufa Yousofzai and Andrzej Pawelec to learn more.

Intricate architectural woodwork, handcrafted pataya screens, carefully-carved entrance doors and sculpted furniture are some of the tools being used by the new Afghanistan in an effort to boost the country's economy - and reinstall a sense of national pride.

Present at Index for the second time, Turquoise Mountain is a non-profit organisation tasked with reviving traditional skills and creating jobs. "The main goal was to show Afghan arts and crafts to the people of the Middle East; to show that Afghanistan has something except war and terrorism," explained Shugufa Yousofzai, business development officer at Turquoise Mountain.

With three decades of conflict having all but decimated the country's ancient craft tradition, Turquoise Mountain was created in 2006 under the patronage of the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and the Prince of Wales. The organisation specialises in business development, urban regeneration and education in arts and architecture.

"Originally, the organisation was set up to save traditional Afghan arts. To which end, a number of the surviving Afghan elders were collected together to start passing on their skills to the next generation," detailed Andrzej Pawelec, business development manager at Turqouise Mountain.

"On that level at least, Turquoise Mountain has already fulfilled its mission. Some of the guys that work in the woodwork production department are in their 20s and are already better than their masters, who are in their 70s. They produce some very fine work to a modern, high-quality standard."

An order for 650 wooden ‘jali' screens from a local designer during Index highlighted growing interest in the work being undertaken by Turquoise Mountain. According to Yousofzai, a number of factors set Afghan woodwork apart from the competition.

"The craftsmen produce this stuff with so much emotion - they are all so happy and proud to be doing it. It is also a question of quality. I have seen lots of work from India or Pakistan or other parts of the world but the work we do is highly attractive," she said.

The greatest challenge faced by the organisation, said Pawelec, is price resistance. "High quality, handcrafted work is not cheap. We do not operate a sweat shop. There is a mindset in the west, and to a certain extent in this part of the world, that third world goods should be cheap. Our carving is cheaper than it would be anywhere in Europe but it is not dirt cheap. It can't be."

Turquoise Mountain has been tasked with protecting a set of traditions until a time when a general, large-scale revival of interest comes about. "The reason for our existence is to preserve the traditional crafts because they are not appreciated by most Afghans at present.

The traditional crafts are regarded as a bit passé and old fashioned. And perhaps part of our mission is to keep the tradition alive long enough for the Afghans to start appreciating their traditions again," said Pawelec.

Such an approach may well also be necessary much closer to home. "There's an element of that I feel in the GCC and wider Middle East. There's a push for very modern buildings but I think here too it will go slightly full circle and there will suddenly be explosive demand for traditional woodwork, ceramics and so on - but by then there will only be a handful of producers left."

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