Afghanistan
4:17 am
Thu May 1, 2014

Istalif Potter Hopes Next Afghan President Will Serve The Country

Originally published on Thu May 1, 2014 8:39 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Afghanistan is poised to enter a new era. For the first time in its long history, one elected president will hand over power to another. We do not know yet who that new president will be. There will likely be a runoff between the two top vote-getters next month.

MONTAGNE: All over Afghanistan, change is in the air, which is why on my recent trip to the country, I returned to a village called Istalif, famous for its pottery. Istalif is nestled in the mountains north of Kabul and had been a front line in the wars, first with the Soviets, and then the Taliban.

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MONTAGNE: I went there soon after the Taliban government fell. And one man I've gotten to know embodies what this village has endured. Abdul Wahkeel is a potter in Istalif. Over the years, I've seen him remake his life after war. Now, as the Karzai years come to a close, the presidential election offered a new moment of hope.

ABDUL WAHKEEL: (Through translator) It was actually a beautiful day for us here. The bazaar you see here down here, it was crowded. People were coming out to vote. And yes, there were a lot of concerns, because of what was happening in Kabul. There were Taliban attacks. But in the end, God willing, you know we decided we were going to vote, because we want to vote for our destiny, to determine our own destiny.

MONTAGNE: Along the Istalif's main road - lined with a cafe and some shops selling tools and cloth, but mostly pottery - villagers came over to volunteer who they had voted for.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Abdullah Abdullah, the whole village voted for Dr. Abdullah. And we'll vote for Abdullah again in the runoff.

MONTAGNE: It must be said that this village is Abdullah country. That's because Dr. Abdullah was a close friend and aide to the most revered northern leader, a hero, later assassinated, who fought against the Soviets and the Taliban.

These days, with the Taliban long gone from Istalif, the presidential election seems to have brought out my friend, the potter Abdul Wahkeel's reflective side. Over the years, I've visited him often, and he's rarely spoken about the years of war. This time, in his home, surrounded by his children, he opened up with a sense that the worst is finally behind them.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) I remember the days of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet had occupied here. The Soviet planes just bomb us. And the shockwave of the bombs were so powerful, that we would have these lanterns, oil lamps. It was just the shock wave would just knock out the flame in the oil lamps. We could hear, like, boom-boom, and then we would just go and hide in the caves. And then after that, when the Soviets were gone, we had the Taliban. You know, and they came and they destroyed everything here. They set the whole village on fire.

MONTAGNE: The Taliban took a terrible revenge against the village, and also the farmers in the valley who'd put up such resistance. The orchards and vineyards where were in charred ruins. The centuries-old underground canals were smashed. The streets of Istalif were covered in broken pottery.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) There was nothing in the beautiful village you see here. People were desperate. There was no flour, so they started grinding green peas. And they would just make bread from that. And it would just get stuck in your throat. But people had to do that just to survive, because literally, there was nothing else to eat. This area, all was surrounded by the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: With that, Abdul Wahkeel gestures toward his oldest son, Omar, who's now 18. Omar doesn't remember the moment, but Wahkeel tells how, in the late 1990s, he hoisted the boy on his back and, avoiding landmines and rockets on both sides, walked with his extended family along a narrow dirt path for hours, finally ending up in Kabul.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) And we just sort of were a displaced people in Kabul.

MONTAGNE: In the capital, Wahkeel found work pushing a cart until 9-11. The arrival of the U.S. and coalition forces that helped Afghan fighters drive out the Taliban was viewed, in Istalif, as a liberation. By the spring of 2002, some of the thousands of villagers who'd fled were coming home. Among them, we heard, was a single potter.

I found Abdul Wahkeel after a trek up a hill road littered with pottery shards. He was centering clay on his wheel. Here's the moment, as it aired 12 years ago.

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WAHKEEL: (Through translator) Yes, it is two months now that I have returned back to my home, and I started making the clay pots.

MONTAGNE: Behind him are stacked dozens of glazed green and blue bowls. Abdul Wahkeel is waiting, he says, for trucks to start transporting goods to market again, and for some help: beams to finish rebuilding his home, money for potter supplies and possibly food to tide him over until the pots begin selling.

It's hard to remember now, but back in 2002, everyone thought Afghanistan's wars were over. It turned out that a new war was brewing, an insurgency lasting to this day. On that day on 2012, Wahkeel's four children were tiny and thin.

When I returned five years after 9/11, Wahkeel had six children, and a chubby toddler was next him as he tended a new, more efficient kiln, a gift from a Western nonprofit for artists and craftsmen.

In the village, a pharmacy had opened up, along with a barber shop. A gleaming new mosque has risen. There were electrical wires, though the electric grid was still under construction. And as he opened the door to his hot kiln, I asked him - here, in 2006 - how the pottery business was going.

The last time we were here, you really were having problems getting your pots to market. The roads weren't very good. Is that still an issue?

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) We still have the road problem because it's not a paved road. Other than that, it's good because the pottery bazaar has attracted attention. On their days off, foreigners working in Kabul come here to shop for pots. And also in the summer, a lot of families come here to picnic and they also buy pots.

MONTAGNE: When we visited this spring in 2014, a new generation of small boys were selling wild tulips along the road. The road to Istalif is now paved, a good thing for trucks carrying ceramic pots. And for some years now, Istalif has had electricity, though Wahkeel mostly throws his pots using his foot to operate the wheel.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) There is power but it's not strong enough for the machines we have. And it's also not, it's not stable.

MONTAGNE: So that's why the pots are so beautiful.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) Yes.

MONTAGNE: Because they are handmade.

As for the election that got everyone in Istalif so excited. Even though it appears headed for a runoff between their man Abdullah and an equally urbane and western looking opponent, Wahkeel thinks people don't really care who wins. What they want - he says - is a leader who will serve the country.

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) I look into the future, I see progress. I think people have had enough of war. What really people care about is just peace. And I think so, I see better times coming in the future, not the dark past repeating itself.

MONTAGNE: So when you think of your children, what do you want them to be doing? What would you want for them?

WAHKEEL: (Through translator) What I really want them is to become literate. To go to school, finish their school, and to move on in life, to become teachers, professors, whatever they want to do. And perhaps start working because as you see I have grey beard, I'm getting old, and I want someone to, you know, they got to start helping us out.

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MONTAGNE: And when it comes to the marking the passage of time with Wahkeel, I joked with him a couple of years ago that whenever I visit I know his family will have another child. And sure enough this time there was a baby girl. And now there are 10.

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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll hear from a group of young afghan women who are doing something their parents never imagined could be in their daughters' future: bicycle racing.

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MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.