A Pottery Town in Afghanistan

In the storytelling of Malik Hamid as recounted in Bazaar Politics: Power & Pottery in an Afghan Market Town by Noah Coburn, a potter from Bukhara founded the market town of Istalif three hundred years ago. Unhappy with the conditions in Bukhara, he led his family and a few followers south until they came to this beautiful spot with its fine, abundant clay. Coburn points out in his notes that there are references to Istalif dating back five hundred years, but perhaps as far as Malik or his fellow potters are concerned, the town began when pottery making commenced here.

Istalif, north of Kabul and not too distant from Bargram, suffered enormously under the Taliban. The Taliban destroyed all the kilns, forcing many of the potters and their families to flee and abandon their homes and workshops. Somehow, in all the news accounts of the Taliban, this particular horror was either not mentioned or given little ink. When the Taliban fell, the potters were able to return and rebuild most, though not yet all, of their kilns. If you are in the weavers’ quam, your family weaves. If you are in the potters’ quam, your family pots.

Coburn an anthropologist, spent nearly two years in Istalif. His purpose in writing this ethnography was to look at how a town in such an unstable country, suffering from multiple wars, could function with relative stability. In studying this, he focused on the potters’ quam, which was predominant in Istalif. A quam is a patrilocal network or community made up of families engaged in the same craft or industry whose leader is as answerable and beholden to the group as the group is to him. Members of a quam may or may not be related, but if your family is a member of the quam, you are also, and your children and grandchildren.

Within the quam, individual households function independently, though on occasion, they might ask one another for help if they run out of fuel in the midst of a firing, or a glaze component while glazing. The father and then the eldest son, throw the pots on a kick wheel. The younger son or sons run the store in the bazaar and handle all the marketing and selling. No one learns to be a potter, according to Coburn. You become one as you grow up. The potters of Istalif jealously guard their glazes and processes. There are no apprentices or student potters. Women neither throw nor glaze, the explanation being that they might marry outside the quam and give the secrets away.

I wished for more photos as I was reading, and of course more details of the potters’ work itself, but nevertheless, I was fascinated with the descriptions of their customs. For instance, the price of a pot is different for different purchasers. Pots for wholesale are understandably, the least expensive, leaving a margin for the reseller. Sometimes a reseller will purchase a whole kilnful of pots (a typical kiln, fired with wood, holds 900 pots) before it is fired. Pots for Istalif residents, Kabulis, or other Afghans are higher. Pots for NGO’s and internationals are marked up exponentially.

Bazaar Politics offers a fresh understanding of Afghanistan and an inside look at a functioning potters’ quam. The notion of living where all your neighbors also have kilns and wheels and piles of clay is very appealing (except that women are kept from the wheel and kiln). It would be wonderful if Coburn would write a piece for Ceramics Monthly or Studio Potter and show us typical pieces made in Istalif.

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