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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Elizabeth Duke at Argos

I've been experimenting; nothing here comes out quite the way you'd planned it in your head, so it's always kind of exciting as there's inevitably the risk that it'll turn out better than you thought. Here you can buy gemstones wholesale and, not being a gemologist, it would be quite easy for me to make mistakes but I can tell what I like and, when you're talking about a few hundred dollars rather than thousands of dollars, it's fun to just take a punt on what you're buying. I buy for myself and enjoy the process; selecting a stone, bargaining a price, taking it to a crafts man. Once there, struggling to discuss a reasonable design and then leaving it all in the hands of the gods to be made. The aesthetic is different here, although the old fashioned pieces are beautiful, ornate, flowery, the new stuff is frankly ugly and bling-tastic in my eyes. It feels like design and jewellery making have lost their way, here is the evidence of 30 years of instability, of loss of skill and knowledge; the silversmiths are starting over, many of them learning skills for the first time, their produce is rough and lacking in delicacy. I'd bought a beautiful sapphire and had taken it to the workshops close to the Indian Embassy, the place where they manufacture the jewellery for Turquoise Mountain. I'd struggled to describe the design which I thought was simple but obviously was not. Returning the first time, the guys were apologetic but told me that they'd completely forgotten about making it (strike one), I returned a few days later to find that they'd made me something that Danny la Rue would be delighted with. Declining to look like a man in drag I ask them to make it again, "This time for a woman", I say (strike two). Now I go back for the third time and I am presented with a ring fit for a 12 year old. Having saved my pocket money for weeks, I'm sure that Elizabeth Duke at Argos would have had something similar in stock for me, but this was not the early eighties and I was no longer prepubescent and undemanding (strike three). I'm not happy but they tell me they've spent a lot of time on it so, British Guilt Factor (BGF) on high, I hand over the money, smile sweetly and leave with my bauble. It's too big for me too. I wonder if it will grow on me, and at the same time I hope that conversely I won't grow in to it....

Another day on chicken street and I'll try again, it's all good fun and I enjoy it. My other life I call it - where I rush round with my driver, the poor man, doing ridiculous things. I went on a mad hunt for silk which apparently doesn't exist here in Kabul or at least not in the wholesale market in the Kabul Old City bazaar. M and H and I had gone there a few days ago and had asked at every stall only to be shown skeins of velvet and viscose, synthetic lace in every colour imaginable but no natural fibres anywhere, they just weren't the thing. Wearing something from the bazaar was a surely a fire hazard - too close to a flame and you'd be an incendiary ball of white hot nylon. It didn't stop me from buying some additional granny print shalwar kamise sets; here I've reconciled myself to being fat and frumpy, there's no way round it so I'm embracing it and stocking up for old age. An image of me, floral prints, spare tyre and saddle bags, sporting large old lady gemstones on my gnarled fingers rises up in my mind and I play with the idea that someday I and my circle of triad granny comrades will be found playing cut throat marjong in a basement somewhere in China Town....

Later, I am inspired and remember where I'd seen some silk - AWWSOM had some in stock and so Icks and I went there and he was subjected to a long round of me umming and erring over the grey, the white or the black silk that they had on offer. In the end we bought some of each, and delighted, I bundled back in to the car to go round to the dressmakers. Here there are tailors on every corner, it's extremely hard to tell who is good and who is bad, yet another round of experimentation. The culture clash on the fashion front makes things doubly difficult, they don't see what you see, so interpretation of style is risky. If you don't specify exactly then you've only yourself to blame when a vision of Madonna at the height of the 1980's rears into view in a gaudy puffball number. I wanted the silk as I'm making a dress for a special occasion. Me being me, I've left everything to the last minute and just to add extra pressure I've decided to run the gauntlet of the Afghan dressmaker. There is significant risk that I will end up with something strangely unwearable but the roulette factor spurs me on. Via Icks, I am communicating with the tailor, (if Icks didn't know about women's dressmaking before, he certainly does now), explaining the intricacies of the five panel versus the six panel A-line skirt is tricky, corsetry and boning even more so. So when Icks offers to find the necessary plastic bones that are required I'm thrilled to bits. The very next day he arrives at my guest house with a couple of rather interesting items: a second hand lace basque and a full on corset. We're going to take the plastic out of them but there's a moment where, stood in the doorway to my room, one of the cleaning ladies catches us handling the goods and with great curiosity approaches us. I am sure she is wondering what the hell my driver and I are doing playing with lace underwear, so to dispel the rumour mill, I give them to her to play with too. She looks happy and approves of my choice, but at this point I'm in a catch 22, whatever I do she's still going to think I'm running a brothel from my bedroom.

As an afterthought, if you ever want to stay happy with a man - pay for one - it's brilliant. That way they get to come shopping with you and have to look like they're enjoying it. My driver "Icks" is fantastic, and to my mind provides a great example of a trait of the men here that rarely gets the publicity it deserves. A strange by product of the women in doors mentality and other forms of hierarchy and control is that the guys here are completely used to running errands, to being asked to take you somewhere or find things for you. Unlike a typical British or European man who resents being asked to go shopping, a number of the Afghan guys I've met here consider it there duty to take care of you, to accompany and protect you as their guest. I don't know why I should feel such a sense of surprise to find gentlemanly behaviour but I guess that having grown up in England where men consider it their right to be obstinate and selfish, I am warmed by the existence of patience and the sense that to serve another is a good and rewarding activity.

This is a very different place from England though and family and the social hierarchy are strong. The upsides are the generosity, the subtleties like the terrible driving but the lack of road rage, the lack of food, space and money, but the offer to share nonetheless. The downsides are the rigidity of the system, the safety in conformity and therefore the lack of courage to break the mould by being an individual. It's difficult to explain but to step outside of normal behaviour here results in rapid condemnation either because people believe it is 'dangerous' or have to be seen to be saying that they believe it to be dangerous. Either way, the downside is that attitudes change very slowly.


  1. after reading your post
    i got some interest about kabul


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