Afghan Women’s Creations on Display in Paris

PARIS — Trendy stores catering to foreigners and embassy staff members have been shuttered in the Afghan capital of Kabul since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. But in a part of town where winding streets with rows of handicraft shops abound, a small workshop has been hanging on to tradition.

Zarif Design, a company founded in 2005 by Zolaykha Sherzad, a Kabul native, continues to make embroidered fabrics and garments, trying to keep alive the rich artisanal textile tradition of Afghanistan.

“Our work has slowed, but we still make about 60 one-of-a-kind pieces per month,” Ms. Sherzad said in a phone interview from New York, where she has lived since 1994. “We try to capture everything that is refined and delicate about Afghanistan’s textile culture.”

Zarif, which means precious or refined in Dari, a dialect used in Afghanistan, turns local handwoven fabric into garments or decorative pieces, embroidered in the local suzani, or fine needlework, tradition. The motifs are colorful and contemporary, like stripes in vibrant shades of blue, green and purple or abstract calligraphy.

Coats are Zarif’s signature product. Produced in raw silk, cotton or wool, they resemble traditional men’s chapans, but have been redesigned to be worn by both sexes.

“It takes three to five days to make a coat that is interfaced, hand-lined and embroidered,” Ms. Sherzad said. “We have improved the quality of the local fabric by making it softer and washable. We make our own colors and we design our own metallic buttons.”

A selection of Zarif’s handcrafted creations is featured in an exhibition, “Within a Thread’s Breath: Textile Creations by Afghan Women,” scheduled to run until Feb. 6, at the National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet in the 16th Arrondissement.

Visitors are greeted by an eight-meter-long (more than 26 feet) piece of pleated blue fabric that hangs from a central two-story staircase, a giant swirl of color that billows in the breeze. “This is an installation that opens up to evoke the idea of flying freely,” said Nicolas Engel, chief curator at the Guimet. “This blue fabric is ubiquitous in Afghanistan because it is what burqas are made from.”

The show, which includes photographs dating to the 1930s to highlight how Afghan garments were worn in the past, features six garments, several decorative wall tapestries and four large coats, each several meters tall, which Ms. Sherzad calls “art pieces.”

“We continue to make the art pieces because they bring a form of emancipation to those working on the piece,” Ms. Sherzad said. “There is a liberation in projecting yourself beyond one’s economic condition to find a mystical dimension.”

One of the tapestries, titled “Sol-h,” or “peace,” in a heavy beige cotton with blue embroidered calligraphy, was acquired by the museum in May.

“We have a rich collection of textiles that includes contemporary pieces,” said Sophie Makariou, president of the Guimet. “We acquired this piece because it was essential for us to support the work of Zolaykha and preserve a trace of the gesture and creativity of Afghan women.”

The tapestry was made by 10 women, Ms. Sherzad said, “each one doing a part without seeing the whole until all the parts were combined. Like peace itself, it was a puzzle built piece by piece by working together.”

Ms. Sherzad’s family left Afghanistan in 1979. She trained as an architect in Switzerland, then moved to New York, but returned to Afghanistan temporarily in 2002, after the United States had overthrown the Taliban, intent on participating in the country’s reconstruction. Zarif Design was the result.

“Afghanistan needed reconstruction,” Ms. Sherzad said. “Besides its schools and roads, its identity needed to be rebuilt. I chose a traditional craft because I wanted something tangible to work with.”

The workshop has 27 full-time employees, including six master tailors, as well as 20 embroiderers who work part time, usually from their homes. Several of the women who Ms. Sherzad hired were unskilled, so the company offered training.

“When I joined Zarif in 2007, I knew nothing about sewing,” Rona, a seamstress, said in a WhatsApp voice message from Kabul. (She asked that her last name not be published.) “Now I manage our men’s wear division. Zarif has been a great support for us. Staying at home breaks our spirit. We are proud to work like men and have financial independence.”

Zarif’s creations are offered for sale at occasional pop-up events in Paris and in Brooklyn. The next sale is scheduled Nov. 28 at Espace Cinko, a gallery in the Second Arrondissement.

“This work brings pride to our artisans and a beauty and richness that is missing in their lives,” Ms. Sherzad said. “Creativity is a great tool for healing.”

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