Afghanistan’s Thred of Survival

By Linda N. Cortright

About a year ago, my assistant handed me a message: “George called from Afghanistan. He will call you back.”

Two thoughts came to mind: Who’s George? And are you sure he said Afghanistan?

Less than six months later, I was in seat 44B (it’s a middle seat) heading for Kabul. After overnighting in a heavily guarded compound in between CNN’s headquarters and a former poppy palace now occupied by Afghanistan’s minister of the interior, I boarded a plane for Mazar-i-Sharif, a comparatively peaceful city near the borders of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Thanks to George, I would spend the next week researching the revival of Afghanistan’s silk industry and a few hours scrambling the lowlands of the Hindu Kush range chasing cashmere goats. It’s my job.

I am the editor and publisher of Wild Fibers, the only publication in the world focused on the importance of natural fibers (think cashmere, silk and alpaca) and the role they play in cultural identity and environmental balance. Imagine Margaret Mead trolling the planet armed with size eight knitting needles as Al Gore runs along taking notes. Just as we are learning to be conscientious consumers of what’s on our plates, it’s equally imperative to know what’s on our backs.

During my 10-year magazine career, I have traveled to the far corners of the Gobi Desert, the high Himalayas and the snowfields of Tibet, not to mention the wilds of Kazakhstan, the deserts in Oman and the region above the Arctic Circle, all to understand and honor the natural fiber industry. But Afghanistan?

Until I hung up the phone with George, I don’t think I would have considered going there under any circumstances. Yet it’s not every day someone from the State Department calls my modest office in mid-coast Maine and says, “Do we have a story for you.”

Great opportunities are sometimes well-disguised, even if under a burka.

Traveling to Afghanistan as a female, an American and a journalist is not exactly flying under the radar, and in the months leading up to my reservation in seat 44B I spent more than a few sleepless nights wondering what I would do if things went desperately wrong.

Eventually, I stopped worrying. Instead, I grew increasingly excited by the opportunity to tell a story about a part of the world that is so badly tarnished by bombs and bloodshed. There was no way I would miss my flight.

Afghanistan possesses exquisite beauty both in its landscape and its people. Sadly, few ever talk about that side. In 2008, IDEA-NEW, an Afghani initiative sponsored by USAID, began reintroducing sericulture (silk farming) to northern Afghanistan. For centuries the raising, reeling and weaving of silk has been an important economic driver to communities, offering women the opportunity to earn income while remaining at home to raise their families (on average six to 10 children). Decades of war not only created a mass exodus with displaced refugees scattered permanently beyond their native soil, but also left once fertile land to fall barren. With this forced eviction, ancient traditions and knowledge soon disappeared as well.

Statistically speaking, a specific skill or expertise can be entirely lost in just two generations. IDEA-NEW wanted the women in the outlying villages of Balkh Province to learn the art of sericulture but with a few amendments afforded by relatively modern technology. Sterility, for example, is a huge factor in sericulture. Silkworms – actually, the larvae – will get sick and die after just one sneeze. Unlike traditional practices, the women are now provided with sterile Styrofoam padding as bedding for the silkworms, which minimizes the number of germs but feels “modern” and unfamiliar to most.

On a Thursday afternoon in spring when poppies would typically start to bloom (Balkh Province is now considered poppy-free, thanks to Gov. Atta Muhammad Nur, a former warlord), I was driven in a bulletproof vehicle with two armed guards in the front seat and a second armed vehicle behind me to a small village that was a combination of mud and cinderblock architecture.

The streets were empty save for one man working in the fields wearing baggy gray pants and a weather-stained turban. Even the hoe he carried looked downtrodden. A small stream paralleled the main road. I suspect two thirsty camels could have sucked it dry.

At first glance, this picture doesn’t evoke visions of great warmth or beauty. But like a warm homemade apple pie tightly protected by a thick crust, so is the heartbeat of the village.

Escorted by my guard and translator, I snaked through a series of unmarked doors until I arrived in a courtyard filled with budding trees and a small green where children were playing. Off to the side, nearly 30 women ranging from ages 20 to 70 were seated on the ground waiting to meet me. They were just one small group of the more than 2,000 women IDEA-NEW has trained in sericulture.

Many of the women were wearing full burkas with veils that flowed down to the ground. Others (including myself) had only their head covered. For most, if not all, I was the first Western woman they had ever set eyes on.

Seemingly separated by dress, culture and background – let alone political and religious beliefs – I wedged myself onto a patch of dirt between two women whose eyes I could not see.

I was determined not to let the tension stop me. Through my translator (who had been educated in the U.S.), I asked the women how they would use the money (about $125) they would receive after two months of raising silkworms – a six-hour process including feeding, cleaning and rotating trays of thousands of tiny larvae three times a day.

Almost immediately, the tension began to subside as they talked about sending their children – particularly the girls — to school. They were like proud mothers anywhere, anxious for their children to have the best opportunities the world can offer, and yet also aware that a young girl in Afghanistan sits precariously on the edge of academic opportunity or an imprisoned world of marriage.

Could it be that thousands of squishy, wormlike creatures would make a lifetime of difference for one little girl, let alone an entire village?

It could and it has. Still, the majority of families in Afghanistan are living on the fringe, a fringe they have been clinging to far too long. Opportunities for change are limited at best and yet, a few extra dollars can lead to education and assurance, which is exactly where change begins. I was proud to bring this story to readers as the cover feature of this past summer’s issue.

The magic of wild fibers – and Wild Fibers – is discovering their importance in the thread of human existence. It’s a message we all need to heed – and more than worth the price of a few sleepless nights.

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