Formerly home to dozens of producers who in ancient times rivaled the world’s best, all that remains of Herat's glass making industry is one factory and three veteran artisans. But the government hopes a museum can save the industry from extinction.
The glassblower at work. Main story photo: factory owner Sultan Hamidi with some of his finer pieces (Photos: Johnny Friskilä)
It is so hot in the room where Sayedullah works that almost nobody but him can tolerate it. Sparks ricochet off the wall and back into the kiln where the 60-year old glassblower stands, stirring a morass of molten glass.
“I have grown up with fire since I was five,” says Sayedullah, a craftsman at Herat’s last glass factory. “I can put my finger in the glass, but it doesn’t burn,” he boasts. True to his word, he dips a finger in the incandescent mass and pulls his hand away, all five digits intact.
But despite the immense craftsmanship and quality of products - not to mention the amazing finger dunking trick - his is a fragile livelihood as the local glass industry teeters on the brink of extinction.
This city in western Afghanistan was once home to dozens of glassblowing concerns. Now the Sultan Ahmad Hamidi factory is the last company operating - and only just.
Sayedullah is one of three professional glassmakers and a handful of apprentices left here, and there are no schools or programmes in place to train any more. Despite having a workshop paid for by the Aga Khan Foundation in 2010, the Sultan Ahmad Hamidi factory operates part time, producing only a few hundred pieces a week.
Sultan Hamidi, its 75-year-old owner, says he has rarely seen worse times in the business. “If the government does not pay attention to the glass industry, it will soon collapse,” he told Afghanistan Today.
Hamidi says his family business represents the last vestiges of a once glorious industry that blossomed under the Timurid dynasty in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Now though, it has been overtaken by Iranian and Chinese mass-produced imports, churned out with large-scale machinery and using industrialized glass. Without further subsidies, Hamidi, who once had five melting furnaces but is now left with one, believes the industry will scarcely survive beyond his death.
“If the government does not pay attention to the glass industry, it will soon collapse.” Sultan Hamidi, owner of Herat's last glass factory.
Glassblowing is an ancient art that involves inflating molten glass into a bubble, known as a parison, by blowing short bursts of air through a blowpipe. The glass is then marvered on a slab and later moulded into different shapes. The process can take days.
In the past, Herati glassmakers crafted ornaments using quartz and flint. But since the advent of industrialized glass production, Hamidi's factory increasingly switched to using chemicals and remains of broken glass appliances in order to stay in the market.
Master craftsman Sayedullah says he recycles particles of broken glass to ensure he has enough raw materials.
Multicoloured creations from the Sultan Hamidi factory.
“We collect pieces of broken glass from the bazaar, wash them and put them in the fire to melt. Then, using the molten glass, we make beautiful cups, vases, plates for food and fruits, and other appliances,” he says.
Regardless of the short-cuts, one would think the exquisite finish of the finer pieces would ensure the factory's future. But the remaining craftsmen note once again that cheap competition is running them into the ground. Apart from at Hamidi’s own store, original pieces are hardly even available in Herat.
But there is a glimmer of hope: the provincial government says it will not let Herat’s glass industry go under without a fight. Mohiuddin Noori, spokesman for Herat Governor Mohammad Nuristani, says his authority has paid for adverts to promote the last factory. And a cultural centre operating like a museum of arts is now planned at Herat Palace to promote awareness of creative skills.
“All original Herati arts, including glass-making, are going to be put on display there. It is a way to not only market and attract local and foreign tourists but also help Herati glass-makers,” said Noori.
Keeping warm: children sit beside the kiln at Herat glass factory.
It might be a matter of pride as well as economic necessity of supporting local businesses: According to the spokesman, Governor Nuristani likes to present Sultan Hamadi glass ornaments as gifts to foreign dignitaries, diplomats, officials and friends.
It is shrewd promotion. Tourists and other foreign visitors remain one of the only viable target demographics, and art merchants still export glass ornaments to neigbouring Iran. Yet if exports are to increase, both interim government subsidies and private sector investment will be needed. And if they appear, they will be just in the nick of time.
Sadly, Sayedullah seems to have lost the zest for his trade, despite the fact that his works grace the mantelpieces and desks of dignitaries around the world.
“I do not like my work anymore - I cannot even buy bread with the money I make,” he laments after a half century of labour using skills learned from his father.
And he blames a succession of rulers for his and the industry's plight. “Except for under President Daud [in the 1970s], no other administration has ever paid a penny to preserve this industry,” he says.
Story photos used by kind permission of Johnny Friskilä