ISHKAR: Curated Craftsmanship from Countries at War

ISHKAR: Curated Craftsmanship from Countries at War

Described as “curated craftsmanship from countries at war”, ISHKAR is a platform aiming to provide a window into countries known for their rich cultures long before they hit headlines for being at war. We met founders Flore de Taisne and Edmund Le Brun who lived in Afghanistan for three years before setting up the brand, to learn about their journey, the Kabul they know and their hopes for the future.

Flore and Edmund reminisce about Kabul, I quickly find
myself drawn into the romance of Afghanistan. It is hard not be
intrigued a country that is so off the beaten track it represents
what Edmund calls a “black spot” on the map. Their fond memories go
so far as to hint at the idea that this is an emerging destination
for travel, much like Colombia 20
years ago.

Not yet though; Afghanistan is still incredibly dangerous. But
with ISHKAR the pair have created a way to challenge the narratives
that fill western media. “If we understand that Afghans, Syrians
and Malians arriving in Europe come from places of extraordinary
heritage and culture, integrating them into our communities will be
easier than if people only view them as refugees and opportunistic
migrants”, explains Edmund. Through monthly talks in their shop
space – the latest one by award-winning Syrian architect Marwa al
Sabouni – carefully researched blogs and films, ISHKAR is revealing
a side to war-torn countries which we rarely see.

Currently based between Paris and London, Flore and
Edmund met in Afghanistan in 2013. Though both seeking something
foreign and unknown, they had different reasons for being in the
country. Flore was consulting for organisations including the World
Bank and the United Nations, while Edmund was working for Turquoise
Mountain, a NGO established by Prince Charles in 2006. Aged 18 and
living in Xinjiang, a Chinese province bordering Afghanistan,
Edmund was always curious about the country just over the border:
“Afghanistan is one of those forbidden places, I was desperate to
see the land behind the Foreign Office travel warnings.” Flore, on
the other hand, was inspired by a French book by Joseph Kessel
called Les Cavaliers: “It depicts Afghanistan in a timeless way
with mountains, nomads on horses and lively bazaars.”

The Kabul they describe is rich in these elements. But the city
changed a lot in the years they were there – and even more since.
As security declined, concrete blast walls increased and Kabul has
become a place where checkpoints and armed men are as common as
traffic lights (though the city has few of those, they note). But
despite being at war for nearly 40 years, this is a relatively new
reality. The city they describe is built on steep hills, decorated
with colourful mud-brick houses and surrounded by snow-capped
mountains stretching into the distance. Kabul is scattered with
crumbling fortresses and markets selling everything from
pomegranates to antique swords – as well as one dedicated only to

“The war lords compete to outspend each other on their private
zoos” Edmund explains. “They also have this sport where they train
female pigeons to respond to flag calls and all the male pigeons
follow them. During spring, if you look out over the rooftops of
Kabul you see swarms of birds following men with flags below. Like
most popular Afghan games there is a fighting element to it; the
aim is to fly your pigeons into another group of pigeons and steal
the male pigeons away.”

So what about ISHKAR’s products? The pair only work with
craftsmen in countries that have been largely cut off from
international markets by conflict and insecurity, purchasing the
majority of their products through local NGOs and therefore
ensuring profits go back into development projects. A large part of
their ethos is keeping ancient craft traditions alive for future
generations. “In the last five years, handmade crafts have made a
real comeback in the West, both in terms of buying and making.
Practising craft has become known for its meditative benefits,”
explains Flore. So are the Afghan craftsmen driven by this
meditative process, perhaps as a way of keeping calm in the chaos?
“For most its simply following what their fathers did, and their
fathers before that. To think of a job for what it offers you is a
luxury in a country like Afghanistan – putting food on the table
comes first’.”

The problem is the current “craft” trend is a distinctly western
phenomenon. In the poorest countries the reverse trend is actually
happening. What is chic in Afghanistan is factory-made products
which are cheap, smooth and regular. A dramatic contrast to
ISHKAR’s characterful collections. These products give you a window
onto individual behind the product. That’s their charm.

So have they noticed any difference in the craftsmen they work
with in Mali and Afghanistan? “Their similarities are more striking
than their differences”, admits Flore “Whether in dusty, manic
Kabul, or laid-back Timbuktu, the atmospheres of the workshops and
ateliers are identical”. Calm, quiet concentration; the feeling of
makers who have pride in their work.

Looking to the future, ISHKAR is expanding its scope to work
with refugees too. The Pin Project is one of their
current campaigns, a joint initiative with social enterprises in
the US and Toronto to help displaced persons, returnees and
refugees achieve long-term self-reliance through making design-led
brooches make pretty gifts.

They also have their sights set on expanding their product line.
“We know this amazing Afghan farmer who has been replacing poppy
fields with orange and rose orchards and distilling these into
essential oils. We want to collaborate and make these into a

Edmunds sums up ISHKAR: “we don’t mind what we sell as long as
it is handmade, and has a powerful story. That allows us to sell
anything from Kilims, to jewellery and perfume. What connects it
all is the ethos behind it.”

And if you ever find yourself in Kabul, these are the places to

To stay: the Fort of Nine Towers, a crumbling
fortress and one of the most evocative inhabited forts in Kabul. It
doesn’t normally host travellers, but if you know the right people
it’s an experience not to be missed.

To eat: the bread. There are bakeries
everywhere and you can’t go wrong. The Afghan bread is so good we
almost missed our flight home for it.

To do: walk around the old city walls and visit
the Ka Faroshi bird market.

To shop: Chicken Street. Ask for Waheed at
Herat Carpets – he’ll sort you out.

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