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In search of Saidullah, the glassmaker of Herat

If you visit Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm by March 2, you’ll come across 100+1, a wonderful retrospective exhibition by Elliot Erwitt.

When I visited, I was intrigued by a fleeting reference in the exhibition’s introductory text to a documentary attributed to Erwitt — The Glassmakers of Herat.

erwitt_wall_text

Anything that mentions Herat tends to catch my interest. Herodotus wrote about the city, Alexander the Great fortified it, the Ghurid Dynasty built it up, Genghis Khan sacked it, Tamerlane rebuilt it… Herat is also featured in some of my favorite modern travelogues: In Freya Stark’s book The Minaret of DJam, she narrates a trek across Afghanistan in 1968 that ends in Herat. In Rory Stewart’s The places in Between, he describes his walk in 2002 from Herat to Kabul.

When I later googled the title of the documentary, I immediately found it on YouTube, where it has recently been added:

The film describes how in 1968 a US pyrotechnical research expedition stumbled upon a glassmaking family in Herat still using methods first described on cuneiform tablets. In 1977, a team headed by Robert Brill, a research scientist at the Corning Museum of Glass, returned to Herat to film this living cultural patrimony, taking Erwitt along as director of photography.

The film shows two cousins, “Saifullah and Saidullah”, collecting and preparing the raw materials — stones from a nearby riverbed, ash from a desert bush, scrap copper — to produce their distinctive blue glassware. Then, in an epilogue filmed in 1979, we hear Brill warn how new strife in Afghanistan threatens the livelihood of these glassmakers. He concludes:

It’s entirely possible that the glassmaking recorded on this film could have been the last time in history that glass was ever to have been made in this way.

I wanted to find out what had happened to Saifullah and Saidullah. Did they and their livelihood survive the traumas of Afghanistan’s most recent decades? Little did I know my search would end a few weeks later with me holding their glass in my hands.

I began by Googling around a bit. I soon found a website cataloguing the works of the  1968 expedition, now collected at University College London. Among the listed sources, a note by Brill from 2003 describes the trip in more detail. He vividly remembers his visit to the factory as a highlight of his professional life:

We only stayed in Herat three nights (August 15th-17th [1968]), but for me, they enclosed two exciting, never to be forgotten days.

And later:

Those three or four hours spent at Bagh-i-Dasht [the site of the factory "on the edge of town"] were among the most productive I have ever spent in my working life.

His notes also describe a remarkable meeting:

Finally we stopped at the antique shop owned by Sultan Hamidi, just across the road from the [Masjid-i-Jami] Mosque.

We were astonished to see long strings of glass vessels — mostly blue — hanging outside the shop. Inside was a clutter of antiques: Tinned brass wares, old muzzle-loaders and pistols, musical instruments, and just about anything else you can imagine, along with hundreds of hand-blown glass vessels. Moving outside again, we met and photographed a lively, elderly woman, handling the glass. She was Freya Stark, the famous writer and traveler.

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 12.11.36

A few years ago I mapped Stark’s 1968 trek through Afghanistan in Google Earth. Sure enough, her account corroborates Brill’s — she and her companions were in Herat Aug 16-18. (Alas, Brill writes that all his photographs from the expedition — slides and prints — burned in a fire at the Corning Museum in 1972.)

As for Saifullah and Saidullah, the news appears bleak, as far as Brill can tell:

That afternoon [in 1968] we also met a young man named Saifullah. He was later our host, being the man in charge of the factory, when we returned in 1972 and 1977 to document the factory on film. Saifullah fled to Iran sometime between 1977 and 1993. We were told during our 1993 visit that he had died (by one account “had been murdered”) in Mashed [Mashhad, Iran], where he had gone to work.

Brill doesn’t refer to Saidullah. What might have happened to him?

Searching for the village Bagh-i-Dasht using tools like geonames.org and Google Earth proved to be a dead end. But searching for Saidullah — and alternate spellings of this name — in the context of glassmaking and Herat, did, however, lead to results.

There is a Herati glassmaker named Saidullah, in his sixties, working into the current decade. One website selling Afghan arts and crafts writes:

From a long line of Glassmaker, stretching at least a thousand years, Master Glassmaker Nasrullah, 55, along with his brother, Saidullah, 60, his nephew Ghulam Sakhi, 35, his two sons, Zabiullah, 25, and Khairullah, 23 are the only five people in the whole of Afghanistan who know how to make the Herat glass, learning this ancient craft from their fathers, who learned it from their fathers for centuries. Haji Sultan Ahmad is the face of Herat Glass due to his shop’s location across from the Friday [Masjid-i-Jami] Mosque. Ghulam Sakhi works for Haji Sultan producing the items in his shop. These gentlemen supply glass to everyone else in Afghanistan.

Is this the same Saidullah we saw in the film — then in his twenties, with a strong nose, chiseled face and even then a prominent dark beard?

saidullah saidullah-side

Several recent photos do indeed exist online of an age-appropriate Sayedullah making glass in Herat. This one from 2011 by Aref Karimi mentions him by name:

AFGHANISTAN-UNREST-DAILY LIFE

An article from 2012 in Afghanistan Today shows Sayedullah, in a photo attributed to Johnny Friskilä:

That article also provides clarity about the shop owner across the Masjid-i-Jami mosque, originally mentioned by Brill, by using his full name: (Haji) Sultan Ahmad Hamidi (great photo), now aged 75.

Unfortunately, Brill’s fears expressed in the 1979 epilogue seem to have come true, at least in part. The article states:

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.

“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.

And while the footage filmed in 1977 shows the cousins running their own factory on the outskirts of town, Saidullah now appears to be working for the Sultan, at “the Sultan Ahmad Hamidi factory”, in a workshop paid for by the Aga Khan Foundation.

Saddest of all, Saidullah seems to be a broken man:

“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.

Is he being too polite to blame the seemingly well-off sultan for the uneven distribution of the fruits of his labors? In this light, the last line in Brill’s narration of The Glassmakers of Herat is especially poignant:

And perhaps one day the glassmakers’ dream will come about — that they will have a shop of their own in which to sell their glass. “Inch’Allah,” they say.

Elsewhere, in this PDF newsletter by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture from 2008, there is a photograph that leaves little doubt that the younger Saidullah and the older Saidullah are the same person, with the same features.

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But the story doesn’t end there.

Visiting my parents for Christmas a two weeks ago, I began to tell them about The Glassmakers of Herat, and showed them the Youtube video. To my utter astonishment, they told me they met Saidullah in 1997. Not only did my father photograph him at work, my mother bought his glassware from the sultan’s shop.

Dad went looking for the prints in the family albums, while mom went rooting around the back of a kitchen cupboard. Minutes later, we were scanning these:

by Wilfried Geens, Herat 1997
by Wilfried Geens, Herat 1997
by Wilfried Geens, Herat 1997
by Wilfried Geens, Herat 1997
by Wilfried Geens, Herat 1997
by Wilfried Geens, Herat 1997

Click to check them out in high resolution — they’re gorgeously detailed.

My parents saw Saiddullah at work in a factory near the mosque and shop, as described in the more recent accounts — not at the outskirts of town. We can perhaps conclude that the original factory depicted in the film disappeared sometime before 1997. Did Brill still visit the old factory when he last went to Herat in 1993? We can’t tell from his notes.

Here is my parents’ collection of glassware:

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I’m not a glass expert so can’t tell whether these glasses were made with the old methods, or from recycled glass. I do notice that the blue tint in some of the glasses is uneven and swirly, while the glass itself contains smeared bubbles and the occasional speck. I will leave it to the experts to tell whether this indicates anything about the process. I can only say that these glasses feel incredibly robust, unique, and that they are a pure joy to hold in the hand.

But what were my parents doing in Herat in 1997, during Afghanistan’s interminable civil war? At the time, my father was the Belgian ambassador to Pakistan, so Afghanistan was his beat. In April that year, they were in Herat to observe the various UN projects then underway — refugee camps, mine clearance operations, programs to teach children to recognize mines, and help for amputees. Herat was then Taliban country — had been since late 1995 — but this was still the early days of their rule, and western nations (and the UN) were then negotiating with the Taliban to allow aid programs to continue. Some, such as education programs for women, were soon prohibited, despite humanitarian appeals. Mom remembers seeing unwound video tape fluttering in the trees beneath Herat’s citadel. It was a warning that movies, like music, were a dangerous foreign influence.

But back to Saidullah. It strikes me that none of my sources for this post mention Saidullah’s last name. He’s always served up for some symbolic purpose as “the glassmaker” — as a craftsman practicing a dying art, or as a photogenic artisan, or as an old man deserving pity. The real Saidullah remains hidden… unless you take another look at Erwitt’s camera work. Just twice in his film, early on and near the end, Saidullah looks straight at the camera, and in both cases, fleetingly, you get a sense of a young man conscious of his plight, yet holding on to dignity and hope. Just once, Saidullah smiles — and Erwitt makes it the central shot of the film by cutting away at that precise moment.

saidullah-smile

The next time I drink a toast, it will be to Saidullah, and from his work.

Update: See more of my father’s photos from his time in Afghanistan (1994-1997)

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