Kohistani Embroidery – silk on cotton; 76cm x 76cm – Late 19th Century
This is the first piece of Afghan embroidery that I ever bought … and it turned out to be from the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan. I shared a house with some friends in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1972 -73. Across the street lived the famed German carpet and textile expert, Thomas Knorr and his wife Undine. His 1973 textile exhibition catalog : “UZBEK” is cited in almost every reliable book of Central Asian carpets, textiles and ethnography. I learned quite a lot about Central Asian textiles from him.
In 1972 you could actually buy chickens from any of several shops on the infamous Chicken Street in Kabul. I bought this textile from one of the ‘New and Used Antique’ shops which lined the mud street back then. I saw two other, similar, pieces that fall … but I have never seen another one for sale since then. In the late 1970s I saw a similar piece in the Peshawar Museum, but it seems to be gone now. It was sold as a ‘Nuristani’ piece, like many other embroideries, shawls, dresses, and wooden furniture from that time and continuing until the present day. “Nuristani” – The Land of Light – sounds better, makes the pieces seem rarer and Nuristan happens to be an isolated valley in Afghanistan. Kohistan – (کوہستان, meaning “land of mountains”; Pashto: اباسين کوهستان) – refers to the area in the north of the Swat Valley, and includes several surrounding valleys as well. No tourist visiting Afghanistan is interested in buying a piece from Pakistan, but Nuristan, of course, is a different story.
As W.C. Fields used to say [it was really his dear old grandfather Litvak who said it (just before they swung the trap)] “You can’t cheat an honest man. Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump.” This should be engraved on a marble archway at the beginning of Chicken Street, as it seems to be the motto. Of course, one of the main purposes of this website is to “smarten up the chumps”.
I have several more fine examples of Kohistani embroidery which I shall cover in later posts.