As a reporter, I've made more than 10 trips to Afghanistan over the past 10 years, covering war, poverty and politics. But Afghanistan is also a place of rare, striking beauty - something that is difficult to convey to people who have never experienced it firsthand. It is a place that makes you catch your breath at the sight of a brightly designed kite - banned under the Taliban - against the pale blue sky, a place where the intricate design of something as mundane as a wooden door can offer odd respite amid the bleakness of a muddy village.
Hedvig Alexander knows these things well, having spent eight years in the country. The Danish-born Yale graduate first moved to Kabul as a soldier serving with the International Security Assistance Force in 2002. She left as managing director of Turquoise Mountain, a not-for-profit organization for which she oversaw the remarkable regeneration of the old city of Kabul and four training schools where young Afghan artisans learned traditional crafts.
In between, she met and married Chris Alexander, who served as Canada's Ambassador to Afghanistan and is now running as the Conservative Party candidate in the Ontario riding of Ajax-Pickering. For Alexander, the move from Kabul to a Canadian suburb was jarring. "I thought: I don't belong here at all. I belong in places like Afghanistan. That's what I know," she recalls. "Then I realised I could create a business here that could really help [Afghanistan] I was actually ideally placed."
A few months ago, she launched Jali Designs, which works with artisans from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan to bring traditional crafts to European and North American markets. Her business model was informed by her own work in development, which fuelled a growing disillusion with aid versus trade.
Alexander recognizes the limits of charity in a country like Afghanistan: "The NGO model doesn't benefit the taxpayer as much as it should," she argues. Nor does it benefit, she adds, Afghan artisans, who are subject to the fickle nature of charity. "With a better business model, there is more incentive for the artisan and more long-term benefit that is sustainable. We don't work with middle men," Alexander says.
Instead, she works with artisans like Humaira Mohmand, a young calligraphy student whose family remained in Afghanistan through civil war and Taliban rule. When the Taliban was overthrown, Mohmand attended high school and nurtured an interest in drawing. This year, she is graduating at the top of her class from the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Art and Architecture in Kabul. Jali Designs sells her brightly printed note cards, embossed with Islamic geometric designs evocative of those found on historic mosques.
Another Afghan artisan, Masoud Abdul Baqi, spent the first 10 years of his life as a refugee in Pakistan. Upon returning to Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban, he completed high school and learned the art of jali screenmaking - a form of lattice woodwork - from a mentor who had previously worked for the late King Zahir Shah. Jali Designs sells Baqi's Jali trays and tray tables, elegant examples of how he has adapted the art traditionally used to make as window screens in Islamic homes to something contemporary for Western markets.
"People buy things because they are beautiful or functional or both," Alexander says. "The trays were originally window screens to shield women and children from the eyes of outsiders, but who needs that in Toronto? I thought, a tray, a coaster, that's something that might work."
Initial sales have been brisk enough that Alexander is hoping to eventually expand her business to incorporate designs from other parts of the world. "We are trying for larger, permanent orders to give the artisans access to cash flow and real money for production," she says.
Meanwhile, throw cushions, tea cozies and trivets from the unlikeliest places are finding new homes in Canada. "There is so much beauty out there, but not everyone has the chance to travel and experience it. I wanted to create a place online where people could go and buy beautiful products and in that way be a part of this universe," Alexander says.