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Revisiting Istalif, Famed For Pottery And Picnics

Hearing Renee Montagne's Morning Edition report today about the village of Istalif, Afghanistan, brought back memories for this blogger.

Renee spoke of the changes in that place, a little more than an hour's drive north of Kabul, since she first visited in 2002 and then again about five years ago. Known for its pottery, Istalif suffered along with many other villages when the Taliban ruled.

But Istalif's people returned after the Taliban was toppled in late 2001 and began to rebuild. Over time, potters reopened their shops. And the beautiful hills around Istalif again became favored rest spots for Afghans and foreigners alike.

It was a comment by potter Abdul Wahkeel, the focus of Renee's report, that was particularly important to me. He said that now, in the summer, "a lot of families come here to picnic and they also buy pots."

In the early summer of 2003, I wrote this about Istalif for USA Today:

"Come on a warm, sunny Friday, the Muslim holy day. Stop at a picnic area in a wooded plateau with a commanding view of the Shomali Plain. Chances are, men such as Haji Zahir Kargar, 50, will be there with friends and family who also have driven up from Kabul.

" 'Often on Fridays now, we are coming here for picnics,' Kargar, a clerk, says through an interpreter. 'During the Taliban years? No!' Such entertainment was banned by the fundamentalist militia."

It was that image of Afghan families enjoying a day in the hills, cooking over open fires, telling stories and relaxing that was so striking — even more striking to me than the pottery shops that were open in the village.

The people were free to relax. Even to sing again if they wished. They were happy, even eager, to share their food. It was one of the most telling moments from the half dozen reporting trips I made to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. For sure, Afghanistan still had — and would have — enormous problems. But here was a sign that life could indeed be "normal" again.

It's good to hear they are still picnicking in Istalif.

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