A Way to Return

Before fleeing Kabul for his life in 1980, Muhammet Zahir Beratoglu learned an ancient art form from his father. Three decades later, he returns to the city of his youth one thread at a time.

By / December 2012

The year was 1979, the place Kabul. The 18-year-old Muhammet Zahir Beratoğlu, a recent high school graduate, was days away from starting college. He thought he might study journalism, liked the idea of someday seeing his name in print. But his country was fraying at the edges. Civil unrest between Muslims and communists was tearing Afghanistan apart. On Christmas Eve of that year, the Soviets invaded.

The assassination of President Hafizullah Amin followed. Overnight, the golden age of the shahs, an era which Zahir would forever associate with cool evenings around the fire on the terrace at his childhood home, vanished into history. Like dishes on a cloth pulled from a table, Zahir’s plans were shattered, irreparably.

“Afghanistan had been turned upside down,” Zahir says. We are sitting in the art gallery that he now runs with his wife in Istanbul. He is telling me the story of how he wound up here, 5,000 miles and 30 years from the Kabul of his youth. “The communists had come and started a revolution. You could have been friends with someone your whole life and he just pull out a pistol and kill you, without even a word.”

According to Zahir, the Soviet troops were ruthless. Drunk on violence, they made bombs out of toy trains, Barbie dolls, cars. They tossed them to excited, swarming children. They rounded up Afghan youths. The ones who weren’t communists were tortured.

“Kids were going to school but not coming home,” recalls Zahir’s wife, Şaziye. Also from Kabul, she was 12 when the war began. “Girls were kidnapped. Soldiers would invade homes, rape the girls in front of their mother and father, kill the men, and take the women away. There was no honor left in Kabul,” she says. “We had to get out.”

Getting out was nothing new for Zahir’s family. Originally from Uzbekistan, his father had journeyed as a young boy from Bukhara to Kabul following Russia’s sacking of the Uzbek king. In the decades since, he had established an import and export business. It provided a good living, enabled him to pursue his true passion, art. With metallic gold and silver thread, he knitted designs into velvet cloth, a traditional Indian and Persian art form called zardosi.

Zahir watched his father create, marveled at his concentration. Sensing the boy’s interest, the old man made a point of teaching him the technique. But now a more pressing lesson was in order. He needed to teach Zahir, and his two younger brothers, how to flee.

Fearing they might get hijacked by militants if they traveled alone, Zahir’s father hired professional smugglers to lead the boys across the Pakistani border, a 200 kilometer trek heavily guarded by Soviet troops and imposing mountains. The old man would stay behind with his wife and youngest children until a more opportune moment.

On an April morning in 1980 he said goodbye to the boys. Without a suitcase, and only a wool pakul hat to unroll over his cold ears, Zahir traveled with his two brothers to a meeting point at the menacing Shuadoi Solehin cemetery on the outskirts of Kabul. There the boys and their smugglers boarded a bus for Logar.

A few miles outside of town, the bus came to a halt. They had reached a Soviet checkpoint. The brothers had prepared for such a moment. They had made up a story. They would say they were headed to a relative’s wedding. They were dressed formally according to Afghan customs, a disguise designed to lend credence to their lie. This time, much to Zahir’s surprise, they did not have to use it. The guards, almost too easily, let everyone pass.

The scene repeated dozens of times, the stop, the anxiety, the ushering through. Several hours after leaving the first Russian checkpoint, the bus arrived safely in Logar. At a tiny restaurant the boys filled their stomachs. They stuffed a sack with flat bread for the next leg of the journey, an ominous hike into the teeth of the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Logar’s silent streets were flush with patrolling troops. The boys waited for nightfall, until evening prayers were over, then hurried at a trot into the cold night. Back in Kabul, right around the time Zahir climbed into the mountains, his parents awakened to a rap at the door. Afghan soldiers had come, one night too late, to recruit young men into their ranks. “We don’t have any sons,” Zahir’s mother told the men.

Incredulous, the soldiers ransacked the home, uncovering every rug and cushion, finding nothing. The family did not know if their sons were safe. They only knew that they had saved them from having to fight on the front lines of what was already a bloody war.

The hike into the mountains would not be an easy one. Russian attack helicopters groaned overhead. Explosions shook the cliffs and valleys, dislodging rocks. Zahir and his brothers got used to throwing their bodies behind boulders when choppers approached. The mountains provided shelter but they posed a threat, too. One man who was travelling with the group, a man who had been a prince in Uzbekistan, lost his footing and collapsed over a sprained ankle.

Unable to carry him over the mountain passes, the party was forced to leave him in an abandoned mosque on a hillside. They had to press on. They had his blessing. They would send help when they arrived at their destination. But as he plodded upward, away from his friend, Zahir felt certain the mosque would become a mountain tomb.

Five arduous days later, their shoes in shreds from navigating the jagged rock, the three brothers approached the Khyber Pass on the border with Pakistan. For going on a week they had survived on spring water and stone-like bread that they had to soak in order to eat. In the distance, they spotted Pakistani, instead of Soviet, soldiers. The brothers had done the unthinkable. They had escaped Afghanistan.

Photograph by Brian McKanna
Zahir Beratoglu in his Istanbul studio. Photograph by Brian McKanna

After reaching the village of Landi Kotal, Zahir bought a pack of Kent cigarettes. In the dusty street, he lit up and took long pull, coughing at first, then, with a full breath, exhaling the smoke and all of his worries. After a short bus ride to Peshawar, Zahir and his brothers met up with their uncle, who had fled Kabul several days prior.

The rest of the family would make the journey to freedom in the coming months, leaving behind their home and business, leaving behind the Afghan sky and landscape, leaving behind friends and extended family, everything they couldn’t fit onto the backs of pack mules. Like millions of other Afghan refugees, they buried the lives they knew in the Kabul soil. Zahir, for one, would never return to pay respects.

From Pakistan the reunited family hoped to move on to Germany, or even the US. On several occasions Zahir’s father purchased plane tickets but their falsified passports were rejected in the terminal. In some cases, the plane bound for Germany never showed. In the end, they lost tens of thousands of dollars on the ordeal. With their savings exhausted, they set their sights on Turkey instead. They had a cousin in Istanbul. They traveled by train and bus through Iran. Apart from clothes and rugs, they had no luggage. In Istanbul they would make a brand new start.

Zahir immediately went to work selling lemons in the neighborhood bazaars of Istanbul. He didn’t know the language. He spoke Tajik. But he quickly learned words like limon and how to say the price on the sign he carried.

Three years passed, the family slowly growing accustomed to their new digs. It was 1984. Zahir was 22. That summer he travelled to a wedding in Antep, in southeastern Turkey. Before the service, he took notice of a 16-year-old girl named Şaziye. He recognized her from Kabul and when he struck up a conversation with her after the wedding he wasn’t surprised to hear her story. Like him, she had narrowly escaped Afghanistan without her parents, but in Şaziye’s case, not everyone emerged unscathed.

On a bus during her journey, Şaziye watched as her 14-year-old brother was singled out by Soviet guards. The bus pulled away. On the side of the road, the guards flogged the boy. Later they gave him electric shock. On the third day of his ordeal, a higher-up intervened and ordered the boy’s return to Kabul. It took two years for the family to reunite in Pakistan. By then, Şaziye’s father had lost both of his legs. Shortly after they resettled in Antep, her father died.

Zahir and Şaziye’s lives, knit together by misfortune, would soon be joined in marriage. Within the year they were wed in a rite that was as much a celebration of survival as a testament to romance. That was 30 years ago. “It was all for love,” Zahir tells me, grinning. “It was nothing like that at all,” Şaziye interrupts, “and you know it.” After the wedding, Zahir and Şaziye went to work scratching out a living in Istanbul. They lived in a two-room apartment with 15 other people. Zahir gave up selling lemons, looking for work wherever he could. Şaziye was expecting. Zahir wanted to secure for his family a place of their own before the baby came.

He went to Saudi Arabia for six months to work in a restaurant with a relative who promised good money. When Zahir returned, he had enough for them to move into their own home in Istanbul’s Soğanlı district, which, at the time, was little more than a muddy field on the western edge of the city. As years passed, Zahir added floors brick by brick. He picked up work with his brother in a textile factory, and with another relative making plates.

Finally, in 1998, the couple opened a market in the bottom floor of their flat, selling produce, porcelain china, and clothing. The couple also sold decorative pillows, curtains, and Qu’ran covers. With every spare moment he had, Zahir descended the stairs of the market to the basement, a room he had turned into a personal studio.

There he picked up a needle and thread the way his father had taught him all those years ago in Kabul and set about reshaping his splintered world with calloused hands and gilded thread. Zahir’s artwork was largely a secret until last year when he converted the market into a gallery and opened it up to the public. On the walls hung scores of original embroidery, some of which had taken months to create.

The color of the thread, the knitting technique, it was clearly zardosi. What was different was the size of the pieces, and their subject matter. On massive sheets of velvet Zahir had stitched three-dimensional renderings of Istanbul landmarks. He had taken zardosi, a craft typically devoted to garments and tapestry, and made it his own, turned a touchstone to the past into a tribute to his adopted city, to the place where he had found safety following the travails of his youth.

The gallery show was a watershed moment for Zahir, who had retired from running the market to concentrate on his art. Purveyors now drop by his studio regularly, marveling at his work, amazed at the artistic perseverance sewn into each piece. Interest in his work, he says, is growing. “You can’t do this job without patience,” Zahir tells me, “but it’s pleasure for me. This is my hobby, not my work.”

Hunched over a wide embroidery hoop, crouching on a stool in the gallery, Zahir pulls a needle through a black velvet canvas. His latest project: replicating in thread the imperial Ortaköy Mosque on the waterfront of the turquoise Bosporus. The piece has taken a month, but Zahir isn’t finished, not yet. On his workbench rests a pair of small, feather-light scissors made dull by decades of snipping thread. Behind him, on shelves lined with gilded fibers and colorful fabrics, hangs a heather-gray pakul hat, the solitary memento from his trek across the moonlit mountains out of Afghanistan.

Zahir knows there is nothing he can do to bring peace to the city he fled in those final days of childhood. He has a new city, one that he hopes will provide a stable life for his own children. He doubts he will ever return to Kabul. But from this basement in Istanbul he ventures back there with every turn of the needle. It is his way of stitching silver lining through the clouds of the past.


Brian McKanna is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.