Stitching an Afghan-American connection
How a gold brocade jacket employed a tailor in Herat and dazzled the mother of an American soldier.
Alexandria, Va.; and Herat, Afghanistan
In the thick of a 12-day sewing flurry in a makeshift workshop in Herat, Amin Ullah could only imagine who might one day wear the clothes he was constructing.Skip to next paragraph
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He knew 100 pieces would travel back to Alexandria's Elegance Fashion Boutique. Its owner, Roya Hashimi, had returned to her family home in Afghanistan to commission the batch, a veritable trousseau. There were wedding dresses, sweeping formal skirts, gossamer tops, and satin sashes. Confections of whorled lace and tulle thick with beading.
What Mr. Ullah could not have known six months ago was that one of the jackets – in cream tulle with sheer sleeves and thick gold embroidery, almost a brocade, creeping up the high neck – would end up on Pat Meyer, a psychotherapist in Reston, Va.
The cloth has forged a sort of bond between the two. They have never met. But this jacket connects them, across continents and through a war.
For Ullah – not yet 20, but a tailor for nine years already – it is a link to the United States, to Ms. Hashimi's shop where he hopes one day to work. For Mrs. Meyer, the jacket, with seams sewn by Ullah, is a tie to her son – a US Army Airborne Ranger stationed in Afghanistan. She'll wear it to her daughter's wedding on Nov. 3 and, wrapped in its delicate fabric, be reminded of her youngest child, the son who cannot be there.
Then there is Hashimi, who returned to help her town and her people. "I was successful in Europe and America," she says, "and I wanted to give something back. I'm not rich, but I live well." Besides providing income for Ullah and more than a dozen others, she hoped the proceeds would let her build a school for 70 girls who were being taught in a clay barn partially destroyed under the Taliban.
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Ullah's tiny shop – down a narrow alley where children dart among scooters and cycles in chattering flocks – is silent but for the low whir of a sewing machine. Ullah could be mistaken for a banker as much as a tailor. His gaze is sharp and attentive, his hair impeccably groomed. All he lacks is a pinstripe suit. Instead, he wears the loose-fitting tunic and pants of a traditional Afghan salwar kameez.
These are not good times for a tailor in Herat. Afghans used to come to tailors for every stitch of clothing. But these days, boys are wearing jeans sewn in factories and T-shirts imported from other countries – and Ullah often doesn't have enough money to pay the rent.
"If I have work, I can make $20 a day, but sometimes I make nothing," he says.
It is why he hopes that Hashimi will return, along with the promise of a guaranteed $30 a day.
"This was the best money I have ever made in my life," he says. With the cash from two weeks' work, he gave his shop a fresh coat of paint, and he adds with an expectant smile: "She promised that if the business is successful I will come back [with her to the US] and work for her."
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The Elegance Fashion Boutique is a splinter of a store – the front is just 6 feet wide – on King Street, a coveted stretch of brick-lined real estate in affluent Old Town Alexandria. With its cotton-candy-pink walls and rows of gowns, one customer called it Cinderella's workshop.
Hashimi came here via Hamburg, Germany, where, fleeing war, she moved from Herat with her parents when she was 16. In Hamburg she studied fashion and took to wedding dresses, a garment that leaves not even a millimeter of room for error. "I was the only girl with a lot of patience," she says. "Believe me, our work is not easy."
In 1997, Hashimi married an Afghan man whose family is in Virginia, where they settled. She searched for the right spot for a store. "Everywhere else in Virginia was so different," she says, "but Alexandria looked close to Europe to me."