Stitching an Afghan-American connection

How a gold brocade jacket employed a tailor in Herat and dazzled the mother of an American soldier.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

• • •

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."

• • •

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."

Meyer first walked into the boutique with her daughter Jenny. They were there for a wedding dress. And sometime in the course of designing Jenny's custom gown, between the fittings and alterations, Meyer came across the jacket.

Jenny and her younger sister didn't love it at first, says Meyer. "But when we pulled it down and I put it on, they said, 'Wow, Mom. That's really beautiful.' "

Meyer knows the material, some of the finest Hashimi could find in Herat, came from Dubai. But Hashimi suspects it may have been made in Korea.

Yet there was more to it than its beauty.

"We were also so moved by her story," says Meyer. "Here I see Roya trying to bring freedom and possibility to women in Afghanistan," she continues. "We are great patriots.... My son is over there fighting for their freedom, and ours."

The jacket is a way for Meyer to support Hashimi, to be a part of her story. But it provides something more literal as well, something tangible that she can run her fingers over, that makes her feel connected to her son.

• • •

When Hashimi returned to Herat in April, for the first time in 24 years, she set up a small factory in the back of the 70-year-old family home that her parents recently returned to. She hired 15 locals – including Ullah. But her timing was off. She missed the dress-buying peak for summer weddings. So far she has only sold 10 of the 100 pieces, priced between $350 and $1,300.

Hashimi says when she first presented her patterns to the workers in Herat, some were shocked by the strapless styles. But not Ullah.

In a country famed for the burqa, that all-enveloping sack of pleated fabric, Ullah says that Hashimi's designs "are not very different from the designs we are making for women here."

It's not an aspersion on her designs, which he liked, but evidence that Afghan women – as much as their Western counterparts – want to look good. "Even in Afghanistan people have started wearing these sorts of things," he says with a mixture of pride and amazement. "When I go to a wedding party, I see women with bare shoulders."

(Yet if he were to take one of Hashimi's dresses to a local shop, he imagines he might get only $100 for it, which wouldn't even cover expenses. And even at that, $100 amounts to more than one-third of the average annual salary.)

• • •

In Hashimi's store, she and Meyer joke that it may be the American Meyer who is best suited to the dress of an observant Muslim.

"I'm freaking out about the see-through arms, as you know," she says, looking to Hashimi.

"She would be a good Muslim wife," Hashimi says, smiling.

"I would be," agrees Meyer. "I'm so modest."

The jacket closes in front with a hook and eye. It will be tied at the waist with a gold sash made of the same material as the dress Hashimi is sewing for Meyer to wear beneath.

Meyer's younger daughter is also engaged, and Hashimi will make her wedding dress, too. The hope is that Meyer's son will be home in time for that October wedding. And who knows? Ullah may even have a hand in stitching her gown.

Hashimi believes the Afghan-made dresses remaining in her boutique will sell with the next flux of wedding shoppers. She has plans to go back to Herat in March to commission another batch, and still hopes to build the school.

Until then, Ullah, whom Hashimi has kept in touch with by phone, has asked if it is time yet for him to claim his job in her workshop. Perhaps it's the yards of lace and tulle he was surrounded by, because when she explained the complications of bringing him here he offered another solution: "Then could you find me someone to marry?"

"No," she says she told him firmly, her long dark hair shaking as she laughs at the idea.

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