Before the 1979 Russian invasion and rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan was heralded as “The Grave of Empires”; with the likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan to the British colonialists who failed to conquer its mountainous terrains and strong-willed inhabitants. By the time the 60’s arrived Afghanistan was at its pinnacle era of modernity and democratic reform – with Afghan women attending university and wearing miniskirts without apprehension, to tourists and hippies from around the world visiting the beautiful city gardens of Kabul.
In 1989, Afghanistan became subjected to Western corruption, including the lucrative trade of poppy fields spread within the Gostan Valley of Nimruz Province; where 90% of Earth’s heroin originates. The media has since shattered Afghanistan’s image and created fear in the world towards a nation known for its transcendent poetry (Rumi) and unshakable valour.
Nawed Elias, who left Afghanistan at the age of 14, discusses the blending of both European and Pashtun culture in his label Zazai Design and his hope for Afghanistan’s future
You recently went on your trip to Afghanistan, was there particular experience(s) you felt to be eye-opening for you?
It was great to be back in my beautiful city Kabul. But it also didn’t feel like I belonged either. Because life in Kabul was totally different than I expected. I was often there to cry on how poor women and children were walking on the streets.
There is a lot of money coming into Afghanistan. The world has helped the country but still so many orphans on the street looking for food while everyone does what they want. And besides, Afghanistan is an Islamic country. Faith speaks of love and helping each other. But I have not seen in this country a faithful believer whom really speaks the truth. I have seen few faithful people share their food with a child who is dying at their feet from hunger and cold. I’ve seen little respect for humanity towards women and children. A woman was harassed multiple times on the street, do you call that Islamic?
A country or a city is not valued by its beautiful houses and cars. A city or country is only beautiful if everyone is given a chance at life and a future with children going to school and being educated.
Sure, it was great to experience all this. I as a person do my best to give a contribution to humanity and to the poor children who yearn for a better future. I hope that every Afghan makes a contribution to these children. It doesn’t need to be much. You could help by giving one euro or dollar to them, and how much will that be per year? So let’s be human. We are not better than the orphans.
In researching fashion history in Afghanistan, all I could find was Vogue’s coverage of Safia Tarzi. Do you feel the arts in Afghanistan lacks representation, and for what reason?
Afghanistan has been years at war. People were not concerned with fashion and such things. People are very behind here. What I make is a shock for many Afghans. They do not accept it. They see it as an embarrassment for their culture and Afghanistan. And in addition, people do not eat, so how can they think of fashion? People do not live safely, they live in fear. How can they think of fashion? This is the reason that the fashion world is so little and remains backwards in Afghanistan. But we must not lose hope. I am confident that one day Afghans will be recognized for their contributions in this world. And I’ll do my best to do just that.
Right now, Zazai Design is also recognized in the whole of Europe and many support my work.
You arrived in the Netherlands at the age of 14, did you experience any conflict when immigrating from your homeland in the East into the Western world?
No. I arrived in the Netherlands at a very young age. Netherlands is like my country. I see no difference between Afghanistan and the Netherlands. I actually faced difficulties when I returned to my country. I’m not accepted as an Afghan. You are seen as a foreigner, even if you speak the same language.
What do you believe Afghanistan will need to achieve to be able to go back to what it once was before the Taliban and Western forces took over?
The situation of Afghanistan is very different. People are dying of hunger. There are no rules., People are fighting for their rights and they are not safe. But as human beings we can hope for a better future. A quiet and beautiful Afghanistan, without war.
Your collection Culture Clash Implements both the western style of the Netherlands with the traditional apparel of Afghanistan, what are you hoping to achieve in blending both cultures?
I wanted two different worlds to be brought together. I wanted to show the beautiful and special aspects of Afghanistan. I wanted to show that Afghanistan is more than what you think. And besides, I wanted my people to get acquainted with Europe. But the clothes style would not be easily accepted in Afghanistan. So I wanted to break some taboos, I wanted to show a unique side of Europe and Afghanistan, and to show how beautiful the two cultures together are.
Besides the traditional custom clothes of your Pashtun ancestry being an integral feature within your collection and design, what message do you want to send to your audience?
I am a proud Pashtun. And I always try to do something for my people. But my clothing line is not prohibited by any nation. I create a collection with a story. My first collection was Culture Clash, my second collection was No Religion. Totally different.
I wanted to bring two different worlds together through my first collection, and in my second collection was bringing people together of different beliefs; with the message to reduce hatred. But also break taboos.