Meet Haji Ibrahim and Haji Ghaffar

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Meet Haji Ibrahim and Haji Ghaffar. These two came strolling into our offices with big bellied laughs. They’re brothers from the Ghuryan District, and they looked very fine in their Afghan Shalwar Kameez and leather jacket and Western coat. The turban denotes great responsibility.  Only elders who wear the turban are entrusted with making wise decisions for their families and communities.

Ibrahim and Ghafar have been farmers with Rumi Spice since last year. After handing them a wad of cash for payment for their saffron flowers, Shakoor sat us down over tea, and I gave them the WBEZ mugs. When we took a video, their countenances immediately switched to somber, which I guess translates to stateliness. Haji Ibrahim spent the entire interview looking off into the distance with disdain, rubbing his feet. As soon as it’s off, they’re back to joking and gesticulating loudly. I mean, look at this guy cheezin’!

I did get them to take a selfie with me, though, and I’m glad they smiled. #afghanfarmerselfie

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The important stuff: they told me they were happy in the partnership with Rumi Spice and wanted to continue to next year. They asked me for a promise to include them into the expansion opportunities as we grow.  They would help us if we helped them. They’d honor us if we honored them.

Then came the photoshoot in the courtyard. If you don’t already know, Melanie is a pretty serious photographer. She’s done portrait shots for Donald Trump and Oscar de la Renta as well as covers for Vogue and Time Magazine. Here she is graciously taking photography direction from Shakoor, who was directing her shots and suggesting poses. Our two jolly brothers were laughing at themselves smelling the flowers at Melanie’s suggestion, and Ibrahim started to pose and purposely drop flowers into the bucket.

“Yes!” Melanie said, camera clicking. “Yes! That’s it!”

Afterwards, Melanie told me Ibrahim was a natural model. The whole morning was fun and lighthearted. We spent the rest of the day picking stigmas and doing written interviews with our women. I heard stories that made my heart break and others that gave me courage.

I’m thrilled to be here. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I have so much on my mind and my heart.

Meet Haji Ibrahim and Haji Ghaffar

Dance Party at the Processing Facility

img_0576One by one, the women came up to me as Abdul Faisal wrote their carefully picked piles of saffron stigmas. He made small corrections on where they cut the stigmas – some were too long. He said to me, “The women are doing very well so soon. Already you can see the difference.” Indeed there was. The women were getting faster at it, so they were able to more skillfully pluck the quickly-fading flowers and thus produce longer and plumper threads. A heavy scent of saffron and flowers filled the room along with the low hum of ladies-talk.

The ladies all wore the Rumi Spice hijab, or head covering, as per custom. They usually do not allow pictures of their faces, although far-away photos are okay. Showing your hair is like showing cleavage. Afghan women value modesty above all else. My headscarf was always in disarray, and the ladies laughed about it constantly. They’d come over and fix it. In ten minutes it’d be back to chaos.

I sat myself next to a group of younger ladies, who stared at me as a stranger and looked away when I looked back. “Khob asti,” I said in my best Dari, which basically means, how are you? I grabbed some flowers and began picking the stigmas. It’s very dexterous work – thank god I took piano lessons for so many years.  The girl next to me, Zarlasht, showed me how to separate the stigmas better and faster. Gradually they began to smile, then fight over my help so that I would contribute to their piles. They asked me to play Beyoncé and Selena Gomez on my phone. They knew the words, or at least what it sounded like to them: “I love you like I love some baby.” Not the words, but definitely the sass!  Heads started to bob. Then I introduced some new dance moves. Then a few girls got up, giggles all around, and closed the door. Then the party started, and they showed me new dance moves.  We took each other’s hands and felt joy.

This moment of kinetic happiness came to a halt when the door flew open and Abdul Faisal looked very confused. The older ladies laughed and the young ladies hid behind me. So, we had to get back to work, and I had to leave the room because I was being too distracting. Oops. I banned myself for an hour, but every time I passed by the doorway, some of them would wink, smile and motion for me to sit next to them.

One of them, Sheikelah, stole my heart. This girl (about 16 years old) was a ball of sass and energy. She’d blow me kisses and say, “Excuse me! I love you!” very loudly. With a mischievous smile on her face, she’d say something very rapidly in Dari, full of gestures, and cause all the women in the room to snicker or shake their heads. I badly wanted to understand. She didn’t belong there sifting saffron. Sheikelah belonged on stage somewhere, with lights in her eyes charming a theater full of people. At one point, she grabbed my phone and took a burst-full of selfies, before getting scolded by her mother. Sheikelah said to me, through Abdul Faisal, Take me with you to America. I’ll work for you, and I’ll give you all of my money. She had her hand over her heart. This broke my heart quite a bit. Her look was very tender. I convinced myself that what I was doing Rumi Spice was enough. I’m not sure if it is sometimes.

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Saffron Is the New Opium… Sort Of

 “As a member of Afghanistan, I want to help my people to reduce growing narcotics – and saffron as you may know is an alternative crop.”

Shakoor Ehrarri works with Rumi Spice in Herat, Afghanistan where he oversees the export of Afghan saffron grown by about eighty farmers.

Rumi Spice had two priorities when it started partnering with Shakoor and other Afghan farmers; find the best saffron, and create a positive impact on the communities they work with.  Shakoor chose to work with Rumi because his highest priority is helping his people.  It was very clear throughout our conversation that he feels a deep-rooted responsibility to his family and community – he’s proud of Herat’s history and culture.

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Shakoor, third from the left, tells us why saffron is a good substitute for opium.

   

“Ten years ago whenever you talk about Ghoryan district, mostly you assume it is a place of narcotics, but now almost no one grows narcotics.  It has been replaced by saffron.  It’s a good opportunity for the farmers.”  

Why is saffron a better option for farmers? Shakoor explains that saffron is actually less work and the farmers can get more money from it.  “It is a winter crop and the farmers don’t need to worry about water.  There is maybe one crucial time you would need to water through the canals.”  He tells me that the saffron flower, crocus sativus, requires so little water that rainfall provides plenty of hydration throughout the season.  With poppies, on the other hand, farmers need to monitor the crop throughout the growing season and water more frequently.  Once they are ready for harvesting it takes 3 to 4 months of work to collect sap from each poppy and complete the harvest.  

“You also have to keep it away from the government and you have to be afraid of punishment.  With saffron the government will help you.”

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Some regions of Afghanistan still primarily cultivate poppies, like Helmand Province, pictured here.

So why don’t all Afghan farmers grow saffron instead of opium?  

“Mostly, the reason the people are growing narcotics is that they don’t have any alternative crops.” Shakoor explains that not all regions are so perfectly suited to grow saffron.  Additionally, when you already struggle to feed your family it’s risky to spend everything you have on new crops and for some farmers that start up cost is prohibitive. They would have to spend time and money on soil preparation, fertilizer, labor, saffron crocus corms [bulbs] etc.  He also tells me that sometimes the farmers don’t have much choice – that the global demand for opium essentially means that, “the work to grow narcotics is imposed on the farmers, otherwise they would grow an alternative crop.”  This is why Rumi Spice and Shakoor are tirelessly working to help farmers stay away from the opium supply chain in favor of a safer, hardier, more lucrative crop.

Saffron Is the New Opium… Sort Of

Shakoor’s Afghanistan

Shakoor Ehrarri has always had a passion for agriculture – for the way that plants and earth support an entire livelihood and fuel an economy.

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Photo by RUMI

“This year I have started cultivating an additional 2 hectares for soybeans and 2 hectares for saffron,” he tells me that some farmers now grow up to 100 hectares (about .4 square miles) of saffron in Herat.  He wants to help the people in his community thrive and to bring recognition to Afghanistan’s hard working, well-deserving farmers.

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Shakoor, far right, and two RUMI farmers pick the remaining saffron flowers. Photo by RUMI

  Continue reading “Shakoor’s Afghanistan”

Shakoor’s Afghanistan