Scents & Sensibility

How the author helped Afghans build a thriving soap and body-oil business—and overcame the incompetence of America’s aid establishment

Photos by the author

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Afghan farmer
FRUITS OF SUCCESS: a pomegranate merchant in Kandahar

ou could take the man for a Talib, in his flowing Afghan garb, six or seven yards of black silk looped around his head, beard untrimmed, eyes now politely cast down as we spoke, now focused on his glass of tea, now off to his left somewhere—anywhere but looking at me, a barefaced woman who speaks to men directly in their language. The man was no Talib; he was my friend Kabir’s uncle, who cultivates black cumin on a highland plateau that lies across two ridges of bony rock north of Kandahar. What wafted in with him was not the distinctive astringent smell of cumin but the heady perfume of the flower we had asked him to gather, so we could distill its essential oil. It’s called Salvia spinosa, and it smells like ripe bananas doused in lime. How the unforgiving dust of southern Afghanistan produces such miracles remains one of the mysteries of the place for me.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Everyday Afghanistan"
A photo tour of the country's children, elders, artisans, and landscapes.

I was trying to push 600 afghanis, or about $12, on Kabir’s uncle for the 30 pounds or so of flowers he had brought. It would have cost him half a day to comb the wheat fields, plus an hour and a half’s ride in a jolting open-backed truck to Kandahar. He delicately picked up the bills and placed them a little closer to me on the carpet where we sat. “I didn’t do this for money,” he protested. I cut him short, knowing the value of those bills to him. Three days’ wages for unskilled labor: men who stand in the bazaar in the morning, shovels across their shoulders. For Kabir’s uncle, a windfall he could calculate in rice, kilos of tea, meat for children. “If I came to your home hungry or had been wounded, you could tend me out of friendship,” I told him. “But this is business. Work should be recompensed.”

It took about half an hour, but I brought him round. He folded the money and tucked it away, then promised to plant Salvia spinosa for us next year. It grows wild in the upland fields; crones grind up the shiny seeds and use them in poultices for eye irritations, but no Afghan farmer would think to cultivate the stuff, for up till now there has been no market for it.

This is what we do: Eleven Afghan men and women and I scour this harried land for its (licit) bounties and turn them into beauty products. Our soaps, colored with local vegetable dyes and hand-molded and smoothed till they look like lumps of marble, and our oils, elixirs for polishing the skin, sell in boutiques that cater to the pampered in New York, Montreal, and San Francisco.

The scale of the effort—we sell about $2,500 worth of soap per month—is tiny. Still, our business, the Arghand Cooperative, represents what reports and think tanks say places like Afghanistan need: sustainable economic development. And it is almost entirely the product of private enthusiasm and generosity. From the institutional donors whose job I naively thought was to foster initiatives like ours, we have reaped much travail but almost no support.

I did not come naturally by my soap-factory-in-a- shooting-gallery. After covering the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 for National Public Radio, I decided that Afghanistan was the place to get off the reporting treadmill, as rewarding as it had been. It’s not just that I fell in love with the country—though I did—not just that I felt a perplexing sense of ease in this harsh, impoverished, chauvinistic, explosively independent land. My decision had broader underpinnings. In the wake of 9/11, getting Afghanistan right seemed terribly important— important to the direction history would take in the 21st century. Slogans urged us to cut up the world into two opposing blocs, to align ourselves with one or the other of two irrevocably hostile civilizations. That thinking would get us nowhere, I was convinced.

What better place than Kandahar to give in to the nudgings of a conscience that had been telling me for some time: “Stop talking about it already—do something.” And so I decided to stay in Afghanistan, at least partly to see how I would do if confronted with the requirement to produce a visible difference. Before the soap factory, I set up the headquarters in Kandahar of a maverick nongovernmental organization, founded by President Hamid Karzai’s older brother Qayum, then spent six months running a dairy cooperative. On Wednesdays, I would count out the money for our hundred or so participating farmers, whose children, jockeying adult-sized bikes over lumpy dirt roads, would carry milk to our truck in a riot of receptacles. We had a kitten that loved to roll around in the grubby bills, their condition itself a testament to the grim local economy: Torn notes worth even 5 or 10 cents were sewn or stapled back together.

I started thinking about soap in late 2004, on a breather from Afghanistan. I visited a natural-soap company in New Hampshire. The factory turned out to be one lady—albeit a chemist—mixing oils in her kitchen. I felt the first thrill of possibility: God, I can do that. What struck me about this cottage business was that the soaps, “handcrafted in New Hampshire,” were composed of oils and lye from all over the globe that were ordered online and delivered to a garage apartment near Concord. An Afghan version of this business could stand out by producing its own raw materials, not just stirring somebody else’s together. Turn over a bar of luxury soap and read the ingredients; half of the items can be found in Afghanistan: apricot kernels, sweet almonds, castor beans, fragrant seeds like cumin and anise. There was a pomegranate craze on. Surely I could squeeze pomegranates into soap somehow …

In fact, the startling abundance of fruit in parched Kandahar was what had first led me to consider beauty products. Before leaving the dairy cooperative, I had met with the elders of the village where we bought most of our milk, set in a leafy pomegranate forest that stands out from the surrounding dun, rocky moonscape. The elders gathered on a patch of plastered ground between the adobe houses, accompanied by gawking children. Milk is all very well and good, the men said. But it brings only pocket change. What we really need is a market for our grapes and pomegranates.

Fresh fruit is heavy and perishable, hardly the export for a country lacking roads, electricity, and any notion of international hygiene standards. But skin-care products don’t bruise or go bad, and in the West the market for them has exploded. All I had to do was figure out how to work the necessary magic on Kandahar’s fruit.

And so I hopped on the Internet and typed “seed oil” and “essential oil still” into the search engine. How exactly do you turn an almond, or a rose blossom, into oil? What’s an alembic? A “sap value”?

Just as it has revolutionized every other aspect of life, the Internet has transformed the prospect of doing good. Within days I learned that oil is pressed out of nuts and seeds—coffee beans, even—by the action of a spiraling screw inside a cylinder. I knew that pomegranate seeds, though containing only about 5 percent oil, could be pressed. “Essential oil,” which provides fragrance, is a different thing entirely. It is leached out of fresh plant material by steam forced through a pierced canister filled with leaves or flowers, in much the way a stove-top espresso pot makes coffee. The Internet became my Ariadne, leading me through botanical lore, market prices for nut oils, paintings of pomegranates. And it led me to the German company that manufactured the seed press I bought—a hand-cranked model that was perfect for electricity-starved Kandahar.

The Internet also wove together the far-flung community that has nurtured our cooperative. Without it, I’m not sure we could have survived. The oddly intimate communication that e-mail opens between perfect strangers facilitates the type of direct interaction I wanted. I learned a lot, for example, about the distributor for that seed-oil press: an elderly gentleman who, after an adventurous career in the petroleum industry, bought a ranch in Colorado, and then retired (again) home to Germany and the seed-oil business. In our e-mails, I’ve taken to addressing him as OMOTM, for Old Man of the Mountains, and he calls me Little Lady. Because we had become cyber-pals, Gary Stadler, who builds our essential-oil stills, once filled spaces in shipping crates with dish towels, caustic-chemical gloves, disposable eyedroppers, and glass pipettes. To stay in touch with our board of directors (whose members are spread from Kandahar and Kabul to Massachusetts and San Francisco, through Kansas City, Austin, Denver), we have built Internet communication and voting procedures into our bylaws. A wish list is posted on our Web site, allowing supporters to pick out and send us items they know we need, rather than just write a check.

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