Matthew Leeming is an RSAA member who works in Afghanistan with Milio International to develop Afghan marble mines and the country’s capacity to process and export the stone. He is also co-author of the Odyssey Companion and Guide to Afghanistan. Here, he answers questions from the Asian Affairs Weblog:
- What is the state of trade for marble in Afghanistan? Is there the infrastructure and capacity to mine it, and if so, can it actually be processed in Afghanistan?
Well, there is now a factory in Herat which was recently sold for $20 million. It is equipped with Italian machinery and can apparently cut to western standards.
- Herat is well known for tile-work (we only have to think of the Friday Mosque and Gazergah). What has it got to do with marble?
Nothing (at the moment). My only knowledge of Herati marble was a carved pillar I saw in the Art Institute in Chicago years ago, a beautiful floor in the Herat Transport Department and a piece of carved white marble at Gohar Shad’s mausoleum which could have been originally the same piece as the Chicago carving that I assumed was a grave marker. It was presumably broken in 1885 when the British blew up the madrassah and minarets at Herat to give a better line of sight against invading Russians – who never came. There certainly was a tradition of stone carving in Herat – the mausoleum of Gohar Shad contains five stunning calligraphy panels which someone tried to steal that were originally used at the bottom of the minarets, according to Jolyon Leslie.
- What is so special about the marble coming out of Afghanistan? Are there any special artistic or craft traditions on top of the quality of the marble itself to be aware of?
It is very high quality. The stone for the Taj Mahal was apparently quarried near Jalalabad and we have just had two 25 tonne blocks quarried there that we are getting cut in the Gulf.
- What are the challenges facing people in the trade? Is it really worth the bother of trying to excavate and export it, when one might just stick to somewhere safe like Italy?
The major problem is getting orders in a foreign market. I am going to Baku in Azerbaijan in the New Year to look at a processing plant there that Milio may invest in. The figures for the Azeri economy are mind-boggling: there was 35% economic growth in one single year; they have loads of money from oil (even down to a crude price of $50 per barrel); they are building on an Old Testament scale including a new Tower of Babel 3,500 feet tall; and are decorating the buildings in onyx and marble. I am currently in Dubai trying to sell marble for four hotels and a palace and we are just about to take on a salesman to do this properly.
- What’s the export market for Afghan marble? Who wants it outside the country? Can it compete?
The economics are driven by the cost of transport which can cost as much as the stone itself. So you want to be selling it near Afghanistan which means central Asia and the Gulf is the best market. Plus marble is very heavy and you lose 20% of it in cutting so you want to cut near the quarry. To begin with, at least and despite its high quality, Afghan stone is going to have to compete on price.
The obvious export market is Turkmenistan which is very close to Herat and is building new ‘white cities’ from white marble to honour the former President, Turkmen-Bashi. Afghanistan did one shipment but did something so depressingly familiar to anyone who works with Afghan export industries that it has its own name: the Idar-Oberstein trick. Idar-Oberstein is a town in Germany which is the centre of the European emerald trade. The Afghans got an order for emeralds from the Panjshir and shipped them. The first lot were excellent but the subsequent ones complete rubbish, so bad that the Germans now refuse to look at any stones from Afghanistan.
- How are you going to prevent a repetition of the Idar-Oberstein trick?
By rigorous scrutiny of the process at every step. We are not just supplying Italian Fantini chain saws to improve the rate of extraction but also cutting the blocks into slabs with Italian machines and rejecting anything sub-standard. That is the only way that we can establish Afghan stone in foreign markets.
- What impact is the trade having on Afghanistan and/or Herat?
According to Melissa Skorka, an ISAF counterinsurgency adviser, it is having a beneficial effect already: Afghans in and around Herat are now so usefully employed making money that they are not interested in blowing up themselves and ISAF convoys. This is apparently such a major new discovery that they are trying to repeat it in other places. We just did two 25 tonne loads of onyx from Lashkar Gah to Verona and Lash is of course one of the Taliban hotbeds in Helmand and I haven’t heard of any insurgent attacks there since, but correlation is not the same as causation.