Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:13 am

The Afghan commute

Sarah Takesh divides her time between the art fairs of Dubai and her upscale garment factory in Kabul

About once a month, Sarah Takesh commutes from her home in Dubai to her business in Kabul. She catches the 4am flight and arrives at her office five hours later where, she says, she “scrambles to review various crises and deal with issues while attempting to uphold Afghan social customs of long greetings and how-do-you-do’s.” Thirty-six hours later, she’s back in Dubai.

For five years starting in 2003, Takesh resided in Kabul, weathering the vagaries of living and growing a business in what she gamely calls “the wild east”. In 2008, alarmed by a rash of kidnappings, including that of a businessman who nearly suffocated while imprisoned in a hole in the ground for several days, Takesh felt the risks of sticking it out in Kabul had become far too great. She has been living in Dubai ever since.

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Takesh, 38, is the founder and creative and managing director of Tarsian & Blinkley, a fair-trade upscale garment manufacturer headquartered in Kabul whose workers are paid a living wage and taught sustainable skills in sewing and embroidery. Amid a military occupation, a hobbled infrastructure, notorious levels of corruption and frequent escalations in violence, T&B employs some 600 to 800 people, the vast majority of whom are Afghan women.

Built in to the ethos of the company is Takesh’s conviction that it should benefit Afghan society. Equal parts social venture and savvy business model, T&B’s fate is tied to the future of the country, where the ever-looming prospect of civil war makes it difficult for her to feel truly optimistic about the success of the enterprise. But Takesh and her business partner refuse to compromise on the human side of operations. The factory is equipped with a childcare facility and an on-site nurse, and workers are enrolled in a monthly food staples programme. “In a country like Afghanistan,” she says, “people don’t get exploited in the way they do in populous countries such as India or Pakistan where there is a real garment industry.”

Born in Iran, Takesh grew up in La Jolla, California. In 2003, following 10 years in New York City, Takesh felt she was being tugged in a different direction. Having earned degrees in architecture and business, she had a growing desire to play a part in ameliorating conditions in Afghanistan. Travels through Central Asia and the Northern Areas of Pakistan in 2000 had crystallised her lifelong affinity with the people of the area. “I didn’t feel whole until I had my mountain adventure, my scrape with the humanitarian world and a taste of some of the things that are so wrong with this world,” she says. “How can one just look the other way and worry about their money or fame or status in the big city?”

Living in Dubai enables Takesh to continue to be involved in T&B, albeit in a more advisory capacity, while building a life that isn’t beset by uncertainty and anxiety. But becoming the consummate 21st-century businesswoman hasn’t always been easy. “It took years for me to finally figure out a method for handling my personal affairs while being abroad. At first there was so much confusion, so many mailing addresses, errant boxes and the kindness of friends to be relied on,” she says. “Little by little, the realisation set in that overseas was home and that I needed to consolidate everything in one place and to treat the whole arrangement as permanent.”

Having homes she loves in the places where she spends the most time helps. Her 90-year-old bungalow in Kabul retains its original adobe brick construction, but Takesh, whose mother is a former interior designer, transformed the living space. “We have put old hardwood beams in the common areas,” Takesh says, “which I’ve filled with the things I obsessively collected in Afghanistan – minimalist, abstract felt rugs from the north of the country in natural colours, old carved wooden chests and tables, locally handblown glass ceiling lights, Afghan pop art on the walls, and a carefully edited dose of Ikea furniture to keep the place contemporary in feel.”

In Dubai, Takesh and her husband, who are expecting their second child in July, rent a home in the coastal Jumeirah region, popular among expats. There, too, she has combined her love of traditional and contemporary art with both her own multifarious history and the cosmopolitan nature of the city she lives in. Despite Dubai’s reputation for attracting, as she puts it, “a cautious, adventure-averse crowd who appear to admire Dubai’s amenities”, Takesh finds much to appreciate about the city’s exuberant embrace of its role as a crossroads. “A truly brilliant part of life in Dubai is the rapid and recent emergence of the city as a hub for regional art markets,” says Takesh. “From Morocco to Pakistan, the place to show and sell work has become Dubai, and as a result Dubai has made a meaningful contribution to the development of those markets. Art Dubai, which takes place in mid-March, is always a fantastic week to see what seems like half of Brooklyn, cross-bred with Iranian artists and half the Arab world, right there in our backyard.”

Like most people who make a home far from where they originated, Takesh finds settling in Dubai a bittersweet commitment and is often reminded of things she appreciates about the places she has lived before. “I miss the brilliantly sharp taste of the arugula in our yard in Kabul, the beautiful light that filtered through the conifer trees while we had tea in the garden, and the fantastic, incomparable company of the fellow expat friends there,” says Takesh. With the exception of the developing home-grown art scene in Dubai, “you are constantly paying for the contrived pleasure of an import, whether it’s food or fashion or another form of culture”. But reports of Dubai’s decline, she says, have been greatly exaggerated. “If you visit the city now, you’ll be amazed by how well it continues to function and how difficult it remains to get a reservation at a good restaurant.”

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