SOUL TO SOLE

Hazara isn’t a name you would typically associate with slipper socks. Mukluks, maybe – that cozy footwear made famous by the Eskimos, and now a small subculture of the “haute footure” one sees on the feet of fashionistas. We heartily endorse!

Instead, the Hazara are a Persian speaking people who hail from the rugged mountains of the Hindu Kush, and who make the protective foot-warmers we call Mukasuns. History is woven deep into the soul of every pair, and it’s no surprise, given the Hazara’s enduring heritage.

When the legendary ruler Timur set about conquering most of Asia in the 14th century, he launched what would become a wave of cultural enlightenment that swept from the steppes of Mongolia to the southern tip of India. In its wake sprouted universities, government institutions and art museums – not to mention assorted ethnic Mongol communities, which mostly took root in central Afghanistan.

Today, Hazaras make up an estimated 20% of Afghanistan’s population, but continue to suffer persecution at the hands of the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups who see them as infidels. In fact, as one Taliban saying goes in reference to Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnic groups: “Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan” (the graveyard).

Perhaps because of their more Asian features, or their Shia faith, or that despite their reputation for industriousness they often work the least desirable jobs, Hazaras have become seen as lower caste, reminded so often of their inferiority that some accept it as truth.

Today there is a seed of hope for a people who have survived daunting socioeconomic conditions over the centuries, quietly helping to define Afghanistan’s legendary rug making culture and even much of its creative aesthetic. Hazarajat has grown to become one of the safest regions in Afghanistan, mostly free of the poppy fields that dominate other parts. Hazaras have increasing access to universities, civil service jobs and other avenues of advancement long denied them.

Importantly, they have finally found a fragile voice in the country’s governing politics, and a sense of pride from recognition in popular culture: the best-selling American novel and feature-length movie The Kite Runner depicted a fictional Hazara character, and a real Hazara won the first Afghan Star, an American Idol-like program. As Afghanistan struggles to rebuild itself after decades of war, many believe that Hazarajat could be a model of what’s possible – not just for Hazaras, but for all Afghans.

Yet, for all its advances, the Hazara, like most Afghan minority groups, remain a target of extremist ideology and periodic sectarian cleansings by the Taliban, which is once again filling the cracks in Afghanistan’s political landscape. Making Mukasuns is not only something Hazaras do with great pride, but it contributes to an economic stability that helps defend their families and villages from the knifepoint of forces outside their control.

Plus, word has it that they love to know other people around the world are wearing their handcrafted creations! Of anyone, they understand what it’s like to have warm feet when it’s cold… and to have something of comfort around you. Wear them with pride and the soul of Afghanistan will smile beneath you.