Zarif Mukhtarov holds the fibre of mulberry bark, used as a raw material in his Samarkand paper-making workshop. Photographs: Komila Nabiyeva
Zarif Mukhtarov's dream came true. He is standing in front of his workshop in the village of Koni Ghil, 5km from the Uzbek city of Samarkand. His eyes shine with pride as he tells his story. Mukhtarov, 58, had tried for years to discover the lost art of Samarkand paper-making. Today, visitors to one of the only workshops for handmade paper in Central Asia can learn the secrets of a 1,000-year-old production process.
Samarkand paper was renowned for its quality. Many Persian and Arabic manuscripts of the ninth and 10th centuries were written on it. "The world's best paper is produced in Samarkand," wrote Babur, a descendant of the Central Asian ruler Tamerlane and founder of the Mughal dynasty in India in the 16th century.
It was betrayal that brought the paper-making craft to Samarkand. In the year 751 the Chinese invaded Central Asia, but the ruler of Samarkand defeated their troops and captured many thousands of soldiers. To save their lives, the story goes, craftsmen among the captives revealed their knowledge of paper-making to their captors. From then on, Samarkand became a centre for paper production. But following Russian colonisation of the Silk Road city in the 19th century and the start of industrial production, the ancient recipe got lost.
In 1995 Mukhtarov, a professional ceramist, took part in a UN conference dedicated to lost culture in Uzbekistan. Samarkand paper was one of the topics, and he started to dream of rediscovering how to make it. After five years of experiments with cotton, rag waste and flax, Mukhtarov became convinced that the best paper was made from the bark of the mulberry tree, which grows all over Samarkand.
In 2001 he started to build his own paper workshop. Some funding was provided by US and Japanese foundations, but most of the money was invested by Mukhtarov himself.
"At first my friends thought I was insane," he recalls. "My wife scolded me regularly. We had to [save enough money to] marry both our children and I kept borrowing money for the workshop. At the end, I had to sell our car and my wife's gold jewellery to finish the construction."
Paper made at Mukhtarov's workshop
Today the paper workshop is a must-see site for tourists coming to Uzbekistan. Mukhtarov has no website and does not advertise. Yet, each year some 5,000 visitors seek out his picturesque mud-brick workshop with a chattering wooden watermill by the Siyob river. The location was no coincidence; once, there were 400 watermills around Samarkand, many of them in Koni Ghil, Mukhtarov says.
Visitors find a variety of products: silk-like or hairy paper in cream, blue, yellow or pink; notepads and wallets; even puppets and masks. All of them are made of paper. Mukhtarov's workers even produce Uzbek costumes with traditional embroidery.
Despite this, the workshop hardly makes ends meet. The high season lasts only six months, and Mukhtarov has to pay his 10 employees throughout the year. Then there is a cultural problem: newly trained young female employees often quit once they are married, as it is uncommon for married women in Uzbek villages to retain paid jobs.
Initially the paper workshop was a project of a small arts NGO founded by Mukhtarov. Yet, after the 2005 bloody unrest in the eastern town of Andijan, the Uzbek government closed hundreds of NGOs with foreign funding and Mukhtarov's was one of them. He had to register as a business, a move he thinks has helped: "In the past we were dependent on grants. Now we have more freedom in investing our money."
Even so, Mukhtarov has to deal with state bureaucracy in securing crucial raw materials. At first he had to apply every year for a permit to buy mulberry branches from a farmer and was once accused of illegally cutting them (mulberry trees are vital for silkworms and are therefore controlled by the Uzbek state). But Mukhtarov is tenacious. Now he grows his own trees on leased land.
Puppets made from Samarkand paper
In his workshop, Mukhtarov strips the inner bark from a year-old mulberry branch. "After boiling for five hours the bark fibre becomes soft and can be pounded into the paper pulp by the watermill," he explains. "Then we add the pulp to water." The pulp is taken out with a sieve and once it has dried, the paper is then put under press for 24 hours.
Finally, each sheet of paper is polished with a shell. Mukhtarov believes the polishing stage was introduced by Samarkand craftsmen: "In China and Japan the paper was rough, as people wrote with a brush. And in Central Asia one wrote with a feather, and therefore needed a smooth paper."
In contrast to industrially produced paper with its lifespan of around a century, he reckons his will last 2,000 years. It is also protected from mice, which cannot digest mulberry bark.
In future Mukhtarov hopes to expand his production and open a small restaurant next to his workshop, but that is a dream for another day. He smiles: "You have to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve. And then never give up until this vision comes true."