The teeth makers of Kandahar

An old photo of a man.

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Kandahar, Afghanistan – In a small shop off a bustling street in the centre of Kandahar city, Haji Muhammad Sultan is busy at work.

It is an early morning in March and the first customers of the day are flooding into the bazaar outside. Inside the shop, the delicate chip of Sultan’s chisel against soft plaster inside a brass, palm-sized mould is barely audible. Sultan cradles the mould gently in his wrinkled hands, chipping away at what lies within: a new set of teeth.

Once the plaster has been removed, Sultan peers down at his work, turning the dentures over slowly between his fingers. “They must be perfect,” he says with a small smile.

Sultan’s family’s denture business was established 80 years ago by his grandfather, Haji Gul Muhammad, in Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Sultan claims it was the first of its kind in the country, the only shop making handmade dentures, something that is hard to verify although residents of Kandahar will tell you as much.

An old photo of a man.
Haji Gul Muhammad started the family business 80 years ago after learning how to make dentures in India [Courtesy of the family]

Sultan’s father, Haji Nazar Muhammad, took over from his father whose craft he learned from a young age. A 1998 photograph of Sultan’s father by the American photographer Steve McCurry – who photographed Afghanistan’s people and landscapes for 35 years – shows the grey-white bearded teeth maker seated in his simple storefront in Kandahar. He is immersed in his delicate work, a row of teeth caressed in his hands. A black bicycle stands in front of a table lined with dentures.

Sultan has continued the family legacy, taking over the business after his father died in 2008 and making dentures at the wooden workbench featured in McCurry’s photograph.

He knows little of how widely McCurry’s photo had been seen outside Afghanistan, but he remembers the photographer taking the picture.

With his white turban and long beard, Sultan bears a striking resemblance to his father. “Sometimes people ask me if I am Haji Nazar Muhammad because I look like my father,” the 65-year-old chuckles. “When my eldest son grows old, he will look just like me also.”

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