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Kandahar, Afghanistan- In a small shop on a busy street in downtown Kandahar, Haji Muhammad Sultan is busy at work.
It’s an early morning in March and the first customers of the day are flocking to the bazaar outside. Inside the shop, the delicate sheen of Sultan’s chisel against the soft plaster inside a palm-sized brass mold is barely audible. Sultan gently cradles the mold in his wrinkled hands, nibbling at what’s inside: a new set of teeth.
Once the dressing is removed, Sultan looks at his work, slowly turning the dentures between his fingers. “They must be perfect,” he said with a small smile.
The Sultan family’s denture business was started 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, which is hard to verify, although Kandahar locals will tell you.
Sultan’s father, Haji Nazar Muhammad, succeeded his father whose trade he learned from an early age. A 1998 photograph of Sultan’s father by American photographer Steve McCurry – who has photographed the people and landscapes of Afghanistan for 35 years – shows the grey-white bearded toothmaker sitting in his simple shop window in Kandahar. He is immersed in his delicate work, a row of teeth fondled in his hands. A black bicycle stands in front of a table lined with dentures.
Sultan continued the family legacy, taking over the business after his father’s death in 2008 and manufacturing dentures on the wooden workbench featured in McCurry’s photograph.
He doesn’t know how widely McCurry’s photo was seen outside of Afghanistan, but he remembers the photographer who took the photo.
With his white turban and long beard, Sultan bears a striking resemblance to his father. “Sometimes people ask me if I’m Haji Nazar Muhammad because I look like my dad,” the 65-year-old laughs. “When my eldest son is old, he will look like me too.”