Malekzada had just a few hours to bury his potting implements and flee with other village potters and families. The Taliban arrived and burned their homes and workshops to the ground.
Malekzada made his way to Kabul, where he pieced together his trade and his art, keeping a very low profile in a war-torn land.
In 2006, Malekzada connected with Turquoise Mountain, a British nonprofit seeking to revive Afghanistan through regeneration of its battered traditional arts.
And now Turquoise Mountain and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show have brought Malekzada to Philadelphia to showcase his extraordinary wares and to demonstrate the ancient art of Afghan ceramics.
The show runs at the Convention Center from Thursday through Sunday, featuring the work of 190 artists from across the country. Another exhibition, at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington, highlights Turquoise Mountain artists, including Malekzada, through Jan. 29.
Malekzada arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday after a 16-hour flight from Kabul, where he lives with his wife and three children. Despite the travel, within a few hours of his arrival, he had a kick wheel set up in the Convention Center with several pounds of clay slapped on a table, and he was ready to go.
Less than five minutes later, water dripping from his muddy fingers, he had a graceful bowl emerging from what had been a misshapen lump on the wheel. The form seemed simply to appear, as though he'd found it within the clay and brought it out of hiding.
Here is a video of Malekzada demonstrating his art:
It is the way his father taught him. And his grandfather. It is the way of generations of Istalif potters who passed on their knowledge only to have it scattered and nearly destroyed in the nation's decades of turmoil. Traditional Istalif ceramics, made from native clay, receive a lush turquoise glaze thanks to the use of a native plant, salsola, that is rich in silica.
When mixed with copper and fired in traditional wood kilns, the glaze presents a distinctive color unlike any found elsewhere.
Bilal Askaryar, a program manager with Turquoise Mountain in Kabul, said the group, founded at the urging of Prince Charles and former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, has trained more than 450 artists at its school, where Malekzada is now a master instructor.
"We realized that while we were restoring buildings, we needed a school to teach people how to keep these arts alive," Askaryar said. "People had forgotten that Afghanistan had these latent abilities, this love of beauty. These are beautiful things."
A slight man of 31 with bright, smiling eyes that belie his life experiences, Malekzada formally studied ceramics at the Turquoise Mountain school, adding to his wealth of inherited knowledge, and then began teaching at the school.
"In my experience," he said, working the wheel, "lots of young people are interested in making sure that the traditional arts of Afghanistan have a future. I currently have 12 students. They are all young and really interested."
Will he be teaching his son, now 2, the same techniques he himself learned from his father?
"Yes, definitely, that is such an obvious answer," he said. "Of course he has to learn the job of his father and his grandfathers before him. My daughters are also really interested. One attends the workshop. They practice by breaking one or two pots a day."
He said ceramics was slowly reviving from the devastation of war. But there are only about 15 Istalif workshops now – a long way from the days when Istalif pottery was produced by artists in abundance. Many families have not returned to the village, and Malekzada works in the old Kabul neighborhood of Murad Khane, restored by Turquoise Mountain to a semblance of its former splendor, featuring richly carved wood-framed houses.
Yet even now, the Taliban are not far away, Malekzada said, with enclaves just off the road between Kabul and Istalif.
Fear is still a constant of life. But he will not abandon his art.
"This is his life, his history, his culture," said Askaryar.
Malekzada said: "We have so much beauty to show."