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A Pattern of Hope Emerges

Afghan officials see economic opportunity in the country's famed rug craft. The village weavers, however, long for easier work.

November 28, 2003|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

BAHAWA, Afghanistan — This isolated village of dome-shaped mud huts has no school, electricity or running water. Most of the wheat and vegetable crops have withered in the droughts that have punished the countryside in recent years.

But the barren homes here hum with a sound akin to the rapid plucking of loose guitar strings, as families make the stunning carpets for which this country has long been known. Young and old perch across the horizontal looms that dominate the floors of the tiny homes, deftly tying knots and trimming them with small knives shaped like a scythe.

Rug dealers and government officials in Kabul hope these weavers' skills will once again bolster the country's dismal economy, now sustained primarily by aid from abroad, and put Afghanistan back on the art world's map. Other than illegal opium, handmade carpets are among the few Afghan products valued by the outside world.

Reviving the country's long-dormant rug-exporting engine also could improve the threadbare existence of thousands of peasants in northern Afghanistan who rely on rugs as their sole source of income.

Rug merchants in Kabul, the capital, recently forged a loose alliance, and with the donation of land from the government and aid from Turkey, construction is underway on a central rug market there.

The merchants hope dealers from the United States, Turkey, Pakistan and Western Europe will flock to the market, which is to be finished within two years. With Afghanistan's Taliban regime banished and a new government in place, the U.S. and other nations have lifted sanctions against the country's exports.

Afghan rugs made in homes are far less expensive -- at least if bought inside the country -- than Pakistani, Persian, Chinese and just about all other fine, handmade carpets, which typically are made at businesses employing many workers.

In fact, Afghan rugs are fetching prices far below those of 25 years ago, before the country's political turmoil began, said Kabul rug merchant Haji Mohammed Kabir Rauf, who has been selling carpets for more than 30 years.

Prices have tumbled because of a rug glut. When Afghanistan was largely cut off during its years of upheaval, the stockpile grew, and now, because of the dire economy, work that once was done solely by women and girls is being done by entire families. In recent years, Afghan men who lost their jobs or land under the Taliban or whose crops withered turned to weaving.

Crouching atop the looms as they work is the only time many peasants here will know the luxury of stepping on a rug's soft wool pile. They are too poor to keep their creations. Their own dirt floors are bare.

"If we keep the rugs, what would we eat?" said one village elder.

Some Afghan rugs, distinctive for their vibrant colors and variety of geometric patterns, were smuggled over the porous border with Pakistan even during the turbulent years. Once there, they were tagged with "Made in Pakistan" labels and shipped to Europe and the United States at prices far higher than those in Afghanistan. An exported 4-by-6-foot rug might sell for several thousand dollars.

Even many of the rugs that were produced in Pakistan were made by the thousands of Afghans who had taken refuge there and were working in small factories. Those rugs became one of Pakistan's major exports and brought the country desperately needed foreign exchange.

Now Afghanistan stands a chance of duplicating Pakistan's success. After the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 and the sanctions were lifted, the Afghan rug trade got its biggest boost in years. Soldiers, workers and journalists poured into the country, and rug shopping became one of the few leisure-time activities in the war-torn capital.

The array of carpets in the few dozen dingy stores on Chicken Street, Kabul's shopping street for foreigners, staggered the senses: old and new, silk and wool, flat-weave kilims, tribal rugs combining carpet and kilim, finely embroidered pieces and saddlebags made for carrying supplies on horse or camel. There were carpets made of the soft wool shorn in the spring and those made of the coarser wool of autumn.

Prices vary widely depending on quality, size, type of wool and dyes, design, age and how many times the rug has been bought and sold by intermediaries.

In this country, where bargaining over a cup of tea is practically a national sport, merchants will charge unknowledgeable foreigners as much as they can. But the weavers themselves generally make, at most, $100 per square yard for good-quality carpets, and substantially less for kilims.

Cheaply made war-themed rugs, produced quickly as souvenirs, were a big hit, with the doormat size selling for $20 to $50. They featured pictures of Kalashnikov rifles, tanks and grenades and carried fractured-English slogans such as "Afghans Liberated from Terrorist: Long Live US Soldiers."

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