A Pattern of Hope Emerges

Times Staff Writer

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."

Despite the recent surge, reviving the nation's rug exports on a large scale won't be easy. Merchants from Pakistan have made their way to Kabul to buy rugs, but safety concerns are keeping other foreign buyers at bay. Commercial flights into the country are relatively few and can be hair-raising. Domestic roads, often little more than bumpy dirt paths, are plagued by bandits and insurgents.

Although most Afghans can't afford to buy new rugs, the homes of families of any means are dominated by them. The rugs -- red is particularly popular -- are placed one next to another to cover concrete floors. Pillows propped against the walls often are the only other furnishings and double as beds. At mealtime, women in the household spread a plastic tablecloth directly onto the rug, and the family eats picnic-style. In some tribal areas, the carpets are used as blankets.

The 100 or so families in Bahawa, which is near the Iranian border, churn out about 300 rugs a year. Most of them wind up in the market in Herat, the largest city in western Afghanistan and a two-to-three-hour drive on dirt roads.

To produce the carpets, several family members work on the advancing pile, supported by a board that runs underneath the loom. As they finish each row, the workers quickly comb it with a thick metal implement that resembles a paintbrush melded with the teeth of a big comb. They pull out large, crudely forged scissors to trim the threads. Then it's on to the next row.

It usually takes at least 1,200 knots to form one row on a yard-wide carpet, and at least 2,500 rows to form a small rug. Families take off only on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath.

How do they know exactly where to tie a red string or a white or yellow string?

"How do you know how to speak English?" a villager named Geldi retorted when a visitor inquired.

Knowledgeable rug dealers often can instantly identify the origin of a rug from its pattern and wool. Each village has a distinctive weaving style and pattern. The people in Bahawa are Turkmen, an ethnic group renowned for its weaving skills that is now scattered across Iran, Afghanistan and the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan.

Bahawa consists of several dozen huts that look like upside-down rice bowls, all built from tan-colored dirt. Two holes cut in each roof let in light for weaving during the day. At night, the only light comes from the faint glow of a gas lantern.

When visitors arrive, the women, clad in long, colorful robes with floral kerchiefs swathing their hair, stay behind closed doors. The men do the talking, as is typical in this Muslim nation. The women shyly poke their heads in only much later.

After decades of the close work, the eyes of many women who have reached their 40s are noticeably askew and some are nearly blind. No one here can afford eyeglasses. At night, they rub animal fat on their fingers to ease the pain.

The village's poorest families cannot pay the $100 to buy a small loom; they must rent one from a better-off family. The more affluent families -- those with enough money to buy large amounts of wool and enough relatives to make large carpets -- might earn a profit of a few hundred dollars on a 7-by-10-foot carpet that takes them four months to make.

Only about 60 of the village's 500 children go to school, all of them boys. No one owns a car and the nearest boys school is an hour's walk. The girls school is a 90-minute walk -- too far for any of the Bahawa girls to attend.

"I'd like to go to school," piped up Ghulam Hazrat, 16, as he weaved with his family last year.

Even if schools were closer, some families say, they still wouldn't send their children because they are needed at home to weave.

The children begin the craft at about age 7, fetching supplies for their parents and learning how to tie the knots. Their skills peak from about age 14 to 17, "because their minds have developed enough to know the pattern and they're physically strong enough to work long hours," said a village elder.

Afghanistan's rug-making heritage is evident nearly everywhere in the northern part of the country, where most of the rugs are made.

Men with rugs slung across their shoulders, walking on dirt roads or city streets, are a common sight. These "middlemen" often stop by the villages to buy a rug, which they hoist onto their shoulders and take to larger towns and cities to sell again. A carpet might turn over four or five times before making it to Kabul, each intermediary marking it up 5% to 8%.

Middlemen sometimes offer a family money for the right to buy the rug long before it's finished. "If the weavers are poor, they agree to any price, just so they have something to spend," said Kaka Qurban, a Turkmen intermediary in Herat.

"We have to weave all the time, day and night," said Abdul Hakim, a middle-aged villager. "We have nothing else."

Though the country would like to see rugs become a trademark product again, most of the rug makers would prefer just about any other kind of work if the opportunity opened up.

"It's hard work," said Khurshaid Hazrat, a woman who has been making carpets for decades. "If I never had to make another again, I wouldn't."

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Reitman is based in Los Angeles. This article was reported in part from Afghanistan, where Reitman was on assignment last year.

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