A Weaving Project for Afghan Turkmen

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The people of Afghanistan face numerous obstacles in their quest to return to and resettle in their homeland, not the least of which is a means of self-support in a country that has been greatly devastated. Some 30 million land mines, most of them plastic and difficult to detect, cover the countryside - a serious problem for a people who earn their livings primarily off the land.

Carpet weaving has always been a major means of livelihood, particularly among the Turkmen of northern Afghanistan. During the current extended period of exile from their homeland the Turkmen have not by any means abandoned this traditional activity. They have, on the other hand, even expanded it, it is one of the few forms of labor that is both practical and profitable in a refugee camp environment. The pool of available and experienced weavers is even larger than before the war, and includes boys and young men as well as women. (In the past, women did most of the weaving).

Because of the heavy reliance on carpet weaving during this period of refugee status, every effort has been made to expand the market by incorporating new, non-traditional designs and colors. Upon a return to Afghanistan the marketability of the Turkmen's carpets will be of even greater importance because weaving will be of even greater importance because weaving will be one of the few practical and ready means of self-support in a devastated countryside. Thus, although a market almost certainly will exist, every possible niche of it must be exploited.

One portion of the market in the West - where almost all of these carpets are headed - is the market for traditional carpets woven with natural dyes. A project under the name of DOBAG was initiated in northwest Anatolia in Turkey eight years ago with the aim of producing these kinds of rugs. It has been a major success; the weaving of vegetable dye rugs has now expanded to hundreds of villages outside the bounds of the original project, in both the same and in different regions. The original project now comprises only a very small proportion of the vegetable dye rugs being woven in Turkey; private entrepreneurs and individual families in a number of different regions of Turkey produce most of these rugs.

Such a project could succeed in Afghanistan, too. The Afghan people, and the Turkmen in particular, have certainly not been remiss in their own efforts to increase the market for their carpets, however, this possibility has not occurred spontaneously from within the community, and it may need some impetus in this direction. Once the community recognizes the potential for this market, local entrepreneurial instinct will take over, to a large extent.

To establish the project at this time, it must be in the refugee camp setting, in Pakistan. We cannot work in Afghanistan, and most of the people are in Pakistan. Because almost all of the weavers will be from the Akcha region in northern Afghanistan, the cohesiveness of the project could be maintained when the weavers eventually return to Afghanistan.

This project must overcome a number of problems in its initial stages. The first is the location of an economical, not-too-distant source for madder root, the origin of the red family of natural dye colors. Madder root can be collected without great difficulty in the region of northern Afghanistan inhabited by the Turkmen. Under normal circumstances and even during the war, transporting the required amount from Afghanistan to Pakistan would not have been too difficult. However, as the war now enters its final stage with the siege of Jalalabad and Kabul, all roads from Afghanistan to Pakistan have been cut. Even if madder root can be found in Afghanistan, it will have to be brought over the mountains by donkey or camel.

Another problem is wool. The lustrous, oily wool of Afghanistan used for the traditional Turkmen rugs of this region would be ideal. However, even discounting transportation problems to Pakistan, the severe depopulation of Afghanistan - both of people and of animals - means that this wool is not available at any price. We must instead settle for one of the blends of imported (Australian or New Zealand) and local wool. We have rejected the pure merinos Australian wool, which is the most expensive locally available wool, because although it is quite lustrous, it is too soft - a characteristic inconsistent with the feel of the original carpets. We have opted instead for a blend of local and imported wool called Rayhan, which is reasonably lustrous while also being reasonably hard. Many Turkmen weaving in the refugee camps use this wool; however, invariably the wool yarns employed are machine spun (in Pakistan). In order to reproduce rugs with the look and feel of the nineteenth-or early twentieth-century originals, handspun wool yarn must at least be used for the warps and preferably for the pile as well. Provisions must be made for hand spinning of the wool, then," which will also be done in the refugee camps.

Most Turkmen women have been hand spinning recently enough that they are not likely to have forgotten this skill, Dyeing with plant dye sources, however, is another question. The use of such dye sources in Afghanistan was largely abandoned at least 40 years ago, in most cases, only the oldest generation will have retained any of this knowledge and experience. We have located two individuals who claim experience in this regard - whether their experience will prove adequate in obtaining the range of colors we need is something we will have to explore.

Remember that the ultimate arm of this project is only to serve as a model and as a tool for opening up new market possibilities for the Afghan Turkmen weavers. It is not intended to corner the market on this type of rug production. We only hope to receive and market those rugs for which we have paid the actual material and labor costs. Hopefully, the success of this project will inspire other Turkmen entrepreneurs and families to carry on independently in a similar vein. In such cases we will, of course, lose control over the product in regard to dye quality, wool quality and the traditional nature of the design. We can only hope and assume that, as in Turkey, the market itself will dictate a demand for quality and tradition on various levels.

Within six months of this writing we hope to have the first sample rugs, probably small, off of the loom and ready for sale in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Pakistan, 15 February 1989

It could be almost anywhere in rural northern Pakistan: a small, crowded bazaar lines both sides of a dirt road with countless shop fronts made of mud. Only the people are different - the faces, the clothing, indeed the entire feeling - because this is not Pakistan, but Afghanistan in exile. The faces are all Central Asian and the behavior is reserved, not aggressive. These people are all Turkmen. You get the clear and unmistakable feeling that you have entered a Turkmen village or small own somewhere in Central Asia.

This is Faisal Camp, the Turkmen subdivision of greater Sawabi Camp (the Afghan refugee camps are generally divided according to ethnicity and local origin, just as was Afghanistan). Yet there is no village in the world like this. It goes on and on, 600,000 people living in this amorphous, infinitely extendable Central Asian village sitting in the Pakistani Panjab plain.

Today is the 15th of February, a long-awaited date. Indeed, the last Russian soldier does leave Afghanistan on this day. But the mood here in the camp is decidedly low key; if a war has been won, still nobody seems to be celebrating. Or perhaps the feeling is simply one of realism: the struggle is not over until the Afghan Communist regime falls - which everyone fully expects to happen - and until the parties of the Mujahideen agree on some type of consensus government. In any case, no one is talking about packing up and heading for home - not for the time being, anyway.

Everyone, then, continues to do what they've been doing for the last five or eight years, which for the Turkmen is weaving carpets. Since carpet weaving is their primary means of livelihood here, the Turkmen have tried to exploit almost every conceivable riche of the market. Rug sizes range from 2 by 2 inches (to be put under drinking glasses?) to approximately 10 by 14 feet. From traditional Turkmen designs, they have branched out into Persian city and village designs as well as Caucasian designs. "War rugs" - that is, rugs with tank, helicopter and gun designs - seem to be quite a hit in the West, and are being knocked off the looms in prodigious numbers. One may hope that this is a passing phase, but it is, for now, very much a commercial enterprise, not an individual's eccentric inspiration. Another new item is bicycle seat covers - carpets woven in the shape of a bicycle seat (probably for the Pakistani market).

Peshawar can be considered the capital of Afghanistan in exile: it is the central command post of the Mujahideen, the locus of most of the relief organizations and also the largest market for Afghan carpets, both new and old. The flood of refugees has turned this always crowded but previously moderate-sized city into an unplanned metropolis of some 2 million, plagued by noise, dust and air pollution - in short, a city bursting at the seams. Even so, given these conditions and the somewhat intimidating number of weapons on display it is probably one of the more interesting places remaining in the East to do business. There are no large dealers here, just hundreds of small-scale Afghan dealers, most of them either Turkmen or Persian-speaking Afghans.

The other aspect that makes doing business here interesting is the presence of older rugs, an increasingly rare commodity in the East these days. Although you cannot find any real antiques in Peshawar, there are at least semi-antique rugs - say, 15-50 years old-available in numbers that have not been seen in Turkey for at least five years. Even these, however, are quickly drying up.

A surprise to me on this trip was the amount of Iranian goods now on the market in Pakistan. What with the current shortage in the Afghan supply, the numbers are almost pushing those of Afghan goods available. Most of what can be seen are semi-antique southern and western Iranian village rugs and kilims - Shiraz, Qashqai, Afshar and the like. Almost anything woven in Iran seems to turn up here, including the finer town rugs. Most of these rugs are smuggled into Pakistan through Baluchistan. This activity exists on such a large scale because of the great discrepancy between the official Iranian bank-export rate and the black market rate for hard currency. Although I refrained from buying these rugs because of the US embargo on Iranian goods, the dealers hero say that many of them are destined for the United States. The majority probably go to Europe, particularly the kilims, which are very hot now on the Italian and Spanish markets.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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