How Decades of War Began Appearing on Carpets from Afghanistan

Image Source: Wikkipedia Commons

Many a Karachi living room has been adorned by a carpet from Afghanistan. Their reliance on symmetrical shapes, rich colours and fine wool makes them stand out easily. But not all the designs are what you’d expect. Some days ago, Images published an article about Afghan carpets that featured some unconventional designs. It was titled, ‘War tanks, machine guns, Twin towers- Afghan carpets in Saddar are featuring a new trend.’ And this title was pretty self-explanatory.

These pieces were an interesting sight, and I wanted to know more about them. Little did I know that their enticing aesthetics were accompanied by a fascinating history. One that has seen and documented the history of the people that produced them. I discovered that Afghanistan’s weaving tradition, has a remarkable quality of reflecting the country’s reality.  And perhaps more interestingly, it doesn’t discriminate. The ‘classic’ motifs adorning Afghan carpets can be traced back to a time period, or a dynasty. The more modern, and dare I say violent, imagery is also a part of the country’s past. Just, a more recent past.


Carpet Bombs and Dissent

As is the case with the conflict itself, Afghanistan’s ‘war rugs’ have been around for a long time. Many trace it back to the Cold War, specifically the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has always had a carpet weaving tradition; one that is still acknowledged as one of the finest in the world. But as the 1980s became more and more violent, weavers began including typical symbols of conflict into their designs.

Image Source: Nigel Lendon, Wikkipedia Commons

Tanks, bombs the Kalashnikov all made appearances. Alongside garden and floral patterns, and sometimes instead of them. As the conflict in the region has continued, so too have the tendency to flourish a carpet with its memorabilia.

What is also interesting is that Pakistan’s connection with Afghan war rugs isn’t recent either. As the violence worsened, Afghan people fled for their lives, and sought refuge in neighbouring countries, including Pakistan. This meant that many carpet weavers settled in Pakistan, and continued to produce their work. Soon, images of drones began appearing on these rugs alongside tanks and hand grenades.


The People Have Spoken

 It would be fair to classify these carpets and rugs as artistic pieces with a particularly political edge. Quite often, the war imagery is used in combination to make a point. They comment on dictatorial regimes for example, international politics and conflict as a whole. As the weaving tradition is so heavily dependent on women, it is also pertinent to point out that much of this commentary come from women.

But, the trends surrounding handmade carpets from Afghanistan makes it very difficult to know who the actual author was. Afghan carpets and rugs, when they are woven by hand, are often heirlooms. A piece will pass through many generations of a family, before it is actually sold. And, when it is sold, there may be many middlemen that own it before the final sale.

Their unique history and context has made them objects of great interest. In 2016, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited 41 ‘war rugs’ from Afghanistan. And, American entrepreneur Kevin Sudeith has been collecting and selling such pieces since the mid-1990s. But the difficult terrain that these carpets and rugs have to whether, also means that knowing their crafters is often impossible.

In fact, Sudeith admitted as much when he was interviewed by The Atlantic in 2015.


Catch 22

All of this brings us back to March 2018, when rugs featuring war imagery caught the eye of a lifestyle reporter in Saddar, Karachi. Their unique features will soon get people talking, and before long we will see them pop up in houses across the country. In a way, their arrival in Pakistani markets will popularize the message weaved into them.

But, before this becomes a part of our present day mosaic, let’s acknowledge a little problem. The rugs and carpets on display across Karachi markets are probably not originals.

Handmade Afghan carpets are rare, and often singularly conceptualized. This is why the political leaning ones have interesting, and unique messages. They are also expensive, because they are so rare.

But, while carpets and rugs make up a substantial part of Afghanistan’s exports, a very small percentage of this entails handmade pieces. Most of the carpets coming from Afghanistan are mass produced. As is the case with commercialization the world over, this of course hurts the economic interests of the weavers.

Something else that should be noted is that the mass produced variety, seems to be hijacking the prints as well. For example, compare this image of a rug showcased at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, with this piece on sale.

Intellectual property is a difficult business, especially when prints are concerned. When companies that bask around in the limelight aren’t above it, then this shouldn’t be surprising at all. The problem here is that the plagiarism has added another wall between the initial crafters and the consumers.

Will we ever meet the weavers who decided on this dissent? Or, will their message take on an identity of its own?

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