The resurrection of a fine art

SUN JOURNAL

Carpets: A U.N. consultant and an Afghan nonprofit agency work to revive the traditional patterns, processes and dyes used to make the world-famous rugs.

April 15, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Carpets are once again being produced on Afghan looms using centuries-old styles and techniques, as the ancient craft recovers from decades of war, neglect and sabotage.

A United Nations consultant, working with a local nonprofit group, has spent more than a decade trying to resurrect the traditional methods of creating carpets and reintroduce designs from the classical period of Afghan rugs, which stretched from the 14th century to the 18th century.

"This country survives on carpet weaving," says Jim Williams, senior culture specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Kabul. "Afghan carpets are some of the most sought-after in the world."

Decline of the craft

The craft has suffered tremendously since 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. To raise the price of carpets from the Soviet Union - which included a carpet-producing belt stretching from the Balkans to Mongolia - Moscow imposed a series of disastrous policies.

Communist officials shipped the sought-after wool of Afghanistan's karakul sheep to the Soviet Union's Central Asian republics, Williams says. Afghans were left with unwanted wool shorn from the carcasses of animals slaughtered for food - it's called "dead wool" in the carpet trade.

Authorities here also imported bales of discarded nylon stockings, giving weavers a cheap way to adulterate their already inferior wool. Chemical-based dyes began replacing traditional natural dyes, which were made from agricultural products such as walnut husks, onion skins and pomegranate rinds.

"The Soviets eliminated their only real competitor for Central Asian carpet weaving," Williams says.

At the same time, Afghans began to drift away from traditional designs. They began weaving what are called "war carpets," replacing the geometric shapes called the "elephant's foot" and "camel's foot" with pictures of Kalashnikovs, tanks, jets and other such items.

Rug prices plummeted in the mid-1980s. The consequences were devastating in a country where carpets still represent the third-largest legal export item, after oil and dried fruit.

Twelve years ago, concerned that the traditional Afghan rug was vanishing, Williams and a colleague asked the nonprofit Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance to run a program that would train Afghans in the traditional dyeing techniques and revive many long-extinct patterns. The group agreed and, with the help of UNESCO, set up a training center in Herat in western Afghanistan.

An unsteady comeback

Re-creating ancient designs was not easy. Only one fragment exists from a carpet made by the famous Herat school of the 15th century - the beginning of the classical period of Afghan carpets. Only tattered remnants are left from some carpets from later periods.

To re-create as many ancient patterns as possible, Williams has scoured museums and private collections looking for paintings from that era that show important figures standing or sitting on carpets. CHA drafters reproduce the patterns of those rugs on plans that weavers follow.

Williams also pushed the use of natural dyes, like those in use here since before the time of Tamerlane, the great 14th-century conqueror. They are subtler, he says, and more stable than chemical dyes, which may be toxic to the Afghans working with them.

After the Soviet-backed regime fell in Kabul in 1992, civil war broke out. The carpet industry continued to suffer, as skilled workers fled to neighboring countries. When the Taliban defeated Afghanistan's fractious warlords in 1996, the Muslim regime wasn't overtly hostile to carpet production. But it viewed the industry with suspicion.

"They discouraged all artistic expression," Williams says.

After girls were banned from school, rug making took on an added importance in many communities. CHA hired out-of-work female teachers to conduct clandestine classes for girls as they gathered around the loom.

Shoring up the progress

Today, CHA has trained scores of carpet weavers and wool dyers in Herat and a smaller group in Kabul.

Soon, the group - working with UNESCO - might open traditional training centers near Mazar-e Sharif and other northern towns that are at the center of the karakul wool industry.

(Today, most karakul is still shipped to the former Soviet state of Turkmenistan, where it is used to make that culture's traditional rugs. Most Afghan rugs are made with imported wool.)

Among the new artists practicing the ancient methods is Marzia Hamid, 27, who works at her loom six days a week, nine hours a day.

Though she once worked in her home, today she works in CHA's crafts center in central Kabul - in which there are two rooms where rugs sit in stacks 4 and 5 feet tall.

Depending on the size and complexity of the pattern, it can take Hamid and a friend more than two months to finish a carpet, composed of about 450,000 knots. In the four years she has been making rugs, she has produced only about 30.

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