Afghan rugs are genuine, often charming — and usually phenomenally inexpensive.
At present, it is very hard to sort out which ‘Afghan’ rugs are actually made in Afghanistan, and which are made in Pakistan by Afghan refugees. At least a million Afghans, including hundreds of thousands of rug-weavers, fled Afghanistan during its war with the Soviet Union and subsequent civil war, settling especially in Pakistan and Iran. To my knowledge, very few rugs are shipped directly from Afghanistan to the United States or Europe today. Instead, most are transported to Pakistan, then shipped abroad. So both Afghan rugs made in Pakistan, and Afghan rugs made in Afghanistan, are shipped from Pakistan, often making it impossible to sort out where a particular Afghan rug is actually woven. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Presumably at some time many of the refugees will return to Afghanistan and resume rugmaking there. For the purposes of this discussion, we will assume that all rugs made by Afghans not known to have been produced elsewhere were made in Afghanistan.
In relation to the West, most Afghan villages really are remote. They have been made even less accessible by incessant war. Consequently, Afghan weavers have not been subject to much pressure from Western markets to manufacture for Western tastes. Most Afghan weavers make rugs that are about the same as those they have woven for decades. That is the good news, and the bad: good because it is, after all, pleasing that some weavers have retained ties to their own traditions, but bad because the products of the past several decades to which weavers have remained faithful are far inferior to earlier weavings. I cannot say that weavers in Afghanistan have contributed greatly to the rug renaissance, but, goodness knows, that is understandable in light of the chaotic conditions brought on by the invasion of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and Afghanistan’s subsequent, interminable civil war. In any case, Afghan rugs are genuine, often charming — and usually phenomenally inexpensive.
The quintessential Afghan rug of the past fifty years is a wool-on-wool product with a repeated octagonal figure (often inaccurately called elephant’s foot) on a red field. In the trade it is called simply Afghan or Dulatabad. Afghans are made by Turkmen weavers in northern Afghanistan. A hundred years ago the guls (as the octagonal figures are properly called) were large — often 16 inches wide in bigger rugs. Guls have become smaller over the years until today they most often are no more than several inches across. As the guls have shrunk, so has the range of colors in the rugs. Today most Afghans contain only two colors: a rather bright red and a blue so deep that it looks black. Still, Afghans have survived because they are basically so appealing. They are still popular with Afghan people, including the many who have emigrated to the West.
One of the most exotic and distinctive of all Oriental rugs is the Shindand or Adraskand (named after neighboring villages), woven near Harat in western Afghanistan. Strangely elongated human and animal figures are their signature look.
Another staple of Afghanistan is Baluchi rugs, most notably Baluchi prayer rugs. Made by Baluchi people, especially in western Afghanistan near Herat, Baluchi prayer rugs can be muddy-looking rugs of almost no merit, or charming little tribal pieces. Virtually all are made on wool foundations with synthetic dyes, and measure about 2′ 8″ by 4′ 7″. In recent years I have had occasion to look through container loads of five or six thousand pieces to pick out my favorite two hundred. The best have lustrous wool, good body, balanced color, stable dyes, and interesting designs. At around $200 each, they seem like great bargains to me.
A new genre of rug has appeared in the past fifteen years: the Baluchi War Rug. These rugs, which may be nearly any dimension but are usually prayer-rug size, depict scenes from the everyday life of the Afghan people. Sadly, of late that means scenes involving fighter planes, helicopters, machine guns, troop transports, and the like.
We tend to think of Oriental rug design as locked in tradition, passed down from mother to daughter. Certainly everything about making rugs in the Middle East and Asia is conservative. Techniques and designs are slow to change, and no rugmaker is sitting beside her tent ‘doing her own thing’. But rug design is not static, cast in stone by some progenitor. Witness the war rugs. To me, the miracle of these pieces is that weavers are able to incorporate bizarre elements into them, such as machine guns, and still they still manage to look like Oriental rugs! But it must be said that most, and possibly all, are made with dyes and fabrics of doubtful quality.
Afghanistan has always produced an abundance of kilims (flat-woven rugs) and still does. It does seem, though, as if the diversity reaching the West is far less now than it was two decades ago. One type is produced in enormous quantity: the ubiquitous Maimana kilim from the north. Maimanas are sold in prodigious numbers in America, especially in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they resonate to the South West architecture and lifestyle. Maimanas are woven in a slit-tapestry weave, a type of kilim weaving that leaves characteristic small (up to three-quarters of an inch) gaps or slits between areas where one color leaves off and another begins. Their wool is rather coarse. In nearly thirty years I have seen only one that I was certain was made from natural dyes. They come in most sizes, though true 8 by 10s and 9 by 12s are rare. Maimanas are phenomenally inexpensive — from $6 to $10 per sq. ft. — but care should be taken in choosing them. At worst, they are murky-looking things with runny dyes, scratchy, lusterless wool, a loose weave, and areas of bright, clearly synthetic dye — and at the very worst they smell alarmingly of dung, presumably due to unwise choices in the finishing process. At best, they have good body, clear, harmonious color, good wool, and a pleasant aspect.
There is a small quantity of finely knotted rugs on silk foundations in the market, some with wool pile and others with silk. These are often called silk-warp Mauri rugs. I have known for years that these pieces are made in the capital city of Kabul in a workshop on Chicken Street, but only recently have I learned that they are (or at least were) made by Hazara weavers, and in particular by relatives of a gentleman well known and respected in Kabul: Haji Yusef. In 1985, the United Nations sponsored a natural dye project in Kabul and these rugs probably evolved from that project. One line of silk-warp Mauris is made in classic Turkmen Dulatabad designs with very small guls. Another line, usually with a silk pile as well as a silk foundation, is in designs that suggest the architecture of mosques. I see others whose designs are a mystery to me. They are often impressive rugs, but one must examine many of them to find one that is 100 percent pleasing.
Hundreds of Afghan immigrants living in the U.S. are involved in the Oriental rug business, and many frequent the Middle East in search of merchandise. Most buy rugs from the Pakistani camps and import them into America. A few are now involved in designing rugs themselves and commissioning them to be made in Pakistan. One such Afghan-American is Ahmad Ahmadi from Ariana Rugs and Kilims (not to be confused with Aryana Tribal Rugs) in Los Angeles. What is more unusual, Mr. Ahmadi has successfully commissioned rugs made in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was surprised when he showed me a good-looking Ushak-like carpet that he produced there.
This is the first I have heard of new-era rugs being made in Afghanistan. I can only assume that such production will be sporadic until conditions in Afghanistan improve. Even before the dust from American bunker bombs had settled, Afghan refugees began abandoning immigrant camps in Pakistan to return home, but much of the Afghan infrastructure has been destroyed. There are only poor roads to bring rugs to market. There is insufficient water to wash rugs with. There are no buildings in which to weave carpets longer than about twelve feet. Real estate is terribly expensive. Essentially there is no air industry for business travel or for exporting carpets. Moreover, living in Afghanistan is dangerous. Nearly every day innocent people get shot, not only in the counryside, but in the cities as well.
Thousands have turned around and made their way back to the Pakistani camps, which are at least stable. The rug industry there, which had been shattered by the loss of Afghan weavers, is recovering. Other Afghans are remaining in Afghanistan and doing the best they can to establish rug productions. They manage. Some weave rugs in Afghanistan and truck them to Pakistan for finishing and for export. Having to cross a border with rugs creates other problems. One friend of ours had had 500 rugs seized at the border, and he will no doubt be regularly shaken down for ‘baksheesh.’
I think there is a lesson for us in this difficult situation. Oriental rugs are made, not born. We shouldn’t take them for granted. It often seems to me a miracle that they are woven at all and find their way to our floors.