Chapter 18

He could no more remember learning to weave than he could remember learning to eat.

Khalil Zadeh glanced up at his drawing of Avery Deane’s rug and tied another knot, then another and another and another, and after each knot he cut the yarn with a flick of his crescent-shaped knife. It had taken nearly three weeks for his hands to begin working fluidly at the loom as they had when he was a boy in northern Afghanistan. Like nearly all Turkmen children, he had hunkered beside his mother at the loom and had absorbed rug making. He could no more remember learning to weave than he could remember learning to eat. Still, he had not sat at a loom in twenty years, so for the first three weeks he had struggled to find his old rhythm.

The design Deane had given him made it even harder to settle into his work. It was not at all like the Turkmen designs he had woven as a youth. And, worse, day after day he had to stare into the eyes of a dragon that emerged knot by knot before him, and each night he dreamed about the dragon’s eyes. They seemed to ask, “Who are you, Khalil? Are you still a Turkmen, a son of the Central Asian Steppes? Or are you an American restaurant owner, a father whose daughter has a future in Hollywood? Are you an immigrant? A refugee? Are you traveling in disguise? Are you still a Turkmen?” Then, finally, he had woven his way past the dragon and he no longer had to look it in the eye.

And the colors: They were not the familiar bright red and blue-black of Turkmen rugs. Avery had given him yarn dyed amber and yarns in light, medium and deep blue, and others in gold and russet. And worse: the yarn itself was lumpy and uneven, thick here and skinny there and unfamiliar in his hands. He knew it was the work of Afghan women he had recommended, friends from little Kabul who still remembered the old way of spinning wool on spindles, but secretly he believed the hand spun wool to be inferior to the machine spun wool he had worked with as a boy.

And yet, for all that, Khalil had begun to enjoy himself, for his rhythm was coming back to him, and gradually he began to remember how he had felt as a child in Afghanistan and Pakistan when he had had no doubts about who he was.

People came to watch him weave. Avery Deane was often by his side and he seemed peaceful during these times. Deane’s landlady, Sandra, sometimes sat with him and together they watched Khalil at his loom. Sometimes his Afghan friends, Kadija, Zinab, Soroya, and Fatima, long since finished with their spinning, came to watch the rug grow. So from time to time there would be seven people and a loom in Deane’s studio apartment, yet it was a quiet and peaceful time for Khalil and his friends. Everyone seemed deep in thought.

As Khalil wove, he remembered the time when his father had decided to break down the family yurts in northern Afghanistan and move to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. His family had been among the first Afghans to flee their homeland when, already by 1978, the Russians became a gray presence in Afghanistan. They were a presence to which Khalil’s people, the Turkmen, were especially sensitive, for just a hundred years earlier the Turkmen had been the last of the tribes of the Central Asian steppes to be “settled” by the Russians. Being settled had meant an end to their ancient, semi-nomadic life. Now, a hundred years later, the Russians had drawn even further south and were in a settling mood again, and Khalil’s father decided to leave.

After the tents were packed, there was no room for the sixty looms that had been the tools of the family’s rug trade. Instead, the family itself—Mother, Khalil and five brothers and sisters and Uncle Hajji—packed themselves into the remaining cargo space of their 1956 Russian-made truck. So, as the autumn of 1978 was deepening, Father steered south through the Salang Pass and then south-east toward the Pakistani border, Mother and children bundled in the back, festive at first and then tired and irritated. They traveled on roads that weren’t exactly roads and they tried to avoid checkpoints manned by Russian soldiers in gray uniforms.

They traveled barely faster than the camel caravans they slowly overtook, and often, when the truck broke down and Father and Uncle Hajji leaned over the engine and rigged repairs from smoke and mirrors, the camel trains they had passed hours before caught up and overtook them.

Khalil, who was twelve years old, was tormented by an absolutely unrelenting erection, brought on by the constant jiggling and bumping and grinding of the low-geared old truck and by hormones of which he had no understanding and over which he had no control. Luckily he was clad in loose-fitting clothes and his secret, he hoped, was safe, but he could hardly endure his condition.

They bypassed Kabul to avoid Russians and after eight days of travel began to ascend the Khyber Pass. Khalil peered at what seemed to be earthen fortresses high above the road and imagined that men with rifles looked down upon their slow progress. And finally they were on the desert plains outside of Peshawar and they were passing occasional tents along the road and people they spoke with told them that they had arrived. Mother disagreed. She would have nothing to do with the camp life where people unknown to each other just minutes before—people of questionable ethnicity and religion—established their homes within a few feet of each other. Khalil knew her to be decisive in her opinions, and now he learned that she was also powerful, for she insisted that Father keep driving and he did. They reached the no-man’s-land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then they passed through it, too, and lumbered into Peshawar. There she had Father rent a room in a house in the city and finally they all climbed out of the truck’s bed and straggled into the room and found spots on the floor to unroll Turkmen rugs on which they collapsed, exhausted.

For the next three years the nine refugees spent their nighttime hours together in that room, cooking, praying and teaching or learning rudimentary reading and math. During daylight hours, those who could—that is, everyone over 10 years old, including Khalil—wove rugs in small manufactories in Peshawar. The younger children played near Mother as she hunkered at a horizontal loom and tied knots. In that way, by the end of a year, the family had bought six looms and had contracted weavers to make rugs which Father could sell for a small profit. After another year of hard work and thrift, they owned eighteen looms, and by the time they moved from Peshawar at the end of three years, they had 38 looms and sixty fellow Turkmen refugees dyeing, weaving and finishing rugs for the family business.

Most Pakistanis in Peshawar treated them like dogs. They regarded the growing tribes of refugees as a big problem. Pakistani policemen seized their papers and made them pay to get them back. For a brief time, Uncle Hajji was held in jail, accused of being a “spy.” Khalil’s family decided to move to Lahore. Uncle Hajji stayed in Peshawar to supervise the looms.

In Lahore, things improved for Khalil. He was able to go to school and he learned English and other things that interested him. At the same time, now fifteen, he became more and more important in his family’s carpet business. His father sent him over the border into Afghanistan to buy superior Ghazni wool and to smuggle it back into Pakistan. It was often his job to bribe Pakistani Customs officials to smooth the way for exporting rugs to Germany and the US. At times he took his Uncle’s place in Peshawar and watched the looms, which eventually numbered about 280. Of course by this time none of the family-members was weaving rugs. They were important producers of carpets for export to America and Europe, and they also produced carpets for other Afghans who then sold them to their own customers. Their business was well established by the time the huge numbers of Afghans of all stripes poured out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, all of them looking for work and for help. The family gave both work and help to as many as they could.

But, gradually, Khalil’s father became aware of a problem with the family business. Virtually all Turkmen refugees wove red and blue rugs with repeating octagonal medallions. There was nothing to distinguish the family’s rugs from everyone else’s. He wondered whether there were other designs that might set his rugs apart and give them a competitive edge. And so it was that Father sent the 20 year old Khalil to America with, first of all, the near-fatal instruction to try to fit in and not be conspicuous when he reached America, and then, once there, to identify new designs and colors that would sell well in that famously wealthy country. And that is when Khalil landed in Venice Beach, California and learned to fit in. He learned to wear gold chains and tiny bathing suits and to snort cocaine.

A year later his father showed up in Venice Beach and took him firmly by his Western-style collar and the seat of his britches and led him into a 12-step program. But by then Khalil had met an American woman who taught him the facts of life. Sitting together one night in the balmy pool-side night air of Southern California, they watched the stars and she began to talk about them. She told him about the Big Bang. She said that he and she were looking at the stars as they had been millions of years ago and not as they were now, and she explained about the speed of light. She told him about evolution and suggested that it was random mutations that guided the human drama rather than the hand of God. She insisted that human embryos at a certain stage had gill slits. She told him that each fertilized human egg had within it a complete blueprint of what it would become. In one long talk under the stars, she passed on to him the wisdom of Western civilization and he bought all of it.

So when his Father came to reclaim him, it was already too late, for by then he considered himself an American, and he could no longer imagine leading a Turkmen life of God and family and rugs. He overcame his drug addiction but stayed put in California and married the woman who had taught him the facts of life, and in nothing flat (it seemed to him) he owned a restaurant in Little Kabul and had a beautiful seven-year-old daughter who belted out Somewhere Over the Rainbow in front of strangers.

And then Avery Deane sat him down in front of a loom and gave him good money—or, rather, was going to pay him good money upon completion—to weave a rug, and for three weeks Khalil had been fixed by the fierce and humorous eyes of a dragon that seemed to ask, “Who are you? Do you travel in disguise?” With each knot he tied and with each flick of his knife as he cut the yarn, Khalil began to find his old rhythm at the loom, and, as he did, he began to think that he had begun to make a turn in his life’s journey, and that someday he would have come full circle.

handspun wool for oriental rugs

When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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