Here is part 10 of my blog ‘A personal reflection on ‘serving in Afghanistan’’ – if you missed the earlier parts, here they are:
:: part 1
:: part 2
:: part 3
:: part 4
:: part 5
:: part 6
:: part 7
:: part 8
:: part 9
Last time my friend shared her experiences of adapting to living in Afghanistan. This time she starts this blog by talking about carpet weaving in Afghanistan. I have also talked about about Turkmen carpet weavers I met in a refugee camp in Pakistan. They were Turkmen from the north of Afghanistan. There were also Uzbeks in the same camp. Refugee camps by the way start off as tents (you see them on the news still in various countries). The Afghans were so long in Pakistan that their camps evolved into small towns with their own schools, clinics, even a hospital, and people built their own houses. Roads and shops appeared and in some places you couldn’t tell where the “camp” began and where it ended as it merged into the surrounding city. Some of the camps in Pakistan were huge.
Carpet weaving in Afghanistan
Carpet making is an age-old traditional product in every region of Afghanistan, indeed as it is in almost all Central Asian countries. Every region has its own traditional design. For centuries Afghan hand-made carpets have been famous. The better quality ones have been traded all over the world and demand high prices. Carpets are often made in families. However the family, who works for twelve hours a day, seven days a week over several months to produce the valued carpet, is paid a pittance. The carpet trader can set extremely low rates of pay which the families have no choice but to accept. Any of the other traders would offer the same, or lower.
Families struggle to survive on the proceeds. In spite of this a large number of poor households are involved in the traditional hand-made carpet industry. There was a carpet loom in almost every house, usually provided by the carpet trader who also provided the wool and had absolute control over the price he paid for their work. Children learned to tie carpet knots at a very early age and were sitting alongside their older brothers and sisters, working at the loom, before they were four or five years old. The patterns were traditional designs that every family knew by heart. The family then made the carpet to the trader’s specifications and when it was finished he came to collect it, and leave more wool or thread for the next one. The family therefore were totally dependent on the carpet trader.
Nasir (not his real name) was one of our day “guards” (called chowkidars who sat by the gate and let people in and out) and he often brought small rugs or carpets to work. He explained that his family had made them at his home. He saw a potential market in bringing a few small examples to show the foreigners and offering to make any size, any colour, any design to order. His customers were some of my friends who did order small rugs from him and were very pleased with their purchases. Nasir’s family had bought their own loom and therefore had more control over the price they accepted for their finished carpet. They bought their own wool or materials needed and made carpets which they then sold in the open market or to an independent carpet wholesaler, for a better price than a carpet trader would have offered. It was good to be able to help in a small way.
Now it’s me again (Giovanna!)
I went to visit the refugee camp. I was newly arrived and excited. The Turkmen were dressed in traditional clothes and very welcoming. There were Uzbek refugees from the north of Afghanistan also in the camp, in fact this camp was largely Uzbeks and Turkmen people. The bedroom of the small mud house was consumed by the large weaving loom….it went under the large bed and the person working on it sat at one end. The room was gloomy and I learnt later that many carpet weavers strain their eyes considerably and can end up with sight problems.
The family were very welcoming. We had been invited for lunch. My friend told me not to eat much food as the family was poor and probably they wouldn’t be eating because they were feeding us. I was confused because if I didn’t eat much it would cause offence as they might think I didn’t like the food and was rejecting their hospitality. They would feel ashamed. Hospitality is VERY important for all groups in Afghanistan!
We didn’t sit with the whole family, only one member or maybe two ate with us. (They had to ensure there was enough food). They had killed a chicken, which must have been very expensive for them, and cooked rice. Of course there was nan bread. Afghanistan has an amazing array of nan breads. Bread is eaten with everything.
I ate a reasonable amount to show I was a good guest but left some. Eating was on a shared plate and using my right hand. Interestingly as the years passed many Afghans started to give expat visitors their own plate and a spoon. They adapted to our culture. But even in Britain if you visit a Muslim home you may be given one plate of food which would be shared with others.
You can see on the map that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan border on Afghanistan as do Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran. Also China. Tajiks speak a form of Dari…the same language as in Afghanistan. When I visited Tajikistan they could understand my Dari better than the Afghans. Of course in Tajikistan they use Cyrillic Script.
Next time I will talk more about visiting homes.