The Independent, May 15, 2008
Afghanistan: What hope is there for the lost children of the bazaar?
Their trade is almost as old as the hills that encircle the Afghan capital. But the lives of Kabul's rug-weavers reveal the fault-lines that scar this proud, complicated nation – and which condemn its people to poverty, desperation and addiction
On Chicken Street, under the serene azure sky, it is almost possible to imagine that the last 30 years never happened. Kabul's craft market is open for business, its rows of glass-fronted, two-storey shops replete with the iconic wares of the hippy trail, that in the 1960s and 1970s found their way off this street and around the world. There are Afghan coats here, and hookahs. There are majestic kaftans here, and lapis lazuli jewels. There is brassware, and china, carved wood and turquoise pottery.
In the weave: on the outskirts of Kabul, these sisters work seven days a week from 6am to 10pm producing rugs. Ten days' work nets them $12 (Photo by: Wendell Phillips)
And there are rugs, of course, Afghan rugs, hand-knotted from the finest wool, gleaming in the perfection of the skill of their making, seductive in the symmetry of their ancient patterns. These rugs, piled high, bloody passionate red, inky solemn blue, creamy tender white, once adorned the floors of the most chic of the radicals who flocked here to buy. Why would they not? Afghan rugs, it is common knowledge, are among the finest in the world. For Afghans, ownership of such rugs is a symbol of status, and of wealth. The rugs are an important symbol of Afghanistan's nationhood, maybe even, in material and in cultural terms, the country's most iconic symbol of all.
The weird thing about this market though, is that it is almost too good to be true. The range and the quality of the artefacts is far greater than that found in most tourist markets in most countries. In part, this cornucopia simply reflects the wealth and diversity of Afghanistan's venerable ethnic culture, comprising more than 20 distinct groups. In the main, though, this plenty has piled up here because few tourists have come to pick it over for three decades now. The traders wait, with heroic patience, for customers to turn up and browse. But they are few and far between. Afghanistan – who doesn't know? – is one of the most dangerous countries on this earth. War has hollowed out this nation so thoroughly that even the rugs, one or two of them, have stories of violence to tell.
For there are war rugs here in this market, little rugs whose patterns have no symmetry, and whose subject is not timeless and abstract but horribly modern and direct. These rugs are illustrated with Kalashnikovs and B52s and helicopters and fighter planes. They have the Stars and Stripes woven into them, or Union Jacks. They have English words woven into them. USSR 1989. Invasion. Mujaheddin. Taliban. Twin Towers. USA 2002. Tora Bora. Racket. That should say Rocket. But there are a lot of mis-spelling on these rugs.
When the war rugs started to appear on Chicken Street in the 1980s, some luxuriously fastidious people found them to be in appalling bad taste. But others argued that the making of Afghan rugs is a living folk art, evolving with the times. Why should there not be rugs that described the hellish present? Why not, indeed?
The nearest thing to these rugs that we have in the west, right now, is the work of Tracey Emin, those embroidered quilts and blankets with their own naive mis-spellings, telling the intimate story of the battles of artist's life and psyche. It's a valid connection. Emin's own ethnic heritage is partly Turkish. In Afghanistan, it is the Turkmen of the north who are the most celebrated of the country's rug-makers.
But it is, of course, not only the rugs that have stories to tell. Talk to the market traders, and their stories are all the same. They feel nostalgia for the boom times, when Kabul was thriving as a fly-in/fly-out tourist destination, before the Russian invasion. They each confirm that, despite the impression that it has remained untouched by the fighting that has razed so much of the city, Chicken Street has been comprehensively gutted by violent incursions three times as various factions have taken control of Kabul. These traders have had the fortitude to repair and rebuild their businesses each time, borrowing money and goodwill to do so, and living on hope.
Like most of the Afghans I met and spoke to, the traders have mostly abandoned their shops at some point or another, shut them up and taken refuge in Pakistan or, far more rarely in this part of the country, Iran. They returned, optimistic, when the Taliban was routed from the city and Hamid Karzai came to power. For a time, business was OK, as the early days of reconstruction brought foreign nationals flooding into the capital. But as the effort to rejuvenate the country, and make it secure, faltered, and became mired in bad faith and corruption, so did the appetite for souvenirs of the incomers.
Like pretty much everything else in Afghanistan, the rug business has been all but destroyed by invasion and civil war. Most of the rug traders fled to Peshawar, in Pakistan, and conducted what was left of their businesses from there. Now many of the rugs that are still classified as Afghan, are really made in Peshawar, sometimes by machine. But because of its talismanic importance, there were early efforts in Kabul to revitalise the rug business, and reclaim national ownership.
Najeed Zaraf Carpet Market is one of the new buildings that have been thrown up in the city. The idea, a good one, was to establish a fresh centre for the industry in the capital, and this large four-storey building, with its sunny courtyard surrounded by units housing 300 traders, has been operating for six years. Not much of the post-war construction in Kabul has been beautiful, though, and Najeed Zaraf, unhappily, is not an exception.
Afghan vernacular architecture is simple but lovely. It is practical, too – warm in the winter, cool in the summer. Traditional buildings are made of putty-coloured mud-brick, faced with mud and straw, pakhsa. Windows are wood-framed, simple and elegant, and on elaborate buildings lovely patterns are worked into the walls. It would have been a more considered tribute to the centrality of the rug trade to Afghan culture if a splendid building in this style had been created, in honour of the nation's great hopes of revival.
Instead, the place is workmanlike, concrete and breeze-block, a bit bleak. It's not quite the "desolate market, where none come to buy" of Blake's Songs of Experience. But it is still just one little example, among many, of the lack of care and respect with which so much of Kabul's fitful, messy reconstruction has been approached.
Haji Mohammedullah, the Peshawar returnee who runs the market, is not complaining too much. He says attempts to revive the rug trade have developed a little momentum now and that the export business, at least, is showing signs of returning to health. A third of purchasers are Afghans living in Europe or the US, while one in 10 are wealthier Afghans living in their home country. A quarter of buyers are foreigners in Kabul working for non-government organisations, and the rest are sold on to traders from Europe.
Part of what drives Mohammedullah to continue his work in the rug trade, he explains, is the fact that so many Turkmen depend on what he can sell for their livelihoods. He alone, he says, employs 3,000 weavers. "The people of the north survive because of carpet-weaving. If they don't make carpets, they will die of hunger."
He is right. In the north, it is remote, and the land has a high, salty, water-table. The people scrape by on subsistence farming, the sheep they used to keep to provide wool and sheepskin for those Afghan coats, mostly gone during the fighting and droughts. Now the wool is mostly imported from Belgium, and provided to the Turkmen by the traders. The farming men of the north can provide nothing beyond – or even sometimes approaching – the nutritional needs of their own families. All the cash that enters the homes of many Turkmen comes from carpet weaving. For many centuries, the work has been done by the women, in their homes. The Turkman husbands tend not to be traders themselves, because it is traditionally seen as wrong for the men directly to sell the creations of their wives. Slowly, one or two families are breaking with this tradition, Mohammedullah suggests, and the men and the women are cautiously exploring the practicalities of running integrated businesses themselves, as they had been to some extent starting to do prior to the Russian invasion, when the world coveted Afghan rugs.
Mohammedullah admits that carpet-weaving is a hard living. It takes six women, working flat out for 18 months to complete a carpet of 12 metres square, he says. The work, on primitive wooden or metal looms, is back-breaking and intense, and while Mohammedullah says that the profit on the carpets is shared 50-50 with the people who crafted them, he is reluctant to say what price a 12-metre square carpet might fetch. The traders have different prices for different people, and this trader is hopeful, quite naturally, that I might buy at a high price, as well as talk. "The work is so hard," he says, "that I see women working with tears in their eyes."
There are no tears in the eyes of the weavers who sit four abreast, straining to see in the gloom of a little room without electricity on the outskirts of the city, nestled in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. There is only unblinking concentration, as the metal combs and stubby scissors flash in the nimble hands of the weavers.
They weave, pausing only to refer to their patterns, or reach up for the colour they need from the hanks of yarn dangling from the top of the loom. This work is hard: indeed, and these people are at it from when they awake at six in the morning until they sleep at 10 at night, seven days a week. They look away from their work, each of them in turn, only briefly, to divulge their names and ages. Nickbak is 16. Zahra is 14. Hahsma is seven. Mubraka is six. No women, no tears, no childhood, no present, no future, no life.
In Kabul, there is not an ideological problem with educating girls, as there is in many other cities, or in the vast rural swathes of the country where tradition dies hardest. It's just that these girls have more pressing ways to spend their valuable time. The indulgence of education is an investment for the long-term. These children live in the endless present, the monotone, unchanging trap of today.
It is utterly certain that these children are not among the 3,000 people that Mohammedullah says he employs. Their rugs are of neither the style nor the quality of the ones that he sells. The girls do not come from Balkh province, where the Turkmen live. They are from Wardak, in the centre, and their mother, a war widow, brought them to Kabul looking for work for herself and her family.
The city is awash with widows who have come with the same idea. It is one of Kabul's many problems, this influx of desperate humanity that has flooded the city with double, treble the people it ever housed before the Russian invasion in 1979.
Three-quarters of Afghans are almost completely illiterate. Among widows, the proportion is much higher. In the old days, it was incumbent on the families of the husbands to look after the widows. Whatever one might think of the practice, in theory, at least, it provided security for vulnerable people. But this is just one part of the social fabric that has collapsed, with nothing to mitigate that loss or replace it. There are too many widows now, too many fatherless children. Widows cast out from the homes of their in-laws, and their children, have nothing, not even a surname.
The mother of these girls has hands too stiff to work the threads and she leaves them at the loom while she works as a laundress. A trader has supplied the girls with a loom, brought them wool, tools and patterns, and shown them what to do. It takes the four of them 10 days to complete a square metre, for which they are paid 1,200 Afghanis per metre (US$24/£12).
For the horror of their labour, and the misery of their stolen childhoods, the children count themselves lucky. Kabul is awash with street children, hundreds of thousands of them, scavenging through rubbish, selling plastic bags, repairing bicycles, labouring for shoe-makers, or asking for alms in return for sending unwelcome wafts of aromatic smoke from the tin cans they wave at likely-looking passers-by.
These girls, comparatively, are big earners. A teacher employed by the government can expect to earn 3,000 Afghanis a month. All government wages, even for skilled professionals, are laughably low, and this is barely enough to subsist on. The giant influx of foreign workers has created a bubble economy in Kabul and prices have shot up. Property prices are so ridiculously high now that sometimes conversation in Kabul is tragicomically close to the stereotypically bourgeois chatter of an Islington dinner party. The child weavers hidden around Kabul may not even quite be making the rent on the tiny labour camps that are their homes and their worlds.
There is cash around, as can be seen from the flashy vehicles that teem in Kabul's gridlocked streets, or the so-called poppy palaces blooming in the suburbs. But it isn't establishing a sustainable economy. Afghanistan is abjectly aid-dependent, and the great challenge is somehow to find ways of turning that situation around.
The vast bulk of the reasonably secure white-collar work, especially for women, is with the government, ill-paid as it is. Alternatively and, in many ways, preferably, under the current conditions, the coveted post is with an NGO. Even the latter, almost by definition, is very far from secure. One of the frustrations of the reconstruction is that initiatives are started but too often not maintained, frequently stymied by the complex rules around aid funding, sometimes just by what can seem like arbritary policy changes. Already, after just six years, hopes of sustainable development are beginning to slip away.
Two young doctors, who have been working for the UK-based aid agency Islamic Relief, have travelled from Shortepa district, in Balkh, where they work among the Turkmen, those makers of the feted rugs of the remote north, to explain to The Independent what exactly, in basic, individual, human terms, that can mean.
Afghan men get a bad press, even though they are in certain respects as constrained by the clash of tradition versus modernity as the women, and even though very many of them, in the middle classes of Kabul, anyway, negotiate an Islamic life that is both progressive and devout.
These two men, Dr Mohammed Ehsan and Dr Mohammed Naseed, are people who would be admired in any culture, for their compassion, their humanity, and their grace. Friends from early childhood, both 29, they managed through all the years of war to achieve their shared ambition of qualifying as doctors. They were brought up in the north, although they are not Turkmen, but Uzbek and Tajik respectively. They were always appalled by the primitive conditions the Turkmen were enduring, though, and always intended to use their medical skills to help them. "They live like they are in the Stone Age", says Dr Ehsan, tugging on his shirt with passion, "Except that they wear clothes."
As for the romantic idea, promulgated in the market of Najeed Zaraf, back in Kabul, that the Turkmen got half of the price of a carpet, the going rate is $60 for a rug that takes three months to make. Before the war, things were better because western traders were coming to the region to buy rugs directly. The Turkmen were backward, but were moving forwards, benefiting from the fact that their skills were in fashion in the west, benefiting from the modernising ideas of a succession of rulers during much of the last century.
It was always an open secret in Afghan culture, tolerated, but with disapproval, that the Turkmen, who make up 3 per cent of the population, were culturally users of opium as pain-killing medicine. In the past, this habit was contained, however, because the Turkmen grew poppies only for their own private use. Even the women ingested opium, in order to quell the pain in their backs from weaving, and sometimes to quiet their children so that they could get on with their work.
Of course, even before the war, life for the Turkmen was challenging. Opium use has always been a symptom of the hard, poor, unevolving lives of this isolated minority. Yet the Turkmen are not among the Afghans who have turned to mass cultivation of poppies during the years of war. Even if they wanted to, the salty Turkman land is entirely unsuitable for the purpose. Paradoxically, in fact, Balkh is one of the regions in which opium growing has been more or less eliminated. But that wider shift in Afghan cultivation patterns, which has famously made the country into by far the largest producer of opium on the planet, has had a devastating effect on the Turkmen, nonetheless.
The community has now been exposed to heroin, and other processed drugs, even Valium, by dealers making their way up through Balkh, which was always relatively peaceful, and is now entirely so, to the border with Uzbekistan.
Often the dealers used the old trick, familiar in the West, of providing the first few hits for free. Not only is heroin far stronger and far more addictive than unprocessed opium, it is also sometimes injected, bringing addict diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C into a community that has no understanding of them. An astounding 90 per cent of the Turkmen are now addicted, and the cruellest thing of all is that their "medicine" is no longer free. Now they have to pay for it. Sometimes, now, the weavers are paid in drugs instead of money.
In response to this urgent tragedy, the two doctors have set up a drug rehabilitation clinic, part-funded by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and run by Islamic Relief. It has an outpatients clinic, a 10-bed residential facility and an outreach programme. A local landlord, the wealthiest man in his district, was persuaded by Islamic Relief to provide a building for the clinic for nothing.
The doctors and their colleagues go out to the villages, tell people that they can escape from the tyranny of addiction, and explain how they can help the villagers to achieve a drug-free life. The big cities have such clinics, too, for addiction has also hit the urban population, especially in Kabul. But this is the only rural area in which the problem is so concentrated and intense, and the Islamic Relief clinic is the sole one to be addressing the need.
The local response has been phenomenal. Already, in a year and a half, the reduction, detoxification, and follow-up counselling programme has signed off hundreds of people as drug free. Thousands of people are becoming interested in the programme, and the waiting list for residential treatment grows more impossibly long each day, with people travelling from other districts because they have heard about the clinic. The doctors always fretted that their charitable funding could not last for ever. But they did believe that if they proved they could effectively fulfil this urgent need, then the government would accept that this was the kind of project that should receive permanent, sustainable funding.
It hasn't happened yet. Worse, the UN has decided, under the auspices of its international programme, to switch the focus of its funding from drugs awareness to Aids awareness, even though the two issues are inextricably bound.
This has left Islamic Relief in a cleft stick. The charity desperately wants the programme to continue. But it needs other partners to that to happen. The doctors have not been paid for two months, the little funding they have left is running out, and the clinic is in peril of closing in weeks – or even days.
The doctors have not come to Kabul alone. They have brought some of their patients with them, so that they can tell their own story themselves. A family of three sits huddled on a sofa in the Kabul office of Islamic Relief, a little incongruous in their shabbily, grubbily ornate traditional dress, splendid in their strangeness. They are bewildered, tired, breaking tradition by sitting in this room of strange men and women from lands they have barely heard of, but so trusting of the doctors who have helped them so much, that they are willing, via translators, to tell their story, in Turkman, then Dari, and then finally in English.
Abdul Rahim is 57, and has been addicted to drugs for the longest. Fatima, his wife, who has never before left her village, is 43, and a weaver. She is dreadfully, clearly ill with tuberculosis, and sick from the privations of her life, the work, the addictions, the hunger, the pregnancies, the childbirth. She has hitched up her burqa to show her face, even though there are strange men, unrelated to her, in the room. She has had 23 babies, this silent, frightened woman, and only three have survived. Her two daughters, Fatima and Khadija, are married, but 13-year-old Abdul-Hamid still lives with his parents. He is the only child they have left living at home, this sweet, earnest boy, and he is being treated for drug addiction, too.
Long ago, as a young man, Abdul had ambition, and felt sure he could break out of the traditional ways of his people. He could write back then, he says, because he went to school until he was 13, then did further study with the mullah. Now, he says, after years on opium, then heroin, and whatever pharmaceuticals he could lay hands on, he has forgotten all he ever learnt. His son can write only his name. Abdul's family were relatively well off. His father farmed and kept sheep on a good-sized patch of land, and his mother and his sisters wove carpets. They were paid much better then than his wife is now, because the western traders were coming straight to the village to buy carpets. It is 30 years now since they have done so.
Abdul, when he finished his education, got himself a good job far away in Herat, working for the Communist government, after the coup. He commuted there during the week, and managed the fleet of ministerial vehicles. After the invasion, however, his village came under the control of the Mujahedin. They told him that if he continued to work for the enemy, then he could never return to his village, and his family. He chose to give up his job, and stay.
It didn't seem like a bad choice. He had a car, a tractor, and he had inherited, like his five brothers, 15 jaribs (three hectares) of land from his father. He thought that he could sit things out. But the conflict went on and on.
When he fell ill, Abdul couldn't afford a doctor, so he went to the hakim – the traditional medicine man – who gave him opium. When his wife became ill, he gave her the same treatment. By then the heroin had flooded the area and the two parents started using that.
They would send their children to pick up their drugs, and like naughty children everywhere, the little ones were curious. Abdul-Hamid and his sister Khadija got addicted; the last baby, Abdul-Aziz, was born addicted, and the family were selling all they had left, their car, their tractor, their land, to buy drugs. By the time the Taliban came, they had virtually nothing.
When they had money, says Abdul-Hamid, who is a bright, clever and confident child, by some miracle of human resilience, they often bought drugs instead of food. At one point, the family say, they were spending $12 a day on drugs. They took heroin for choice, and when they couldn't afford that they crushed tablets of Valium, and smoked them. When they couldn't get that, they smoked opium. In the end, with just a scrap of land left, they were starving. When Abdul-Aziz died, Abdul-Rahim went with his brother to Pakistan, in search of a cure. But it didn't work out, and they returned home.
After six months of attending the clinic, they are using only opium, on a harm reduction programme drawn up by the doctors. Abdul-Hamid, grasping his ear-lobes, leaps up from his seat and blurts out: "We have stuck to it completely, I promise, I repent, and I swear. Cut off my ears if I'm lying!" He is incredulous, the child, that the support of the clinic might soon be taken away. They all are. That's why they came to Kabul to tell their tale of woe.
But Abdul senior has a plan for the future, all the same. He is crossing his fingers, and hoping. "Before we were addicts, we were happy and proud of making beautiful things. Now our life is very miserable so we cannot make carpets well. When we give up using drugs we will be able to work hard again and make this industry more profitable."
Is Abdul's dream a foolish one? Or can the carpet business, like the nation itself, be reclaimed, rebuilt, shorn of its cruelty, and delivered to beauty?
Afghanistan has had its rugs of war, and now it needs rugs of peace. The Shortepa district drug rehabilitation clinic is a modest step in the right direction. It is a wise, humane enterprise, run by the people of Afghanistan, and for them. If it closes, a little chink of hope will shut down with it, for Abdul, for Fatima, for Abdul-Hamid, and for every single one of the 31 million people who call themselves Afghans.
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