The real story behind Afghanistan’s war rugs


By Jamal J. Elias 5 minute Learn

War rugs – with symbols of war – are distinctive and dynamic of their types. However they’re typically misunderstood by consumers, journalists and curators.

The development of the war rug market

There isn’t a proof of the existence of Afghan war rugs previous to the late-Twentieth century.


The earliest rugs appear to have emerged shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 from refugee camps in Pakistan, the place hundreds of thousands of Afghans had relocated. That includes weapons, helicopters and tanks, they had been small and shoddily made with coarse wool. Rug sellers and memento outlets pitched them to staff for non-government organizations and Western authorities officers.

The designs have grow to be extra subtle over time.

i 2 90678962 afghanistanand8217s war rug industry distorts the reality of everyday trauma
[Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images]

English phrases had been added, deliberately or unintentionally garbled with Cyrillic words and letters to evoke a Soviet connection. After 9/11, mounted patterns began to emerge – an indication that weavers had been adhering to templates offered by rug retailers. The photographs made it clear that they had been hoping to primarily attraction to an American memento market.

One fashionable design commemorates the 9/11 attacks, stating that it was not Afghans who had been accountable, however terrorists from different nations.

Another depicts a map of Afghanistan, professing Afghanistan’s friendship with the U.S. with textual content and pictures. It has the misspelled phrase “terrarism” written on the area of the nation related to the Taliban.

The writing on some rugs declares that they’re made in Sheberghan, a metropolis in northern Afghanistan famous for its Turkmen weavers.


It’s unlikely that they’re all made there. Nevertheless, whether or not they’re made in northern Afghanistan or in Afghan settlements in Pakistan, the phrase “Shebergan,” written in English, is meant to sign that these rugs are authentically Afghan.

Such rugs are available on eBay and had been – till lately – bought by memento sellers in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s cities with the biggest variety of overseas staff and vacationers. With the Taliban’s return to energy, it stays unclear what the way forward for rug making and its market will probably be.

Through the years, war motifs have discovered their manner into higher-quality, bigger carpets, with small tanks appearing where rows of medallions may historically have been. Different rugs function a extra complete integration of modern and traditional patterns.

Whereas these bigger carpets take considerably extra time to make and value extra money than the much more frequent smaller, coarser rugs, they nonetheless don’t meet the requirements of superb carpets, which suggests they’re geared extra to memento collectors than these searching for luxurious dwelling furnishings.

Misreading the that means of the rugs

Over the previous 20 years, Afghan war rugs have garnered appreciable consideration.

Books in German and English describe, catalog and contextualize them. Magazines and major newspapers have run options on them, and university art galleries have exhibited them.

Throughout the protection, there’s a bent to see war rugs as a mirrored image of the emotional lives of the weavers, who, wracked by war and violence, felt compelled to include these motifs into their designs.

Articles and reveals typically ignore the truth that rug brokers and sellers – not weavers – are those who’re attuned to fickle market tastes. Studies on labor in the rug industry word that they’re usually those who provide weavers with new patterns, shade schemes and yarn. I’ve seen the identical dynamic in my very own long-term observations.

Finally, Afghan war rugs are produced for the market. It’s that straightforward.

But you’ll nonetheless see exhibit curators describe war rugs as combining “historical observe with the newest within the every day lives of the weavers,” or as home windows into the views of on a regular basis Afghans – the “underdogs” in a rustic subsumed by strife.

In 2014, The New York Times reported that weavers had incorporated “the grim realities of life in a war zone into their conventional craft.” Six years earlier, Smithsonian Journal buried a quick acknowledgment that the rugs are for vacationers underneath claims – with scant proof – that the earliest war rugs were intended for Afghan buyers who resented the Soviet invasion. Later, the author notes that feminine weavers drew from their very own lives once they included symbols of violence.


The attraction of the trauma market

With a lot proof exhibiting that Afghan war rugs are produced in response to market demand, why do claims that they’re based mostly on the weavers’ experiences of war persist?

A part of the reply lies within the international marketplace for handicrafts. Consumers need to really feel like they’re buying artisanal merchandise when, in actuality, they’re bought by the 1000’s in chain shops and thru on-line storefronts similar to Ten Thousand Villages or Etsy.

Implying that rugs are a supply of earnings for traumatized and destitute Afghan girls ignores the truth that the overwhelming majority of income go to middlemen and sellers. A piece-from-home mannequin encourages staff to commit all out there time to rug manufacturing. It also encourages child labor: Kids are both tasked with making the crude rugs or are compelled to take up the tasks of adults.

i 1 90678962 afghanistanand8217s war rug industry distorts the reality of everyday trauma
[Photo: Hah Marai/AFP/Getty Images]

The attraction of war rugs – and the insistence that their designs characterize a sufferer’s expertise of war – appears to mirror a vicarious need to see into the emotional expertise of Afghan civilians.

In actuality, although, this provides primacy to not the precise experiences of Afghans, however to the viewers’ and prospects’ concepts of victimhood. The granular realities of the loss of home and animals, family deaths or food insecurity aren’t represented within the rugs. Nor ought to we assume weavers would want to put their very own traumas on show for the world.

Trendy rugs should not venues for self-expression, and the designs are likely to include an index of symbols that mirror an outsider’s understanding of war: AK-47s, 9/11, safety politics and drones.

Nowhere within the rugs will we see the well-documented psychological and health impacts on Afghanistan’s inhabitants brought on by many years of deprivation and violence.

Real trauma just isn’t solely onerous to show right into a commodity, it’s also onerous to dwell with – even in souvenirs.