Afghan Carpet Business Booming Again

By Paisley Dodds, AP, The Washington Post, Friday 23 August 2002; 2:04 AM

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan—In a country of crushing poverty, Ghamay Mohammed has sold enough of his intricately woven rugs lately to buy a hulking ruby and turquoise ring, which he proudly displays on his finger.

The carpet business is booming once again in Afghanistan, and Mohammed is one of the many carpet dealers who have returned to take advantage of the foreigners streaming in since the fall of the Taliban.

Since we reopened this shop, we've already sold more than 60 carpets, says Mohammed, 18, who closed one of his shops on the Pakistani border two months ago to reopen one in Kandahar. That's better than what we did for a year at our shop near Chaman on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

After lean years under the Taliban regime, throngs of foreign aid workers, journalists, soldiers and diplomats have flocked to Afghanistan with plenty of cash to spend.

The influx has hiked the demand for carpets, which used to be Afghanistan's third largest export after oil and fruit. Export revenues from the carpet industry were once estimated at more than $250 million, although it is unclear how much the industry is worth today.

Carpet connoisseurs say Afghan carpets are special because of the quality of wool that is used and the tightness of the weave, often achieved with the nimble fingers of child laborers. They also praise the varied designs that reflect the ethnic diversity of the country and the use of vegetable dyes made from walnuts, pomegranates, flowers and onions.

Even in the former Taliban stronghold of the south, considered a backwater to some international aid groups and agencies who have congregated around the capital, Kabul, carpet dealers have returned, sometimes doing business within 24 hours upon arrival.

They get cheaper prices on items brought from Herat, a western city near the Iranian border where many of Afghanistan's finest carpets are either made or imported.

Most dealers know each other but are merciless competitors.

Other shop owners try to cheat their customers, says Mohammed. But this is a respectable business and we sell the finest carpets. Take a look around and you'll see the difference.

Afghanistan has long been famous for its carpets: colorful loose-weave rugs from the Baluch nomads, silk Uzbek designs, and the popular war carpets emblazoned with tanks and assault rifles inspired by the Soviet invasion of 1979.

And just as the war on terrorism has revived an entrepreneurial spirit in carpet dealers, it has also given artistic inspiration.

This is one of my favorites, says Aminullah Popal, a 50-year-old carpet dealer holding a small rug showing a plane crashing through New York's World Trade Center towers. That was the economic center of the world. Now people are coming here to Afghanistan.

The twin towers carpet is not being mass produced and was made by a Herat carpet weaver who visited New York after Sept. 11.

It was a tragic event, says Popal. But just like carpet dealers who used the Soviet invasion in their work, this is also being used.

Popal sold his shop in the Pakistani border city of Quetta two weeks ago and opened the Noor Jahan carpet shop in Kandahar. He used to get about one customer each month.

Now, I get at least ten and if two people buy a nice piece, that pays the rent. There's much better business here now that the Taliban is gone.

The carpets range from $50 to thousands depending on how much bartering the merchant and buyer can stomach. But the high demand in Afghanistan doesn't always bode well for the consumer.

We get a 30 percent profit from foreigners compared to 10 percent from locals, said Mohammed, squirming because of the question. But as long as foreigners stay, we will too. If they leave, so do we.