Archive for September, 2006

Afghan refugee rugmakers in 1985 National Geographic magazine

September 26, 2006


At a local charity bookfair this weekend I found a copy of the June 1985 National Geographic magazine featuring the famous cover of the Afghan girl Sharbat Gula.

Debra Denker’s article, “Along Afghanistan’s War-torn Frontier”, is available online, but without the photographs by Steve McCurry, taken in 1984.

We’ve reproduced the images and captions below:


Carpet merchants, Turkoman refugees from Afghanistan’s north parade their wares along the stalls of Peshawar’s Qisssa Khawani Bazaar, the famed “storytellers’ bazaar”. Lacking stalls of their own, the Turkomans keep moving to find their customers. Many of the Turkomans have returned to join their fellows in the mujahideen, becoming some of the more fierce warriors and battle-smart commanders. Others prefer to remain in Pakistan, pursuing their skills as carpetmakers, the trade of their ancestors.”


“At Swabi refugee camp near Mardan wool is dyed and dried. Thereafter a carpet begins to take shape on a loom.”


“Carpetmaking is a family affair, with everybody participating around the horizontal loom. It can take three months to make a wool rug, a little longer for one of silk. The majority of the carpets are for prayer, but some larger ones are made for use in homes. Thousands of Turkoman refugees equal thousands of carpets – in addition to those locally produced. The Pakistani weavers feel they are being hurt by Turkomans, who pay no taxes and no shop rents, selling their wares in the markets.”

Given women’s traditional involvement in weaving, it’s interesting that the “everybody” around the loom includes only men. This may be a function of the difficulty of photographing Afghan women that McCurry describes in “Arms Against Fury: Magnum Photographers in Afghanistan” at page 131:

“You could never meet your best friend’s wife, or even his sister. He could be your best friend, and you would never meet his wife. There was always a separate room in the house for guests, ad I was never in contact on any level with the women. If you saw a woman in the village, she would be working or caring for the children. You were allowed a single glance … There was no chance to take photographs. You could photograph a young girl running around playing with her friends in the village, but there was never any contact at all with adolescent and adult women. Just none.”

Arms Against Fury is available online, but there is no direct link – from here, click on “books”.

Steve McCurry also has a web page which includes an Afghanistan gallery.

Spinning and weaving

September 19, 2006

“Vasco Pyjama” is the internet name used by an Australian woman who until very recently worked for an international non government organisation (NGO) in Afghanistan. She wrote a wonderful journal of her experiences called Pyjama Samsara, where she is now blogging about her new posting in Indonesia.

Given our project, our interest was piqued by a fascinating discussion considering the physical and economic outcomes of carpet weaving on women in a Hazara area in Afghanistan. We’ve taken excerpts of the posts below – click the link at the end of each excerpt for the full entry.

We have been looking for income generation or livelihood opportunities that we can promote for village women. We don’t like carpet weaving, as it is exploitative and causes eye problems. We don’t like gellim weaving, as we did that before, and could not find a market for it. But now, we are thinking… perhaps spinning yarn?

The spinning wheel design was sourced from a museum in France! And then reproduced by a carpenter in Afghanistan. The NGO provides the spinning wheel (for USD12, a third of the USD36 that it costs to make) and the raw wool. Then the women make the margin (price of yarn – cost of wool). Currently, the NGO does all the purchasing and marketing, but they are intending to form women’s associations to do that. (Click here for full entry.)

Hazara spinner

In response to a question from a reader, she elaborated:

… we have to find a women’s livelihood activity for the long winter months (six months over here). Women now typically either do nothing, or those who are lucky weave carpets. But carpet weaving is hard work. It involves sitting crouched next to two or three others, and having to look in the dim light. Many people have shoulder and neck problems as well as eye problems at the end of it.

But the fate for those who don’t weave the carpets is worse. They do not earn any money and are very poor.

Weaving gellim is better ergonomically than carpets. But it pays less. Spinning pays the most. Also, it does not require you to look at the wool/yarn. You could even spin if you were blind. And you can stretch whilst spinning. And it is not small movements like it is for carpet weaving, or even crochet or knitting. I tried out the machine and the pedal is very sensitive. It does not require any strength, and works when you tilt it forwards and backwards. Also, the woman had a cushion, but we asked her to move positions (she was by the window) as the light was not good there.

Basically, it has less ergonomic problems than even tailoring has. It is the best option there is for now. Also, the women (and even children) spend the summer months doing very very very hard farm labour, like digging potatoes, carrying wood, carrying big bales of hay. When I shake their hands, I am stunned at how rough and calloused they are. They regard even carpet weaving as easy work …

Another thing to take into consideration that the poverty here is extreme. One in four children die before they reach the age of five. One in six women will die in childbirth. Most women do not reach the age of 45. Hunger is extreme. Having this little extra money means that families have fewer hungry days in a year. A few children live a little longer. Girls are married off a bit later. (Click here for full entry.)

Thanks to Vasco Pyjama for her permission to use her text and image.

New York exhibition opening: “Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory”

September 17, 2006

Readers in the New York area will be interested to know that the exhibition “Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory” is showing at The Puffin Room, 435 Broome Street, New York, until mid October. The exhibition will tour throughout the US until 2008 – a list of locations can be found by scrolling down here and the excellent catalogue is available online.


Kevin Sudeith ( and Curator Ariel Zeitlin Cooke in the exhibition.

Ariel writes:

the exhibition features a dazzling display of war textiles–Afghan war rugs, Hmong story cloths, Chilean and Peruvian arpilleras and South African memory cloths, all of which bear witness to the artists’ experience of modern warfare. This is a wonderful moment for me, as I have worked on the project for more than 15 years.

The exhibition has been reviewed in the online version of Hali magazine.

There are some photographs from the exhibition opening with distinguished guest Hmong story cloth artist Pang Xiong Sirirasathuk Sikounat at Kevin Sudeith’s blog.

One of the most striking war rugs (among many of interest) was the prayer rug from the collection of Bruce Baganz. You can find other images of the exhibition pieces on Kevin’s blog…


The other September 11

September 17, 2006


Most of us have forgotten September 11, 1973, when Pinochet’s aircraft bombed the parliamentary buildings of Chilean President Salvador Allende. This is an embroidered image which depicts those events. In Peru and Chile this form of representation is called arpillera, and there are a number of equally chilling arpilleras in Ariel’s show.

Max Allen Collection

September 17, 2006


Nigel has spent the last four days imposing on the generous hospitality of Max Allen, and his research assistants Ted and Ruby (pictured) in Toronto. Ted is not shy, but sleeping in some dark corner, with one ear open in case his bete noir (if any bete can be noirer than Ted) Ricky passes within 100 yards of the house. The rug above depicts Max on a white charger – which would not be a war rug except for one small Kalashnikov pointing at him. Max’s collection is truly inspiring, enabling us to follow seemingly obscure connections between subject matter, styles and motifs which might otherwise be lost. Thanks Max. You can trace more of the depth and range of Max’s interests through crossing to the Textile Museum of Canada, of which he was the co-founder, and at which he still functions as emeritus curator.

Visiting the Naef Collection

September 11, 2006


This is Weston and Ella Naef at Pacific Palisades in LA at the start of a two day marathon inspecting and re-cataloguing Ella’s extensive collection of war rugs. Exciting work. The collection includes some magnificent larger rugs, plus some key early rugs collected by the English artist Graham Bacon in the mid-80s, which will help solve some of the mysteries of determining the dates for rugs from the 1980s. The earliest is a rug with the date 1984 embedded in it, acquired by Bacon in 1987. I’ll post it when the image becomes available.

An intriguing find in San Francisco

September 10, 2006

Nigel has sent us this image, a printed handkerchief sized piece of fabric from the collection of Pat Markovich in San Francisco:

Identify the mines

Our friend Maryam Rashidi, the Iranian student of visual art, has provided us with the following translation:

The text at the top is written in Persian Farsi (Farsi Dari, not Pashtu), and it says “mark off (or identify) the mine zone” (mines being a method of warfare – the whole sentence means that they are asking that the mine zone should be known so perhaps they don’t walk through it and get injured!)… The sign on the left top corner is the UN sign, which I guess means that this “mark off the mine zone” is been asked from the United Nations…

Also, the text at the bottom, I guess it must be Pashtu text, and I am again guessing that it must be repeating the same text at the top (“identify the land mines!”)…

Maryam has also researched the “SB 33” that appears in the lower left of the image:

SB 33 which is written below the drawing of the mine is a type of land mine –

The lightweight, irregularly shaped SB-33 blast mine (made in Italy) can be scattered in large numbers by helicopters. Its mottled surface makes it difficult to detect by sight. It has an anti-shock device that prevents it from being detonated by explosions or artificial pressure, (source is Landmines: The Invisible Goliath)”

and elsewhere,

The irregular shape and small size (about 9cm diameter) of the BPD-SB-33 scatterable anti-personnel mine make it particularly hard to locate. A hydraulic antishock device ensures that it cannot be detonated by explosions or artificial pressure. It is also exceptionally light, and can thus be carried and deployed in extremely large numbers by helicopters.” (source is a Russian site, Art of War; the following image is also from this site).

sb 33

We’re reminded of one of the rugs exhibited in the Rugs of War shows in 2003, “If you see one mine there will always be many others …”

Plate 12

That rug also features the SB 33, but the text is reversed – we’ve rotated the image in the following detail:


The Journal of Mine Action has an interesting – and frightening – article about the use of landmines in Afghanistan. It states:

Although estimates from wartime landmine activities by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan regularly exceed 10,000,000, more realistic estimates are likely to be between 5—7,000,000 with some continuing use and limited access making that estimate impossible to verify. The most heavily mined regions are those bordering Iran and Pakistan. Security belts of landmines exist around major cities, airports, government installations and power stations. Most, if not all, of these are attributed to Soviet occupation or Soviet stocks left in their withdrawal. Kabul, the capital, is considered to be one of the most heavily mined cities per capita in the world ….

Thanks again to Maryam for her assistance.

Rug Discoveries in San Francisco

September 9, 2006

Below is an image of Dr John L. Sommer in the kitchen at the residence of Pat Markovich in Piedmont, San Franciso, amongst a myriad of war rugs which adorn every available surface, and more.

Dr Sommer

Ms Markovich has some really distinctive rugs, the like of which we haven’t seen before. The rug on the wall behind Dr Sommer is a flatweave structure, and is reproduced in full in Emmett Eiland’s book Oriental Rugs Today: A Guide to the Best New Carpets from the East (2003, Berkeley Hills Books, Berkely; 2nd edition, p 158):

Rug of Pat Markovich

Photograph by David Holbrook Young.

It is captioned:

“This unusual war rug is flat-woven. In it, traditional rug design (the vase and flowers in the centre) is mixed with modern machines of warfare (helicopters and automatic rifles) and archaic fighters (sworkdsmen on horses. While many variations of the other three war rugs are to be found, this piece seems unique. Could it be a truly personal statement?”

Dr Sommer’s reputation as a patient, enthusiastic, and generous host is much appreciated. But meeting Pat Markovich (who wasn’t at home) will have to wait for the next visit.

Update on attribution of ‘Anti-Soviet Socialist Realist” rug

September 9, 2006

Archives from the Ella Naef collection in Los Angeles reveal that in 1999 Palmer E. Rabey was able to acquire a version of this rug from a refugee camp near Peshawar, and the attribution is that it was made by Turkmen people. However the date and the question of the authorship of the design (and caption) remain unresolved. See the previous post on this topic.

Visit to Babak’s Oriental Carpets in Victoria, British Columbia

September 6, 2006

In the first of his travelling posts, Nigel Lendon visits carpet merchant Babak Rezwani, in Victoria, British Columbia:

Nigel and Babak

Babak has a great collection sourced from the Iran/Afghanistan border region. The pictured rug, however, is from further west. The representation of four soldiers in a field of long-horn sheep extends our understanding of both the figurative tradition, and references to militarism in the social life of such peoples.


The rug is attributed as Qashqai, the product of the Turkic-speaking now largely settled or semi-settled people of the Shiraz region in the south west of Iran.

The wikipedia article on the Qashqai states they:

… are renowned for their magnificent pile carpets and other woven wool products. The wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz is exceptionally soft and beautiful and takes a deeper color than wool from other parts of Iran. Qashqai saddlebags, adorned with colorful geometric designs, are considered to be the finest available.

The article also features this wonderful image of three Qashqai women weaving on a horizontal loom (wikipedia allows use of the image):

Wikipedia image of Qashqai weavers

There is more information about the Qashqai (and more fantastic photographs) here.

Babak’s business does not use a web page, but you can email Babak at babaksorientalcarpets at hotmail dot com, omitting the spaces and replacing “at” with “@” and “dot” with “.” – this syntax is to stop the address being harvested by spammers.