Archive for the ‘Modern Narratives’ Category

Anti-Soviet Social Realism

January 7, 2013

Over at Iconophilia you’ll find some work-in-progress on one of the most atypical war rugs we’ve seen. Of course there are so many different modes of the war rug, none of them are typical.

the value of ephemera

April 10, 2012

Ever wonder about the origins of the imagery on a carpet such as this? Look in your wallet…

The Victory Arch [Taaq-e-Zafar] in the Paghman Gardens outside Kabul celebrates the Afghan victory over Great Britain in 1919. And the source of the photograph used to produce the bank note? Look in your mailbox…

This postcard was posted in 1973. It is the actual photograph from which the bank note was engraved. From which the carpet was woven. With some additional narrative elements.

The civil war of the early nineties left nothing unscathed.

…now restored.

[photo by Dr. Khalid Salimi]

on interpreting the 9/11 commemorative carpets

September 10, 2011

The most controversial and confronting of the many categories of Afghan “war carpets” made since the Soviet invasion in 1979 were those which first appeared in early 2002 and which memorialized the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Hundreds, maybe thousands of these small mats were made out of poor quality materials, reportedly produced in the regions to the north of Kabul, by the anti-Taliban Esari Turkomans. They were made in an attempt to cash in on the anticipated numbers of foreigners appearing in Afghanistan in the wake of Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO-led ISAF operations, which began to impact on Afghan society from November 2001 onwards.

The original version of this carpet was so precise that it could have been designed on Photoshop. (It probably was.) These mats were made by hand, each probably taking three or four weeks on a loom with continuous cotton wefts. The weaver would finish one, roll down six inches, and start the next one, in what was probably the most exploitative of circumstances. In 2007 there were still similar examples on Chicken Street which had not yet been cut apart, and at first glance it was hard to believe they were not the product of some kind of mechanical reproduction. They are in fact still woven by hand, in the laborious pixel-by-pixel knotted pile method, as have oriental carpets for thousands of years.

This is the archetype of a 21st century souvenir artefact. Before they were to be found in rug stores in the west, in early 2002 they had already appeared on eBay, at premium prices, marketed by online dealers based in Pakistan. When the market realised how many had been produced, the price plummeted, and within a year they could be bought for the (inflated) price of shipping plus a dollar.  However once they appeared in the flea markets of New York, a controversy arose which raged around their motivation or intent.

While objectively their iconography had been designed to appeal to the west, ostensibly to recognize and memorialise the horror of the act and the heroism of the survivors, for some the sense of communal grief was so strong that they could not be seen as other than opportunistic and exploitative. Despite the fact that they sold well, and had attracted significant publicity, the dealer who first sold them came under virulent and threatening criticism from a range of political positions.

Here’s how you read the war carpet in its original form:

• The twin towers of the World Trade Centre are depicted in quite precise isometric perspective, with the impacts of the two airliners, left and right, just as they had been seen around the world on television and other media.

• The date and the flight details of the two airliners are also precisely written in English (“first impact”, “second impact”).

• The towers are montaged over the map of Afghanistan, colored green, the sacred color of Islam. The foreground band of the montage is derived from a US-produced propaganda leaflet, showing the two flags of the USA and Afghanistan united by the (usually white) dove of peace.

• USA is written vertically between the base of the towers, just above the obliquely rendered deck of one of the US aircraft supercarriers involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. The carrier showes fighter planes taking off, plus a Tomahawk missile rising up on the right hand side of the field. The missile is headed, presumably, for Tora Bora or the other sites targeted as al-Qaeda strongholds.

• The letters USA are repeated on the deck of the carrier. The first generation of these rugs (the most precisely-rendered versions) also included the headline “11ST SEPTEMBER 2001 ATTACK ON AMERICA IN [N]EW YORK” or “THE TERRORISM WAR IN AMERICA” or “THE TERRORS WERE IN AMERICA” and “AFGHANISTAN”. Thus the language, format, and iconography are all designed to appeal sympathetically to a foreign audience.

Eight years later another version of the carpet appeared, now held in a private collection in Montreal. Such is the nature of the manual reproduction of Afghan carpets that a carpet is often copied from another, and the process repeated, over and over again. In this process images change, are simplified, and morph into new forms. The people (often children) who make the twentieth (or hundredth) copy of a design are therefore likely to have no idea of the significance of the iconography or motifs they are laboriously reproducing.

In this case we see the culmination of a process of progressive abstraction, where the individual anonymous maker has clearly lost contact with almost all of the significant references made by the original design. Generations of reproduction produced by copying from previous copies has resulted in an almost incomprehensible outcome – with three towers, missiles proliferating as a row of flower-shaped forms, helicopters flying upside down, text disintegrating.

This is, in a sense, tradition in action. Forms and motifs have now dissolved into pattern. The tradition has reverted to its norm.

Nigel Lendon is an artist, curator, historian and cultural critic at the Australian National University. Together with Tim Bonyhady he holds an Australian Research Council grant to research the tradition of Afghan war carpets. He authors two blogs, Iconophilia ( and Rugs of War ( Further information on the Afghan war carpet tradition may be found at the site for Max Allen’s Battleground exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada  ( and at Kevin Sudeith’s (

(An earlier version of this post was originally written for BagNews Notes as “How to read a war carpet”. And if you want to see how these works are liable to misinterpretation, go here.)

PS. I have never seen anything like this made as a carpet: 7 October 2001 (Reuters/Zahid Hussein)

From The Monthly Sept 2011

more discussion on the S11 carpet

October 30, 2010

is to be found on BagNews Notes

the place of allegory in war carpets

May 21, 2010

It has been suggested that the inclusion of legends like Rustam and the White Div in war carpets was always understood by Afghans as a contemporary reference to white invaders from the north. Is there any evidence for this assumption?

Prince Harry product placement

March 1, 2008


breaking news: now that Prince Harry has been outed as having been serving for the last ten weeks in Helmand province, we can reveal his interest in war carpets… Maybe he bought it on ebay? You too can have one just like it for $0.99. There are 21 listed as “hard to find…” Now wait for war carpets with Prince Harry as the subject… And from The Guardian (no pun intended), another view… you can read the text here – and does anyone see the irony in the fact that it’s a “defeat of the Soviets” motif in the war carpet Prince Harry has his foot on?


A most complex iconography…

February 19, 2007


Here’s a war rug acquired recently by one of our readers which exhibits a very complex set of interactions between image elements – some of which derive from traditional forms, intersected with narrative passages which depict armed conflict.


Some of the mixage of imagery, through different scales in each
register, is really challenging to our “Western” sense of perspective.


We’ve seen animals within animals many times…


…but certainly never a snake emerging from the ammunition
belt of a heavy machine gun…


A war rug from the Khandahar airport market

January 17, 2007

Khandahar rug - detail 2

Khandahar rug - detail 1

Khandahar rug - detail 3

Here’s a conventional tourist rug bought recently by an ADF Chinook pilot at the Khandahar air base market. Is that a Canadian flag? Catering to the market… Note the unusual detail of a mine-flailer in the centre of the image, and the (somewhat subversive?) opium poppy border.

Najibullah under pressure from all sides

October 23, 2006



Leyli and Majnun – another interpretation

August 19, 2006


This most unusual of “prayer rugs” has previously been interpreted by the Australian artists Hossein Valamanesh and Nasser Palangi.


The second rug is from Max Allen’s collection. Now, an Iranian visual arts student from Newcastle University, Maryam Rashidi, has offered the following analysis, which adds a further dimension to some of this rug’s more ambiguous dimensions. Follow her text below:

I see the text on the left side of the image differently. The text on the right obviously says “Leyli Majnun” whose stories have been explained to some extent on your website. But on the left, I think it says “Barekat Asheghan Arefan.”… “Barekat” means “blessing” or “bliss” (as explained by others as well)… “Asheghan” means “Lovers” and “Arefan” means “theosophists (or gnostics).

(I think Mr Palangi may have mistaken the word “Arefan” with “Karavan”, which does not seem to make much sense in the context of the image).

In addition, to translate “Leili Majnun” (which has been written on the carpet) into “Leili and majnoon,” we need a “Va (=and)” (in farsi) in between the two names. But this “Va” is missing in the text written on the carpet. So, I am guessing that if we are translating “Leyli Majnun” as “Leili VA (=and) Majnoon,” we perhaps can translate “Asheghan Arefan” into “Lovers VA (=and) Theosophists”. Thus, the text can be translated as something like “Blessings be with Lovers and Gnostics” or, if we relate the texts of the two sides together, the translation could be something like “Leili and Majnoon [were/are] the blessing (or it could perhaps be even interpreted as symbols?) for/of Lovers and Gnostics…