In Afghanistan, weaving ancient industry back into global market

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A man trims the edge of a carpet at the Zinnat Rug Factory, one of 15 producers working with the British developmental organization Turquoise Mountain to rejuvenate the Afghan carpet industry, on May 19, 2019, in western Kabul, Afghanistan.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Some 1.6 million Afghans are in the carpet business, most working from home, but during 40 years of conflict, some 90% of Afghan carpets were sent to neighboring Pakistan for eventual export. There the final touches were added, and Afghan carpets were often tagged with a “Made in Pakistan” label.

But the British development organization Turquoise Mountain aims to herald a renaissance in Afghan carpet weaving by serving as a bridge for Afghan carpets to foreign buyers while bringing every step of the process back to Afghanistan. That will help ensure both quality and working conditions. “Carpets have been produced in this region for millennia. ... And when people speak about Afghan rugs, it resonates,” says Nathalie Paarlberg of Turquoise Mountain in Kabul.

For years, Turquoise Mountain has specialized in urban reclamation and training projects in Kabul, and in bringing Afghan art to a global audience. Carpet dealers “look at an Afghan carpet and they get excited, they keep using the word ‘soul,’ to be honest,” says Nathan Stroupe, Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain. “There’s still that sort of magical quality in the carpets, and I think the mythos of the story.”

Why We Wrote This

Can an inanimate object have “soul”? Perhaps not in the strictest sense. But vendors looking at Afghan carpets, the art of an ancient people reclaiming authorship of their work, keep using that word.

The scene has barely changed for centuries: Afghan women sit at looms strung tight with twine, working slowly and meticulously to turn bundles of brightly colored wool thread into fine carpets.

What has changed is that this carpet weaving center, perched on the western edge of Kabul, is part of a broader project to help transform Afghanistan’s carpet industry.

Among its goals: to break the isolation imposed by four decades of war and sell high-end, custom-made Afghan carpets directly to the international market.

Why We Wrote This

Can an inanimate object have “soul”? Perhaps not in the strictest sense. But vendors looking at Afghan carpets, the art of an ancient people reclaiming authorship of their work, keep using that word.

Along the way, the British development organization Turquoise Mountain aims to herald a renaissance in Afghan carpet weaving. For years, Turquoise Mountain has specialized in urban reclamation, job creation, and training projects in Kabul, and in bringing Afghan jewelry, ceramics, and wood-working handicrafts to a global audience.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Men roll out carpets in a showroom at the Zinnat Rug Factory in western Kabul, one of 15 Afghan producers working with the British developmental organization Turquoise Mountain to sell high-end, custom-made Afghan carpets directly to the international market.

With 1.6 million Afghans in the carpet business, most of them weavers working from home, there is no shortage of carpet-making expertise.

But during 40 years of conflict, some 90% of Afghan carpets were sent to neighboring Pakistan for eventual export. There the final touches – washing and “finishing” of carpets, including shearing them and binding the edges – were added, and Afghan carpets were often tagged with a “Made in Pakistan” label.

Working under a U.S. Agency for International Development contract, Turquoise Mountain aims to serve as a bridge for Afghan carpets to foreign buyers while bringing every step of the process back to Afghanistan. That will increase earnings for Afghans while also ensuring consistent quality and better working conditions.

“Carpets have been produced in this region for millennia – not even hundreds of years, but thousands of years. And when people speak about Afghan rugs, it resonates. ... An ‘Afghan carpet’ is a thing,” says Nathalie Paarlberg, the Afghanistan deputy country director of Turquoise Mountain in Kabul.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Women weave at looms at the Zinnat Rug Factory, May 19, 2019, in western Kabul.

“But what you’ve seen is that we are now in our fourth decade of isolation,” she says. “The market has been entirely cut off from international buyers. … Why would you travel here if you could travel to India or Nepal, or even to Pakistan?”

Changing that equation for buyers is one aim of the project, along with creating 4,750 jobs and, over four years, selling $19 million worth of consistently high-quality Afghan carpets from the 15 producers they work with. The project also hopes in time to make the producers, who together represent several thousand Afghan families, and sales self-sufficient.

Despite being out of the global market for a generation, Afghanistan still holds a grip on the imagination.

“Speaking to these [carpet dealers], they look at an Afghan carpet and they get excited, they keep using the word ‘soul,’ to be honest,” says Nathan Stroupe, the Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain. “There’s still that sort of magical quality in the carpets, and I think the mythos of the story.”

That story begins at looms like these in the western Kabul district of Dast-e Barchi, where the Zinnat Rug Factory produces some 700 square meters – about 7,500 square feet – of carpet each year, much of that as part of the Turquoise Mountain project. It has been established for 30 years, using 100 looms – most of them in family homes.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Men wash carpets with water and scrapers at the Zinnat Rug Factory, May 19, 2019, in western Kabul, Afghanistan.

Women traditionally do the weaving work in Afghanistan, and in this well-lit weaving space, one or two sit in front of each loom, slowly adding to the carpets one thread at a time. Most weavers produce 1 square meter per month. Typical pay is $1 each day.

Next door in the showroom, men roll out onto the floor one carpet after another. Some have traditional Afghan designs, while others are more modern, such as a large replica of a Picasso painting, or stylized American flags.

But this factory is a rarity in Afghanistan, because work is done here that, for decades, had been done in Pakistan. They wash carpets, using hoses and brushes, and also finish them, using electric shears to cut and smooth the pile of each carpet. The average price per square meter of unfinished carpets is $50, and for finished carpets, $90 to $100.

Weaving producers can easily employ 2,000 families each. But this project aims to expand the facilities of weaving centers like this one so that every step of production happens in one place. That way it is easier to monitor the quality of the work and working conditions, to earn ethical certification.

For example, at weaving centers in the northern highlands, not far from where the Taliban infamously destroyed towering Buddha statues in 2001, weavers must agree to send their children to school, ensuring they are not used for child labor.

About 10 weaving centers working with Turquoise Mountain in a handful of cities, several already well established, will have day care centers and provide one full meal a day for workers.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A man shaves excess pile from a carpet at the Zinnat Rug Factory in Kabul, May 19, 2019.

But there is another critical function that has been missing from most carpet-regeneration projects in Afghanistan since the U.S. military orchestrated the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Few such programs ever sought to also find a market for Afghan carpets abroad.

“We have to be realistic here,” says Turquoise Mountain’s Ms. Paarlberg. Afghan manufacturers are “incredibly skilled at what they do,” but have not communicated with the international market for decades and usually don’t speak English.

“If you have to wait three weeks for a reply to your e-mail, or your bank transfer gets bounced back because your bank thinks you’re funding terrorism ... there’s just no reason why you would do business here,” she says.

“So what we do is sit in the middle, and we are the trusted partner for international buyers to do business in Afghanistan,” says Ms. Paarlberg. “We oversee production. We make sure the design is interpreted and graphed correctly. ... We take care of all shipping and logistics. People transfer money into our UK account, and we transfer it into Afghanistan.”

“A middleman is often a dirty word in development terms, because they think it takes away from the producers,” says Ms. Paarlberg. “But trusted partners [are necessary] who facilitate trade between two radically different cultures and markets.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.