Author speaks on the significance of Afghan "War Rugs"
OXFORD — Long before oil began to dominate the world economy, the best-known commodity of the Middle East was the rug.
But rugs also had an important role in the local culture. Rug shops were the center of the community, the place where people would go to get the latest gossip, and rugs were the center of the home because in a culture without furniture, people sat on the floor.
“The carpets are important to the economy because they link people together,” said Christopher Kremmer, author of four books on Afghanistan and the Middle East, including “The Carpet Wars: From Kabul to Baghdad.” Kremmer was in Oxford for "The War Rugs Symposium," held in conjuction withthe Miami University Art Museum exhibition, “Tanks, Helicopters, Guns and Grenades: The Afghan War Rugs of 1980 - 2007.”
“The book is really a portrait of the Muslim countries in a time of crisis, particularly Afghanistan and nearby countries,” he said. “I didn’t want to write a politcal tract or an academic analyis, but a book that general readers would enjoy and find an eye open about the history of the culture and the area.
“From the nomadic shepherds who move the sheep to the women who dye and spin the wool to the people who weave it into rugs, the carpet industry has managed to survive 30 years of conflict because it is a low-tech business that doesn’t depend on electricity,” he said.
Kremmer was a reporter for Australian radio and television when he was assigned to India in 1990. At the time, the Soviet war in Afghanistan was “the biggest story in my neighborhood,” so he began to focus his attention there and began to realize the importance of the rug industry and how it can serve as a metaphor for the bigger Middle East picture.
“Religion and politics tend to divide people, but the carpets are kind of a bridge,” he said. “If we can connect through the rugs, perhaps we can be one step closer to understanding the people who made them.”
In the 1980s, he said, the Soviets were “not very polite” in their treatment of the Afghani people.
“They would cleanse an entire village to get one person, so you had 3 million Afghanis living in Pakistan,” he said. “There was a great deal of misery and anger caused by this and a huge support for the anti-Soviet struggle.”
Although there is no precedent for rugs to carry political messages, refugee weavers began working imagery inspired by the Soviet occupation into their rugs, first as a way to rally Soviet resistance, then as a way of making money from the tourist trade. Some of the rugs in the museum exhibition serve as warnings to people to be aware of unexploded ordinances, illustrating what not to touch. Others contain maps and other images that detail the Soviet occupation, and later, the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001.
Kremmer said he was in Kabul in 1992 when the mujahideen came back and ended the Soviet occupation.
“There was a huge celebration after 13 years of war and the night sky was lit with what they called ‘happy fire,’ people firing their guns in the air,” he said. “Forty-eight hours later, the gunfire was in the street again as people started fighting among themselves for control.
“The cities has been protected by the Soviets and so descended into chaos for the next five years as the struggle for control continued among the various factions,” he said.
The anti-Soviet rugs began to lose their relevance as people lost confidence in the mujahideen. Then in 1997, the Taliban came onto the scene.
“In the beginning for a lot of people, they represented law and order — a tough group, but they could maintain some control over the cities. But then they got involved with Al Qaida and tehy have no idea how the world works and the danger of using Afghanistan as a base of operations against U.S. interests,” he said.
“In the beginning, the rugs celebrated Islamic rebellion, but now they are more ambiguous. Some are pro-American, but I’ve never seen a pro-Taliban rug.
“These rugs are quite mysterious,” he said. “They haven’t been studied in any great detail, who made them and why, what are the messages. That’s why this exhibit is important.”