Light and shade in Multan Part 2

The handicrafts of Multan match its cultural and agricultural richness. In addition to the ceramics, tilework and lamps mentioned previously, furniture and embroidered women’s shoes (khussa) are also famous, but the chief glory of Multan is derived from the ‘white gold’ of its rich cotton crop.

Bleached cotton yarn drying in Multan

Multan is celebrated for its traditional cloth-making and embroidery, particularly of the intricately worked women’s shawls known as dupattas. AI has imported large numbers of these in the past. In more tolerant times, the same ‘lacework’ technique used for these diaphanous shawls was used to produce Italian-designed beach dresses.

 

Detail of hand-embroidered dupatta

This traditional industry remains based on outwork. The workshop owner makes or buys in the plain cloth, which, together with the sewing thread, is then sent out to village women in the surrounding districts to finish at home. They return with the finished goods and are paid on a piece-work basis. The income derived by women from piecework embroidery often forms a very important contribution to the family budget.

The southern Punjab, like neighbouring Sindh, is afflicted by severe rural poverty despite its agricultural wealth. This is due to the persistence of a feudal land tenure system in which a small number of families own huge estates, upon which the peasant population work as either day-labourers or share-croppers, for what amounts to a bare subsistence wage..

The evils of this system have long been recognised, and Pakistani history since Partition is littered with frustrated attempts at land reform, which invariably founder on the power of the ‘zamindar’ lobby, and their dominance over the leadership of the main political parties. (The normal practice amongst feudal families is for one son to run the estate, one son to go into politics, and for a third to go into the army. All bases are thus nicely covered.)         In the patronage politics of Pakistan it is an unwise peasant who votes against the wishes of his landlord.

Popular discontent with this system takes the form of persistent banditry, (dacoity), which make some roads in the region unsafe at night, and the growing popularity of fundamentalist movements. These derive their appeal from the natural socialism implied by Sharia law, and could be reasonably characterised as peasant revolts in a religious guise.

Such militancy tends to be concentated in towns where radical madressehs have been allowed to establish themselves.  A notable example on the road to Multan from the north is the rather moody and depressing little town of Jhang, which I can assure readers from personal experience is not a place where you’d necessarily want your car to break down after dark.

In a further cynical twist, it would also seem that both fundamentalist and dacoit gangs are frequently bought and co-opted by local landowners to instil fear and docility amongst the local population.

A handy analogy is the partnership between the Church, the Christian Democrats and the Mafia that ran Sicily for many years.

The cotton industry is the mainstay of the Pakistani economy. Multan is only one major mill-town in a swathe of country which runs from Lahore in the north-east down to Karachi in the south.  Multan vies with Faisalabad as its major centre. (Faisalabad was formerly known as Lawrencepur, but, as an Army officer once spluttered to me, ‘we had to change its name to please the bloody Arabs!’ ie, after another king-size subsidy from the Saudis).

Hand-loom in Multan. With continual electricity outages in Pakistan, there has been a significant rise in interest in traditional handlooms.

The majority of the industry comprises of factories with vast arrays of highly sophisticated power-looms, financed by serious foreign investment and orientated largely toward export. Australian readers may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of their sheets and towels are actually made in Pakistan.

While cotton textile manufacturing is usually associated with India, the fact is that a large proportion of Indian production uses Pakistani cotton. The price of cotton on the Indian market rose 50% between 2009 and 2010 due to the widespread floods in Pakistan.

These factories are an impressive sight. Sometimes over a kilometre long, with high protective walls and watch-towers, they loom out of the flat green landscape like great white battleships. No-one is admitted unless it’s for a minimum order of 50,000 metres.

Sadly however, these major concerns are beginning to hoist anchor and disappear. The increasing unreliability of the national power supply as a result of Pakistan’s endemic corruption is causing a growing number to move production to places like Thailand and Bangladesh.

Cotton weaver making hand-woven bedspreads for the international market.

Afghan Interiors has long been interested in expanding its existing experience in hand-made textiles into new production, not least as part of FDS’s charitable activities.

However, up till now, AI has been unable to find the happy medium between the extremely small-scale hand-weavers in Charsadda, who fill our present orders, and these foreign-owned behemoths.

Happily, that gap has now been filled, thanks to a fortunate and recent set of introductions made through old acquaintances. We have been lucky enough to gain access to a traditional cotton mill in Multan which has over 200 handlooms in operation. It also covers the full sequence of production from bleaching raw yarn, dyeing, weaving, hand-block and screen-printing, finishing and packing. Most importantly, it employs hundreds of women outworkers to hand-embroider and finish all its products.

Dyed yarns, Multan

The owners and their friends through whom the introduction was made are representative of that respectable middle section of Pakistani society, small landowners and agriculturalists, professionals, bazaar entrepreneurs and industrialists, who are as equally alienated by the current ruling kleptocracy as by the proponents of religious extremism.

Instead, they perform a considerable amount of quiet charitable activity, providing schooling, medical and other facilities for the poor, but always, as perhaps befits citizens of the City of Sufis, on condition of complete anonymity.

Block printing cotton cushion covers

We look forward to working with this concern. Its fostering of traditional crafts, which are by their very nature labour-intensive, is very timely at a stage when the mechanised section of Pakistan’s textile industry is losing jobs, and when the overall need for youth employment increases every year, and as the Western market attaches increasing value to forms of capitalist enterprise that promote social progress for the majority.

Technical experience gained by Afghan Interiors here will, in turn, aid FDS in the development of a business model which can be applied and brought to scale in other areas of Pakistan, particularly the north west, where peculiarly difficult conditions have defied the international aid community’s conventional attempts at top-down development for years.

Light and shade in Multan Part 1

Visitors to Afghan Interiors have often marvelled at the lighting in the store – hundreds of hand-painted camel-skin lamps decorated with flowers and geometric patterns. These lamps are unique to Multan, a city of ancient renown, and the fifth largest in Pakistan.

Camel-skin lamps from Multan

The hand-painted designs of the lamps share a common origin with Moghul tilework, visible throughout Multan. Ceramics and tilework are historically famous industries here, based on the alluvial clay of the surrounding river systems.

Multan is known popularly as the ‘City of Sufis’, referring to the wonderful collection of shrines dedicated to various saints and founders of Sufi orders that still form the town’s most prominent landmarks.

The two-storied octagonal mausoleum of Shah Rukn-e-Alam, with its white dome and bands of dark blue, azure and white glazed tiles contrasting with buff-coloured polished mud brick, is in my opinion, one of the most beautiful Islamic monuments in South Asia.

Shah Rukn-e-Alam Mausoleum, Multan, built 14th century

The city’s shrines glitter with intricate glazed tiles that were produced in the medieval and Moghul eras. Formerly these achieved a wide range of colours, including reds, olive greens and acid yellows. Unfortunately, over time this technology was lost, and today’s ceramic products are chiefly blue-and-white. Luckily, the lamps are still painted in glowing colours.

The liberal and syncretic religious traditions of the city are probably a consequence of Multan’s location astride the southerly of the two main trade and invasion routes between the India and Afghanistan, via Kandahar and the Bolan Pass. (The other being by way of Kabul and the Khyber Pass)

This made it a natural meeting-place for the religions, trade and culture of the Arab world to the south, of central Asia to the West, and Indian sub-continent to the east.

The camel leather does not originate in Multan itself. It is mainly brought in as salted hides from the Cholistan Desert to the east. Here, at the great Islamic festivals of ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ Eid, the ritual slaughter of  hundreds of camels takes the place of  the feast of sheep and goats more usual in other parts of Pakistan. This seasonal income is of great importance to these pastoral semi-nomadic people, and the processing of the hides supports a large number of workers in the city.

On the road to Multan. Camel transport.

Multan is also colloquially known for ‘heat, dust and beggars’.  Stranded in the baking plains of southern Punjab, near the confluence of the Indus and the five rivers that give the province its name, it’s certainly hot, 57 C having been recorded one unlucky summer.

However, this in combination with widespread irrigation and rich alluvial soils also makes it extraordinarily rich agriculturally. Cash crops such as cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, wheat, and, most famously, mangoes provide the foundation of the city’s economy.

On the road to Multan. Sugar cane lorry with winter crop passes brick kiln.

I entered Multan from the north through an endless green sea of mango orchards. This being winter, smudge fires had been lit to prevent any hint of frost blighting the crown of the trees.

Dreaming of mango orgies…

In summer, roadside stalls are the scene of mango orgies. The fruit are plucked and eaten straight from the trees for a few cents, with the juice running down to your elbows.  Wise men temporarily doff their kameez to eat. (Multanis are rather more uninhibited than the Pathans to their north when it comes to public displays of flesh, at least of the male sort, with the Indian dhoti frequently taking the place of the loose trousers worn elsewhere.)

Australian mango-lovers may also note that Multan produces over 200 different varieties, of every conceivable shape and colour, ‘Anwar Ratol’ and ‘Chonsa’ being the most popular on the domestic market. However, the jewel in the crown, little known to outsiders, is a variety as delicious as it is difficult to grow, called ‘Sanglaki’. This seldom makes its way outside of Multan.

On the road to Multan. This trip is best conducted in daylight. Unlit sugar cane lorries present an exciting challenge at night.

Blood on the Carpet Part 2

Michael is visiting his old haunt, the Khyber Bazar carpet market in Peshawar.

The Khyber Bazar is now sadly shrunken. During the 1990s, over 15 separate markets, each comprising of dozens of small dealers, bustled ceaselessly as carpets arrived from Afghanistan in be-spangled trucks or by the donkey-load. From their roofs came a constant racket of hammering as the brilliant patchworks of newly washed and stretched pieces were laid out to dry and fade in the sun.

Packing the bundles. Each bundle weighs approximately 50-80kg and in the case of this market, is carried down three flights of stairs by “shouldermen” to the waiting pick-up truck for transport to Peshawar dry port.

Inside Sadat market, carpets are piled to the ceiling in every shop awaiting selection. We bought the Yomud kelim halfway down the pile.

Today the Bazar has now shrunk to only three markets, the Shan, the Kamran and the Sadat. Times are hard, and rampant inflation has increased the price of basics such as flour and oil to the point where even the frugal Afghan who sleeps on the floor of his shop amid the towering piles of carpets and eats only one meal a day, cooked in the hissing pressure cookers out in the corridors, has trouble making ends meet.

The best bread in the Bazar. Uzbeki nan being sold outside the Rose Hotel.

On arrival in Kamran market, I popped into Haji Abdul Rehman’s shop, only to find him being bandaged after a business dispute with his neighbour, Haji Nuraddin, which ended with the latter picking up a pair of heavy carpet shears and stabbing him several times in the head and neck.

With alacrity, still covered in blood, he immediately sprang free of his friends to begin spreading stacks of carpets for selection in front of me. There is nothing much tougher than an Afghan. I told him to sit down and I’d come back later.

 

A welcoming committee of fellow carpet dealers inside Haji Mirgul’s shop.

In fact, I made a point of going round and buying something from everyone in the bazaar.  Piled onto the problems caused by the war and hyperinflation, the lack of regular customers in the past year has led to desperate shopkeepers falling foul of middlemen coming across the border from India, who have taken carpets on credit and then promptly disappeared with the goods and with no intention to pay. I’m told that Afghan rugs in Delhi are currently selling for the same prices as Sydney.

Afghan Interiors is a commercial enterprise, but one that operates in a Hogarthian world far removed from the shiny shopping mall and ruthless accountancy of modern retailing. In this world, by necessity, trade depends on trust, credit and long-term personal relationships.

Every man must make a living, and there are easier ones to be made elsewhere. However, as I sit down on the carpet to share a dinner of kabob and Kabuli pulao with these old Afghan friends, I feel that we are sharing something more than just trade, a dimension of meaning absent from many other types of enterprise.

More so in that the goods in which we deal are the last beautiful and very poignant remnants of a pre-modern world.

Readers may be aware that Michael also operates a charity called FDS on the Frontier. This presents its own challenges in a country whose virtual sole growth industry is fraudulent NGOs.

 However, FDS’s main assumption is that aid is best delivered through assisted commercial enterprises where transparency is naturally provided by the discipline of the market, in other words, the organised modernisation of products for export that place the profits directly back in the hands of the makers and their families. See www.frontiersupport.org .

We will report the progress of these efforts in this blog in future posts.

Blood on the Carpet Part 1

After much obstruction from well-meaning friends fearing for his safety, Michael has finally reached the source of Afghan Interiors’ oriental rug supply, the Khyber Bazaar in Peshawar, KyhberPaktunkhwa*, in order to buy goods for our new container.

The Khyber Bazar has been the Central Asian region’s main wholesale market for carpets and kilims since it moved en masse to Peshawar from its old location in Kabul during the Russian War in the 1980s.

Most of the dealers are Afghans, and present the full wonderful variety of ethnicity of that country: hawk-nosed and heavily bearded Pathans, Mongoloid and creamy-skinned Hazara, the broad-features and narrow eyes of the Uzbeks and Turkomen, and, occasionally, the arrestingly European face of the Tadjik, whose green eyes and freckled white complexion sometimes give you the momentary impression you’ve just bumped into someone you went to school with.

 

Khyber Bazar: broken down outside the Kamran market at dusk – not a comfortable moment.

Peshawar’s Khyber Bazar’s golden age was during the late 1990s and early 2000s. For nearly 20 years, this kaleidoscopic frontier trading town was the merry meeting place of carpet dealers from all over the world, Bruce from London, Tom from California, Zubin from Calgary, who after work would gather in the bar of the Pearl Continental to drink and rub shoulders with dealers of even more exotic commodities; sausage-skins, counterfeit American currency, fake cigarettes, weapons-grade plutonium, and most memorably, the Red Mercury Men. ‘What is red mercury?’ “We don’t know, Michael! But it comes from Russia and is worth 30 million rupees a gram!”

Sadly, the good times in Peshawar dwindled as the American War ground on. The economy suffered a slow-motion collapse, and levels of insecurity rose. The bar in the Pearl Continental Hotel was closed down by the mullahs, and a couple of years later the corner of the building was blown off by the Taliban. Foreigners stopped coming, and even many of the local dealers, fed up with routine kidnapping and extortion demands, have left for the Gulf or have gone back to Kabul to sell carpets to Allied soldiers.

 

The bus to Bara, Khyber Agency. Note protective fundamentalist black flags on top.

Upon my arrival on this trip I was greeted warmly by my friends, who then immediately enquired, ‘But Michael, what are you doing here?’ Apparently there have been no western buyers in Peshawar since my last visit in Nov 2011.

The Northwest Frontier: Khyber Agency just outside Peshawar. Afghanistan lies just over the mountains

 *KPK is probably still better known by its former name of North West Frontier Province. This two-year old name-change was designed as a gesture towards Pathan sensibilities by Pakistan’s Punjabi and Sindhi-dominated government, (KPK actually means Khyber, land of the Pathans), but it sadly backfired as the province is also home to numerous other ethnic minorities, such as the Hazara community in the region between Haripur and Abbottabad, for instance, who have been up in arms ever since. In Pakistan, seldom does a good deed go unpunished, or for that matter, a piece of meaningless spin either.