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.