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.
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.
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.
*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.