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.
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.
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.
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.