Turkmen weavers in northern Afghanistan have been weaving rugs for thousands of years. This heavy textile, made for a wide variety of utilitarian and symbolic purposes, is traditionally decorated with classical folk motifs, but in recent times many modern designs have found their way into the traditional medium, such as replicas of Picasso paintings or stylized American flags. But the most curious influence on Afghan rug design has been violence.
Afghanistan has been under conflict for more than forty years starting with the Russian invasion of what was originally a peaceful country. The bloody coup d’état against then-President Mohammed Daoud Khan would trigger a series of events that would dramatically turn Afghanistan from a poor and secluded, albeit peaceful country to a hotbed of international terrorism. The decades of war and violence that followed, impacted the everyday lives of the Afghans so deeply that carpet weavers began to incorporate icons of war into their carpets. Flowers, birds, horses and decorative knots were replaced by machine guns, grenades, helicopters, tanks and Kalashnikov rifles.
In the early years, brokers and merchants refused to buy war rugs with overt designs for fear they would put off buyers. But with time and with the rugs’ increasing popularity, these rugs have found a niche market among Western collectors.
There is little doubt the rugs are geared towards Western tourists, but in the beginning they may have been made for fellow Afghans, believes Hanifa Tokhi, an Afghan immigrant who fled Kabul after the Soviet invasion and now lives in northern California. “Later on, they made it commercialized when they found out that people were interested,” she says. “But at the beginning, it was to show their hatred of the invasion. I know the Afghan people, and this was their way to fight.”
After the terrorist attack on America and the subsequent war on Afghanistan, a whole new genre of war rugs arose. On woolen canvases where Soviet weapons used to appear now stood US armaments—F-16s, Abrams tanks and slogans such as “Heat to War”. Others, clearly made for sale to Americans, proclaimed “Long live U.S. soldiers.”
One of the most disturbing pieces commemorate the World Trade Center attack. These rugs were so scandalous that many traders refused to have them in their collection. Yet others find World Trade Center rugs collectable. Some New Yorkers find them fit for display, too. “You might think it’s a ghoulish thing to own, but I look upon it in a different way,” says Barbara Jakobson, a trustee at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art and a longtime art collector. “It’s a kind of history painting. Battles have always been depicted in art.”
Some 1.6 million Afghans are in the carpet business, with most of the weavers being women working from home. Under generations of oppression, these women have found in carpets a medium to make their voice heard.
“Women in that part of the world have a limited ability to speak out,” says Barry O’Connell, a Washington D.C.-based oriental rug enthusiast. “These rugs may be their only chance to gain a voice in their adult life.”