Afghanistan's 'Rugs of War' Says It All

by VR Sreeraman on  December 31, 2007 at 4:55 PM Lifestyle News
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Afghanistan's 'Rugs of War' Says It All
The Soviet invasion of the late 1970s that drove Afghans into a long and bloody resistance has been recorded in this nation's favourite and most famous art form -- carpets.

Thousands of rugs have been produced, many depicting the hundreds of Red Army tanks that rumbled across the border or the flood of guns and choppers.

Today the best and oldest of examples of these unique "rugs of war" have found a place in the world's museums or private collections.

And there has been a series of exhibitions since the first in Turin in the 1980s by Italian Luca Brancati, who had by then collected 200.

Earlier this year the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in California presented an impressive collection; in Florida, more than 80 were on display until mid-December at the University of Miami.

The carpets represent "the greatest war art tradition of the 20th century," said Nigel Lendon, a specialist on the rugs who is a deputy director at The Australian National University School of Art.

"It is far more comprehensive than any of the other ways in which artists have reacted to war," he told AFP during a recent visit to Afghanistan for research.

Thousands of people have created the rugs in "20 or 30 different styles, 20 or 30 different parts of the country" and with a range of different reactions to the invasion, he said.

"We think of it as a genuine expression of people's reactions to their experiences of war."

Machineguns or helicopters, soldiers carrying guns or buildings destroyed -- the symbols of war are sometimes mixed with traditional patterns to create carpets in all sizes, colours and designs.

They were the only way for Afghans to express to the outside world the experience of those years of war, Lendon said, but they are are far from "war-mongering" or propagandistic.

"We should call them peace rugs, not war rugs, because they are about people's experience of the horror of war," he said.

Afghanistan is one of the world's biggest producers of carpets. It is an industry that employs more than a million people, about three percent of the active population, according to the US government's development agency USAID.

Carpets are so much part of Afghan culture that a US oil company negotiator was quoted as saying to Taliban representatives in government in the late 1990s: "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs."

The first generation of war rugs show the 1979 Soviet invasion, including the April bombing of the western city of Herat that year that cost 25,000 lives, Lendon said.

Some of those carpets were produced in the areas around the city by nomadic Balouch tribes who were often on the move and used simple materials and techniques, he said.

The second generation of carpets was made in towns and cities and show a "complex interaction" with the world and a sense that they are "reaching beyond the boundaries of Afghanistan and speaking to people outside."

The Soviet defeat in 1989 plunged Afghanistan into years of internal conflict that brought the ultra-conservative Taliban to power in 1996.

The 2001 invasion of Western forces that drove them out reignited interest in the carpets -- which began to show large maps of the country or the Twin Towers in flames after the September 11, 2001 attacks that led the world back to Afghanistan.

The commander-in-chief of the US forces in the Gulf at the time, General Tommy Franks, ordered 100 identical carpets representing the "war against terrorism," Lendon said.

Today similar carpets can be found throughout the country. "They are made by hand but mass-produced and probably in terrible conditions because it is very difficult work," he said.

Lendon's research with colleague Tim Bonyhady, which is going towards a book, first took him to Iran where around a million Afghans fled after the Soviet invasion.

He found most of the exiles making carpets, but few produced war rugs.

It was the same across the border in Herat, where the only carpets on sale were modern reproductions of ancient designs.

"I think my impression was that the tradition is over," he said.

Lendon will see if this confirmed on a planned trip to the border town of Peshawar in Pakistan, which has also been home to hundreds of thousands of refugees who once turned their hand to Afghanistan's distinctive rugs of war.

Source: AFP

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