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A terrible beauty


Inside the Persian carpet trade

The 22-century-old Pazyryk carpet (detail). From the Bridgeman Art Library

The 22-century-old Pazyryk carpet (detail). Bridgeman Art Library

By Brian Murphy '81

Mazar-i-Sharif, in north central Afghanistan, is a mostly depressing study of Soviet-style planning: long boulevards and cement layer-cake buildings. Some of the business signs are in joyfully liberal English. One pathologist promises his clients "bodily probations of all functions." A dentist advertises "root searment and cement."

I'd been in Mazar more than a week without buying a carpet, which was something of a personal record. But now I was sitting in the place of honor, a low leather-and-wood stool in a carpet shop, sipping sweet tea while the merchant, Mohammad Ismail, a bowlegged sprite with a mouth full of gold teeth, lay his wares at my feet. I was weakening, feeling the delicious anticipation that the next carpet will be the one.

Mohammad Ismail kept tempting me with well-made Uzbek and northern Afghan carpets. But the colors were obviously chemical: too jarring and uniform. A common characteristic of natural dyes is subtle variations in hue. It's known as abrash, from the Arabic word for dappled, and is caused by factors including slight differences in how wool batches and dyes interact. Even the most masterful natural dyers cannot re-create the exact shade over and over. Nature just won't allow it. So a carpet using, say, three different batches of madder red wool may show three shifts in color. Many collectors appreciate the abrash as part of a carpet's uniqueness. But beware. Some commercial carpet houses purposely imitate the abrash.

"Now I know what you want," Ismail said with a wink.

He reached into a saddlebag and produced a misshapen Turkmen carpet. I knew enough from book illustrations to notice the classic distortions of a wool thread warp and weft. Cotton foundations—far more common since the 19th century—hold a carpet's shape better after wear and washing. Wool tends to shrink and stretch. But a wool foundation is probably a good tip-off that the carpet came from the loom of nomads, who often take down and re-stretch unfinished carpets during their moves, causing further disruptions in the shape. This carpet was nothing special. The guls—or graphic motifs—were basic, and the low knot count made the designs appear fuzzy-edged. It was the abrash that got me: a series of lovely variations of salmon red.

The bargaining commenced. We settled on $220. It was certainly too much for a low-quality carpet of average size. There's an old chestnut that carpet sellers often serve up to wavering buyers: Forget the price, what does your heart say?

ANY STUDY of carpets funnels back to one question: Where did it all begin?

There are many guesses. Some are based on archaeological or historical clues. Others are aimed at glorifying particular domestic carpet industries. The premise with the widest support points back to the central Asian steppes.

Many carpet scholars believe that long before recorded history, nomads devised tents or windbreaks from flatweaves made of goat hair or other material. The next logical step, the theory suggests, would have been similar ground coverings.

Just when and where knotted pile carpets—individual pieces of spun wool or other material wrapped around foundation threads—became a refined art is a source of speculation among scholars, collectors, and historians.

The only certainty is that loom work was already a highly developed craft by the time a fine carpet—with border figures of horsemen and elk—was placed in a royal tomb in the mountains of southern Siberia more than 22 centuries ago.

Pazyryk carpet (detail). From the Bridgeman Art Library

Pazyryk carpet (detail). Bridgeman Art Library

The Pazyryk carpet is named for the Siberian valley in which it was found, in 1949, near Russia's borders with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China. It has long been the last major landmark for those trying to peer into the origins of carpets. There are just small hints from earlier times that could someday unseat the Pazyryk: bits of older carpet fragments or possible carpet-making tools found in graves from the Bronze Age, between 4,000 and 3,000 b.c. But for decades the Pazyryk has remained the most celebrated find.

It is a gift from nature, like mastodons locked in the tundra or the 5,000-year-old "Ice Man" found frozen in a glacier in the Alps in 1991. The tomb with the carpet apparently filled with water and then froze solid.

Now at the Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, the carpet was discovered inside a kurgan, a timber-reinforced burial mound built for rulers of the Scythian nomad-conquerors and related tribes. By the seventh century b.c., the Scythians had wandered from the central Asian steppes to the plains of eastern Europe, and they later pushed into Mesopotamia and Syria. Some historians believe the prophet Jeremiah was warning of the Scythians when he told the Israelites to prepare for mounted warriors who show "no mercy."

Whether the Pazyryk carpet was Scythian produced or Scythian plunder, there is little doubt that the Scythians appreciated superior carpet making. The carpet—about six feet by six-and-a-half feet—averages 225 knots per square inch. That is comparable to a well-made modern piece. The central field is composed of squares filled with eight-pointed stars.

Next is a border with images of a mythical creature similar to a griffin, with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion. Another border features grazing elk and a row of horsemen alternating between riders and men walking alongside their steeds. The outermost border is another set of griffin figures.

Sergei I. Rudenko, one of the two Russian archaeologists who discovered the carpet, believed the motifs showed the influence of the Achaemenian dynasty (559–530 b.c.) in Persia because similar horse processions were carved at the ceremonial complex in Persepolis, in what is now southern Iran.

Other scholars question such links and suggest carpets could have developed as part of the interplay between nomads and settled villagers on the steppes of central Asia. The nomads would have provided the wool and other raw materials. The villagers would have had the stability and time to devote to carpet making. Some experts contend that the insect-derived red dyes suggest the Pazyryk was woven in central Asia, near where it was discovered. One researcher has proposed that the Pazyryk weaver could have been an artisan exposed to Persian urban workshop techniques who then traveled to central Asia to live among a group closely related to the Scythians. But others believe the carpet came from farther west, perhaps an area near present-day Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Esfahan, Iran, c. 1993. Photo by David Turnley/Corbis

Esfahan, Iran, c. 1993. Photo by David Turnley/Corbis

FOR DECADES, the economic center of gravity in the carpet world has been drifting east.

Pakistan, India, and China have emerged as new giants in handwoven carpet exports, taking in at least $1.8 billion annually, by conservative estimates. Add smaller, but still significant, production from Nepal and Bangladesh, and the value of carpet production in more easterly sections of Asia approaches four times that of Iran's exports.

That has not sat well with some carpet purists, who admire the links to carpets that are prominent in the ancient history of Iran or central Asia. India and its neighbors, however, don't aspire to satisfy the mystique of history. For them, it's mostly straight-up capitalism: a reasonably good product at a competitive price.

Distant consumers may benefit. But local children often pay the price. The backbone of many carpet production sites, particularly in Pakistan and parts of India, is child labor. Children work cheaply—if they are paid at all—and their small and flexible fingers are ideal for intricate weaving. Rights groups have tried to pressure governments to take stronger measures against using children as weavers, but the economic importance of carpet exports often makes authorities tread lightly.

"People must realize there could be some very sad stories behind the carpets that are sitting in their living rooms," says Nina Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Rugmark Foundation, a nonprofit group that is working to encourage weavers to stop using child labor and earn a Rugmark certificate. "The most beautiful carpets can contain an ugly background," she says.

Carpet production on the Indian subcontinent is not well documented before the 16th century. Some scholars believe pile weaving techniques may have been introduced centuries before by traders from central Asia and armies bringing Islam from the west. But the end of the Muslim Moghul dynasty in 1859 signaled a change. Carpets became widely seen as an important moneymaker in foreign markets, particularly in "mother England." Workshops sprang up to make lower-priced copies of the most salable designs, often Persian. There was enough expertise—and market savvy—to please European and American buyers. But these carpets are widely dismissed by collectors and experts because of the assembly-line approach used to create them, and shortcuts such as the jufti, or double knot, that grabs together four warps instead of two.

In 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned, and mostly Muslim Pakistan was born. With its birth came a new and independent force in carpets. The Islamabad government was less inward-looking than that of New Delhi. The nimble Pakistani merchant class moved aggressively to cater to Western tastes and began to invent a local carpet tradition in a region with no clear legacy of weaving or carpet design. The Pakistani spin is that many of its regions are historically linked to central Asia, Afghanistan, and Persia. Pakistan also encourages the notion that carpets would be a natural outgrowth of woven garments produced by the ancient Indus River civilizations.

One of the early Pakistani successes was the attractively named Bokhara, essentially a knockoff of Turkmen motifs with modifications such as simplified guls and distinctive colors, such as green or ivory. Western buyers also took to Pakistan's use of the soft wool from merino sheep that was sometime imported from as far away as New Zealand. It's less durable than the coarser wool favored in Persian carpets, but it adds a sense of luxury that many Westerners find appealing.

Contemporary Afghan war rug (detail). From www.warrug.com

Contemporary Afghan war rug (detail). www.warrug.com

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 sent millions of refugees into Pakistan, a godsend to the Pakistani carpet houses. The refugees brought weaving skills and traditions, and could be exploited at rock-bottom pay. Pakistani carpet exports soared, reaching to about $300 million in 2000. One distinctive design started in the 1980s was the so-called war carpet, showing tanks, MIG warplanes, and, of course, the fighter's best friend, the AK-47. The weavers even modified the traditional paisley-style motifs into hand grenades.

Some Afghans trickled back in their country after the Soviet withdrawal. The big return, however, didn't begin until after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Pakistani carpet workshops were gutted. About 60 percent of Pakistan's carpet exports had been produced by Afghan refugee weavers before 2002, and exports fell by more than 25 percent during 2001–02 under double blows: the global economic fallout from September 11 and Afghan repatriation.

Pakistani carpet exporters have since turned to Pakistani weavers in greater numbers to replace the departing Afghans, and in March 2004, government officials announced plans for a "textile city" near Karachi.

But it is China that may shape the carpet market in coming decades. Chinese carpets did not have a significant role in the world market until World War I, when routes to Iran and the Middle East were blocked. Weaving centers emerged in Beijing and the port of Tianjin. Both closely followed American preferences. Over time, motifs such as interlocking "cloud bands" and mythical creatures like the dragon and the temple-guardian fu dog gave way to a more generic style, with geometric motifs and flowing lotus blossoms.

Increasingly, however, Chinese workshops are turning out Persian designs and anything else that sells. And the competition will need to lower costs to stay in the game. In the carpet trade, this has led in one direction in the past: more child weavers.

The United Nation's International Labor Office estimates that the millennium opened with about 186 million child laborers under the age of 15. Of these, at least 5.7 million were involved in forced or bonded labor in activities that include carpet weaving. But that's as close as it comes to an accurate figure. Some activist groups place the number at close to three million, concentrated in India and Pakistan.

For the carpet business, the advantages of child labor are chilling but obvious: long hours, few complaints, and salaries of just a few dollars a day or less. It's nothing new. The same logic applied in Victorian factories and the textile mills of 19th-century New England.

But the carpet world is not made up of redbrick complexes. "Just finding these places is half the battle," says Rugmark's Nina Smith.

Then there is a vast cultural divide to overcome. Western sensibilities recoil at the idea of indentured servitude, by which families of child weavers receive regular payments from the carpet bosses. But to a destitute family, the payment could mean food and survival.

"We immediately think, how dare they do that? You know, who would have the heart to allow a seven- or eight-year-old child to weave a carpet?" a carpet importer, Mehmet Yalchin, told Common Ground Radio in an interview broadcast in November 2002. "We don't realize the conditions they live in. We don't realize sometimes that if it weren't for the seven-year-old weaving, his six-member family could be dying of hunger.

"Sure, you will see a four-year-old Afghan boy or girl weaving—this is when they start doing these things. Anyway, this is part of life for them. But I don't think it's fair to call that child slave labor. I mean it's like sending one of our kids to piano lessons. There, they're weaving carpets."

Not all can accept these cultural rationalizations.

"This is just an excuse by governments and the carpet industry not to do anything," says Ehsan Ullah Khan, a former leader of the Pakistani branch of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, a group that tries to expose issues of slavery and illegal child workers. "This is not about cultural differences. It's about children's rights—basic, universal human rights—in all countries."

Tragedy brought Khan's group into the headlines. On April 16, 1995, a former child weaver turned activist, Iqbal Masih, died after being torn apart by more then 120 pellets from a shotgun blast. He was just 12. But he was credited with liberating more than 3,000 children from work in carpet workshops, tanneries, steel plants, quarries, and other industries. Khan immediately blamed the Pakistani "carpet mafia" for the slaying. Authorities looked elsewhere. An initial police report claimed Masih was killed by an embarrassed farmhand whom he caught "in a compromising position" with a donkey. A week after Masih's murder, thousands of children joined protests in Lahore to demand an end to child labor.

Khan and his group faced an all-out assault: police intimidation, court probes, and relentless criticism and innuendo in the government-friendly press. He fled Pakistan months after the killing. Eventually he took Swedish citizenship and now travels the world speaking about child labor practices. His group—widely known as the BLLF—believes there has been some success in reducing the child workforce in industries such as the manufacture of garments and sporting goods. The reason: a combination of consumer awareness and political will. The carpet industry lags badly, though. Its fragmented nature and millions of looms complicate attempts to monitor and regulate labor practices.

"There is a lot of lip service going on," Khan told me. "Child labor is still a pillar of the carpet industry in some parts of the world. But there continues to be a denial of the problem. If there is a will, there is a way, I say. Market pressure and consumer pressure are important. We can build it. But you also need political will. That will come only if governments and carpet makers fear a loss of revenue because consumers will turn away from their carpets because of child labor use."

Carpet dealer at the second annual Tibetan Carpet International Exhibition, Qinhai, China, 2005

Carpet dealer at the second annual Tibetan Carpet International Exhibition, Qinhai, China, 2005. Getty Images

ON THE EDGE of a dingy room in Mazar-i-Sharif, four boys—all under 10 years old—worked on upright looms copying Persian tribal designs from pages ripped from magazines. Some of the intricate patterns had been enlarged on a photocopier and were marked by grids. Piles of wool were scattered at the boys' feet. An electric space heater, which looked like a glowing butterfly, buzzed in a corner. A crate held some pottery and samples of Mazar's famous handblown blue glass goblets. The whole place screamed of impermanence, as if they could close up shop and hit the road at a moment's notice. In fact, I learned, that was precisely the idea.

Fatihullah, another carpet dealer, had given me the address, but he wouldn't come along. Carpet competitors keep a healthy distance from one another, and there is good reason. In a city where almost everyone is armed, it's best to steer clear of possible quarrels. The workshop was near a gym where the image of Atlas had been painted on the wall, his comically pumped-up muscles holding up the earth, and his face now blasted to oblivion by Taliban AK-47 rounds. A little man in plastic sandals came scurrying in. "Yes?" he panted, thinking we were there to shop. He took my hand and led me inside. The four boys didn't stop working.

"Can I show you something?" he asked.

"Yes," I decided. "I'd like to see carpets of local design."

"What do you mean?"

"Things made by Mazar weavers, like Waziri, maybe."

For once I felt I had the advantage. I had done some reading about Mazar carpets and at least could bluff my way a bit. The Waziri design features a typical eight-sided gul with broken and nontraditional motifs inside.

"But, sir, I have none of these now. Come back tomorrow, yes? I will bring you to my cousin's shop," the merchant said.

There's always a cousin.

"Okay," I said. "But tell me about your place."

He squinted. "What is there to say?"

"I want to know what the boys are weaving."


"Yes, I know. I mean what designs? Where are the carpets going?"

He could tell I wasn't going to back off.

"You aren't with the U.N., are you?" he said, growing suspicious.

"No, I'm a journalist. I'm interested in carpets."

"Ah, a joor-ne-list." He smiled, using one of the English words he'd picked up. "Then you are welcome. I will tell you."

Late 19th-century Sultanabad carpet. Christieís Images/Corbis

Late 19th-century Sultanabad carpet. Christieís Images/Corbis

The carpets would eventually end up in Pakistan for export. It's very possible the buyers would never know the carpets came from Mazar, thinking perhaps they were authentic Mashhad Baluch from Iran. And the boys were part of a shadow world that is still outside the full scrutiny and pressure of international child labor groups. They came from villages scattered around northern Afghanistan. Their families, I was told, initiated contact with workshops such as this. The workshops provide a small wage, food, and a place for the boys to stay. The culture of Afghanistan makes it impossible for girls to obtain work. Their young brothers, instead, get the opportunity to toil 12 hours at a stretch for about $1.

"This is not a bad life for them," the merchant insisted. "It could be worse. You know some parents sell their children."

It was an incredible statement. But I knew he was right.

I had already met parents who had sold their infants to better-off families for desperately needed money to feed the brood left behind. In February 2002, while on assignment in northern Afghanistan, I stopped along the main Kabul highway east of Mazar. There I found hundreds of starving and displaced Afghans living in dank caves—many of which were lined with carpets—dug into a hillside. A widower, Mohammad Hashim, told me he had sold his two-year-old son to a merchant family in Mazar who wanted a boy. They weren't interested in his older son, who is almost completely deaf from an ear infection. Hashim received $30 for the toddler, about half of what I was paying my translator per day.

It's possible to take issue with the dowry system and how it sets values for prospective brides. But at least it can be understood. I could not begin to appreciate the desperation that led to putting a price tag on your child. My wife knows I still dream about that place, how Hashim hugged the deaf son he had wanted to sell, how coughs and sobs rose up from the caves as if the earth itself were sick.

I followed the boys from the carpet workshop to their quarters in the same building. Bedrolls were pushed against the walls and clothes hung from hooks. One boy had made a picture of his perfect moment: a huge sun, a family picnic, and birds overhead. He didn't include any carpets.

"Do you miss your family?" I asked him.

"Yes," he confided, "but we are helping them."

He showed me a sock filled with afghanis. "I will come home and they will be proud," he said.

"How long will you work here?" I asked.

"That is not my decision," he said softly.

"They may be home soon," whispered the merchant, who refused to leave my side as I spoke with the boys. "We could leave any day."

Nine-year-old boy at the Sharifi Carpet Factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Nine-year-old boy at the Sharifi Carpet Factory in Kabul, Afghanistan. Getty Images

THE BOYS WERE still in Mazar when I looked in on them two weeks later. This time I brought them each sweets and fruit from the market. The only change was that the heater had been turned off. Winter was ending. There had already been a few warm days that dried the puddles and brought an explosion of chubby, lethargic flies.

The morning I left Mazar I awoke just after the dawn call to prayers. I wanted to have a full day to deal with the expected complications at the Uzbek border.

I watched a favorite spectacle for a last time: In the grainy dawn, men arrive with carpets they hope to sell to dealers or peddle on their own. They exchange no words. There are no stray movements. The brightening sky turns the tiles on the shrine from deep indigo to a brilliant cobalt blue.

The men are etched by Mazar's dust, a talc-fine powder that works its way into everything. It streaks their beards the color of milky tea and forms little crescents of grit under their fingernails.

They unwind part of their turbans and place the loose strip over their mouths. Then they start to pound the carpets before the shopkeepers arrive with their jingling keys and nicely trimmed beards. Yellow-brown clouds rise with each blow and float downwind like ghosts. For hours, as the city awakens and the bazaar stalls reopen, the thump of the carpet men keeps a familiar, steady rhythm.

It sounds like a heartbeat.

Brian Murphy '81 has been an Associated Press foreign correspondent since 1993 and is the AP's international religion writer. He is the author of The New Men: Inside the Vaticanís Elite School for American Priests (1997). This essay was edited from the forthcoming book The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2005 by Brian Murphy. Printed by permission.


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