PESHAWAR: Afghans long ago mastered the art of making hand-knotted carpets that are some of the best in the world. Yet, the traditional craft, which has endured for hundreds of years, is on a gradual decline among the refugee population in Pakistan.
When Imadullah’s family fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and arrived in Pakistan in 1982, his father wasted no time in setting up a carpet-making business. Despite being poor, illiterate and new to the country, he made it possible for his family to integrate with the local Pashtun population.
“My father did not want us to live in a refugee camp and survive on aid,” said Imadullah. “He wanted a dignified life and strived to earn his livelihood through hard work.”
Imadullah’s father also wanted to uphold the legacy of his ancestors, who were skilled carpet weavers. His faith in his own ability inspired other Afghan immigrants, as well. Many installed their own carpet-weaving machines in the area, creating a new kind of economy that flourished in the region, in Pakistan’s north west.
Things were going well for the family until 2008, after which they began to face a lot of trouble when the security situation started deteriorating in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). This had a drastic effect on many local businesses, and the hand-knotted carpet industry was no exception.
For Imadullah’s father and other carpet weavers, the situation they found themselves in was reminiscent of what they had faced in their own country decades ago. The war that began in Afghanistan in December 1979 gradually transformed into factional fighting among warlords and their ragtag militias, destroying all economic activity and depriving many people of their livelihoods.
As the situation worsened in KP, the authorities in Pakistan started conducting extensive search operations in Afghan settlements to round up possible terrorist sympathizers. The relationship between the administrations in Islamabad and Kabul deteriorated, the former tried to fast track the Afghan repatriation process, which led to the forced evacuation of significantly large numbers of refugees.
Imadullah’s father was among those who went back, chasing a life of dignity he had always dreamed of.
“He didn’t want to live here anymore because of the crackdowns, and left Peshawar in 2014,” said Imadullah. “There was a time when hundreds of Afghan families were engaged in the carpet-weaving business but now it is hard to find even a dozen of them in the area.”
The worsening security situation is only one reason for the decline of carpet making among the refugees.
“Carpet weaving is a tough job,” said Imadullah. “It is difficult for a carpet maker to leave his place once the weaving process begins. People also contract diseases due to prolonged working hours in a low-ventilation environment.”
The combination of challenges explains why so many Afghan people have been looking for other ways of making a living.
Hamid, 35, used to make and sell carpets but now he sells vegetables in Peshawar.
“My family came to this city three decades ago,” he said. “Many of my family members, both male and female, used to weave carpets.”
There was a time, he added, when his family made a substantial living by running a successful business.
“But times gradually changed, and it became difficult for us to survive by manufacturing and selling these carpets,” Hamid said. “I feel sad that I have abandoned my forefathers’ craft and trade but I do not think I am strong like them.”
Hamid also went to great lengths to try to sell his products by himself.
“I used to travel for months in different corners of the country, carrying heavy carpets over my shoulders,” he said. “However, most people expected me to give them huge discounts and tried to haggle me down.
“The vegetable business is more convenient. It allows me to sell things everyone wants, unlike carpets which are considered luxury items. The best buyers of Afghan rugs were foreigners and people belonging to other provinces.”
After the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001, foreigners stopped coming to Peshawar, further damaging the carpet business.
“A carpet that sold for 10,000 rupees only fetched about 3,000 then — that was nearly the cost of producing it,” said Hamid.
Mohibullah is a carpet dealer still working in Peshawar.
“The arrival of (mechanization) has also affected the business of hand-knotted carpets,” he said. “The general public does not understand the worth of our products. Many of them prefer the fine finishing of a machine-woven carpet. Such products also take less time to complete and are much cheaper.”
Given all these harsh realities, Imadullah said he is not interested in passing on his traditional carpet-manufacturing skills to his children.
“I want to educate them,” he said. “I do not want them to sit for 24 hours, confined to a single room. Yes, this may be a lucrative business, but there are other livelihood options available as well.”