I’ve got to confess that Anna Badkhen beat me to it. Sometimes I have the feeling the world is a carpet. She went one up, writing a marvelously evocative book with the same title, centered on a village in Northern Afghanistan so remote that Google Maps cannot find it.
This is a book for those who love the Silk Road; who love Afghanistan; who love carpets; and all of the above. The Roving Eye fits all these descriptions; no wonder Badkhen’s delicate tale projected me on a magic carpet ride down memory lane, as I retraced my own steps over the years in bits and pieces of the Silk Road, from Balkh to Bukhara, from Herat to Hamadan; and all these roads, of course, were paved with carpets.
Historic Khorasan – which includes Northern Afghanistan – is quite special. Around Balkh, Turkomen have been spinning wool for 7,000 years. People are born on carpets. They pray on carpets. They sleep on carpets. They even adorn their tombs with carpets.
When Alexander the Great conquered Khorasan in 327 BC he sent his mum, Olympias, a carpet as a souvenir of his victory in Balkh. Balkh is the fabled feudal capital, now in ruins (blame the Mongols) about 36 kilometers southwest of Oqa – the beyond-the-reach-of-the-NSA village in the salt-frosted Afghan desert where Badkhen chose to follow one year in the life of Thawra’s mud-and-dung loom room as she weaves a yusufi, a magnificent carpet.
I have always been a Balkh freak; after all, for 1,500 years Balkh ruled over Central Asia. It was “the ornament of Ariana”, according to the fifth-century Greek historian Strabo. His Roman contemporary Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote about a “rich soil” but also “a large area of the country engulfed by desert sands”. Oqa is a dot in this “desolate and arid region.”
Badkhen, a Russian-born, American resident, no stranger to Iraq, Somalia and Chechnya, did not exactly live in the village for one year; she was commuting from a rented room in Mazar-e-Sharif. The locals adopted her – but remained slightly puzzled. After all she was a foreign woman; she just took notes and sketched; she did no hard work; she had to be protected; and her breasts were “too small”. “She’s no good to us”, thundered an elder. What she did was to immortalize their dwindling way of life.
Badkhen could go further because she speaks Farsi – to which the villagers switched from Turkoman, for her benefit. There are riotous dialogues – such as a discussion on where America is located. Turkmenistan is “four days by donkey”. But they can’t get to America by donkey – and they don’t know what is an ocean. “So how do their [America’s] soldiers get to Afghanistan?” The notion of a long plane ride elicits wonder. Then a village elder finds the solution: “The world is not round. It is rectangular! There is Pakistan on one end. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on the other end. Iran over there. The world has four corners.” Well, he’s certainly better informed than many at the Pentagon and the State Department.
There’s opium, of course – coming in brown-black disks “weighing about a fifth of an ounce, with a quarter-size gobbet worth a quarter of a dollar” locally. Only 40 km to the northeast, smugglers carry opium across the Amu Darya river to Uzbekistan, and get hundreds of times more bucks for their bang. At $4 billion a year, opium trade remains the second-largest source of revenue of NATO-in-retreat Afghanistan after international aid – making up roughly half the Taliban’s budget. Opium, by the way, was brought to Afghanistan by Alexander’s troops.
And then there’s the Taliban – after all perpetual war is one of the weavers of Khorasan. Not to mention those B-52s weaving the skies overhead – like creatures from another planet. There’s the place where the Taliban hanged a young man. The site of a bloody fight between the Taliban and other mujahideen. The crater where a Taliban on a bicycle blew up. The memories of the Taliban mutilating, shooting and slitting the throats of 6,000 Hazaras in Balkh in 1998. But in Oqa itself, nothing. It’s too remote – and thus of no value for the Taliban.
The mystery of the loom room
The money quote comes from a carpet merchant in Mazar; “Look at this. The women who weave are illiterate and very poor. But they make this unbelievable beauty.” That was always on my mind whenever I stumbled over spectacular rugs along the Silk Road. One day in the scorching summer of 2000, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, I had spent a whole afternoon in the crowded Herat carpet bazaar looking for a miracle. And then it happened, just as I was leaving; an elder peasant was barging in, carrying it over his shoulder. It just took one look. The weaver was probably his wife, a Turkoman woman like Thawra. No wonder this is one of my cat’s favorite rugs. He certainly smells those 7,000 years of history.
Badkhen puts it beautifully; “Study your carpet. The hands of three generations of illiterate women created it. It is soiled by chicken droppings and stained yellow where the weaver threw her tea dregs at the loom. Its knots fasten wedding songs and women’s murmurs. The metronome of a silk blade and the buzzing of noon flies. The whistle of a gale in the grass roof. An old woman’s breath as she, at last, sat down on the floor to rest.”
Whenever we fall in love with a carpet we try to imagine its own road trip. Badkhen details it. From the loom room in Oqa, Thawra’s carpet would be sold to a dealer in the larger village of Dawlatabad. The dealer will call one of the Carpet Row merchants in Mazar-e-Sharif, beside the Blue Mosque. In Mazar, the carpet will be washed, carefully scrutinized – “a journal of her months at the loom” – and then a decision will be made about destination.
It could go by truck south to Kabul, and then be flown to Dubai, and onward to London and New York; by truck east on the Great Trunk Road, across the border to Pakistan and the Peshawar bazaar; or west to Turkmenistan, across the Karakum desert and onwards to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Most probably it will get into the cargo hold of a dilapidated bus “with a fancy English name such as Bazarak Panjshir International”. And for less than $25 per bundle – about $5 per rug – this carpet, along with others, will abandon Bactria and enter the world at large. And land one day on eBay as a $,1000 bargain.
As I was finishing the book, I got into a long conversation with a carpet merchant in Hong Kong on how the art is fast disappearing in Afghanistan. It takes too long – up to a year – to weave a masterpiece. Opium is more profitable. There’s the Invasion of the Cheap Chinese Rug. He told me that some Afghan merchants are even re-importing carpets back into Afghanistan. Yet as Badkhen reminds us, “on the edge of a sand-dune sea, on the edge of a war zone, in their crepuscular loom room on the edge of the world”, there will always be one last solitary woman keeping the flame of 7,000 years of beauty.