How Prayer Rugs Turned into War Rugs When the sacred geometry of the Persian carpet was replaced by tanks, weapons, and bombs, Westerners were fascinated. But how do the women who weave them feel?

(Image courtesy Herat Oriental)

 

 

 

A friend, an artist, is hunting for images of drones to use in an installation about surveillance. She happens onto an image that stops her cold.

A traditional Persian carpet, patterned with Predator drones and AK-47s.

“They’re sold to soldiers as souvenirs,” she says, her voice bleak. I search them out, following link after link. Rugs with rows of anti-aircraft guns. Rugs with bombs dropping. Rugs with a plane flying through the twin towers. Older rugs with olive-drab Soviet tanks and helicopters from the war before last.

I look away from the screen, letting the traditional rugs engraved on my memory slide back to cover these hard metal armaments. How often have I, writing about an interior designer or an auction house, watched someone unroll a wool or silk carpet with a flourish, the medallions glowing against a ruby or black background, the border as intricate as filigree. A college friend once invited me to sit with him on such a rug while we ate the co-op’s version of dates and nuts (trail mix) and sipped thick sweet coffee. One worried afternoon at Barnes Jewish Hospital, I slipped into the chapel to calm my nerves and saw a doctor kneeling on a small, brilliantly colored rug, facing a back corner. His reverence deepened my solitude, lent it peace.

How had a centuries-old tradition of rugs used for prayer, rest, or hospitality turned into rugs that bear the imagery of war?

 

Tanks, Helicopters and Stylized Fighter Jet War Rug: “The more brightly colored field images—red tanks, green tanks, red fighters—give this rug a refreshing brilliance … The three columns of skinny images on each side and center of field are fighter jets, which have suffered what Nigel Nendon calls ‘progressive abstraction.’”

 

War rugs have been exhibited or acquired by the Smithsonian, British Museum, Penn Museum, Textile Museum of Canada, The George Washington University Museum, and Troppen Museum in Amsterdam. Always, the weaver is listed as Anonymous. As were the Frenchwomen who embroidered the Battle of Hastings onto the Bayeux Tapestry in 1070. As were the Greek women who wove battle scenes in ancient Athens. It is surprising that we know Betsy Ross’s name.

I email Kevin Sudeith, a war rug collector and dealer in New York, to ask what he knows about the women who weave war rugs. Do they feel they are making a historical record? Are the weapons just design elements, a matter of indifference? I am polite, but what I really want to know is, do they feel like weeping as they spend months looping those hooks in and out of brilliantly dyed sheep’s wool, camel hair, cotton, or silk, often painstakingly double-tying the fine knots and neatly tucking one beneath the other? Do they see the weapons in their sleep? How much of their heart has to die, the blood cut off, in order that they may return and sit cross-legged again the next day, making pictures of the war that stole their son or brother?

In his reply, Sudeith tells me that what I seek is something of a holy grail for war rug scholars and has been a personal goal of his for many years, but speaking with weavers has been impossible.

The 2011 Penn Museum exhibit catalog said the same: “Unfortunately, the civil war in Afghanistan has prevented us from studying how these rugs are produced. Do they come from the initiative of the weavers themselves, or of middlemen on the lookout for new markets?”

I call Sudeith anyway. He tells me saw his first war rug in 1990: “a yellow rug with a black and red border with beautiful calligraphy—and then tanks and helicopters and rifles and bombs in the field.” Ancient tradition mashed with contemporary technology. Fascinated, he began collecting them, carefully studying and indexing each rug. Because the Taliban’s presence prevented the usual factfinding, he set up his own classification system and built a database that now describes more than 1,000 war rugs, some just to document them, others for sale. (The descriptions between sections are from his site.)

War rugs have been exhibited or acquired by the Smithsonian, British Museum, Penn Museum, Textile Museum of Canada, The George Washington University Museum, and Troppen Museum in Amsterdam. Always, the weaver is listed as Anonymous. As were the Frenchwomen who embroidered the Battle of Hastings onto the Bayeux Tapestry in 1070. As were the Greek women who wove battle scenes in ancient Athens.

At first, Sudeith sold the war rugs at Manhattan flea markets; he says seven years after he began, the prices had quadrupled. (They still command nowhere near the price of finer Persian rugs; many are only a couple hundred dollars, and it is unusual for one to cost more than $2,000.) “The old market narrative was that the Soviet troops bought them, and that’s what drove demand,” he says, “but in my experience, the first market was westerners who supported the war or supported Afghan refugees through humanitarian work.”

By the ’90s, war rugs were being made in larger quantities, for export, by Afghan refugees in Pakistan. These rugs lacked the fineness traditional connoisseurs seek, but they interested new sorts of buyers—artists, historians, anyone intrigued by their startling content. Some rugs were straightforward, just geometric rows of planes or weapons, but others interwove years of struggle, occupation, and hope. “One shows a lady in a burka fighting a dragon with a knife,” Sudeith says, “and a Russian guy sitting under a tree holding a machine gun, and a train carrying refugees, and some ladies holding a jug with what looks like George Washington’s portrait on it.”

 

Ten Tank War Rug with Beautiful Blue Field: “This is a dark take on the 10 Tank War Rug style. The 16 tanks it actually sports are surrounded by first a geometric design then a second, more floral outer border. There are small red and orange planes filling the negative space between the tanks.”

 

The journey of the war rug is, it turns out, the journey of all Persian rugs, in miniature. “Carpets entered the Western cultural arena as a rare alien item of interest and eventually became a commodity,” writes Brian Spooner, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Dealers, collectors, and scholars produced book after book about pattern, technique, and value without knowing anything about the artisans who wove these rugs. As a result, Spooner notes, “the now voluminous literature on oriental carpets is unsatisfying,” driven by the viewpoint of the Western dealer.

The journey of the war rug is, it turns out, the journey of all Persian rugs, in miniature.

The first person who offers me fresher insight is a community leader in the Bay Area, Ustadh Feraidoon Mojadedi, who is an internationally known scholar of the poetry of Rumi. Mojadedi was born in Herat, and he remembers going, as a boy, to the village of Shadah, where his father had built homes for Turkman families.

“Every single house had a room for carpet weaving,” Mojadedi recalls. “I’d see kids six years old and say, ‘How do you guys do this?’ The carpets are generally made by females and children because the smaller and thinner your fingers, the more precise your knots.”

Look at any traditional carpet, he urges me, “and you will see harmony, because they are all based on sacred geometry. You see a lot of octagons, which represent the throne of God. The Sufi masters had a lot to do with the original designs, and they wanted carpets that would remind them of the beauty of God’s creation. That’s why everybody, regardless of their religion, feels tranquil on these carpets.”

People do not feel tranquil sitting on war rugs. But they do carry profound meaning.

“What mother would want her son to be slaughtered?” Mojadedi asks me abruptly. “No mother would wish that even for the enemy of her son. Yet what these women did—there’s a tradition of tying something around your son’s waist, as a way of saying, Go. Go defend your land. Just like a soul that doesn’t want to be in anybody else’s body, nobody wants to be occupied by anybody else.”

Those first war rugs honored that sacrifice. Weaving one was “a patriotic act,” he explains. “Not to promote war, but to tell people, ‘Listen, we didn’t start this war. If we pick up the gun, we are defending our honor and our families.’ Literally every house had one. It said, We are people of chivalry; we’re not going to back down. It was also a memorial for those who had lost their lives. Every household had somebody—a brother, an uncle, a cousin.”

It stung to see these rugs hanging as wall décor in London or Stockholm: “Why are you having this in your home? You didn’t lose anybody!” Mojadedi exclaims. “‘Well, it looks nice.’”

The early designs were “not as busy and as crazy as they are now,” Mojadedi adds. “We had one with a map of Afghanistan, just the silhouette in green, and a plane coming down. Afghanistan under attack. Then it was an AK-47 and an airplane, then an airplane and a bomb. The carpet became a war zone.”

It stung to see these rugs hanging as wall décor in London or Stockholm: “Why are you having this in your home? You didn’t lose anybody!” Mojadedi exclaims. “‘Well, it looks nice.’”

For families who grieve, the rugs are talismans. But “for everyone else,” notes art expert Enrico Mascelloni in War Rugs: The Nightmare of Modernism, “they are strange souvenirs to display as the spoils of a war being fought by someone else.” Do we even have a right to them? We collect all manner of military memorabilia, enter into these historic struggles from the sidelines. Is it solidarity or voyeurism?

 

Beautiful Small Red Rug: “The design elements of the different tanks really pop because of the color choices. The AK’s are more muted in their mustard and brown tones.”

 

The war rugs began in Kashmir. They began in Herat. Most are from Baluchistan, in the west. Most are woven in the north, where the Turkmen moved into Afghanistan. The Izbek are amazing weavers. The best rugs are made in Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz. Rugs made in Pakistan are often sold as “made in Afghanistan”… They began, as Mojadedi says, in Aghan homes. The first Soviet-influenced rugs were made by the mujahideen as propaganda, as Mohamad Tavakoli, a professor of Near- and Middle-Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto, has said. They began as a souvenir business, as many dealers believe.

Provenance is slippery; often it depends on whom you ask. But once the rugs became known internationally, their evolution was easier to trace.

Under the Taliban, even depicting a flower was seen as idolatrous, yet “parachutes and bombs easily took their place,” writes Vanessa Thill for Artsy. “Iconography in propaganda leaflets dropped from U.S. military aircrafts began to appear in the women’s carpets, including the image of the burning Twin Towers.”

Provenance is slippery; often it depends on whom you ask. But once the rugs became known internationally, their evolution was easier to trace.

It is hard to see those rugs, made by people in the country we fought. Sudeith received 9/11 rugs from a Pakistani dealer in New Jersey, but it took a while for him to sell one to a New Yorker. They were too raw, too cartoonish and kitschy to express such tragedy. “I told my suppliers I never wanted to see another one,” dealer Ronald O’Callaghan told a Forbes reporter in 2003.

Yet Mojadedi tells me that “most of the people making those rugs had no idea what they were weaving.” In Afghanistan, a town’s tallest building was always the bread factory, which sometimes rose eight stories. “So whenever they see a tall building, they say, this is a bread factory. One guy said, ‘Why are the Americans so upset for losing two factories?’ That’s the kind of simple people you have. The businessmen hand them a paper design and say, ‘Will you weave this?’

“The people who made those first rugs knew what they meant,” he continues. “Their villages were destroyed by those airplanes. The rugs were needed, and they served their purpose. Then the opportunists took over.” Instead of weaving, by heart, the sort of rug her mother or grandmother had woven—or using the inherited techniques to comment on the world around her—a woman mindlessly followed an ink diagram on a piece of graph paper. No one she knew would pray or eat on this carpet; instead, it would be sent to strangers as a curiosity.

Weaving once gave a woman a certain standing in her village; people recognized her family’s style and respected her skill. What she made would be a touchstone, seen every day for generations. “The joy of that translated into what the women wove,” Mojadedi says. “We believe in that. But now, most of the people who make them, it is out of necessity, and they are making something they hate.”

For the privilege, they earn barely enough to feed their children. “The guy with the nice suit and tie is who makes the money,” Mojadedi says, keeping his tone even with an effort.

This is the paradox of today’s lush, dense, richly colored and meticulously hand-tied Persian rug: An object of exquisite luxury, it requires such tedious handiwork that it is made only by people desperate for work—and they are paid only a sliver of its worth.

 

Light Blue Pixelated Weapons: “Rows of pixelated tanks, helicopters, bombers, RPGs, and other weapons alternating throughout the dark blue background … Two classic flowery guard stripes border the main border which consists of alternating colorful helicopters and tanks on the sides, and trucks and tanks on the top and bottom.”

 

A curator at the Penn Museum, Spooner organized and wrote about its war rug exhibit, intrigued that the people of Afghanistan used their experience of invasion and warfare “as a way of finding a place in the outside world that has taken them over.” But even he had no access to the first weavers and their motivation.

“No other trade,” he writes, “has been so marked by lack of communication between producer in one area and consumer elsewhere.” Often the weavers are not literate; those who are “have shown little interest in work produced by the skills of the poor.” The pattern extends to so many of the world’s prized objects that the Louvre recently asked Spooner to expand on his article. They intend to reorganize their collection, giving more human context to the exhibits.

Why and how something is first made reveals as much as a love letter, a birth certificate, a Modernist manifesto. How that artifact then changes over time can tell us how and why it is valued, and by whom. Many of the newer war rugs were crude, but some were exquisite. In the Weavings of War, Fabrics of Memory exhibit catalog, Ariel Zeitlin Cooke describes military equipment rendered so accurately, you can identify a weapon’s make and model. Sudeith, an artist himself, watched patterns evolve: “In the 1980s in the refugee camps in Pakistan, you had people weaving pink rugs with black maps of Afghanistan, and they have tribal patterns on the border. The pink rugs turn into the yellow rugs of the Soviet exodus, which turn into the 9/11 rugs.”

Leah Dixon, an artist who lives in New York, first saw a war rug in 2010. She read that Muslims used the war rugs as prayer mats and Americans used them as yoga mats. This was apocryphal—but the possibility snagged her imagination.

He also noticed “a feedback loop,” linking demand back to supply. He would enthuse about a certain style, attaching a high price on his site. Then, when he went to market eighteen months later, he would find many more examples of that style. “Not the originals—not woven the same way—but the pattern was the same.”

Adam Smith’s invisible hand had tugged at the fringe.

In the 2000s, though, that robust market began to shrink. Refugees were returning home to Afghanistan, where there were fewer foreigners to snap up the rugs as treasure and the Afghans themselves were too poor to afford one. Dealers were hobbled in their attempt to travel between the States and Afghanistan or Pakistan. The 2008 recession stopped homeowners from buying luxe carpets with their home equity loans.

“In the ’90s, I could buy 300 war rugs at a shot,” Sudeith says. “Now I’m lucky if I can find five.” He recalls a cavernous building where he used to go from floor to floor, each studio displaying a distinctly different sort of rug. “It was a great way to learn. There used to be literally 100 places I could go on Madison Avenue, shops and wholesalers, and all that has gone away. It moved to New Jersey for a while. Now none of my suppliers exist anymore, and all my friends have left the country.”

When a company asked for a license to mass-market Leah Dixon’s yoga mats (above), her jaw dropped. She was critiquing suburban self-care. (Credit: Courtesy Leah Dixon)

As volume dropped, interest from curators, collectors, and other artists burned even brighter. Leah Dixon, an artist who lives in New York, first saw a war rug in 2010. She read that Muslims used the war rugs as prayer mats and Americans used them as yoga mats. This was apocryphal—but the possibility snagged her imagination. So she cut her own war rugs from happy-bright yoga mats, keeping the weaponry cartoon-simple, in a salute to the weavers and a jab at U.S. capitalism. When a company asked for a license to mass-market her yoga mats, Dixon’s jaw dropped. She was critiquing suburban self-care.

 

 

 

Night Sky Armed Predator Drone War Rug: “The black field in this rug suggests a different feeling than the others. Black, generally in rugs, is a funerary color. The blue lines around the border really pop out.”

 

War rugs were marketed as souvenirs for soldiers, but I had a hard time finding anyone who had served in Afghanistan and wanted one. The man who remembered them most vividly was Ted Wittenberger, who in the late 1980s was working with the Agency for International Development to support Afghanistan. “I was there on the Pakistan side; the Soviets were still in Afghanistan,” he says. “I traveled to Peshawar, which was a wild place—that’s where the mujahedeen were being armed by the CIA. In the market there, they had the Soviet belt buckles and fuzzy hats with stars that they’d take from dead Russians. I wanted to buy a carpet, and I was taken to a two-story motel with the doors opening onto a balcony, and in every room there was a guy selling carpets, and they were stacked all the way to the ceiling.”

A dealer rolled a few carpets back, and Wittenberger saw his first war rug. It startled him. He knew this could not be a prayer rug, because it showed men on horseback as well as weapons.

“It made me think about how art was reflecting life for the people in Afghanistan,” he says, “but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the rug.” He chose a red carpet with an elephant’s footprint pattern instead, and negotiations began: “At some point, they would always say in English, ‘Buy this carpet, and we will kill a Russian for you!’”

Wittenberger remembers no writing on the early rugs but says “in more recent years in the Kabul market, they would often have the year, because a soldier would buy one to commemorate his time there. They were small, easy to pack, and they were unique. Conversation pieces.”

War rugs were marketed as souvenirs for soldiers, but I had a hard time finding anyone who had served in Afghanistan and wanted one.

He returned to Afghanistan in 2008 as a foreign service officer, then again in 2015. War rugs “were still being sold around the bases,” he says, “even though we had drawn down our troops.” He also visited a carpet project that was being funded by the U.S. military: “There was not a woman present,” he recalls. “Of course, we wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway. Young boys and men were doing all the work, but they were not doing it very well.” This was not a traditional rug-making area, just a project that had sounded good on paper.

As an Army sergeant first class, stationed in Afghanistan in 2002, Paul David Adkins saw war rugs in the Kabul market they called Chicken Street. A guy he knew bought one, but Adkins bought an Uzbek wedding dress instead. Threaded with metal and garnets, he says “it probably weighs 30 pounds.” People were selling heirlooms for a pittance.

“There were a lot of urchins running around the streets,” he says, “and a lot of amputees in makeshift wheelchairs. The country was just full of mines. I went to a hospital to drop off socks and—a lot of them didn’t need socks. I met twins, teenagers, who both had damaged hands. They laughed and said, ‘We were playing hot potato with a hand grenade and—kaboom.’”

 

Red War Rug with Bomb Border: “The single bullet border spans an array of tones, complimenting the more simple coloring of the large AK machine guns along the length of the rug. Four tanks are stacked cleanly in the center.”

 

While we wait for his older brother, who is chatting with customers at the Barg Continental Restaurant in south St. Louis, Tamim Akbarzada tells me how, when he was five years old, he played kites in Afghanistan. One day, he says, “I heard some noises. It sounded like when you grab your kite string back. So I’m looking up in the air, and something whizzes close to my ears.” The bullet did not hit him. But a few days later, he snuck up to the roof of his aunt’s house, up in the mountains where the family had taken shelter, and unspooled a kite—just as a rocket hit a few houses away and exploded. “All the windows in my aunt’s house shattered,” he says, and shrugs. “We went to Pakistan. My brother sold rugs there.”

On cue, Ameen Akbarzada joins us and, with a few quick words in Dari, sends Tamim to cover their restaurant’s kitchen while we talk.

“I used to make carpets myself,” he says, “when I was a little kid. Two sticks of wood, then you have the bars at top and bottom. You put on all the strings. You have the hook. You basically make a knot and cut it, knot and cut it.” He hops up, finds a piece of string, and threads it through a hole in the back of the chair to demonstrate. “If the carpet doesn’t look straight, they won’t pay you enough.” He brags a bit about the “abrisham” they used, describing it as “very expensive cotton.” When I look it up later, I learn that the word is Persian for silk.

The Akbarzadas were lucky: Their family stuck together, initially cramming six families into four rooms in Pakistan. When they returned, Afghanistan’s economy was devastated. “I have heard of people selling their kids to feed their other kids,” Ameen says in a low voice. Shock would be a luxury. Another immigrant from Afghanistan told me that women would put opium in their babies’ bottles so they would sleep for hours and the women could weave.

Ameen gets up again and leads me to the back of the restaurant, where a red carpet covers a platform with gold draperies and pillows, ready for sprawling to savor a meal and conversation. From the wall, he removes a small rug. The shape of Afghanistan is striped with the black, red, and green of its flag. Neat rows of airplanes fly toward the side borders.

“My mom sent this,” he says.

I ask if he thinks it makes people sad to weave these rugs.

“Obviously it does. I just looked at this and thought of the war. A flashback hurts sometimes.”

 

Red War Rug with Planes Shaped as Human Female Figures: “Large AK47’s, medium size helicopters and tanks, and small airplanes in the background. Good colors. How the topmost tank is loosely drawn is excellent. It is more round than most and it has lots of character.”

 

After weeks of searching, I find someone who knows someone who knows Yama Noory. He manages the carpet program for Turquoise Mountain, a British development organization working under a USAID contract. The idea is to help weavers sell their carpets directly to international markets, reestablishing direct commercial links that were shattered by decades of war. The program works with large weaving centers, but also with small workshops and individual weavers.

In the north, “Turkmen people are very conservative, so the women are not able to go out alone and weave carpets in the weaving centers,” Noory explains. “So the weaving is happening inside the houses.” He is about to fly north to visit those weavers, and she promises to relay my questions. The area is very conservative, he says, and parts of it are dangerous even for him to travel. But he does know a woman he thinks will talk freely with him, and if that woman does, the friends who weave alongside her will talk, too.

Not many war rugs are being made anymore, Noory adds, “but still if someone wants to place the order, the weavers are ready to make it just to have an income. The women weavers accept any design for the sake of earning.”

He suggests we meet for coffee in Kabul when he returns. I explain that I am in St. Louis; email will have to close the distance. It would have been good to see the Zinnat Rug Factory, one of the largest weaving centers in the program. The only way Afghanistan can reclaim its ancient art of carpet-making—but with sustainable wages—is by bringing every step of the process back to Afghanistan, rather than continuing to send off the raw-edged, unsheared carpets to be finished in Pakistan and exported from there.

I thank Noory and settle in to wait.

A week later, an email arrives: He is back in Kabul. The women told him, quite firmly, that they are “much more interested in other rugs rather than war rugs,” he reports. “The images of all things related to war making them depressed, but if that thing brings them income, they accept it.”

He also says the women she spoke with insisted that the current war rugs “are not properly designed, but it seems this came from outside Afghanistan.”

The women told him, quite firmly, that they are “much more interested in other rugs rather than war rugs,” he [Yama Noory] reports. “The images of all things related to war making them depressed, but if that thing brings them income, they accept it.”

What the women wanted to talk about instead, what truly excited them, was a project they participated in a while back. Like the first war rugs, this, too, was a chance to break free from the traditional patterns and express something more personal and contemporary. But this time, the idea was to weave peace rugs.

(The Peace Rug Project started in 2013, sponsored by Material Culture and AfghanMade Carpets. Familiar with the images of war and grenades, the project challenged the same weavers to shift to images of peace.)

The women said they were given dyed wool but little direction, Noory tells me. They were simply told to weave whatever came into their minds.

“And all of them made beautiful carpets, where you can see peace in some part of the carpet.”

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