The New Breed
I am frequently asked, “How did an Irishman get in the oriental rug business?” Since I have an Irish surname rather than the more typical Armenian or Arab name, Americans associate with rug dealers, the question is usually asked after a period of conversation. I do not look Irish but more like the stereotypical Middle Eastern rug merchant.
This article originally appeared in print in Oriental Rug Review, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission.
[ORR Editor’s Note: This was a three part article that appeared in ORR Volume III/1, 2, & 3; April, May and June 1983. The war in Afghanistan was raging and while we had no idea the Russians would eventually be defeated, we did know that Afghanistan was experiencing irreversible change. We asked some of our friends to write of their experiences in Afghanistan during the 1960s and 1970s, a period that some equate with Paris in the 1920s, so that some record of what had been would remain.]
The question is an interesting one. But it should not be how did an Irishman get in the rug trade but how did someone with a non-Middle Eastern name and background get in the rug business? I feel that is more appropriate for I am not unique today. I am merely representative of what I call the “new breed”; of rug dealers. I say “new breed” because others like myself have entered the rug trade for very different reasons from those of the old Armenian and Arab families who came to the business after the turn of the century.
Just as the new breed are a reflection of a time, so were the old dealers. These families came to the U.S. in the first quarter of this century largely as immigrants because of the turmoil which was occurring in the Middle East. The Armenians came because of the persecutions resulting from the Turkish Revolutionary movement. During the same period many Christian Arabs came to the U.S. from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine as a result of World War I, the Turkish Revolution, and the return of those countries to Arab political control after centuries of Turkish rule. They happened to come at a time when oriental rugs were enjoying their greatest period of popularity in the U.S. As immigrants they had to find a way of making a living, and one thing they knew were rugs and how to sell them. Therefore, throughout the U.S. they became purveyors of oriental rugs. With time, they began to assimilate, learned English, moved into the educational stream, and in succeeding generations the sons and daughters moved into new professions and out of the rug business. The depression forced many more to close their businesses. Certainly, the rush to broadloom carpeting after World War II forced even more to leave what had become a very poor business.
In the late ’60’s when the interest in oriental rugs began it’s slow rebirth, there were few rug dealers left across the U.S. I am told by old timers in Pittsburgh that between the wars there were probably 20 oriental rug dealers in Pittsburgh. When I arrived there in 1968 there were only two left, and one of the best known shops was being liquidated by the heirs. In reality, however, there was only one active shop, that of Wade Shehady.
It was this rebirth of interest in oriental rugs and an overseas experience which led to my becoming one of the new breed of dealers in this area of expanding economic opportunity and diminished marketing structure. But it was a significant experience, that of the U.S. Peace Corps, which had initially brought me into contact with oriental rugs and made me aware of this special world. It is the Peace Corps experience and how it affected me with which this article is concerned.
My writing of these experiences will, I think, also reflect similar experiences of many other dealers like myself who lived abroad in rug producing countries with the Peace Corps. Some of the ex-Peace Corps dealers I have known are Mark Treece, Alex Fazio, Holly Chase and Peterson Conway. I am sure there are many more whom I have not met.
Without this experience I would never have become an oriental rug dealer. I was not raised with oriental rugs. My first exposure to them was in a job preceding the Peace Corps where I worked for a man who owned orientals and had them in his office. He loved to talk about them, what they were, how he acquired them in Egypt and Beirut and how he viewed them aesthetically, It so happened that his favorite rugs were Baluch. From this job I went to Afghanistan as Associate Director of the Peace Corps in February, 1966.
To Rugs Through the Peace Corps
As Associate Director, I was supervisor over approximately 80 Peace Corps volunteers in Afghanistan. Fortunately for me, most of the volunteers assigned to me were living in provincial locations rather than in the capital city of Kabul. The result was that I travelled around the country a great deal visiting the volunteers.
The interest I developed in oriental rugs during my prior job was re-awakened. I started visiting rug shops in Kabul soon after my arrival. In Afghanistan at that time, there were few rug shops in Shari Now, the new section of the city, where the Peace Corps office was located. Most of them were located at Chaman, the large park area where the annual Jeshyn, or National Holiday celebrations, where held. There were only a few other shops scattered in other sections of the city. I soon got to know most of the shops in Kabul. As I started travelling around the country to Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and Khanabad, I would spend time visiting the rug dealers in those cities and towns. Some reminiscences about specific experiences and trips are perhaps the best way to convey how I began to learn about rugs.
Beginning with New Rugs
In the mid and late ’60s most of the foreigners in Afghanistan were associated with some international governmental agency. The foreign buyers were not there in great numbers and tourism was minimal. The interests of this foreign community directly affected the rug market. In my first few months in Kabul, I spent time in the new shops in Shari Now and at the main rug bazaar on Chaman. One of my earliest remembrances of rug shopping was finding a silky and lustrous rug in deep purple colors along with a stark white. The rug was offered along with the new Mauris of the day and it had a totally different handle and look to it from these other new rugs. I was shown new rugs since the foreign community bought almost nothing but new rugs and primarily those of the Mauri quality. This rug, however, had a sheen and a pliable, floppy handle compared to the Mauris. The dealer told me that it was silk and that was why it felt so different.
I hesitated on it as my first purchase and never bought the rug. I subsequently learned that the rug was a Pakistani rug in the Sariq ensi design. Thus I ignorantly escaped making the mistake of many first buyers; that of purchasing not only a copy but a falsely labelled silk rug. How many tourists in Turkey have not been so lucky with their “silk floss” Keyseri prayer rugs?
There was another rug that I also admired. It was one of a pair. It was finely woven, with an ivory ground, a center medallion, with floral arabesques filling the field. The main border had red ground and carried designs complimentary to those in the field. This piece, too, supposedly had silk warps and weft,but wool pile.
The shop where I found it was the only rug shop at the time in what was called the Fruit Street. Most of the foreign community came to this block to buy fruits, vegetables and meat. It was at Chahar-rahi Turabaz Khan, a main intersection in Shari Now, that later was an extension of the famous Chicken Street. At this time Chicken Street which was the opposite extension of the intersection had virtually no shops but for chicken and duck vendors, hence the name. Later this was to change and it became the main street for the vending of tourist goods in the 1970s.
At the fruit bazaar rug shop, I began to learn rugs. The owner was friendly and open, and it was here that I learned that by sitting and consuming endless cups of tea with an amiable rug shop owner, one could learn about rugs.
I gravitated toward an Isphahan, or was it a Nain? It was one of a pair. I hadn’t seen anything else like it in Kabul and here were two of them. I was encouraged to take the rug home on trial, and I did. Having just arrived in Afghanistan with my wife and two children, the price of the rug at $500 seemed daunting. I took it back to the dealer. A few weeks passed and I went to the rug store to look at the rugs again and one of the pair was gone, having been sold to a Brazilian who was with one of the foreign agencies in town. Panic set in. The remaining rug was the one I liked best. I decided to take the rug home for another trial. My wife agreed it was a nice rug, as did some of my Peace Corps colleagues, some of whom had a lot of experience abroad. The decision was made to buy the rug and after the requisite bargaining I paid about $350 for what turned out to be a 4’x6′ Nain, an Iranian rug. I was delighted with my first purchase.
Prices for an approximate 4’x6′ Mauri ran from 8,000 to 12,000 afghanis, or at the exchange rate of the time, $80 to $150. There was little bargaining over the prices of these goods. The dealers operated on a rather firm per square meter or foot price depending on the quality of the rugs. They nearly all had red fields and the standard Tekke gul. Some in a much deeper, liver red, with the Salor gul, were called Sariq and seemed rarer.
In the course of my wanderings at Chaman, I had found the shop Pir Mohammad. He was the quality rug dealer in Kabul at that time. He was affectionately known in the foreign community as “The Robber.” His merchandise was wonderful. Looking back with clearer and more knowledgeable eyes, my mind reels at the memory. He not only had the best of the best in newer goods, but he was the only dealer in Kabul with an extensive inventory of older and antique rugs.
Pir Mohammad and his shop were an experience. One entered the shop through a door into a foyer and then ducked under a curtain to gain admission to the shop proper. The shop was a large square with rugs all round on the four sides. The center area was taken up with cases of Turkoman jewelry, pottery, ikats, suzanis, guns, swords and chain mail suits. The lighting was good because the wall facing Chaman had many windows. One usually encountered Pir Mohammad reclining, so it seemed, on the Afghan equivalent of a fainting couch. He was about 5’4″ tall, roundish, usually dressed in Afghan clothes, and totally disinterested. Upon entering, your presence may or may not have been acknowledged. You could walk around the room and one of the attending men might open up a rug you showed interest in. Pir Mohammad, himself, remained reclining, talking with visitors, his children, or was sleeping. If there was something you wanted to see you could disturb him by asking.
On one of these visits I was intent on a Mauri, but I did not want the run of the mill type which was to be had everywhere. At Pir Mohammad’s I found one truely different. It was a Tekke Mauri with a deep hunter green field. I had not seen anything like it and decided I wanted this rug. We talked about the rug. In those days one the first things a dealer wanted to know was who you were and where you worked. My relationship with the Peace Corps was early noted and remembered by all the dealers I encountered. Pir Mohammad was no exception. I took the green Mauri home and decided to buy it. I returned and began the tea drinking and bargaining process. The first price on this rug was 16,000 afs., a very high price for the time, but I had been warned by others that I was dealing with “The Robber.” So hard bargaining was in order. In most of the Middle East the bargaining process is something to be enjoyed and savored by both parties. It is an act of personal interaction and a game which is played to determine a winner. Although the seller has the obvious upper hand, through dint of perseverance and most importantly, personality, it is possible for the buyer to be the winner. For Westerners, however, it can be a very time consuming process.
With Pir Mohammad the buyer never won and perhaps that was the reason for his nickname. He was the only rug dealer I ever met who could be so disinterested in the bargaining process that he could go to sleep while you were bargaining. Perhaps it was the effect of the fainting couch. But this happened on more than one occasion when I was bargaining with him for a rug and it may have been a reflection on my bargaining technique.
The green Mauri was my first purchase from Pir Mohammad, and I ended up paying 12,000 afs. Given my adversary, I considered it a very good deal. So, my second rug in Afghanistan, the green Mauri, was a real product of Afghanistan and not one from Iran. I had broken the first mold of the American buyer; that of wanting the ivory field, medallion design and soft colors. Breaking the mold of buying only new rugs was still ahead.
By this time I was beginning to travel to some of the provincial locations to visit various of my Peace Corps volunteer charges. The first place I visited was Charikar, north of Kabul, but noted for its knives and grapes, not rugs. I remember my first trip there. It was in March and the trees were just beginning to green. Fields were being plowed and late trimming and tying of grape vines was being done by the farmers. Water was flowing through the irrigation ditches and crocuses were blooming along the banks. The red buds were blooming on the hillsides of Istalif. It was beautiful, peaceful, and friendly.
This was followed by a trip to Kandahar in the south. The paved road to Kandahar was being built at that time by Morrison-Knudson, an American firm, but was not yet finished. It was a long trip taking about 10 hours. It was still spring and in places the almond trees were in bloom covering the hillsides with a soft pink. The landscapes although bleak and barren by many standards were strong, brown, gray, and eternally powerful by another standard. Having been born and raised in New Mexico there was much in Afghanistan that I felt in tune with, the climate, the plains and mountains, the adobe construction and the agricultural society.
The reason for my visit to Kandahar was because of what “headquarters” perceived as a problem among the volunteers there. I was to go to see
how the volunteers were living, what were their interpersonal relationships and how their jobs were going. I was not trained as a psychologist but that was the nature of the assignment. One of the ways in which I melded my job as journeyman psychologist and ingenue rug enthusiast was to ask volunteers to take me on tours of the bazaars. During these visits I not only had a relaxed, private conversation with the volunteers, but they could be my guide and show off their local knowledge. As things evolved, they all learned that the rug bazaar was a favorite interest of mine, so we would always end up in that section of town.
Kandahar was never an interesting town for rugs although there were rug shops there. I also felt that it was the only city in Afghanistan which did not seem friendly. The people seemed to eye one with suspicion and disdain, and so my memories of it are not particularly warm.
The Passage to Old Rugs
At this time almost all the rugs in the Kandahar bazaar were Baluch, and Kandahar’s saving grace may have been that it introduced me to old rugs. On this particular visit, I remember going to the bazaar. It was memorable because it vas my first encounter with the classic covered Middle Eastern bazaar. It was not extensive, being only two blocks long in an “L” shape. It was busy and bustling, filled with sounds, smells and traffic. At a point there was a break in the lines of shops and one could look into the open, quiet and serene calm of the bazaar mosque.
The rug dealers were not in this section but were more exposed to the sun in the part where horse equipment was sold. There were only five or six shops which had rugs in addition to horse blankets, kilims, bridles and other horse paraphernalia. One shop had a Baluch prayer rug which was old and showed some slight wear of the pile. It was coarse compared to the Mauris; it was dull compared to the bright colors of my green Mauri: but it was somehow simple and very expressive of Afghanistan: plain, unornamented, direct, used and warm.
In passing the shop the first time I looked at the rug and made a minor bid. I passed it by, looking at other items, such as donkey bags and balishts but I was not really interested in buying. In leaving the bazaar I had to pass by this same group of shops. The owner came out with the Baluch prayer rug. He engaged me and the bargaining ensued. I was not particularly interested in buying the rug. I was still in my “new” rugs phase. However, a young man from the street came up and began to act as an intermediary. He started bargaining for me. I was still not convinced I wanted the rug at any price. By some fluke, understandable only in the Middle East, I ended up buying the rug for 800 afs., about $12 for a rug I did not want but had somehow or other been coerced into buying.
Thus this plain simple Baluch prayer rug became one of our possessions. We used it in our home in Kabul but not in a prominent place. It went back to the U.S. with us and early in my transition from rug collector to rug dealer, I sold it. I also sold the Nain and the green Mauri. The only one I now regret selling is the Baluch for it was a type which I have not encountered since.
It was the purchase of the Baluch prayer rug which caused me to start looking at old rugs and Baluch rugs in particular. In this first year in Kabul as
I returned from trips I passed a shop which always had a black rug with white details hanging out front. It was different from anything else I had seen. At some point the rug disappeared and I did not see it for weeks. Finally it reappeared at a shop not far away and I stopped to look at it more closely. It had nicely finished kilim ends, something which I had not particularly noticed before since the new Turkoman rugs did not have them. After some consideration and trying the rug at home I purchased it. It was identified for me as a Mushwani Baluch. I was somewhat hesitant to buy it because the blacks were worn more than the other colors, but I was sufficiently fascinated with it that I overcame this reservation. I was beginning to learn that the beauty of a rug was more than its condition. Just because a rug was new, it was not necessarily better than an old piece. In fact these two old pieces were giving me more pleasure than the new Mauri and Nain.
In this first year in Afghanistan I made a trip to Herat. As a city it is my favorite in all Afghanistan. In Herat one can truely experience what the old cities of Central Asia must have been.
The ancient Central Asian cities were surrounded by high protective walls and gates opened to the roads leading to the other cities of the region, and the gates frequently carried the names of the major cities to which those roads lead. Within the walls was the citadel, the mosques, the bazaars, the homes and streets and alleyways connecting them all. In Herat one could see all of these things.
There remained enough of the thick, towering mud walls and several gates that you could sense the medieval Herat of Shah Rukh. The Masjid-i-
Jami, one of the most complete and historic mosques of Central Asia dominates the city with its tiled walls, minarets and large ceramic covered courtyards. Resident tile makers maintain and expand this ancient architectural monument. The citadel, once the military garrison, still exists. Within the tree-lined, cool bazaar streets, one could visit the covered reservoir, Hauz-i-Chahar Suq, which provided water to a section of the inner city. Outside the city was the Takht-i-Safar, a public garden, the Mausoleum of Ansari at Garzagah with buildings dating from the 11th century and a short distance on the Hari Rud (Herat River) is the Pul-i-Malan with its buttressed and arched causeway. Many of the main streets outside the old city are lined with pines 30-40 feet high. These trees contribute greatly to the character of Herat and make it a pleasant and cool city in the summer months. While Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif bake in the blazing sun of summer, Herat remains, or seems to remain, cool. At night the gentle breezes whistle through the needles providing an air of serenity and languorousness.
When I first visited Herat in the spring of 1966, it was probably the most ideal time to go. As a horticulturist, I was interested in the plants and I will never forget the roses which I saw blooming in the gardens. Heratis pride themselves on their gardens probably more than any others in Afghanistan, although gardening, not just of vegetable but of flowers as well, is practiced by everyone throughout the country. Roses there were related to one known in this country as the American Beauty. But whereas the American Beauty is three to four inches in diameter, the Herat cousin is six to eight inches across. They are full, scented, and the softest shade of dusty rose. The gardens were also filled with stocks, snapdragons, calendulas and larkspurs. It was marvelous.
But, on to the rugs. Herat is one of the country’s major centers for the collection of rugs and carpets. It is probably best known as a center for Baluch rugs. Weavers of Baluch rugs surround the city and it is a major market for them. It is a secondary market for rugs moving from Farah, Chakharan, Qala-i-Now and Khushk. It is also a center for new Turkoman production, primarily by Tekkes and Sariqs. Some Yomuds are also found here.
Most of the Turkoman production is in the new Mauri quality which feature the Tekke gul. There are some woven in the Sariq (Salor) gul. The Yomuds in the Herat area weave rugs of this type, not the traditional Yomud designs and qualities. A Peace Corps volunteer, who was a weaver, learned to weave the Mauri quality in the home of a Kazakh family. Therefore, when considering these new Mauri rugs, one must bear in mind that they may have been woven by a member of any of these various groups, including a woman from New Jersey, and it is next to impossible to distinguish them. I have seen Jamshidi Baluch Mauris which are as fine also.
Visiting a Turkoman Home
By the time I made this first visit to Herat; I had decided that I wanted to visit a rug weaving family and so I prevailed upon the Peace Corps
volunteers to try and find one. As things would have it one of the volunteers had a Turkoman boy in her class and asked him if we could visit his family and see the weaving. This was arranged and in the afternoon we set off for their home which was in a section outside the walls of the old city. Since our visit was pre-arranged, the father was at home and admitted us. We were taken to a room within the house compound which was a guest room. There was a stack of approximately a dozen new Mauris in one corner. We were joined by the teenage son, a younger son and a daughter. The rugs were opened and the weave and clip were discussed by the father.
This was my first introduction to how one should feel the clip of a rug. It was obvious that the man was more proud of the clip on some rugs than others. He spent more time discussing the clip than the fineness of the weave since they were all equal in this respect. Likewise color was hardly mentioned since it, also was uniform, except for the difference between the Tekke and Sariq rugs. As we looked and explored these rugs I began to “feel” the difference in the clip. I could feel a roughness in some pieces and a velvety, uniform quality in others. I began to understand why they valued one rug more than another on this basis. I had not been stroking rugs before. I had now learned that one’s tactile as well as visual senses must be employed in the appreciation of a rug.
While learning this lesson, I was aware that women occasionally peeked in the door but quickly hurried away. I finally asked if we could see the weaving. The teenage son left and returned shortly, having dispatched the women into the house and out of the open compound area. We left the guest room and went out into the open courtyard. The typical house in Afghanistan consists of a walled-in rectangle. The rooms, usually one or two stories high are built around the perimeter of the courtyard with a gate in one wall. In this house the guest room was located next to the gate as one entered. That wall of the courtyard contained about five similar small, one story rooms. Opposite these was a two story structure where the family lived. Two of the small rooms next to the guest room were set aside as weaving rooms. The women were weaving most of the year. In one room was a horizontal loom with a 1/3 completed Mauri rug about 4′ x 6′. This was my first confrontation with the actual weaving process. One side of the room was open so that the light was adequate.
It had never occurred to me that the weaver squatted over the rug as she wove and that the task was so laborious, tedious, and physically demanding.
I returned to this home on several occasions. The family was always hospitable and friendly. I can say that I never had a disagreeable experience with a Turkoman. I particularly remember an occasion when I made a visit to Herat with my wife. Since I knew where the house was I wanted her to see the weaving. On our own we made our way to the house and knocked on the gate. An older woman, the wife, opened the gate and admitted us. She took us to the guest room and brought tea. She and a teenage daughter sat with us in the guest room as we looked at the rugs. They did not speak Farsi, only Turkmeni, and communication was mostly by hand signals and expressions. We looked at the rug rooms and I took pictures of her and the daughter. After about five minutes, the father, apparently summoned by the teenage son, arrived. The women retreated to the house, and we did not see them again during that visit.
On my first visit I had asked if the rugs were for sale and was told that those we had been inspecting were sold. However, he took me to a man in the bazaar who did have rugs for sale. This shop was filled with literally hundreds of Mauris. It seemed that he was the jobber for a group of Turkoman families, and that in Herat, sales were handled through him. I looked at the rugs with my newly acquired sense of touch, feeling somewhat like Helen Keller, seeing rugs with a new kind of sight. I finally selected a new Mauri with a camel grounded field instead of the ubiquitous red of most of these rugs.
This Mauri was the last new rug that I bought for myself in Afghanistan. By this time I was learning what made a rug. I had learned about fine weave with the Mauri purchases. I learned about materials from my near purchase of the “silk” Pakistani and the silk warped Nain. The two Baluchi rugs had introduced me to age, color, and variety. The Herat experience opened my fingers to the touch of a rug, its wool, quality and clip.
There are two other events which I remember vividly from this city. The first involves buying rugs in the bazaar. The second is about another encounter with Turkomans.
I was walking the bazaar with a Peace Corps volunteer. By this time I was more confident about buying rugs and bargaining. We looked at the rugs in a shop, and the dealer had a pair of old Ersari juwals which were nicely woven, no backs, but excellent design and color. I bought them. This was in 1967. In 1972, I returned to Herat not having been there in the intervening years. I sought out this shop since I had always had a good experience with the owner. I arrived at his shop with eight American students in tow. He welcomed us as he would any group of tourists and invited us in. We sat down, tea was brought, and we looked at rugs. After a time, I asked if he remembered me. “Oh yes,” he said, “You are the man who bought the juwals for X afghanis.” I was astounded. I asked how long ago that was. He replied 1 or 2 years. It was actually five years. Two things strike me about this. First is the cultural difference regarding time that exists between the East and West. To us time is of the essence, while in the East time is nothing.
The second thing is literacy. Afghanistan is essentially an illiterate country. Not more than 10% of the population is literate. In the West we equate illiteracy with ignorance. In doing so we do not understand the power of
memory and oral tradition. To succeed in an illiterate society requires an exceptionally keen and retentive mind. It is the retention of facts, peoples’ faces and positions, the amounts things are bought and sold for, etc. which makes the successful person. I developed a great admiration and appreciation for these “illiterate” shopkeepers. As a member of a society which is increasingly turning its retentive memory capacity over to computers, I am more concerned about our individual abilities to be successful than I am of these illiterate merchants.
Visiting a Turkoman Village
My final lasting memory of Herat is of a visit to a Turkoman village near Gurian. The headman of the village was Ulick Boy, an old Tekke Turkoman, I had encountered on a brief visit. I and about eight Peace Corps volunteers drove out to his village one day. It was situated on the plain, surrounded by fields of wheat and alfalfa. The village was built in the northern Afghanistan style with domed, not flat roofs, It probably housed 100 people. It was surrounded by an outer wall, covered approximately five acres and was divided into five or six compounds.
Ulick Boy was a majestic, erect, proud, old man. He appeared to be in his 70’s. Age is very difficult to know in Central Asia because people physically look older than they are, and secondly no one knows when they were born exactly.
He met us at the village gate. We were shown into a guest room which was large and spacious, open to the south, and hence sunny. We were joined by a group of 20 Turkoman males ranging in age from 3 to 40. Ulick Boy wore a high karakul hat in the Turkoman style and a red silk chapan with knee high black leather boots: the quintessential Turkoman patriarch. All of the others were dressed in typical Afghan dress of Tambons, long shirts, and turbans.
After the proper conversation about the weather, health, farming, etc., I turned the conversation to rugs. By this time, one of my reasons for seeking out villages like this was to find old rugs. Ulick Boy told me that they had no old rugs. His family had lived in Merv and after the Russian Revolution, with him as the leader, they had come to Herat. The possessions they brought with them were sold to get money to buy land. The rugs they now had were all new, and they were weaving the new Mauri designs.
I asked to see the weaving. The female volunteers who had accompanied us, who were nurses, were taken to see the women and the weaving, but the men were not permitted to accompany them. I gave one of the nurses my camera to take pictures. Unfortunately, not a single picture came out. Ulick Boy showed me some of the rugs they were making. They were the typical Tekke and Sariq designs, a few Zahir Shahi types, and prayer rugs with a Mosque scene at the top and a Turkish style prayer arch at the bottom. Rug weaving was a major income source for the village.
During our visit an airplane flew over which caused a great deal of commotion. In discussing this modern invention, I learned that only a small number of the men in the village had been to Herat which was only about 20 miles away. Quite obviously most of the contact with Herat for the sale of rugs and purchase of other commodities was handled entirely by Ulick Boy and a few of his sons.
The visit with Ulick Boy occurred during one of my two circumferential trips around Afghanistan. Afghanistan is divided East to West by the Hindu
Kush Mountains. The main road system in the country is in the shape of an oval. It begins in Kabul, runs south to Kandahar, west to Herat and north to Maimana. From Maimana the main road goes north to Andkhoi, or northeast across the Dashti Laili (Laili Desert) to Shiberghan and then to Mazar-i-Sharif, the major city of northern Afghanistan. From Mazar the road continues east to Tashkurghan, south through the Salang Tunnel and back to Kabul.
On the Road to…
In the late ’60’s before the entire road was paved, this trip took me three to four weeks with time spent visiting with Peace Corps volunteers. It was a rough trip. Initially the Kabul/Kandahar section was not paved nor the section from Haibak to Mazar-i-Sharif. Paving the arc from Mazar thru Andkhoi to Maimana and Herat was only a plan. As of today that portion is only paved to Andkhoi. On my first venture over this terrain, I remember driving from Mazar to Andkhoi in one day. We left early in the morning and arrived in Andkhoi after dark. It was easily 10 hours of driving to traverse 200 miles. The roads were murder, not only to axles but also to backs. One learned why Afghans still favored camels.
On this trip I left Herat in the company of two volunteers. In about an hour and a half we came to a village with a shrine and mosque. This particular
shrine had a tree that people drove nails into to get rid of their aches and pains. Superstitions and symbolism are still very strong elements in the life of the people. Further on we stopped at a tea house. It was not the usual tea house where you go inside and sit on a raised charpoi or platform. This was outside on a patio with a large chinar tree (Asian sycamore) covering the patio. There was a gurgling irrigation canal and the patio overlooked a green lush valley. With the automobile engine turned off, it was only the sounds of nature that one heard. Upon leaving this vale the road became quite muddy from the spring rains. The ruts in the dirt road were deep and virtually controlling of the automobile. At some point we slide off the edge of the road and were buried to the axle in mud.
We discovered a certainty about Afghanistan, you are never alone. Just wait 15 minutes and someone will appear whether it is in the mountains or in the desert. Sure enough two men appeared. They helped get rocks and with tree limbs, we leveraged the automobile out of the mud and back onto the road. They would accept no payment. We were travellers, guests in their country, and it was their duty to help.
Upon arrival in Murghab we drove to the Governor’s office to see if permission could be obtained to go to Maurchak. Supposedly Tekke and Salor Turkomans lived there but it was very close to the Russian border. Even in those days visits to the northern border areas required permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for foreigners or the provincial governor could also give permission and provide escorts. The governor was out of town and no one was willing to take the responsibility for granting permission. We proceeded north to Maimana.
This was my second visit to Maimana. It is an Uzbek city. It never had the regal nature of Herat and the developments of recent years have destroyed any old character it may have once had. In the north, bazaar days, twice weekly, are the days when the cities and villages come alive. All of the goods for trading are brought in and the villagers from the surrounding areas ride in to do their business. In spite of its status as one of Afghanistan’s major cities, Maimana functions like a small village. If you don’t hit it on bazaar day it is dead. In spite of the fact that it is located in rug weaving country, it has not been a major collecting center for rugs. I did not know this at the time, but I now know that the OCM [Editor’s Note: Oriental Carpet Manufactory, the London based manufacturer and importer of rugs from various middle eastern countries] did much of its contractual work among the Turkomans of this district. Thus the rugs produced were already bought and very little reached the Maimana market.
I was intent on trying to find old rugs. A Peace Corps volunteer took me to a home that was supposed to have old rugs. As it turned out they had a pair of juwals that would be called Salor/Tekke from the 1920s. One of the volunteers was looking for some nice rugs and she purchased the pair. In the late 60’s weavings of this type were rare in Afghanistan. By the mid-70’s they could be found in most dealers shops in Kabul. The reason for this is that most were brought to Afghanistan from the Soviet Union by Afghan Uzbeks, Turkomans, and Tajiks who visited relatives in Tashkent and Bokhara. It is ironic that in the ’60s old rugs generally sold for less than new rugs. By the 70’s things had changed, and this type of Tekke/Salor weaving was far more expensive in Kabul than in Europe or the U.S.
The lack or rugs, both old and new in Maimana, was a surprise. On subsequent visits I was never able to find anything but new rugs and these in limited numbers. From Maimana we headed north through Shirin Tagab, a lesser town than Maimana but on market day much livelier. It was definitely a Turkoman bazaar and one could see many of the new red and black “filpoi” or elephant foot type Ersari rugs being marketed. Just north of here one headed east across the Dashti Laili to Shirberghan.
Crossing the Dashti Laili
There are a few things one must do in Afghanistan and crossing the Dashti Laili in the spring is one of them. It is not a true desert but is a large
region of low, loess hills. For most of the year it is dusty, dirty, dry and brown. During the summer and fall Afghan truckers cross it with their loads through heavy, dusty ruts. In the late winter with the snow and rain it turns into a sea of mud for man, beast and vehicle: However, for a brief period of four to six weeks in the spring the grass grows and the entire area is green and becomes prime pasture land. The green carpet is filled with a variety of wildflowers which blanket square miles in reds, yellows and blues. Migrating birds of various kinds are to be seen, particularly impressive are the cranes on their way to Siberia. This is what I wanted to see and our timing was perfect. The drive was smooth, pleasant and sunny. Every mile presented a new vista, most of which contained large herds of sheep and their shepherds.
Shiberghan, the town at the end of this segment of the road, is typical of many in northern Afghanistan. Originally, it was simply a large caravanserai which catered to the trading needs of this section of the country. In the 1950’s as Afghanistan entered into a social and economic development program, towns like Shiberghan were modernized. New city plans were developed. With the implementation of these plans, which included the building of government offices, schools, hotels and new bazaars, the old caravanserais were bulldozed for the new construction. The result is that although there are now wide streets, new shops, electricity, and new market areas, there is no hint of the old town. Nowadays the interest or charm of these new towns depends largely on the character of the people living there. As one visits the shops on market day, it is the interaction of buyer and seller, local dress, and goods being hawked which sets the character of the place. Shiberghan always had character in spite of its newness. The market day here is a big one and the variety of goods being offered was wide. It was a great place to take pictures, although rugs were not one of the major attractions. The region around Shiberghan is agricultural and vegetables, animals, and grains are the major items of the bazaar. Aqcha the next major stop east was a rug center, but there was something missing there and it never appealed to me as much as Shiberghan.
From Aqcha one proceeded thru Balkh, the famous Mother of Cities, source of the Zoroastrian religion, destroyed many times over the centuries, and now a simple little tourist bazaar town.
From Balkh it is a matter of minutes by the paved road to Mazar-i-Sharif, the holy city of Afghanistan and administrative center for northern Afghanistan. Before modernization Mazar was a large town of many houses, small alleyways and bazaars which clustered around the magnificent shrine/mosque of Ali. Because of this compact building only the domes and minarets were visible from a distance and only upon entering the shrine courtyard did one see the beauty of the entire structure. This is not the case today. All of the old buildings were leveled and the shrine sits in the center of a 24 acre park surrounded by a four lane street with broad extensions running in the four directions of the compass. One can now see the shrine in all directions from 30 miles away. The new buildings are set well back from the park. Despite its newness, Mazar was interesting to visit and in the ’70s became a major tourist center because there is much to see in the area. The bazaars are open daily. One can find all of the crafts and goods produced in Afghanistan there. The rug bazaar was a good one with both old and new rugs.
Bargaining for Rugs
I remember on one visit spending the afternoon in the rug shops. As I moved through them, there was a Turkoman with a large new pardah (ensi) on his shoulder, who was trying to sell the rug to the merchants. It was a very nicely woven piece, with better than average designs and colors for a new pardah. By this time I was out of my new rug phase and was only interested in old rugs. Late in the afternoon, this man and I ended up at the same shop. The shopkeeper haggled with him over the piece and they could not arrive at a price. The man was going to leave, and I went out and asked what he wanted for the rug. As I recall he said 12,000 Afs. As bargaining was the mode de regieur, I countered with 8,000. He turned me down cold, saying that his wife had told him if he could not get 12,000 for the rug he was not to sell it. I had not encountered this type of female assertiveness before and respected her for it and him for his honesty and fidelity to his wife’s wishes. I bought the rug at his price. I learned that he was a Chakish Ersari, from a village north of Mazar. The rug was subsequently exhibited and published in Yoruk, pl. 94.
On another occasion I happened to be in Mazar and met Dr. Robert Moses, a rug collector whom I knew from the Textile Museum conferences. An experience I had with him in Mazar is illustrative of rug bargaining which can happen anywhere in the Middle East.
Dr. Moses and I decided to spend most of the day in the rug bazaar and one of the first dealers I thought we should visit was Mazar’s equivalent of
Pir Mohammad. He without question had the best inventory of old rugs in the city and one of tne best in the country. He was difficult to deal with because his prices were so outlandish and in all my years of buying rugs in Afghanistan, I had never bought a rug from him. But he did have nice rugs, and it was instructive to look at his inventory if for no other reason.
On this day, he was in a good mood, and we proceeded to look at the best he had. I remember coming across a beautiful lusterous Tekke-like rug, about 3′ x 5′, but probably made by Ersaris. It had excellent dyes and lush wool. He ran out into the sunlight, held the rug up and moved it back and forth. It reflected light like gold. He exclaimed about its merits and said $4,000! He didn’t quote you prices in Afghanis, he quoted them in dollars. At that time the piece would have been lucky to fetch $1,000 at a Sotheby’s auction. Such was his estimation of the value of his carpets. But tourism was booming in Mazar and many were there to buy a rug because it was in the heart of rug country. The sale of that one rug for $4,000 would have satisfied his needs for a year.
After more looking, a lovely old Baluch rug emerged, about 6′ x 11′, excellent condition, rare old design, and in the finest Baluch wools. It would be called a Timuri in today’s terminology. Bob was definitely taken by the piece and asked the price. He was told 17,000 afs. I told him it was an exceedingly low and fair price and he should buy it. He demurred as we were early into our tour of the shops. We left shortly after and spent the next few hours at other shops. At the end of the day we went back by the shop to look at the old Baluch and to buy it. The owner, now reclining on some rugs and pillows, announced that the rug was 40,000 afs. We said, no, the one, there, which was 17,000. He said with finality that it was 40,000 and as we turned to leave we were dismissed with the sound of flatulence.
As mentioned earlier, the process of bargaining is one of business and pleasure in the Middle East. However, on rare occasions a dealer will offer a price which is very low and essentially not a bargainable price. Sometimes this is done by people with whom one is friendly and has a good personal relationship with. It is also done to see if one is serious or if you know the market value of the items you are looking at. This was the case in Mazar on that day. I must say it is a concept I find most appealing and one I have sometimes used. The Mazar dealer’s non-verbal, parting shot is a technique I have yet to try.
From Mazar the road heads east to Tashkurghan, a true Central Asian town that was not ruined by modernization. It has the most extensive covered bazaar in Afghanistan. It is famous for its pomegranates and figs and a variety of crafts such as lacquered wood furniture and ropes. It is not a center for rugs but was interesting to visit because of its ancientness and the richness of the bazaar.
The main road to Kabul heads south from Tashkurghan thru Haibak and Puli Khumri. One can also continue east across the plain from Tashkurghan, following caravan tracks to Kunduz. I did this on one occasion and remember particularly the variety of wild animal life such as foxes, rabbits, lizards and weasels. Just before reaching Kunduz, you must cross the Kunduz River. This was accomplished by means of a pontoon ferry. Two large wooden boats with a wooden plank platform was pulled by horsepower from one side of the river to the other. Although it could only accommodate one vehicle, for local purposes it could carry many people and animals on each crossing.
Kunduz is the governmental, commercial and agricultural center of Afghanistan’s most successul industrial and agricultural development project. Prior to the 1940’s the Kunduz river valley system was swampy and malaria infested. Now, the swamps have been drained, malaria controlled and wheat, rice, cotton, sugar beets, and melons are extensively cultivated in the region. Many people have settled on the reclaimed lands. Kunduz is a new town and the center of commercial plants for the making of vegetable oil, porcelain, and textiles.
Although Herat is my favorite city, Kunduz is the place I went for a rejuvination of spirit and to experience the liveliness and fullness of Afghan life. It is a lush town. The trees are tall and green. The homes are not walled in with the same high enclosures as other towns. It verges on the semi-tropical. Because of the lack of rain and shortage of water, most Afghan towns get dusty in the summer. In Kunduz, water was plentiful, and there were men who continually put water on the roads from the irrigation ditches to keep the dust down.
The people of Kunduz represent the entire range of ethnic groups of Afghanistan: Pushtuns, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Tajiks, Khirghiz, etc. The bazaar was always busy and lively. The liveliness of the town is best exemplified by the gaudis, horsedrawn, two-wheel carriages. The bridles and harnesses of the horses are covered with red and yellow pompoms. The drivers sit high and literally race down the streets with their passengers (an even more extreme version of this can be experienced in Khanabad, a bit further east, where the gaudi drivers performed the equivalent of gaudi drag racing.)
Rugs are found in Kunduz but most of them are new. There are large Turkoman settlements north of Kunduz near Qala-i-Zal. It is in the Kunduz area where most of the Kazakh and Uzbek rugs reach the market.
The horse bazaar is probably the best in Afghanistan. I always made a point of going there, because in addition to bridles, saddles, cinches, etc., one could find horsecovers, felts, animal trappings and tentbands which were not available in the rug shops.
In travelling around Afghanistan in the 60’s one stayed in the government hotels which had been built in the larger towns. All were memorable for one reason or another, but my favorite was the Spinzai Hotel in Kunduz. It was quite large and even had a suite for the King when he visited. It had an extensive garden that was a pleasant retreat after a day in the bazaar. Properly arranged in the morning, one could have an elaborate Afghan feast in the evening replete with a half dozen rice dishes, lamb, chicken, beef, and ending with the best melons in Afghanistan.
Back to Kabul
Heading south from Kunduz, the river valley passes through Baghlan and Puli Khumri, both industrial towns for textiles and sugar. From Doshi one begins the climb up into the mountains and across the top through the 12,000 foot high Salang Tunnel. These northern slopes of the Hindu Kush have many streams and contain rainbow and brown trout. It was always a treat to encounter a young man on the road who had been fishing and was selling the fresh trout to passersby. I would buy his catch and rush down the mountains and back to Kabul for a trout dinner, a rare treat.
After a year in Kabul I was well known to most of the dealers. As with any aspect of life there are some people that one gets along with better than others, and so it was with me and rug dealers. I could enter certain shops sit and drink tea, talk and learn about rugs and not feel under any pressure to buy. At the same time I quickly developed a reputation in the American community as someone who had learned something about rugs, and people would ask me to help them when they wanted to buy a rug,. This gave me added reasons for going around to the shops.
When we arrived in Afghanistan, we were housed in an apartment across from the old American Embassy in Shari Now, which became the USIS American Center when the new Embassy was built. There was a small shop on the corner underneath our apartment. It was run by a lovely, sweet old man named Gulabuddin. His was one of the first shops I entered and it became one of the places I could spend endless hours in looking at rugs. It was also one which had a nice supply of old rugs. It is a place I returned to on every trip, and he always wanted to know how my sons and wife are doing.
Another shop I liked was near the Khyber Restaurant at Pushtunistan Square. (In the 60’s, the Khyber Restaurant was one of the few places where it was considered safe for foreigners to eat without a great probability of exposing one’s intestinal tract to the ravages of diarrhea, amoebiasis, or hepatiti.) This shop was owned by a man named Saadruddin. It was very small, no larger than 12 x 15 feet, with rugs rolled and standing up around the walls. It was with Saadruddin that I had an experience which anyone who gets involved with rugs should have.
The Rug that Got Away
On one visit to this shop, he had what in Afghanistan at that time was called a pardeh. I later learned the old rug books and dealers called them khatchlis and of course the currently preferred term is ensi. Without a doubt this was one of the most beautiful rugs I had seen in Afghanistan. It was obviously very old, the main color was a chestnut red with small details of ivory and very electric blue. The wool was exceptional in its fullness and softness, and the condition was perfect. As I recall the asking price was approximately $400. I sat and drank tea and bargained some and finally took the rug home to look at it for a few days. I returned the rug expressing my interest but saying the price was too high. I returned some weeks later and the pardah was still there, so we bargained, and the price was down to about $320. I took my rug home to look at it again and discuss it with my wife. I decided to take the rug back and to bargain some more and succeeded in getting the price down to $280. My objective was a price of $250. So I left the rug again. I returned a few weeks later, entered the small shop and started looking through the small inventory of rugs and could not find my pardah. I asked Saadruddin where it was. He apologized and said the rug had been sold to a German who had come to the shop and had paid the $400 asking price. I was crushed. To this day I remember that rug as the finest weaving I ever saw in Afghanistan. However, it taught me a lesson. When you find a rug you really like, don’t dicker too long, or think a rug dealer will hold it for you as yours; he won’t and your German will come along and pay what is asked. But it is a hard lesson to learn and most collectors have a similar “rug that got away” story to tell.
Reflecting back on these experiences, it is disheartening to recall some of them because at that time in the 60’s, old rugs generally sold for less than new rugs. The local market was dominated by the resident foreigners most of whom bought new rugs. Likewise, Afghans if they were buying for their own use bought new rugs as well and did not have an awareness of the value of old rugs. As with nouveaux riche everywhere, they wanted new rugs, not someone’s discarded, used old rug, The number of dealers who had old rugs were rather limited and their inventories stagnant.
During this time many new buildings were going up in Shari Now, primarily apartment buildings. During that first year one of these new buildings was completed in the block where the Peace Corps offices were located and a rug and antique shop was opened on the first floor. The upper two floors were rented out as apartments. The shop was run by a young man named Abdul Wassey Noor Sher and he dealt mainly in old rugs. Because of its proximity to the Peace Corps offices I could visit it frequently and see rugs as they came and went.
I soon found that Noor Sher, as he was known, was very easy for me to deal with. This was not only due to personality, but his prices were very reasonable and the bargaining over rugs was not a long protracted affair. I did not then, nor now, enjoy the bargaining process, so dealing vith someone who was reasonable, quick and fair was most appealing to me, and I bought several rugs from him.
I soon found that Noor Sher, as he was known, was very easy for me to deal with. This was not only due to personality, but his prices were very reasonable and the bargaining over rugs was not a long protracted affair. I did not then, nor now, enjoy the bargaining process, so dealing vith someone who was reasonable, quick and fair was most appealing to me, and I bought several rugs from him.
I was obviously not the only one who reacted this way, because the shop soon attracted many other people. There were many reasons for this. It was definitely a family business with the brothers and fathers all involved. Among them, they spoke several languages, — English, French, German — and could converse with the foreign community, most of whom could not speak Farsi. Noor Sher was also willing to ship rugs, clear customs, and guarantee delivery on rugs purchased. This was rare at that time and you can only imagine how one’s comfort level was raised.
Another reason was the hominess one felt in the shop. As a rug looker or possible buyer there was never any pressure to buy. If you were interested in a piece but not ready to buy, no one followed you out of the shop saying, “Mr. what price you want to pay?” A great part of this atmosphere was contributed by Abdul Zahir, Noor Sher’s father. He was a little man, just over 5 feet tall, with bright twinkling eyes. He spoke a smattering of nearly any language. He had travelled and knew the world beyond Afghanistan’s borders. I was told that after WWII, he had started Kabul’s first old rug business, that it prospered, and he travelled abroad in that connection. However, some financial reverses were suffered in the ‘50s and the business closed. The shop which Noor Sher was running was the rebirth of that earlier venture.
Abdul Zahir was unique. He was outgoing and affable; he spoke foreign languages; he loved to tell jokes and stories; if you didn’t want tea, he always had a bottle of spirits to offer foreigners. He put you at ease and made you feel comfortable, welcomed and wanted. Although Noor Sher ran the shop, Zahir was the jolly, abiding spirit of the place. I remember after bargaining with Noor Sher for a piece, Zahir pulled me aside and into a corner of the shop and whispered, “Don’t pay attention to Noor Sher, for you a special price.” I didn’t think things like that really happened. I loved him for it.
Noor Sher prospered, expanded to the second floor of the building and finally to the third as well. With the expansion to the second floor, Abdul Zahir could be found there where he held court and regaled people with his stories, showed off his latest acquisition whether it be a camera or fancy fountain pen, or pulled out pieces of jewelry or embroideries from his special horde of goodies. Those of us who knew and loved him were saddened to hear of his death in 1978.
The acquaintance with Noor Sher was significant for me in many ways, but most importantly when I began to return to Afghanistan in 1972 to buy rugs as a rug dealer in the business. I knew a man whom I had implicit trust in and who had the knowledge, and skill t0 handle the shipment of goods for me in proper order. I knew that I could buy rugs from any number of dealers, have the rugs delivered to him, and he would pack them, clear Afghan customs, prepare papers for U. S. customs, and expedite shipment by air or surface to the United States.
Learning the Language
Since this article is about how the Peace Corps opened up the opportunity for me to become a rug dealer, there are some other aspects of the experience which are not easily described by anecdotes or experiences. One of these is language. The Peace Corps stressed learning the language of the country you were in. I started studying Farsi before I left for Afghanistan and continued after arrival. Being American it was a novel experience for me to develop proficiency in another language. Although illiterate in Farsi, like many of the Afghans I knew, it was one of the most significant learning experiences I have had. To maintain a level of fluency, on my trips around the country, I always went with a particular Afghan Peace Corps driver who refused to speak English. On these trips whether for one day or a month, I was forced to speak Farsi with him.
Another thing the Peace Corps did was to simply provide the opportunity to live abroad for a brief period of time. Because of that experience, I learned about the country, felt comfortable there, developed friendships and knew my way around the bazaar. Hence in 1972 when I returned and started buying rugs for trade, it was not a new situation with which I had to become acquainted. I had a reputation among the dealers, they knew my financial and personal credibility, and this greatly facilitated our commercial relationship.
The Deception and the Seduction
These last named factors — speaking the language, knowing dealers one can work with, knowing the country and its rugs made doing business easier. But it was the more subjective experiences which made one want to go back home and, through rugs, share that experience with others. One of the great deceptions of this experience is that in-country seemingly everyone likes rugs and wants to own one — the international political community, the tourists, the Peace Corps volunteers, the world travellers, etc. The seduction is that you begin to believe that all the world loves rugs because in Afghanistan (or Iran, Turkey, Nepal, Morocco, Tunisia, etc.) the rug shops are the alive places, where people meet on a common ground and share their personal, artistic, and subjective responses to these wonderful things. So you think, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to do this back in America. Everyone can and should own a rug. You can share with them where and how it was made, tell about the clip of the rug and the quality of the wool, tell the story of Ulick Boy and the Tekkes who moved to Afghanistan from Merv, share the thrill of market day in Shiberghan and Kunduz, tell about the rug that got away, and the near gyp with the “silk” Pakistani rug.” It is the siren’s song and you are the seduced.
The author served as Editor of Oriental Rug Review during its best years. He now resides in Tucson, Arizona, and while he no longer maintains a rug shop, nor is active as a dealer, he maintains many strong connections to the world of oriental rugs. He remains our great friend, mentor and guide as we continue our journey through the world of rugs.