Sometimes it helps to keep track of your airline mileage. Two years of giving my business to Pan Am paid off with two free tickets to anywhere they fly. After weeks of pondering, we decided to visit India and Pakistan. We had heard that Peshawar is one of the last gun-toting, frontier areas left in the world — and that it had great rugs.
[This article originally appeared in print in Volume 9/5 of Oriental Rug Review, February 1989, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission.]
Arriving in Bombay in the midst of a heat wave (with too much luggage, all winter clothes), we camped in a fine hotel and started seeking contacts with the Banjara gypsies. “Who?” “What gypsies?” “Where?” “Why?”
Three days later, after too many encounters with frustration and only three examples of their weaving, we left for Delhi in hopes of locating Tibetan refugee textiles.
Unlike the oppressingly dirty, impoverished, begging mob scene of Bombay, Delhi (and the British Colonial New Delhi) seemed like an abandoned movie set. Wide spacious streets with imperial sandstone buildings, trees, and parks, all await the parade of mounted, red-coated horsemen, long lines of native troops, banners unfurled in the soft breezes — none of which, of course, materialized. Rudyard Kipling’s spirit of the Raj lives on!
The Tibetan refugees are in business in Delhi. Many shops are owned by them and feature Tibetan weavings and artifacts. We visited both the Red Fort, a Mogul fortress turned indoor shopping mall for tourists, and the main shopping area near Embassy Row. We saw reproduction statuary, reproduction wood carvings, reproduction miniature paintings, and new carpets. We also saw some Tibetan small carpets and saddle covers; all were in the U.S. $1,500 to $2,500 price range. I was sorely tempted to ship my whole collection of Tibetan carpets and saddle covers here and open a shop.
Probably the biggest lesson I learned on this trip was to make all my travel arrangements in advance. Indian and Pakistani planes are overbooked weeks in advance, and the trains are even worse. Nightmarish days were spent attempting to get from Point A to Point B. Finally, we arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, with confirmed seats on the next day’s flight to Peshawar.
If Peshawar is the Wild West with electricity, then Lahore is Southern California in the 1950s without the beaches. Add fantastic Chinese food (best I’ve had outside of San Francisco or Hong Kong) and friendly people. But big cities tend to be more expensive, so we went to the country, to the Northwest Frontier and the Khyber Pass.
The Pearl Continental Hotel is clean, modern, and safe. If you ignore the gunfire at night, you can get a good night’s sleep; and the food and service is more than adequate. It’s the old InterContinental and is still the best in town. The local paper, The Frontier Post, is in English and is well informed. The local university has published many books in English that are a must for historians and ethnographers, Muslim Celebrities of Central Asia and Notes on the Nomad Tribes of Eastern Afghanistan, amongst others, are for sale in the hotel bookshop.
Four areas in Peshawar captured our interest: the marketplace, the carpet depots, the tribal area free market, and the refugee camps.
Like most “Eastern” cities, Peshawar has designated locales for certain businesses — the cloth market, the poultry market, the brass and copper market, the gold market… It was fascinating to explore narrow streets and twisted alleys, holding secrets and mysteries. The exotic smells and sounds. The people in local dress. A cornucopia of headwrappings. Henna on hands, mustaches, feet. Totally veiled, covered women, occasional flashes of jeweled hands. Animals, poultry. Busy, crowded streets. People fighting with cars and trucks for walking space. Mud. Outdoor food stalls. Sights to warm a traveler’s heart and captivate his camera.
The wholesale carpet business in Peshawar goes on in three Afghan refugee carpet depots. The shopkeepers live, eat, sleep, store their carpets, and do business in small, one-room shops. With about 50 shops per building, it’s about a full week’s work to visit them all. But it’s worth it.
Not every shop (home) has similar offerings. Some specialize in small pieces, others in large carpets, new and old. Most people there understood my faltering Turkish and were at once friendly and hospitable. My guide in Peshawar, Aziz Beshir, was mostly responsible for the welcome, but it was very real nonetheless.
Prices were excellent; the market was waiting for us, it seemed. We saw one group of Westerners, but most of the people we asked said that there were almost no foreigners going through and they were not there for carpet business…wink! wink! I was confused by these remarks until we got to Barda, in the tribal area.
We saw no S-group Salors but did see some fabulous Baluch soumak bags and Baluch soffres. We saw very few war rugs and no Persian carpets. We did see some Persian tribal kilims and some new Senna kilims, which we were told were being made locally. After India, Peshawar felt like the “mother lode”!
The tribal area, Barda, is on the road to Afghanistan. Fifty or so kilometers from Peshawar is the Afghan border, and what a journey that was! Barda has no police or government presence and is the major free market for the Northwest Frontier area. Drug dealers, gun sellers, and the returning Mujihadeen rub shoulders with purveyors of electronics, videos, watches, and all manner of imported western goods. Shish kebab sellers on the streets, buses from an Arabian Nights fantasy, fully veiled women, and wealthy Pakistanis, all blend into a duty-free shopping spree.
There was shelling just across the border, so we didn’t cross over into Afghanistan (sigh of relief); but there was enough to see right where we were. These Afghans are tough looking fierce, stoic, and heavily armed, these are the same folks who defeated Alexander the Great as well as the Soviet Army — and they are as gentle a people as I’ve ever encountered.
I was photographing the stall of an arms merchant, asking about Kalishnikovs and pen pistols. I was also aware of this very large man at my side, unsmilling, arms folded, armed. All I could think of was Salman Rushdie, the major topic of newspaper reports and conversation while we were traveling this time. I braced myself and continued to watch the dealer show me how to fire this pen pistol (only U.S. $20). The dealer prepared to fire into the air, and I felt a large hand close around my arm. “Bye, bye,” I thought, “What a time and place to become a statistic.” But, no, it was this same unsmiling Afghan who shielded me behind him as the dealer friend fired the pistol. “These are dangerous,” he later said, “they often explode.” It’s a safe feeling to be given guest rights!
The refugee camp we visited looked permanent. Small interconnected adobe houses, with many streets — it went on forever. Only nine years, and the place had a timeless feeling about it. There are children everywhere.
We did learn that many of the refugees spend part of the year back in Afghanistan, tending their fields and making their presence felt. Some families send a son to a commander of the Mujihadeen for a raid; then, when and if he returns safely, another son is sent.
Many parts of Peshawar reminded me of my visit to Kashgar. After all, they are related Turkic peoples and only modern borders separate them. Central Asia is geographically broken into natural areas. Our century has added political borders that divide peoples and cut off traditional routes of migration. I hope to be in Soviet Uzbekistan this June and to complete the triangle — Kashgar, Peshawar, Samarqand. I am also heartened that, amidst the pain and sufferings of war and politics, these tribal peoples have maintained their cultural traditions and unique lives. May it continue!