How War Shaped Afghanistan’s Weaving Traditions

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Political modernization is always painful and often extremely tricky. Some relatively fortunate nations transformed themselves using internal resources. But when a tradition-bound country is weak, then all too often it is ruthlessly overrun by militarily stronger nations. This happened in the New Americas, when the indigenous cultures were destroyed by Spain; in India, when the country was conquered by the British; and in West Asia, when after World War I the Ottoman Empire was divided up by the European powers. Afghanistan, however, was and is relatively isolated. Three imperial powers — England in the 19th century; Soviet Russia in the 1980s; and, from 2001 to 2021, the United States — tried and failed miserably to master this landlocked society. China brutally conquered an even more remote country, Tibet. But Afghanistan has proven far more resistant to foreign intervention, for neither Soviet-style communism nor Western parliamentary democracy successfully took root. 

Two Afternoons in the Kabul Stadium: A History of Afghanistan Through Clothes, Carpets and the Camera tells part of that story. The title alludes to two scenes in Kabul’s stadium. In 1959, women appeared in public in Western dress in Afghanistan to celebrate their nation’s independence. And in 1999, the Taliban executed a kneeling woman, named Zarmina, in a scene filmed covertly by a female photographer. These two events mark the start and conclusion of an era of failed modernization.

As his title indicates, Tim Bonyhady’s social history focuses on three important concerns: clothing, carpets, and cameras. Two Afternoons gathers a great deal of useful information, but without much in the way of constructive interpretation. However, his readable account gathers a vast quantity of fascinating information. Readers learn that there were a few Afghan flappers in the 1920s; that in the 1960s Kabul served as a market for secondhand American clothes, imported from the Lower East Side of Manhattan by American Jewish merchants; and that in 1972 there were street battles among three school groups: Russian communists, Chinese Maoists, and Muslims. By the 1970s, many foreigners visited Afghanistan. Hippies came for the drugs, businessmen to export clothing and carpets, and the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti to run a hotel and hire artisans. And there have been movies about the country: the Rambo films and Charlie Wilson’s War. The renowned Afghan artist Ustad Ghausuddin is discussed briefly. 

In the 1950s, the national airline began to employ flight attendants and in 1975 there was an international rock concert featuring one Sri Lankan and two Afghan bands. Archeologists from different parts of the world showed an interest in studying the pre-Islamic visual culture, and an art museum displaying excavated materials was established by the government. But none of these developments had much affect on the basic social structure. Afghanistan, it seems, was touched only superficially by modernism. A minority of relatively privileged people in Kabul acquired some of the trappings of modernism, but the life of the countryside was mostly untouched, and there was no real attempt to relieve rural poverty. In 1979, Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union, in a brutal occupation, which, by the time it ended in defeat in 1989, caused one million deaths and forced six million Afghans to abandon their homeland.  

In this intensely conservative culture, heated struggles have taken place over repeated attempts to abolish traditional female clothing, principally the hijab. Some bold women removed the veil. A few brave ones even wore miniskirts, and some of them were attacked in the streets. There have been debates about the hijab in many countries. What is unique to Afghanistan, and of most personal interest to me, is Bonyhany’s discussion, in Chapter 17, “A Fact of Life,” of the creation of a novel art form, war rugs. The weavers, who were accustomed to making pictorial carpets, decorated the rugs with images first of Soviet bombers, grenades, helicopters, and tanks and then, more recently, of US weapons; still other rugs depict the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The homeless Afghan refugees who moved to Pakistan had one exportable skill, carpet making. And so in what Bonyhady calls “a remarkable cultural flowering” the women and their children made these war rugs to sell to foreigners. A traditional art form was thus updated in response to these brutal invasions. They were exported and collected by the Soviets, and then by American and European collectors.  

Most contemporary political art, in the West as in the Muslim-majority world, is made by specific individual artists, who usually offer a critical point of view. War rugs, however, are woven by anonymous children and women, who represent the deadly machines apparently without taking a political position toward the Russian and American invasions. The weaponry is rarely pictured in use, nor do the weavers portray the bloody brutality of war. It may seem obvious that the rugs are antiwar artworks. They show the imported military machines from the viewpoint of their victims, integrating the deadly weapons as a recurring motif. But right-wing American gun enthusiasts associated with Soldier of Fortune collected them thanks to publicity in that journal.

The plausible assumption is that these carpets were made for an export market. No individual artists are identified in the book, nor does it suggest what they might have thought of these weapons.

Traditional carpets can be like an oasis in the desert. Lie down and you can imagine reclining in the luxurious growth of a lush garden, surrounded by lavish greenery. These decorative textiles are often soothing to the eye and touch. In contrast, a war rug takes people into a combat zone, as if the fighting in Afghanistan has come home to haunt us. Unless you are an arms merchant, that scene is unlikely to be soothing. Here, then, we see the unhappy, incomplete modernization of Afghanistan, artworks with up-to-date imported subjects made using traditional skills. If they are relatively inexpensive, that’s because the weavers are so poorly paid for their intensive hand labor. Among the book’s 21 illustrations is a photograph taken on May Day, 1972. It shows a sign next to miniskirted Afghan women with the caption, “Let us walk towards peace, democracy and social progress.” That remains a utopian vision.

Two Afternoons in the Kabul Stadium: A History of Afghanistan Through Clothes, Carpets and the Camera by Tim Bonyhady (2021) is published by Text Publishing and is available online and in bookstores.

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