I am not a carpet kind of guy. Left to myself I would be quite happy plodding around barefoot on the beaten earth floor of a Neanderthal cave, or scuffing through the dust floor of an Ethiopian tuqual. But others seem to find great pleasures in tightly bound and painted hairs ripped from the backs of sheep who no doubt would have a better use for their wool in the cold mountains than propping up a floor covering industry that is only slightly less corrupt than the women’s cosmetics industry, and only a tiny bit more honest than the opium trade.
I am also not a great fan of non-representational Islamic art. To my way of thinking, art should be about something.
My art sense was instilled in my ancestors’ genes just about the time the Philistines were the paragons of fashion taste and we all thought them far too arty by half, and poseurs at that. So for a carpet to makit with me it should have a glowing depiction of say, Genghis Khan charging at the viewer, sword raised, blood drops splattering, and the thunder of silver hooves. Or perhaps, a fully detailed depiction of Nelson’s victory off Trafalgar with all of the ships carefully depicted and every piece of ship’s rigging just so.
And not for me the muted green tones of pistachio nut used as wool dye, or the dusty red of animal blood, applied according to arcane recipes handed down from the time of King Darius the Great. Absolutely not. Color should be color the way it used to be when AnscoChrome defined yellow and blue for us in snapshot photography, or LePages Poster Paint taught us the value of an eye stabbing red.
Nothing matches the searing fluorescent paint that was used to transform ordinary prosaic pictures of rearing stallions. They were sometimes posed against a thunderstorm shaped like a skull while a corvette, flame spitting from its tires, blasted along a two lane road.
You might now understand how I had dreaded the prospect of having to buy a carpet before I left Afghanistan. Don’t get me wrong, this is not something that I had been told I had to do. Most people have given up on telling me what to do just as people eventually give up on a stubborn dog and just let the damn thing do what it wants.
No, this was a task I had imposed on myself. I just knew that I could never explain to anyone how I could be in a country where the roads themselves are sometimes paved with carpets and not leave with one. This despite the fact that most carpets I’ve seen in my life tend to look like the kind of thing you’d use to mop up the sewage backup in the basement while waiting for the plumber.
The whole prospect filled me with such mounting conviction that I would end up swindled, embarrassed, and defeated that it was only one afternoon, more than four months after I had arrived in Afghanistan that I ventured out and plunged into the carpet emporia of central Asia.
I didn’t go completely ignorant. I knew that every day when I drove over crumpled heaps of carpets on the roads that the carpets were being artificially aged; a week on the road is the same as ten years normal wear. I knew the industry was in poor shape as a result of the war and the fierce competition from the honest fakes made in Pakistan. Those had the advantage of AnscoChrome like pictures of tigers’ heads, doe eyed Indian women, impossible flowers, and elephants in full stampede. Afghan carpets rain heavily toward triangles, jagged lines, repeated patterns, and other exercises in school geometry that passed for Afghan art.
The closest the Afghan weavers had come to dealing with this Pakistani competition is a series of small rugs, quite appealing in their own way, depicting the Americans routing the Taliban. They usually feature a wonderful profile view of an F-16 Fighting Falcon spitting bullets. Or B-1 and B-52 bombers dropping bombs on people, presumably Taliban but one can never be too sure. Other weapons and military insignia decorate the borders of these carpets but the whole effect is ruined by the drab colors used. I swear that the dyes are made from cattle and sheep dung.
For a long while I thought that my problem could be solved by stopping my look alike unmarked drug dealer Toyota Surf, (with blacked out bad guy windows) the next time I saw a carpet being aged on the road. But I could never figure out how I could be sure that the fake I was buying wasn’t being sold at New Number One prices and quite frankly I couldn’t tell one fake from another except by the tire tread patterns and the odd motor oil spot.
I tried asking around for advice from the Afghan staff working for the NATO radio station and newspaper but you might as well ask a bunch of North Americans for buying advice about 16th century fine china, the results would be the same. Except, for the curious fact that everybody I talked to seemed to have a cousin who sold carpets. These cousins, they may all be the same person for all I know about Afghan mating habits, seemed to be on a quick track to Paradise because they all came with great assurances that the carpets they sold were the only honest antiques in all of central Asia and they were being sold so cheap because of the enduring love the cousins have for we internationals who saved the world from the Taliban.
So, I turned to the internet, that fount of all knowledge, comprehensible or not, useful or not.
I discovered two things.
1) The people who are into Persian, Afghan, etc. carpets are feckless loners who probably got turned onto their obsession when they were allowed to crawl around too long on a carpet without a diaper.
2) There is more complexity, contradiction, misinformation, and dishonesty in the carpet trade than any other business I can think of with the exception of mobile phone contracts.
Then one day I had a bit of a lucky break. I had gone to the Intercontinental Hotel to gawk at the foreigners who could afford 200 dollar a night rooms and who bitterly complained that they couldn’t get a hot dog in a bun in the dining room. I wandered into the hotel gift shop where I was immediately and pleasingly told that entrance to the gift shop was free of admission just for today and I was a lucky person. (I must be a very lucky person because no matter where I have been in the world I have always managed to stumble across shops that were “Free today to enter!”)
Feeling quite pleased with my good fortune I poked around to see what there was. You have to know that Afghan merchandising is based on the sound psychological principle that the harder the customer works to find the article that his heart has been aching for since birth, the higher the price that can be demanded. Things are tucked into every space, inside of other things, under them, over them, just everywhere. Everything in an Afghan store looks like it has been jumbled and turned upside down three times in a day because that is actually what has happened to it.
At the back I found a pile of carpets about six feet high. Most were about prayer mat size which is the preferred choice of all foreigners. This is not because the mighty and admirable religion of Islam is spreading to Tampa, Exeter, Pullyup, or Trail, but because a prayer mat fits very nicely into a suitcase. This does not stop the carpet sellers of Kabul from trying to sell you a florid field of dyed wool big enough for the Palace of Versailles and succeeding. I have heard several wonderful tales of ex-pats trying to struggle onto airplanes with seven and eight foot rolls of carpet the diameter of medicine balls and cramming them under the front of seat in front of them as regulations require, plus the seat in front of that and the one after that.
I imagine a customs officer saying, “Anything to declare?”
“No, nothing.” Followed by the flopping thud of a huge carpet roll that has slipped off a shoulder.
“You appear to have dropped your hand luggage sir.”
“Oh. ah yes? Didn’t notice actually.”
Many is the time I have stood in the middle of a Canadian Wal-Mart, so empty of life it could have been built on the arctic tundra, plaintively crying for help, hearing only the hollow echo of my voice like the cry of a damned soul slipping into hell.
Such a fate is impossible in Afghanistan. Store clerks are trained from the moment of conception to seize even the most ephemeral chances of a sale and never to allow the customer a thought more complex than “Yes, I will buy it, I have to buy it, I’ll pay anything, Please sell it to me.”
In my case my right eye had hardly time to flick toward the pile of carpets before two smiling carpet sellers who were obviously on a coffee break from the local theatre group’s production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
They somehow conjured a carpet out from the pile and made it hover in mid air before settling to the ground in front of me.
“Very good Number One carpet sir.”
“I am not buying. I am just looking around.”
“Yes sir,” and another flash of dun colour flicked out over my feet.
“Very wonderful Turkman carpet sir. From Herat.”
“Yes very nice. But I am not buying.”
“No problem sir,” and a field of red and green fire settled onto the sales pile.
“Jesus Christ (not the best thing to say in an Islamic country) what the hell is that!” It really was an amazing piece of work. The predominately red carpet actually seemed to shimmer.
“That Number One carpet from Mazar-e Sharif. Buccara carpet sir.”
It was about three feet long yet so finely made it felt as supple as linen. I didn’t understand why but it certainly put those F-16 carpets to shame. And then I suddenly understood why those ridiculous ex-pat’s made such fools of themselves getting huge carpets out of the country.
This is the question that carpet sellers, or the sellers of just about anything else including dismal dried dung sellers at the side of the road, live all day for.
To ask the price is to ask how deep is the sky, or how wide the wind, or where is tomorrow. The question is a koan, a meditation tool that when properly asked and considered can illuminate the fourth way, the road to Nirvana. Entire university syllabi of psychotherapy
cannot equip a westerner for the instantaneous analysis and judging that an Afghan merchant can bring to bear on the answer.
I knew the instant that I blurted out the question I had condemned myself to many minutes of discussion about price, quality and likely consanguinity, plus at least one cup of tea served in a used bacterial petri dish of a glass. By asking the price I had entered into pre-contract negotiations and unless one is particularly adept at this technique, or genuinely cannot agree to a price, one cannot walk away.
But I was very very lucky. Ali Baba The Tall said, “Special price for American heroes sir. One thousand dollars.”
He had made a bad mistake and I couldn’t believe my ears.
“One thousand dollars! You have got to be out of your mind! I am not an American, I am a Canadian! One thousand dollars to a Canadian! No!” And I walked away with the two of them rushing after me full of apologies and promises of a special Canadian price of 500 dollars. I didn’t have 5 afghanis in my pocket let alone 500 dollars or I might well have turned around and slurped pestilent tea all afternoon until we agreed on a price because 500 for a Buccara of that quality was a decent asking price even if it was uttered inside an overpriced and piratical international hotel.
My escape had its price. I had seen, probably for the first time in my life, a true Number One carpet
And so we come to this particular afternoon. It being the one half day off I got each week from the insanity of NATO PsyOps. I decided to head off down Flower and Chicken Streets in search of the carpet equivalent of a half seen beauty in a crowd who disappears forever.
I’ve talked before about these two streets. They are the Rodeo Drive of Afghanistan without the pretension and without the snooty clerks. You can get anything you want, a lot of what you don’t want, some of what you didn’t know you wanted, and stuff that only other people want you to have. If the item you need; gun, drugs, women, boys, goats, silk whips, mandarins, or Molson Canadian Beer is not on hand there is always a cousin who can provide it in a short time.
There are probably about two or three dozen carpet stores on these two streets and I’ve only been in three of them but they are all the same. Each is narrow, pit dark, and so lined with folded carpets that they make the Bell Labs Anechoic Chamber sound like reverberation hell. To have a conversation in a carpet shop in Kabul is to feel your words sucked into a dead zone never to be heard. It feels like the space between you and the other person is packed hard with cotton batting.
It doesn’t stay dark very long in these shops. The moment you are classified as a potential customer a stream of Dari is shouted out to the sidewalk and a young boy leaps onto a Honda generator with raw fury and kicks it to life. Inside, lights that one would normally think to see only on 747′s making the final approach to Heathrow on a dirty black rainy night blast into incandescence and the room throbs color.
Carpets are never rolled. They are folded in quarters and stacked from floor to ceiling. As the conversation with the seller progresses, carpet after carpet is plucked from the piles, flicked open in mid air and allowed to settle. The seller watches how you react to each carpet and follows up on the slightest hint.
“Ah, you like Herat, very nice carpet, very old.”
“It feels like Toyota to me.” A reference to the fakes aged on the roads.
“Not here in this shop. Only Number One. Kunduz perhaps?”
“Yes interesting. You like Kunduz antique? Very precious.”
It does indeed look good but I don’t like the feel of the coarse weave. I don’t get to say this before another carpet is floating down. One can start to believe the legends of the flying carpets of Persia. “Ah yes, Mazar-e Sharif. I think this is good for you.”
And indeed it was. A green, asymmetrical design prayer rug. I like it very much and I try to be as politely dismissive as I could as if it wasn’t quite the thing I needed for the chateau. But these people are psychologists of the first order. Asimov’s Harry Seldon would hire them for The Foundation in a heartbeat.
An ancient man sitting in the corner leans over and slides the carpet to one side. “You come back to this.” he said as he nodded with confidence.
A while later another Mazar-e Sharif rug floats down. This one is much brighter and newer looking. I like this one as well. I knew I liked it because the old man pulled it to join the other before I had said anything.
This went on for a while until I uttered the formal, “How much for the two of them?” And I sighed.
“I don’t like to haggle. All are fixed price.”
I had to give the obligatory snort of derision at this and put as much disgust as possible in my voice. “If you think I am some stupid foreigner who is so stupid as to pay asking price then I will leave.”
“Perhaps a small discount.”
And so it went for the next two hours and three cups of tea. At various times he had his wife and children in to demonstrate that he had mouths to feed, next door shop keepers to testify of his honestly, and much chatter about life, the Taleban and every Afghan’s favourite football in this country, the Americans.
Along the way I pleaded the poverty of all Canadians, the extreme meagreness of my NATO salary, my general disinclination to buy today and perhaps tomorrow would be better. I even pulled out my mobile as well as the business card of one of his competitors down the street saying that perhaps I would go and visit his colleague while I thought over his last offer.
In the end the old man finished me off by knocking ten dollars off the final final last offer and saying, “This good price. Your heart will buy now.”
And I did. I paid more than someone else might have paid but I paid a lot less than most would have. I’d had a wonderful rich time, enjoyed much laughter and good nature and walked out with two small carpets that are truly good. A week from now I won’t remember what I paid which is just as well.
As I walked up the Flower Street I passed a shop displaying those F-16′s dismembering the Taliban carpets and could barely repress a shudder. Horrid things that even fluorescent paint couldn’t help.