Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Rug Trade's Revival Unravels

Unfair taxation of exports and imports only one of many obstacles facing traditional handicraft.
By Abdul Latif Sahak
  • The carpet bazaar at Aq Chah, the centre of a major producing area in northern Afghanistan. (Photo: Mobyhill/Flickr)
    The carpet bazaar at Aq Chah, the centre of a major producing area in northern Afghanistan. (Photo: Mobyhill/Flickr)

Carpet-weavers in northern Afghanistan say business is so bad and working conditions so difficult that they are going to Pakistan, where the trade is in better shape.

Traders say Afghanistan lacks the processing infrastructure needed to make the carpet industry self-sufficient, raw materials are expensive, and the taxation system is all wrong, with foreign sales penalised by heavy duties while imported rugs are taxed at a low rate. They say the government needs to do more to support this traditional industry which still accounts for a high proportion of exports.

Murad, 55, from Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province, said more than 200 families involved in weaving had left his home district, Kaldar, in the last six months, heading for Pakistan.

“My cousin [who has left] has urged me to go there as well, because there’s more work available for good pay,” he said. 

Murad’s family is currently working on a large carpet, and when that is finished they too will be going to Pakistan as they cannot survive on what they earn in Afghanistan.

“We have to buy raw materials ourselves, which many weavers can’t afford to do. We don’t have electricity here, so we are prevented from working by the heat of the day and by darkness at night-time,” he explained..

Abdul Sabur Qaderi, head of the Balkh provincial department for refugees and displaced people, confirmed that the exodus was widespread.

“We don’t have precise figures for the number of carpet weavers who have left, but we can say as an estimate that dozens of families from every village have moved to foreign countries,” he said.

In northern Afghanistan, rug-making is closely associated with the Turkmen minority.

Abdul Satar Begzadah, who heads the association of Afghan rug exporters and the weavers’ union, said current production in Balkh, one of the northern provinces where carpet-making is an important industry, showed a 60 per cent decline on output two years ago, measured by the total area woven.

Many weavers fled from the Soviet invasion of 1979, and resumed their trade as refugees in Pakistan. Some returned after 1992 when the mujahedin took over government, but had to flee again soon afterwards as internecine conflict broke out. After the Taleban government was ousted in 2001, weavers joined the general influx of Afghans returning from exile.

Paradoxically, although the weavers came back, most of their work is not exported in finished form to the international market. Instead, most carpets are sent to Pakistan to be trimmed and washed, because those processes can be done cheaper and better there. Then they are exported as Pakistani rather than Afghan items.

According to Begzadah, 97 per cent of the carpets produced in Afghanistan are taken to Pakistan to be finished. “They are exported as Pakistan-made brands, and Pakistan earns the [principal] income,” he said.

Apart from the lack of cutting and washing facilities, Begzadah said the Afghan tax system was an additional disincentive to selling finished carpets. He said the Afghan customs rate on exported rugs was over 12 US dollar per kilograms, whereas in Pakistan it was one dollar a kilo.

A trader in Mazar-e Sharif, Mir Ahmad, said it was almost impossible to market Afghan rugs abroad.

“Our country doesn’t have good relations with countries where there’s a good market for our carpets. And when we participate in exhibitions organised in countries where people don’t know about carpets, we make a loss,” he said.

He also alleged that the Afghan authorities did not support dealers who tried to strike out on their own.

“If a carpet trader wants to travel to a neighbouring state, a country in the region, he will need to have 100,000 dollars deposited in the bank before he’ll be granted a visa. Traders aren’t able to deposit that kind of money, and the government is uncooperative,” he said.

Sayed Taher Roshanzadah, chairman of the chamber of commerce for Balkh province, said things were not as bad as the carpet traders claimed.

“If a trader wishes to import or export something, the chamber of commerce works with him. There’s no problem obtaining visas, [but] if a trader tries to get a visa independently, embassies will ask for a bank account,” he said.

Other than that, he said, the biggest difficulty facing the rug industry was a purely technical one, “The main problem is lack of washing and cutting facilities and professional carpet designers. The reason Afghan carpets are taken to Pakistan is for processing.”

Selling handmade Afghan carpets in large numbers inside the country is not really viable, given that average incomes are very low and the bottom end of the market is swamped with cheap machine-made carpets from Iran and Turkey.

Traders like Khwaja Qasim, from Mazar-e Sharif, blame their government for levying low taxes on imported carpets.

“People are economically weak and they can’t afford to buy Afghan carpets, because the cheapest costs 200 dollars, whereas they can easily buy a foreign machine-made carpet for 40 dollars. That’s the reason why there’s no domestic market for Afghan carpets,” he said.

As weavers find their earnings affected by fluctuations in the market, some are deciding to emigrate or just to leave the trade.

Khanom Godasta works with four of her female neighbours at her home in Mazar-e Sharif, but says it is no longer tenable for her to continue.

“We’re working on this carpet and we might make 60 dollars each once it’s sold. Can one live on that for a month?” she said “In the past, carpets would have been bought and paid for while they were still being made, but now nobody cares about them.”

Abdul Latif Sahak is an IWPR-trained reporter in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan.

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