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

Carpet Industry Looks to Revival

Rug weavers and merchants display their wares at northern fair, but admit they have some way to go to recover market position at home and abroad.
By Wahidullah Noori

After a three-decade absence, the annual Carpet Festival, celebrating what’s believed to be a 2,500-year tradition,has shown its colours again in the northern province of Jowzjan.


The festival, which was last held in 1974, returned to Jowzjan on November 22. It used to be held each autumn in either Jowzjan’s Aqchah district or Andkhoi in neighbouring Faryab province, but was suspended during the years of fighting.


Despite a driving rainstorm, more than 10,000 people came, including United States Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad and Afghan commerce minister Mustafa Kazemi.


The region's influential political leaders General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, as well as Balkh province governor General Mohammad Atta, and the governors of Faryab, Sar-e-Pul, and Jowzjan provinces. Visitors from the Central Asian republics and Iran and Turkey also turned out for the opening day of the month-long exhibition.


The rug weavers wore traditional long robes and tribal headgear, with the women in colourful headscarves.


More than 100 types of rug were on display in over 400 wooden stalls specially built for the festival. Carpet weavers were on hand to demonstrate the process of using wool and silk in a variety of colours to make the rugs.


But many of the weavers and dealers told IWPR they worried that after two decades of war, Afghanistan had lost its rightful place in the world carpet market.


During long years of conflict, carpet-makers scaled back operations in the area, while many of the weavers and traders re-located to Pakistan, mostly to Peshawar. According to the World Bank, “a large proportion of carpet exports in Pakistan’s trade statistics are attributable to the Afghan carpet industry - in Afghanistan, or displaced in Pakistan.”


Rozi Mohammad, a businessman from Andkhoi, said, "Our rugs were ranked first in the European markets prior to the 20 years of war, but at the moment we cannot compete with Turkish and Iranian carpets.”


Nasir Ahmad, a carpet dealer from the Aqchah district, agreed. He explained that while Afghans were busy at war, Turkish and Iranian rug dealers were establishing trade relations with major business centres and developing and expanding their markets.


"The reason we cannot compete nowadays is because our trading system is very poor, and so far we have not gained access to those markets where Turkish and Iranian rugs are sold.”


Nasir believes government help is key to accessing markets for Afghan carpets, particularly in Europe and the United States, and regaining Afghanistan’s position in the world market.


Commerce minister Kazemi, who attended the opening of the festival, had encouraging words for the crowd, "The Carpet Festival and the exhibition of hundreds of rugs made in this area is an indicator that people in Afghanistan have special interest in trade and business.”


Carpets are the country’s third largest export after dried fruit and karakul, the lambskin used to make hats such as the one commonly worn by President Hamed Karzai.


Over one million people are employed in the carpet industry in Afghanistan, including weavers, dealers, and businesspeople. Many of those involved in the carpet industry are of Turkmen ethnicity, and the majority of weavers are women.


Many carpets are made in Jowzjan but large numbers are woven in other northern provinces such as Faryab, Sar-e-Pul, Balkh, Kunduz and Takhar. [Rewording. Jowzan unlikely to be “most”


In an interview with IWPR, Kazemi acknowledged that the industry currently faces several problems. He said his ministry has spent the last three years working on accessing the international market, and has made progress on two fronts this year.


“First, the US government agreed to import Afghan carpets without imposing import duties. And second, Ariana Afghan Airlines agreed to transport Afghan carpets abroad at cost,” he said.


US Ambassador Khalilzad, who also appeared at the festival’s opening, indicated that his country was prepared to help the industry in other ways as well. “I know that areas where carpets are produced have water and power problems, but during the coming year, we have projects in this regard that will solve the problems,” he told participants.


The domestic market for Afghan carpets is also suffering. The industry, which produces mostly hand-woven rugs, faces stiff competition at home from machine-made carpets from Iran which sell for a fraction of the cost.


"One Afghan carpet costs at least 300 US dollars, and we poor people cannot buy it, but I can cover my entire home with a 50 dollar Iranian carpet," said Shah Mohammad, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif.


Mohammed Nazar, a carpet weaver from Mazar, argued that the higher-quality Afghan carpet is worth the price difference, "Although Afghan carpets are more expensive than [machine-made] Iranian carpets, they are of better quality,” he said. “Iranian carpets don’t last more than one year, but the rug I bought 20 years ago I can still use.”


He said that some of the more intricately woven carpets could potentially be sold on the foreign market for up to 5,000 dollars each.


Even if the Afghan carpet business is reinvigorated, the weavers are likely to see very little of the profits.


According to a report on the Afghan economy produced by the World Bank in September, “recent studies of carpet and raisin markets indicate that producers get only a small share of the price paid by the final consumers - for example, 8 to 15 per cent of the final price in the case of carpet weavers.


“If traditional activities such as carpets or dried fruits are to contribute significantly to broad-based growth, it will be important not only to revive production but also to ensure that the smaller players, especially producers, benefit more from these activities,” the report recommended.


Gul Ahmad, 21, a university student who also works half-days weaving carpets, agreed that he couldn't make ends meet on what he earned.


“The income I earn from carpet weaving is not sufficient for the expenditures of a family of six,” he said.


Wahidullah Noori is a freelance reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.