Thursday, 31 July 2008

In Afghanistan's Turkmen Rug Belt, It's Globalization vs. Tradition

ANDKHOY, Afghanistan; August 1, 2008 -- Twice a week the men whose wives and daughters weave the traditional red rugs of Central Asia come to this town in northern Afghanistan to sell their work.

The carpet bazaar is a rectangular courtyard with a two-floor gallery of traders’ stalls on every side, and the men approach it with trepidation.

Many of the men have dropped in as onlookers on the previous market day to learn what they can about the going prices. Now, accompanied by friends for support, they file into the courtyard and squat around its perimeter with their bundled rugs.

When the traders walk by to inspect what they have, the bargaining begins. First, the carpet is spread face-down on the dusty ground. The uncut top is of no interest; it is only the back the trader wants to see.

He inspects for knot density and evenness of weave. He folds the edges to see if they meet in the middle. And he looks for evenness of tension by carefully measuring the length and width at various points. And all the time he is checking for flaws.

Then he makes an offer: $75. The seller, who wants $120 won’t hear of it. Slowly the offer creeps up to $85 and onlookers begin to exhort the seller to agree. The trader tries to grab the seller’s hand and pump it to show there is a deal. A third person joins the negotiations, probably an agent of the trader, and pretends to be a fair-minded broker.

But still the seller refuses until, finally, the meeting breaks up. No deal.

The seller will test several more traders before he chooses between accepting what seems to be today’s price or coming back another day. He knows that on Mondays and Thursdays, so long as this is Andkhoy, the traders will be here.

Andkhoy’s bazaar is described in fascinating detail in a report prepared for the World Bank. The authors, Adam Pain and Moharram Ali of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit surveyed the town’s carpet business over the years 2001 to 2003.

Their work offers a look into a world of sellers and buyers that few Westerners ever see as the famous red rugs of Afghanistan begin their journey to the outside world.

The men who come to the market are heads of Turkmen households that produce carpets on an independent basis. These families have the financial means to purchase wool on credit and usually have at least one other source of income such as land or livestock. They are the most successful producers because when they sell their carpet, they keep the full selling price.

How much can these independent weavers earn? The profit depends a great deal on the quality of wool they are able to buy.

If they weave with low-quality wool from Pakistan, Pain and Ali calculate (in 2003) that they will earn about $25 per square meter from a traditional red rug that sells in the United Kingdom for $250 per square meter.

But if they weave what is known locally as a ‘Biljeek,’ that is a rug woven with finer wool imported from Belgium, they can earn $58 dollars per square meter on a red rug that sells retail for $429 per square meter.

Pain and Ali estimate that about 10 to 20 percent of the weavers in the Andkhoy area are independent. The rest work under entirely different arrangements and, in fact, never come to the bazaar to sell at all. Instead, they work under profit sharing or wage-labor contracts.

A minority of the profit-sharing weavers --like the independents -- still produce the Turkmens' traditional repeating ‘gul’ designs or more recent varities of red rugs such as Khal Muhammadi or Mauri. Exporters’ agents provide them the wool and the dimensions and the weavers get 50 percent of the rug’s local market value.

But today the majority of local weavers (the researchers estimate 50 to 70 percent) work under labor contracts and produce carpets that have no local roots at all. Agents give them some $35 per square meter (for a carpet that retails for $549 per square meter) and wool from the Mideast to produce Chobis that have a modified Indo-Persian design.

The Chobis -- which ironically use natural dyes while the ‘traditional’ local designs use chemical dyes - strongly resemble the commercially successful Zieglers produced in northern Persia by Western firms in the early 1900s.

Pain and Ali say that Chobi production, which originated in the Afghan refugee camps around Peshawar, came to Andkhoy as the refugees – both Turkmens and Uzbeks -- returned home.

The contract-labor terms pay as well or better than profit sharing and minimize the weavers’ risk. That makes it attractive to poor weavers even though the agents commonly reduce the final wage payment if they find the slightest flaws.

Now, as carpet production in northern Afghanistan keeps expanding, the number of contracted weavers keeps growing.

Pain and Ali note that there are clear economic benefits as the contract weaving joins sharecropping and agricultural labor as the mainstays of people too poor to own land or livestock.

But the authors also sound a warning.

They observe that the happiest position for artisans is when retail customers recognize their work as the expression of a unique artistic heritage and willingly pay more for it than they do for generic goods.

However, if generic weavings become what Afghanistan is best known for, they say, "there is little hope at present that Afghanistan’s carpets will be able to achieve that position."

(Photos of Andkhoy market from: Alti Bolaq)

(Photos of Turkmen Ersari carpets from: Carpet Collection)




Related Links:

Understanding Markets in Afghanistan: A case study of carpets and the Andkhoy carpet market, by Adam Pain and Moharram Ali

From Andkhoy to Jeddah

Habibullah Kerimi Making a Life and Rugs in Exile

Barry O’Connell: Turkmen Rugs - Guide To Ersari Rugs and Carpets

Barry O’Connell: Guide to Turkmen Rugs and Carpets, Turkoman Rugs

Barry O’Connell: Guide to Rugs and Carpets of Afghanistan

Emmett Eiland: Afghan Rugs and Carpets - Rugs from Afghanistan

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Tribal Rugs: How The 1960s Changed The West’s Taste In Oriental Carpets

PRAGUE, July 18, 2008 – In the mid-1960s and into the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands of young Europeans and Americans traveled East – to Morocco and Turkey or, much farther, to Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Nepal.

To the East, as in this verse from ‘Marrakesh Express:”

“Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellebas we can wear at home …”

The sudden longing for places with strong colors, tribal designs, and mysticism had an enormous influence on Western taste in oriental carpets. But before considering how much, it is time for the story of ‘Mercedes’ Werner.

Werner, his first name, is a retired German antiques dealer who divides his time today between Wurzburg and Prague. But even a few minutes after meeting him, it becomes clear he considers his spiritual home to be Turkey.

It began in the 1960’s, when he flew to Istanbul for a short vacation. He fell in love with the city and quickly realized he would need a car if he wanted to explore the country. So he flew back to Wurzburg for his old Mercedes and then began regularly driving 20 to 24 hours non-stop from Germany to Turkey.

To pay for his trips, he carried back Turkish rugs, artifacts and, because it was so easy to give the Turkish border guards 5 DM, even antiquities. But the story he likes to tell most is not business related. It is about a roadside village near Lake Van, which had nothing to offer except scenery.

Werner stopped so often at this village that he became very attached to it. He exchanged stories with the people at his favorite restaurant, became friends with the owner, and learned all about the local music. Then, for many years, he stopped going there as business took him elsewhere.

One day, when he was already middle-aged, Werner was home watching a documentary about eastern Turkey. Suddenly he heard the same village music he knew so well and there on the screen was the restaurant owner being asked if tourists ever came to such a remote area.

“No,” said the restaurant owner, “they only go to the seaside resorts.” And he added, “It’s not like 30 years ago when people came here just to see our mountains and learn about how we live.”

“What kind of people were those?” the interviewer asked in surprise.

“Well, like Mercedes Werner,” the restaurant owner said.

Werner says that when heard that he broke down in tears. He didn't know he had this affectionate nickname. And he had not realized how much his visits had been something extraordinary not only for himself but for his friends. The next year he returned to the village and revived what he now sees as a very important part of his life.

Interestingly, there were lots of Werners who came out of the adventures of the 1960s and 70s. Dennis Dodds, the head of the ICOC (International Conference on Carpets), says many current rug dealers got their start just that way. The rugs they discovered on their travels did much to shift their generation’s taste toward village and tribal designs and away from the elaborate city rugs favored by their parents.

In Istanbul, the travelers – including Dodds – gathered at the Pudding Shop, where they exchanged information and contacts for trips across Turkey and on to India. The cafĂ©’s owner was said to be so helpful that he once gave a chair to a customer to sit on for the journey to Kathmandu. That was when all the usual seats in the minibus were full.

Dodds says that because the travelers were on a low budget and keen to get in touch with nature and natural lifestyles, they were attracted by affordable village and tribal pieces rather than by Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal-derived designs. The geometric patterns of the rugs they brought home to Europe and America fit nicely with the 1960s fashion of Op Art and they soon became the new market standard.

What weavings most owe their success to these years? Probably kilims. They suddenly became hugely popular, in part because they are so boldly graphic – offering just colors and patterns. By contrast, pile carpets add a third dimension - texture - which diminishes the clarity of the design.

The 1960s and 70s are long gone, along with long hair and long, strange trips. But it is interesting to realize that the aesthetic tastes the travelers helped set for rugs are still very current, and probably will remain so until the next great shift in Western pop culture.

(Kilims pictured here are from: Turkish Culture)



Related Links

Barry O’Connell: Turkish Rugs and Carpets

Barry O’Connell: Guide To Turkish Rug and Carpet Books

The Pudding Shop

Wikipedia: The Asia Overland Hippie Trail

Touring The Hippie Trail Today

YouTube: Afghanistan On The Hippie Trail 1967

YouTube: London To Kathmandu Overland

YouTube: Les Annees Hippies au Maroc (Part 1)

YouTube: Les Annees Hippies au Maroc (Part 2)

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Turkish Prayer Rugs And The Gates Of Eternity

ISTANBUL, July 4, 2008 -- Is eternity something artists should illustrate as a physical thing? Or should artists represent it as something abstract and supernatural?

It is a question that every religion approaches differently and on which philosophers disagree.

But it is interesting that Turkish prayer carpets offer both possibilities: realistic and abstract. And perhaps that is one reason for their great appeal.

Turkish prayer carpets became widely familiar in Europe and America during the late 19th century, when Western tourists began traveling to Istanbul in large numbers by the Orient Express and by ship. The travelers helped popularize the rugs as symbols of the exotic and spiritual East at a time when Orientalism was at its height.

As a result, production boomed in towns like Ghiordes, Ladik, and Melas (Milas), and their typical designs became household names in the Western market.

The Anatolian town and village weavers, who adapted and simplified the designs of earlier Ottomon court prayer rugs, were not trying to show what heaven looks like. The purpose of all prayer rugs is only to mark out a space for prayer that is secluded from the mundane.

This is in line with the injunction in the Koran to "pray in a clean place". The first mosque is traditionally said to have been a space drawn in the sand by the Prophet Mohammed, who said "take off your shoes when you enter here. This is holy ground."

But because the weavers had to fill the space set aside for prayer, they had to address an art problem that is shared by all cultures. That is, how to best symbolize the eternal.

The designers of Ghiordes and Konya opted for solid architecture. They depicted the central feature of all prayer rugs – the arch – as resting upon columns. The arch itself symbolizes the focal point in a real mosque, which is the mihrab, or ornamental niche, that marks the wall facing Mecca.

This carpet above is a 19th century piece from Konya in central Anatolia.

But weaving natural-looking “gates to eternity ” -- as some Western experts like to describe prayer rugs -- is just one possibility.

By contrast, the rugs of several of the other great traditional prayer rug centers of Turkey – Kula, Ladik, Melas, and Mudjur -- took an abstract approach.

In these rugs, the mihrab is still the defining feature. But the field of the rug is fluid and appears to change with each glance. Instead of a sense of certainty, it offers the mystery of a curtain which one day may be drawn aside.

The rug shown here is from Ladik, a town in central Anatolia not far from Konya.

Both the realistic and the abstract designs were widely collected in the West. But partly due to export pressure to adapt to Western tastes, the quality of the patterns began to decline with time. They became more and more decorative and less and less certain of their identity.

Some experts say the export pressure was so great it caused workshops to reverse the way the rugs were woven. Instead of starting at the bottom and weaving toward the mihrab, some weavers started at the top. That way, the pile would catch the light best when hung on a wall.

Other experts disagree. They say that individual weavers may have started at the top when they were uncertain of their stocks of dyed wool. Since the mihrab is considered the most important element in any prayer rug, they may have wanted to be sure of completing it first before running out of preferred colors.

Whatever the case, it is certain that by the middle of the 20th century, Turkish prayer rugs had lost favor – both in the West and at home.

In the West, fashions changed and collectors began looking for bolder village and tribal weavings free of – among other things – Western influence. Today, in real terms, the cost of a Ghiordes or Ladik in the West is said to be less than it was at the height of the rugs’ popularity at the turn-of-the-last century.

In Turkey, the end of the Ottomon Empire and the rise of the secular republic equally reduced the prayer rugs’ value as weavings.

Townspeople who once commissioned expensive pieces for the Haj or for their homes, and later bequeathed them to the local mosque, gave up those customs as the population shifted to major cities. Prayer rugs became plainer and simpler, as shown by this recently made Ladik.

But all that may just make the great 19th century prayer rugs of Turkey more interesting for those who still want to collect them. Not only do they offer a creative vision of the spiritual world, they also offer a reminder of how much our own aesthetic world keeps eternally changing.




Related Links:

Spongobongo: A Guide to Turkish Prayer Rugs

Spongobongo: Notes on Ghiordes Rugs and Carpets

Spongobongo: Guide to Konya Rugs

Spongobong: Guide to Ladik Prayer Rugs

Spongobongo: Guide to Melas Rugs

Old Turkish Carpets: Prayer Carpets

What Do You Mean, “It’s A Prayer Rug?”

New England Rug Society: Prayer Rugs and Related Textiles

Wikipedia: Mihrab