mad in pursuit Contact


Listen to radio piece at PRX.

Links for more about aksi war rugs:

Woven Icons of War by Charles Lewis, Afghan Magazine

Articles by Ron O'Callahan

Preliminary Inquiry into Afghan War Aksi by Oriental Rug Review staff



We have a rug from Afghanistan. At first glance, it is a typical Turkomen design -- oblong, with decorated borders and a row of medallions down the center. It is striking because the colors are browns and tans instead of the usual madder red and indigo. The field motifs are small and pleasing.

But wait. Look closer. Those motifs are not centuries-old floral abstractions. They are hand grenades, helicopters, and Kalashnikov rifles. This is a war rug, produced in the 1980's, sometime during the 10-year struggle against the Soviet Union.

I stare into it. It is beautiful. It is horrifying. Maybe like rap music, it represents the intersection of art and society. What makes it more powerful for me is the realization that these carpets are made by girls and their mothers. 

From what I can piece together, carpet-making in Afghanistan is primarily done by the Turkoman ethnic groups. They were traditionally sheep-herding nomads, whose houses were portable yurts -- walls of wool felt on collapsible wooden frames. Weaving on horizontal looms was an essential domestic art to produce the rugs and wall hangings to keep them warm and the bags to pack their belongings in. Weaving is a woman's art, done without paper patterns. They are as literate in carpet design as we are in text-writing.

An aside: You have to wonder what the Taliban were thinking in banishing women so thoroughly from society. I went to a cultural exhibit on the Turkomen people at the museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. From what I could tell, the men played with their horses (buzkashi -- a form of polo using a goat carcass) and made jewelry (as much for their horses as for their women). The women raised children, herded sheep, tended the gardens, went to market, and did all the weaving. I guess the utter cultural and economic bankruptcy of the Taliban (male)-driven society says it all.

Anyway, I keep visualizing giggling little girls squatting over looms, knotting wool into designs of war. It's sad to think of hand grenades and rocket launchers as part of their everyday world. My 16-year-old niece decorates storage boxes with magazine cutouts -- in middle America, her icons are shampoo bottles and athletic shoes.

They say that the war rugs became popular and their designs evolved quicklyFinalist for Best Collaborative Entry, Q4 2001 (even tho this says Q3) because Soviet army officers bought them up as souvenirs. I wonder what the girls are weaving today.

Originally written, 12.16.01