Czechs in Afghanistan, Pt. VIII: Spinning wool into gold


Traditional handicraft is alive and well in Afghanistan, particularly the celebrated trade of carpet weaving. But the established methods in place since time immemorial are also holding people back in the struggle for sustainable livelihoods. In the next edition of Radio Prague’s series on Czechs in Afghanistan, Christian Falvey sees how Czech aid workers are supporting a unique and renowned local industry with a simple innovation.

Afghan carpets are expensive because they are durable, made by hand of genuine sheep or camel wool, and they are one-of-a-kind works of art, from the well-known “elephant-foot” patterns without which no house of splendour is complete to the “war rugs” that are entirely specific to Afghanistan, depicting the courses of the country’s seemingly endless wars of past and present. What you buy in a metropolitan shop in Europe or America may likely have been made here, on the edge of a desert that we began to explore in the last episode of this series, in a region called Shortepa that lies by the Uzbek border, and where Abdul Jamil oversees the projects of the Czech charity organisation People in Need focusing on livelihoods in the area.

“We are in the village of Karmagzar. We have eight beneficiaries here, they are Turkmen, all of them, and we are now going to see their carpet weaving.

Ah, beautiful. So this is the finished product, a finished Afghan carpet. It’s very big, maybe four metres by two metres? And how long was he working on this?

“Five months.”

Five months? So were there several people working on it?

“About four people can work on one carpet. It is common here among these Turkmen, that when they start a carpet their neighbours help, and when they finish this carpet they will go to their homes and help them.”

And so what will be the fate of this carpet, they will sell it you say for about 300 dollars?

“No, I think about 500 dollars.”

And then it will be in the market in Mazar-i-Sharif?

“In the market in Mazar-i-Sharif or Kabul or somewhere else, where the merchants will sell it for about 600 dollars.”

And if it was sold in New York?

“[laughs] Maybe more than 1,000.”

This carpet would in fact fetch many thousands, perhaps even upwards of 10,000 dollars, on the right market in the right metropolis, but the family here in Karmagzar will not be fretting over that. 500 dollars will come like a godsend; for now they live on a kitty of morsels and tea that the traders in Mazar-i-Sharif provide them with. After that they will spend roughly a quarter of the money on material for the next carpet. They will continue working at a pace of a few centimetres a day as they have done in this region for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Carpet weaving is simply not lucrative, and People in Need will likely abandon its support project.

“It takes about eight months to weave a six square metre carpet, and for this reason we don’t want to take any more carpet weaving projects. The income from carpet weaving is more, but it is not like income generation projects, where they have money for their families each month. In six to eight months they will get four or five hundred dollars for a six square metre carpet.”

But five hundred dollars for one carpet is relatively a lot of money really…

“Yes it’s a lot of money, but the expenses for one carpet are about 130 dollars, and we also provided frames for the beneficiaries, new frames, which cost about 150 dollars, and the materials, the wool and thread and these things cost about 130. So we provided 300 dollars for these beneficiaries, free for them. But a professional will produce only two, six square metre carpets in a year.”

This is the way wool has been prepared for carpets since the very beginning – by spindle. It is a little tool that many people today do not even recognise, a kind of spinning top that pulls wool into thread, and yet it is among the oldest human instruments, in use for perhaps 20,000 years. It may be too costly to subsidize carpet weaving itself, but the Czech humanitarian workers in Afghanistan have contrived another way to support the ancient industry of carpet weaving indirectly, through what you could call modernisation. A few dozen beneficiaries in the region here by the banks of the Amu Darya river are now learning a brand new tool, a simple thing, itself a relic in the West, but introduced by the Czechs here for the first time: the spinning wheel.

Pavel Přikryl: “Our beneficiary here processes wool and then uses it for making carpets.”

Abdul Jamil: “This is a wool spinning wheel that we have provided for the beneficiaries – we have about 30 in this district. They make thread, and then they use it for carpet weaving. They colour them, and the carpets are very expensive because they are pure wool. And some of the people who do not weave carpets spin the wool and sell the thread to other people.”

And the spinning wheel is new in Afghanistan?

“Yes it is new in Afghanistan, this is the first time we have brought it to this district. Two or three years ago they brought this machine from Pakistan.”

And so People in Need was the first to bring the spinning wheel here?

“Yes, the first to bring it to this provence and this district.”

And how did people respond to it when they first saw it?

“Before there were spinning about 100 grams in one day, or 200. Now they can spin about 4 kilos in one day. Now they are really happy, because for one kilogram they will get 50 Afghanis, or 1 dollar.”

The simple spinning wheel, relegated to fairytale in Western civilisation, has the air of a magical contraption – and here in Northern Afghanistan that’s exactly what it is, turning wool off the sheep’s back into gold - 20 to 40 times the amount the people here could have ever made without it, and helping keep alive the traditional work of carpet weaving that is cherished around the world.

Photo: author