Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan

Curatorial Essay by Max Allen

Modern warfare came to Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion of 1979. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, a decade of civil war piled disaster on top of calamity. Now the global war on terrorism continues to fill the land and the sky of Afghanistan with the machinery of death. 

LOOMING DISASTER: Afghan weavers depict on their rugs what they see and what matters most to them. And so over three decades of chaos, the customary images of flowers have turned into bullets, or landmines, or hand grenades. Birds have turned into helicopters and fighter jets. Landscapes have filled up with field guns and troop carriers. Sheep and horses have turned into tanks. 

But are the war rugs pro-war or anti-war? Whose side are they on? 

It is hard to tell what a particular rug is supposed to mean when its history is hidden and its maker is unknown. In the past, the materials and weaving techniques of an oriental rug were a clue to its origin. People of different ethnic groups, in different places, made rugs in different ways. Today four million people from all over Afghanistan have been mixed together in refugee camps, sharing and mixing images and techniques. As a result, the old methods of sorting rugs into categories no longer apply. 

What’s left are the rugs themselves – eloquent anonymous documents of catastrophe.

MINES: Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world, a legacy of the Soviet war. Countless mines remain hidden in fields and roads, waiting to be detonated. Adults and children with arms and legs blown off are a common sight. Of all the Canadians who have died in military operations in Afghanistan, 75% have been killed by home made mines. These “improvised explosive devices,” similar to the ones used by Afghan fighters to retaliate against the Soviets, are used today by al Qaeda and the Taliban against coalition forces. 

CROSSFIRE: Some war rugs include weapons that are hardly visible. They blend right in. The rugs look like typical oriental rugs, until you notice the troop carriers and helicopters neatly hidden in the body of the rug or encircling its border. Sometimes images of weapons cover the whole field of the rug, like a colourful meadow of flowers. On other rugs, guns and tanks and planes stand out as individual portraits, framed perhaps by a row of bullets or grenades.

The weavers of Afghanistan have seen the machinery of war, not through radar scopes or on the internet, but straight on, caught in the crossfire. Cities and landscapes under attack are drawn f rom multiple shifting vantage points – from above and from the side all at once – as if no solid place remained to safely stand and observe. 

A bird’s eye view of Afghan roads would show tanks, armoured personnel carriers, LAVs, trucks and motorized artillery crawling like ants from one military engagement to another. A bird’s eye view of airfields like Kandahar and Bagram would show fighters and bombers and helicopters coming and going. The war rugs, like television news programs, report this incessant military activity. Television imagery itself, from CNN and al-Jazeera, has also influenced rug-weaving. Fractured scenes with multiple images and moving lines of text appear on the rugs, just as they do on television screens. 

HEROIC PORTRAITS: War rugs show heroes as well as weaponry and shattered landscapes. Amanullah Kahn was the king of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929. He fought the British to a standstill in the Third Anglo-Afghan War and gained independence for Afghanistan. He campaigned against the veil, against polygamy, and encouraged the education of girls. His attempts at modernization created a violent religious backlash, and most of his army deserted rather than resist. To avoid a civil war he abdicated and went into exile in 1929, and most of his reforms were overturned. The skill and bravery of Ahmad Shah Massoud – who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s – was legendary. After the Soviet withdrawal, he helped set up the Northern Alliance and served as Defence Minister in the first independent Afghan government. Internal friction led to civil war, the destruction of Kabul, and sectarian massacres. On September 9, 2001, Massoud was murdered by Taliban assassins. 


© 2008 Textile Museum of Canada