Living in Afghanistan

By Max Allen and Natalia Nekrassova, 2002

Afghanistan is situated in the heart of Asia. It is home to about 27 million people who speak many different languages and dialects. Afghanistan shares borders with Iran to the west, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to the north, China to the northeast, and Pakistan to the east and south.

In recent months, Afghanistan has been in the news almost every day. The Afghanistan shown on television seems to consist of furious men rioting or fighting, air strikes, ruined buildings and refugees. But there is another Afghanistan whose culture is ancient, diverse and truly extraordinary. We hope this invisible Afghanistan becomes visible through the observation of textiles in this exhibition.

Afghanistan is about the size of Eastern Europe and its terrain primarily consists of high mountains. But there are also plains, valleys, deserts and agricultural oases. Pushtun people, living in the central, eastern and southern parts of the country, make up nearly half the population. Others include Tajik, Hazara, Belouch, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kirghiz and Kazakh people, as well as the tribes and sub-tribes of various ethnic origins.

Afghanistan is the geographic bridge between the ancient cultures of the Middle East, Central Asia, India, China and the Mediterranean. This bridge is what makes the arts and crafts of Afghanistan so rich, distinctive and cosmopolitan. Afghanistan, the Land of the Afghan people and Land of the Hindu Kush Mountains, might also be called the Land of Textiles.

Afghanistan is one of few places in the world where even today, home-made textiles are still produced and worn. Wool, cotton and silk fabrics of various weaves; rugs and kilims; felts and embroideries; as well as knitted and braided articles are all still made by women to warm and decorate themselves, their husbands, their children and even their animals. These textiles are used to fabricate and furnish dwellings, to sell in bazaars, to earn income, or simply to express the everlasting desire to create beauty.

Treasury of Clothes might be another appropriate name for Afghanistan. On the fingers of one hand, you can count the areas of the world where most of the people still dress in traditional costume - Afghanistan is one of them. Young women are taught to weave, embroider, knit and braid. Men and women wear the same traditional dresses, coats and headdresses their grandparents and distant ancestors wore, and these traditional clothes are highly valued with the best ones still carefully kept in mothers' trunks for future generations.

Living in Afghanistan shows examples of traditional and modern textiles produced and used by people in different parts of the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition is divided into four parts: i) Nomadic Life in Yurts and Tents; ii) Settled Life in Villages and Cities; iii) Life in the Mountains, and; iv) The Life of a Family in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Canada.

Nomadic Life in Yurts and Tents

A yurt is a portable, circular dwelling used throughout Central Asia and northern Afghanistan. Nomadic people developed this type of dwelling so they could put it up and take it down easily as they moved from one place to another.

A yurt consists of an upright wooden lattice frame for the walls, plus curved ceiling poles that are tied to the frame and inserted into an open wooden wheel overhead in the centre of the structure. The frame is covered with specially made felts for the sides and roof. Felts for festive times, and felts for the yurt of a newly married couple, are usually white while everyday dwellings are covered with brown and grey felts.

To make the yurt strong, all the wooden parts and felts are tied tightly to one another - inside and outside the yurt - with woven bands of various lengths and widths. The bands not only fasten the construction together, but also decorate the interior and exterior. The size of a yurt depends on the size and wealth of the family who live in it. A large yurt can be up to six metres (more than 18 feet) in diameter.

Nomadic people in Central Asia place their yurts so the entrances face east - the primary quarter of the world for all nomadic people in Asia. When the rug that covers the door is rolled up for ventilation, the first rays of morning sun light up the interior. Fresh air also enters the yurt through the opening in the centre of the domed ceiling, and from all around the walls, cool breezes enter when the felts are rolled up a little.

The interior of a yurt is always divided into two sections: the first is the women's area to the right of the entrance, with household goods, dishes, piles of bedding and, in Kazakh and Kirghiz families, wooden chests containing the most valued objects - the textiles and jewellery. The second area to the left of the entrance belongs to the master of the family. Horse and camel accessories, guns, and all the men's belongings have their place here.

The nomads of Central Asia have never used wooden furniture. Instead they use rugs of different sizes and shapes to cover the floor and the entrance doorway, while big and small bags serve for storage (in place of drawers, closets and trunks). The bags are also used to pack the household goods when moving from one place to another.

The nomadic Belouch people of Afghanistan use tents as portable dwellings. Tents are simpler and easier to construct than yurts. A tent consists of a few wooden poles supporting very dense and strong woolen fabric that is waterproof and windproof. The ends and sides of the tent are tied to poles that are driven into the ground. The interior of the tent is decorated with rugs as well as woven and netted bags.

Both yurts and tents perfectly suit the climate and nomadic lifestyles of the peoples of Central Asia. Around the 15th century, after centuries of development and improvements, the yurt achieved its contemporary form and particular system of construction. Today, it remains one of the most practical inventions in the history of civilization.

Felts - Felt is a versatile material for nomadic life; it is easy to produce and if well made, completely waterproof and wind resistant. Felt keeps a dwelling warm in winter and cool in summer, and felt is lighter and easier to carry than woven rugs.

It takes only a few days to make a large felt. A group of women spread layers of unspun wool on a reed screen on the ground. The lower levels of wool are usually brown and grey, while the upper layer is white. If a decorated felt is desired, bundles of dyed wool are arranged on the surface in accordance with planned patterns - usually hooked diamonds and rectangles. Finally, hot water and bone glue are poured over the wool and the reed screen is rolled tightly and tied with strings. (This is the only time when men help women with their work.) In a few days, the wool dries and the fibres mat together - the felt is ready.

To make felts stronger and more durable, women usually sew the coloured felts to a thick brown or grey felt background and fix the ends and sides with cording. Uzbek people sometimes decorate their felts with embroidery.

Making felt is an ancient craft, and it was the first textile produced when ancient nomads learned to process wool. Felts are still among the most useful and admired belongings of nomadic families.

Settled Life in Villages and Cities

Central Asia has been famous for its textile production since ancient times. Two major types of weaving developed in the area among the settled population: the first, inexpensive and widely distributed cotton cloth, and the second, expensive and exquisite silk.

Home-made cotton cloth and silk cloth, produced in workshops, are both used to make clothes and household furnishings. The silks and mixed silks (made from silk warps and cotton wefts) produced using a tie-dye technique called warp ikat, or abrabandi, are especially valued.

From the Fergana Valley (once the most important centre of silk industry), the craft of ikat-making moved to the northern areas of Afghanistan where it existed until around 1930. Today, plain silk weaving is still practiced there among Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen people. The folk costume of these people is made up of silk and cotton dresses, shirts and coats. Similar garments have been worn since ancient times. Miniature style paintings from Herat in the 15th century show that men's clothing remained essentially unchanged to the end of the 19th century.

The traditional dresses, shirts and coats of Central Asia are in the shape of a tunic: a style known throughout the Oriental and Mediterranean worlds. Two straight pieces of fabric are hung over the shoulders and sewn together at the back (and sometimes in the front as well), and up the sides with openings for the head and arms. Men and women also wear small hats made of felt, wool, cotton or silk, over which they wear turbans and kerchiefs. The hats appear in various shapes and are occasionally embroidered.

Textiles are the main decorations used in the home. The interior of a house can be compared to a garden full of flowers: colourful silks, embroidered cotton wall-hangings, niche and tray covers, blankets, bed covers and curtains all adorn the interior, while festive clothes are piled in a special place for all to see.

Lakai Embroideries - Some Uzbek people still live as nomads, while others settled in cities, towns and villages long ago. The interiors of the urban rectangular stationary houses have no features in common with the traditional circular portable dwellings of the nomadic people of Central Asia.

Other Uzbek tribes and sub-tribes living in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan preserve some nomadic traits in their way of life and artistic style. Tribal Uzbeks living in stationary houses decorate their homes with textiles characteristic of the dwellings (yurts) of their nomadic relatives. So-called Lakai bags belong to this type of decoration. The Lakai sub-tribe, who live in southern Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan, are well known to North American textile collectors; the Lakai are makers of spectacular bags and wall hangings (usually red or more rarely, black or green) embroidered in silk on a wool background.

These embroideries were actually made by various Uzbek tribes, not just the Lakai. Some of them are real bags and were probably used as containers for small items. Others have the same size and shape but are just bag faces without backs, with flaps or even false embroidered flaps. The colour schemes of the bags are very bright and the patterns include images considered to be of pre-Islamic, nomadic origin.

Life in the Mountains of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is the land of the Hindu Kush, one of the greatest and least explored mountain ranges in the world. The Hindu Kush range dominates the entire country, from its highest point in Tajikistan it runs westward across Afghanistan, almost to the Iranian frontier.

The people of the mountain areas of Afghanistan, including Nuristan on the southeastern flank of the Hindu Kush, were the last to be converted to Islam. Kafiristan, meaning Land of the Infidels, was the name of the area before the population was forcibly converted in 1895. Since then it has been called Nuristan, meaning Land of Light, where the light is Islam. But even today, the people of Nuristan mix orthodox Islamic views and customs with pre-Islamic beliefs.

The Hazara people, who inhabit the vast mountain area of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, are ethnically quite different from other groups in this multiracial country. The Hazara are believed to be descendents of Mongol regiments brought into the region by Genghis Khan.

Pushtun people inhabit the mountains in the central and southern part of Afghanistan on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. The Pushtan have never recognized the national border that separates their relatives, and they continue to cross from one country to another using the numerous unpatrolled mountain trails rather than official border posts.

Many types of crafts developed in Afghanistan's mountain areas. People here never depended on distant markets and trade; they traditionally produced everything needed for day-to-day life. They are blacksmiths, potters and cobblers; basket, rug and fabric weavers; jewellers, masons and wood carvers. They make felts, cut and sew clothes, embroider and knit.

Only in recent years have examples of the decorative arts of the Hindu Kush and information about them reached the western public. The Textile Museum of Canada is fortunate to have beautiful examples of embroidered wool shepherds' coats and hats, embroidered cotton and silk dresses and skirts, small embroidered and beaded costume elements, and elaborate knitted socks from the mountain areas of Afghanistan.

Living in Afghanistan was organized by Natalia Nekrassova, former curator and head of research in the Central Asian department at the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, and Max Allen, founding curator of the Textile Museum of Canada.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada