Feature: Afghan carpet industry returns home from Pakistan, now benefits both countries
KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 7 (UNHCR) - War in Afghanistan drove the carpet weavers into exile in Pakistan, peace has drawn these refugees home. The result is an industry straddling the border, providing jobs for both countries and reinforcing their economic inter-dependence.
"When war came all the businessmen left for Pakistan and set up shop there," said Allahbirdi, who now runs a wholesale carpet manufacturing business in Kabul. "In the Taliban time there was no business here. I came back within two or three months of them being driven out."
Allahbirdi, who had fled 16 years ago to Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, has established a solid business based on his own factory and buying from home weavers who have returned to Afghanistan under the voluntary repatriation programme run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
"I bought a shop on Chicken Street (Kabul's most famous carpet and crafts area) and after six months told my family to follow me here from Peshawar. They came with help from UNHCR," he said at a second office where he spends much of his time in the revived wholesale district away from the centre of Kabul.
Among the more than 1.5 million Afghans who flooded back to their homeland in 2002 under the UN refugee agency's repatriation programme were a substantial portion of the carpet weavers. Centres of production in Pakistan like Peshawar saw output plummet.
Carpet dealers in Pakistan, who include wealthier Afghans who had relocated from Afghanistan, initially found their supplies disrupted as families of weavers left Pakistan but were too busy rebuilding homes in Afghanistan to resume production.
Now, a more stable pattern has emerged. Inside Afghanistan, some returnees have established factories; Allahbirdi employs about 90 people, themselves former refugees, in his Kabul Magu Village Carpets.
But most production, as before in Pakistan and earlier in a peaceful Afghanistan, is done in homes. The skill rests with the Turkoman, Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik populations - not the Pashtuns who constitute the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
In a compound near Allahbirdi's wholesale office, six families have set up looms outside their rooms where everyone - girls, boys, men, women - spend all their spare hours knotting carpets that provide their main income. A tarpaulin bearing the UNHCR logo provides shade.
A carpet of about three by four metres can take five people two months to make. The prices vary widely depending on the density of knots, the quality of wool, the use of natural or chemical dyes and subjective qualities like the appeal of the design and colour.
Saidar Azghar shows Allahbirdi several small carpets, finely knotted and in Caucasian designs - rather than traditional Afghan styles - designed to appeal to current European fashions. His initial request for the equivalent of $86 a square metre ends at $55, with both sides apparently pleased.
But their connection to Pakistan has not ended - even prices are quoted purely in Pakistani rupees on both sides of the border. Each of the carpets that Allahbirdi bought from the Hazara family will be loaded onto a truck and sent to Peshawar, where washing and trimming of the pile is carried out before they are exported to foreign markets from Pakistan.
Some of the wool used in Afghanistan is also dyed in Pakistan, then supplied to weavers among the nearly three million Afghans who have returned from exile in Iran and Pakistan since the start of the UNHCR repatriation programme in March 2002.
Allahbirdi does not see this connection ending soon. It is not just that Afghanistan needs time before basic infrastructure like telecommunications and air links improve, some of the skills that Afghans brought to Pakistan have been permanently transferred.
And many Afghans remain in the country that gave them shelter, continuing to produce carpets and dominating some sectors of the business such as the finishing. Pakistan and Afghanistan has a complex economic relationship of trade, migration and mutual benefits that is becoming more visible as Afghan refugees leave Pakistan.
The industry has also become more sophisticated since the days when the carpet business was centred in Kabul and there was little production in Pakistan. Both countries are more conscious they are part of a worldwide market. "It is profit for both Pakistan and Afghanistan," said Allahbirdi.
That is demonstrated in his factory near the centre of Kabul. Abdullah, the 26-year-old manager, is very much a product of the years of turmoil triggered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
"I was a child when we went to Pakistan, during the Russian war. I returned 18 months ago because there was finally peace and I wanted to take a part in rebuilding my country," said Abdullah. "I was in Pakistan more than 20 years and my family is still in Peshawar. But they are moving here next month. I am so happy to be living here again."
But his links to Pakistan continue. The young businessman points to rows of fellow Turkomen workers producing completely non-traditional patterns in hand spun wool with natural dyes.
The high-value product, half of the factory's output, will be taken to Peshawar for washing and then shipped by air to Japan - a lucrative business connection first established several years ago when Allahbirdi was part of the Afghan carpet industry based in Pakistan.
By Jack Redden in Kabul, Afghanistan