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The real story behind Afghanistan’s war rugs

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The end of the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan has resulted in the withdrawal of most foreign aid workers and contractors.

It may well also spell the demise of the country’s war rug industry.

As a specialist in the visual and material culture of the Islamic world, I first became aware of war rugs when I was working on a book on truck decoration in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Since that time, I’ve followed changes in this industry and cultivated relationships with Pakistani and Afghan rug sellers.

War rugs – with symbols of war – are distinctive and dynamic in their styles. But they’re often misunderstood by buyers, journalists and curators.

There is no evidence of the existence of Afghan war rugs prior to the late-20th century.

The earliest rugs seem to have emerged shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 from refugee camps in Pakistan, where millions of Afghans had relocated. Featuring guns, helicopters and tanks, they were small and shoddily made with coarse wool. Rug sellers and souvenir shops pitched them to workers for non-government organizations and Western government officials.

The designs have become more sophisticated over the years.

[Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images]English words were added, intentionally or accidentally garbled with Cyrillic words and letters to evoke a Soviet connection. After 9/11, fixed patterns started to emerge – a sign that weavers were adhering to templates provided by rug merchants. The images made it clear that they were hoping to primarily appeal to an American souvenir market.

One popular design commemorates the 9/11 attacks, pointing out that it was not Afghans who were responsible, but terrorists from other........

© Fast Company

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