Saturday, January 8

Haji-Baba's Magic Carpets

Our Armenian-Uzbek friend is a self-confessed carpet-addict. Susanna, bless her socks, tears pages off her notebook to write long "foolproof" Uzbek-language instructions in a spidery hand to take us to the best place for carpets in Samarkand.

(To be clear, hand-made silk carpets, in designs painstakingly reproduced from Tabrizi, Turcoman or Bukhari antiques, can cost USD 3000 per square meter, in cases much more, occupying several skilled weavers for several years. We are mere lookers, not buyers of this stuff; though we are always in the market for stories.)

Of course, the taxi-driver we flag down on Afrasiab cannot make head or tail out of Susanna's map, nor does he know Khojom Street, which we were assured is a major avenue on which there is a cannot-be-missed shining hill housing the loveliest rugs of the Ipak Yoli. We stop near Shah-i-Zinda to ask other drivers at the stand, one points this way, another that; no one knows.

Finally, we find the phone number of the place in Susanna's essay. The driver calls from his cellphone to get them to tell him how to reach it; he still has to drive past the place a few times before we find it. (Khojom street, named after the local womens' emancipation movement, seems appropriate for a place where female weavers can make an independent livelihood.) At long last, we drive up the shining hill, which turns out to be a little cousin of the main tepe of Afrasiab, and close to it. As we alight, Haji Mohammad Ewaz Badghisi, nattily dressed in suit and Uzbek cap, comes limping up to give us the warmest of welcomes.

Haji-Baba hails from the across the border; Badghis province is in Afghanistan, between Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, across the Amu Darya from Uzbekistan and the Murghab from Turkmenistan. This is Northern Alliance territory -- i.e. the largely Tajik population has typically sided with the (formerly pro-Soviet) Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum. Badghis means "home of the wind" in Persian, gales born here blow into the other neighbor, Iran. Badghis was the last of Afghan provinces to be captured by the Taliban, and the first to be 'liberated' following the American invasion (following which the Taliban, as well as the local Pashtun minority, faced a mass slaughter and were ethnically cleansed from the area.)

Haji-Baba of Badghis is a master carpet maker. In the 1970s he tried making a living supplying to the USSR, but as Soviet patronage unraveled in the 1980s (and the USSR turned its attention southwards) he sought professional refuge in Kabul. Subsequently, when the Najibullah government fell in 1992, Haji-Baba was close enough to the ancien regimes to know he would not be on the right side of what might follow. (While a nomad girl in Qaraqalpaqstan might still weave exquisite carpets for her future-husband's yurt, in recent decades carpets have retreated to the houses of the wealthy, and while the carpet merchant relies on the labor of poor girls his best clients are the emir or the commissar. Further, the Taliban were not likely to be in favor of women working outside their homes.) The Badghisi family looked towards the newly independent Uzbekistan, and started working out a joint venture with Karimov's people, with the aim of reviving the lost traditions of hand-weaving carpets using natural materials in Central Asia (traditions gutted out under the Soviets.) The JV was to be 70% owned by Haji-Baba's family and 30% by the Uzbek state. The workshop undertook the task of reintroducing natural dyes, such as onion skins, madder roots, walnut shells, pomegranate, and using the labor of displaced Tajik and Uzbek women from the border areas.

Back in Kabul, Haji-Baba's factory was targeted, and he was asked to pay regular ransom during the years of Taliban rule. One day a dark-tinted Toyota Land Cruiser carrying Kalashnikov-bearing Taliban stopped at his house to tell him to take his daughters out of school, and stop employing any girls he was not related to at his workshop. That night Haji-Baba went to the Indian consul. The three teenage daughters were spirited out of the city and ended up in Bombay some weeks later. He said they had lived in India for 3 years, visiting Jaipur, Agra and Kashmir, finishing school and studying how carpets are made in different places out of different materials and tools. Host families, or people with tribal connections to Central Asia, had taken them in. For this, he said, tears in his eyes, he will always think that "Hindostan and Afghanistan like brothers". From his wallet he took out a picture of the Indian consular staff with his family.

Today, the Badghisi family is reunited in Samarkand. Abdullahad "Abdulla" Badghisi, Haji-Baba's son, he of deep-blue eyes hinting at Greek genes somewhere) runs the factory (even boasting a Linked In profile.) The daughters manage floors of workers, and as we enter the factory a little child scurries in to announce that Baba is bringing in some people again. "Dukhtaran! Daughters! Where are the Daughters?" the old man quavers out as we come into a passage lined with carpets. "Guests have come all the way from Hindostan! Bring some chai, don't forget shireen for the child! Bring it quickly into the big room."

Haji-Baba talks about Kabul and Jaipur as we sip tea, and as he reminisces he becomes mellower and mellower. First he says he will give a 50% discount to his guests, for "Hindostan Afghanistan like brothers." (His daughters exchange horrified looks.) Then he asks me to pick any carpet, and that will he sell it at cost. "Pick one, pick any one. Just give her some money and take it home." The oldest daughter admonishes him sharply (oblivious that speakers of Hindi or Urdu can follow Tajik or Pashto to some degree): "I will have to call Brother! I don't think you should do this!" She turns and gives us a helpless smile, in his old age Haji-Baba is giving away years of work for a song. "At least give the child something, Daughters!" says the old man, looking pained. Soon Mr. M is lugging around his own walnut-and-aubergine-colored prayer mat, a gift from the family, his cheeks bulging with sweets pressed onto him on every floor and every room.

We tour the garden with pomegranate trees; the stacks of house-made natural dye; the vats where silk is boiled; the looms, the store-rooms, and the picture-wall (Haji-Baba with Hillary Clinton, Kofi Annan, Islam Karimov, Pervez Musharraf and many other homra-chomra who have passed through his workshops in Kabul and Samarkand.) At last it is time to go. We step out (more sweets pressed onto a deliriously happy Mr. M) and Haji-Baba gets it into his head that the brother from Hindostan must be driven back to his hotel. "Driver! Driver! Where is that lazy fellow of a driver?" he quavers as he limps around the courtyard. An exasperated daughter pokes out her head to remind him the driver is on vacation, he has gone to a family wedding. In that case Haji-Baba himself will find us a taxi, he insists; in vain we protest. As we walk down the hill, and the street below, he valiantly waves down a reluctant taxi. The old man takes out a huge wad of crisp money from his jacket inside-pocket. No, no, he will pay for the taxi, he insists, aren't Hindostan and Afghanistan like brothers? The driver pads the quote, 5000 som; Haji-Baba peels off bills, muttering "damn Uzbeks" not-quite-under his breath. Speeding towards Samarkand, we wave at the tiny receding figure left standing in the middle of Khojom street.

(The Samarkand Bukhara Silk Carpet Joint-Venure Workshop can be seen in the video following the Afrasiab post. Their website is here.)


Blogger pjesa said...

beautiful story :)

12:05 PM  

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