Habibullah Kerimi Making A Life And Rugs In Exile by Chris Walter

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This series of articles (see Jora Agha, Ngodup Dorje) is intended to pay tribute to those who are creating some of the most beautiful rugs produced today. These are not the people who present glossy ads proclaiming their own superiority, who reserve to themselves and to their companies all credit for producing beautiful rugs, but rather those producers who live and work in the country of origin of the rugs. Advertising rugs, and taking credit for their production, is perhaps an inevitable result of marketing carpets in the country of their end use, rather than in their country of origin, I confess to being guilty of this practice myself.

[This article originally appeared in print in Volume 15, No. 3 of Oriental Rug Review, in 1995, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission.]

Habibullah and the extended family.

Although the importer-“producer” in the country of consumption undoubtedly has some degree of input into the production of the rugs he or she imports, the tremendous creative role of the local producer is too often overlooked. On site producers are the people who know how to manipulate wool, how to dye and spin yarn, how to weave, and how to design and structure rugs. They know how to obtain the essential rug-making components at the best price and of the best quality. Since they are often of the same ethnic background as the rug weavers, they are able effectively to communicate to weavers all that needs to be communicated, either ideas of their own or of the foreign importer, and they determine what degree of creative freedom to leave to the weaver.

Being intimate with the culture of rug weaving from birth, they have an intimate connection with the structure, design, and color (in sum the total feeling and art) of rug making. There have been many instances when local producers with whom I have worked have developed ideas that never would have occurred to me and which have greatly impressed Western buyers with their subtlety and beauty. Those who are busy with the marketing of rugs in foreign countries are often at a loss to capture the essence of the weaving arts, which to the on-site producer is so deeply ingrained as to be almost instinctive.

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Habibullah Kerimi is one of these local producers. Habibullah was born in 1965 in the far north of Afghanistan. The village in which he was born is called Namazga Kishlak, which lies on the Kemengen Channel; the channel brings irrigation water from the mountains to the south. Namazga Kishlak is about a half-day horse ride from the former Soviet border and a few kilometers outside Andkhoy, a small market town virtually on the border of the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Habibullah’s father, Allah Nazar.

Habibullah’s father, Allah Nazar, migrated with his tribe from Kerki, in what is now Turkmenistan, around 1929. “Migrated” is perhaps a softer word for saying that they, like most of the Turkomans in Afghanistan, fled from Soviet rule and forced collectivization. Allah Nazar was five years old when the tribe left Kerki behind and crossed over to the relative freedom of Afghanistan. His own father’s name was Mullah Abdul Kerim and he was born around 1903. Up until the time Allah Nazar fled his native land, he was a small landholder and farmer.

I also knew Habibullah’s uncle, Haji Khuda Nazar. He was born in Kerki in 1907 and died just last year (1994) in Pakistan. He suffered the pain of exile twice, once from his native land and once from Afghanistan. Haji Khudai Nazar died a double exile.

Like the majority of Turkomans in Afghanistan, Habibullah’s people are of the Ersari tribe. Ersari is a very large tribal grouping which has many sub-tribal divisions. Habibullah’s people are of the Chekir-Suleyman Qom tribe, or sub-tribe, of Ersari. The Chekir-Suleyman Qom number about 50,000 in the Andkhoy area alone. More people of this sub-tribe live in other areas in the north of Afghanistan.

When Habibullah was young, his family’s main occupation was dyeing woolen yarn red, from madder root. Since Turkoman carpets are predominantly red, plenty of red yarn was needed. Although not all Turkoman carpets being woven in northern Afghanistan at the time contained natural red from madder root, Habibullah’s family at least attests to there being some used as recently as 20 years ago. They also obtained yellow dye from isparak, a flower found locally, and brown and reddish colors of various hues from walnut husks.

They supplied these naturally dyed yarns to the weavers in Andkhoy, as well as to weavers in Dowlatabad, Shibergan, Bulchirak, and Shirintigab. They also wove carpets in their own homes, mostly Saryk design, Ahal Gul, and Ali Mahal design. They wove Saryk and Ahal Gul mostly with synthetic colors, while they used mostly naturally dyed yarn for the Ali Mahal naksha. This probably reflected the demands of the market at the time.

Usually they sold their carpets to other Turkoman dealers in Andkhoy who brought them to Kabul for onward wholesale. Sometimes they collected and brought them to Kabul themselves and sold them to dealers there, mostly other Turkomans and Tajiks, who sold them to foreign buyers. Up until “the revolution,” they had never met or known any Westerners themselves. All of this work was carried on by the extended family of which Habibullah is a member.

For most Turkomans, the nuclear family has much less relevance than the extended family or clan. Even in the refugee situation in modern Pakistan, this type of social organization persists. Although we have formed a company of sorts, all relationships and organization of work and living still adhere to this traditional format.

The lives of the Kerimi family continued to be involved with wool, yarn, and rugs even after the socialist “revolution” in Afghanistan. Since Andkhoy is a fairly remote part of Afghanistan, government interference was minimal. With the Russian invasion, however, things began to change. One of Habibullah’s older brothers was martyred in early fighting against the Soviets. In 1981 their clan decided to flee Afghanistan. If they had not done so, the men of fighting age would have been drafted into the Afghan government army to fight for a communist Afghanistan. Haji Khudai Nazar, the eldest Agha from the clan, made the decision to leave since he felt that the war would continue for a long time; he had already experienced Russian occupation in Turkmenistan and had no expectation of a favorable conclusion. Thus the decision was made to flee to Pakistan.

Once the decision was made to leave Afghanistan, the clan elected to make the long and dangerous trek in three groups. The group for whom it was least dangerous to flee, since it contained no men of draftable age, went first; they went by road as far as Kabul. Habibullah was 16 years old at that time and went with the first group, which contained 35 people. From Kabul they took a mountain escape route to the southwest, sometimes by night, on foot and on donkey, and left Afghanistan via Parachinar-Tri-Mangal. The remaining two groups walked the entire distance from Andkhoy, over the mountains of central Afghanistan, via the Hazarajat. This is a trek of 400-500 kilometers and took several weeks. After many adventures and hardships, they exited from Afghanistan via Parachinar, after crossing the dangerous area near the main road between Kabul and Kandahar. Most of Habibullah’s brothers, cousins, and uncles reached Pakistan in this way.

The entire clan was reunited in Peshawar, and one house was rented where all 45 people lived together. After two years, the clan moved to Haripur Refugee Camp in the north of Pakistan, about midway between Peshawar and Islamabad. Here they rented a large compound on the outskirts of the camp and built their own house for the whole clan.

In 1984 some of the men moved to Lahore to start dealing in rugs there in the growing community of Afghan refugee merchants on Nicholsen Road. In 1985 they also rented a shop in Islamabad. From their earliest days in Pakistan they had taken a room in one of the rug wholesale buildings in Peshawar Qaisar Market. During this whole period they continued to bring in goods from Afghanistan. They imported Andkhoy Turkomans goods as well as carpets from every carpet producing area of Afghanistan: Herat, Qaisar, Maimana, Kunduz, and Baluch goods.

Their success in Pakistan, if somewhat exceptional in recent years, was in the earlier period typical of many in the Afghan refugee community in Pakistan, particularly among the Turkomans. Eventually, through much hard work, enterprise, and with considerable risk, they achieved a level of success that caused envy among some Pakistanis.

I have previously mentioned that the Turkomans live and work for the most part as a extended family or clan. There is thus much less emphasis on success for the individual or nuclear family. Even though Habibullah has taken a leading role in all the production we have undertaken because of his energy and talents, the whole clan cooperates in a way that is only possible for people who have been working together for their entire lives. This type of intimate cooperation would be very difficult to achieve with a company formed in the usual way, from people without strong familial ties.

Habibullah now oversees carpet and kilim production in six different refugee camps, working with different ethnic groups from northern Afghanistan.

Habibullah now oversees carpet and kilim production in six different refugee camps, working with different ethnic groups from northern Afghanistan. In two camps in the north of Pakistan, carpet weaving is done by Pashtun-speaking Baluchi refugees from Baghlan. In Baluchistan he manages kilim production by Uzbeks from Maimana, kilim and carpet production by Mogol refugees, and sumak production by Larhabi refugees, all from the north of Afghanistan. In addition to this he manages a large operation for hand carding and spinning of wool in a separate camp in Baluchistan.

Habibullah speaks Turkmeni, his native language, plus Uzbeki, Farsi, Pashtun, Urdu, and some English. This degree of linguistic ability is both necessary and not very unusual for a young Turkoman in Pakistan. What is unusual is the scope of activities which he manages. He controls weaving on over 2000 looms spread out over Pakistan, and he is able to do so with a minimum of modern conveniences and services. He also coordinates the gathering of vegetal dye stuffs from all over Pakistan and Afghanistan and manages perhaps the largest vegetal dyeing operation anywhere in the world outside of Turkey.

He has accomplished all this not only because of his love of the art of carpet weaving but also because of his exploration of forms and possibilities in carpet and kilim making outside of the traditions of his own people. He is a quiet and self-effacing person who not only loves his own culture and people but who has a keen interest in the world at large. We travelled together to Uzbekistan in 1992 to explore the possibilities of setting up production there. While he has not yet travelled to his father’s homeland, Turkmenistan, he hopes to do so in the near future. As with most refugees, his ability to see the world at large has been hampered by a lack of the requisite travel documentation.

Like most of the true rug producers that have been highlighted in this series of articles, Habibullah comes from a remote and fairly humble background. Like the others he possesses a vision which encompasses yet extends far beyond his own culture, and which has already touched many lives in parts of the world far from his origins. He has taken the art and craft of his own people, the Turkomans, and through inspiration and contact with other cultures he has created carpets of unique beauty. It is through individuals like Habibullah that the great new carpets being made today are produced. It is my hope that, like the Motashems of the past, these contemporary local producers will be remembered for their skill, vision, and creativity.

[This article originally appeared in print in Volume 15, No. 3 of Oriental Rug Review, in 1995, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission.]

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