The Warlord Who Sells Carpets in Kabul, Afghanistan May 2017

It was possibly the friendliest welcome in the world – the turbaned, bearded man with a wide smile brought his hand over his heart and bid me Salam aleykum.  “Aleykum Salam” I replied and returned the gesture. You will probably be surprised to hear then that my encounter happened on a street corner this week in Afghanistan.

For most of us our entire knowledge of Afghanistan has been gleaned from CNN, documentaries on the war in Afghanistan and visions of suicide bombings in Kabul beamed into our lounge rooms. But I want to walk you through a personal journey across Afghanistan- its people, glorious landscapes and rich history. I won’t for a moment try to minimise the security risks that still exist in Afghanistan as I travelled with specialist guides (it’s not a destination for independent travel). I was one of only a few hundred tourists that dare to venture to the country each year.

Much of my journey will be told in pictures rather than words. The people of Afghanistan are a remarkable mix with several predominant ethnicities- the Pashtun, Tajiks and Hazaras. Their features speak of their historic origins: a mix of Persian, Greek, IndoAryan and, of course, descendants of the Mongolian Genghis Khan. Maybe you’ve pictured the swarthy character with long beard and turban as typical but you’re just as likely to see blue eyes and fair complexions among the Afghanis.

Among my most enjoyable experiences in Afghanistan has been to take lunch in a chaikhana (tea house). Sitting cross legged on Afghani rugs with a spread of freshly baked breads, skewers of kebab and pilau of rice washed down with pots of tea. The ‘truck-stop’ of the Silk Road the chaikhanas have existed in similar form for centuries as travellers journeying from Persia and the Levant or from India and China crossed through with their trading caravans. Hospitality is one of the true constants I have experienced as I’ve travelled through Muslim nations. Their faith, their love for the family unit and their hospitality and welcome for travellers are customary, indeed legendary.

One of my other favourite experiences has been while carpet shopping in Kabul. We ducked our heads to enter a dark little shop that belonged of all people to a ‘retired’ Mujahideen commander (warlord) from the north of Afghanistan near Mazare Sharif (an area renowned for carpet making). (More on Afghani warlords later…!) We sat cross legged on plush rugs and he regaled us with stories of fighting the Soviets in the 1980s as he unfolded carpets for display. Over pots of tea and sweets we heard tales of crossings from Pakistan with mules that took weeks to bring arms and munitions for his troops. He switched back and forth with the conversation pointing out the finer details of the knotting techniques, quality of the lambs wool or silk and the typical designs (mostly arabesque or floral) that spoke of the different regions where the carpets were made. Some of the larger rugs would take two women 6 to 9 months to make. By the time the pile of carpets was a foot high in the centre of the room I had become an expert of sorts on Afghani rugs.
I wish I liked ugly things but really what else was a girl to buy on the old Silk Road but the finest silk Afghani carpet?

photo gallery: see Travel Gallery / Asia Gallery / Faces of Afghanistan


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