By Jonathan Larson, author of Making Friends among the Taliban (2012, Herald Press) and consulting producer of documentary (aired on ABC-TV), both chronicling the life and adventures of humanitarian Dan Terry in Afghanistan.
While the bloody, beastly business of geo-politics in Central Asia grinds on, there are small eddies of change at work in the dust-blown back country.
During my days in Kabul, over yesterday’s naan and a hot cup of chai, I met at breakfast a young couple who have invested themselves in a forgotten corner of northern Afghanistan. Though their formal assignment is linguistic, they have befriended their neighbors and come to know and share their gritty lives.
There is one feature that makes these ochre dwellings of interest to the wider world. The shadows of these homes produce world-class carpets – often months in the making – that are whisked away by savvy middlemen from Mazar-i-sharif who ship them to world markets.
There is a supposed romance to these coveted pieces of craftsmanship, the couple tell me, that doesn’t even begin to square with reality. The village women who moil at the looms with chafed, raw hands, put it bluntly, “We hate carpet weaving. But we are trapped. It is the only way to feed our children.” And that poses the great dilemma. Families have many children so that there will be more hands to produce the carpets.
In particular, girls are coveted, because their eyes and nimble hands seem especially suited to the loom. The result is that if anyone goes to school to find a way out of the drudgery, it would be the boys. But many of them go on to service in the police or as enlistees in any of the armed groups currently in the field. The girls that remain, their fingers flying at the looms, with no schooling, are condemned to the lot of their mothers and grandmothers.
But a creative – entrepreneurial – device has been set in place that helps to break this hopeless cycle. The couple tell me, while sipping tea, that there is now a buyer – commissioned by a Western charity – appearing in their village, who will buy carpets above the market rate, if the family can produce a certificate confirming that their daughters are attending school. This assures the family the wherewithal for its present subsistence, and places the girls in the local school which will give them and their families the opportunity for a new life.
It is also an incentive to buy those fair-market – but stunning – Afghan carpets today. The next generation will no longer be shackled to the looms.
Jonathan Larson is a storyteller and former pastor. Click here for more on Larson and a video interview. He will be telling stories from the book, documentary and much more at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix during July 2013.