"Our History" by Chris Walter - The Turkomans of Northern Afghanistan

This article originally appeared in the magazine “Oriental Rug Review”.

“Our History" by Chris Walter

There are no other people on earth for whom rugs, rug making, and the whole culture of rugs are more central to their existence and perception than the Turkomans. There is scarcely a Turkoman family to be found, at least among those from Afghanistan, where the women don't weave and the men are not involved in rug trade in some way.

Jora Agha is a Turkoman from northern Afghanistan. According to our calendar, Jora was born around the year 1943 in Besh Kepe Surkh, a Kislak or village of Akcha, a small market town in northern Afghanistan. Akcha is the center of the Wuluswalik or district which bears the same name in the Vilayet of Shibergan. Jora's father was engaged primarily in the construction of houses from earth, the only building material available there, and throughout most of Afghanistan. Carpets were woven in the home as he grew up, mostly by his mother and sisters. The designs that he recalls being woven in his home were the Ferik naksha, also known as the fil poi or elephant foot, Dowlatabat naksha, and Mauri Gul.

Jora identifies his tribe as the Ulu Tepe Gunesh (main peak sun). His larger tribal identity is Ersari, as are most of the Turkomans of northern Afghanistan. That the sub-tribe Ulu Tepe Gunesh is unknown to Western literature is just an illustration of how little in general is known about Turkoman tribal affiliations, aside from the larger super tribes. All of my Ersari Turkoman friends from northern Afghanistan, in fact, have tribal identities which are generally unfamiliar to the outside literature.


Jora Agha's Family

Jora has two brothers and three sisters. His older brother was named Ane Murat, meaning Juma or Friday Murat. Jora means pair, indicating that when he was born he was seen as the pair of his older brother. Jora never went to school, at least to one of the secular variety, but for 10 years he did go to a medreseh for about one half hour each morning. Here he learned reading and writing as well as Quran. A minority of Turkomans of his generation read and write to any significant degree, so he must have been an avid learner. As with all Turkoman children, he started working as soon as he could be of use, helping around the home or helping his father.

At the age of 14 he started working outside the home as a dealer in kilims, khorjins, juvals, felts, and all sorts of small utilitarian woven articles which he would obtain from villagers and nomads and sell to dealers. The dealers to whom he sold these pieces came from Kabul, Kunduz, and Mazar. They were mostly Persian-speaking Tajiks. In those days there were very few Turkoman rug dealers other than those marketing the products woven in their own homes.

Jora started dealing in carpets when he was 21 years old. It, of course, takes considerably more capital to deal in carpets than in the smaller utilitarian weavings which, especially at that time, were quite inexpensive. He made his first trip to Kabul 26 years ago when he was about 23 years old. At that time he saw Kabul as an incredible and fascinating place. He first saw foreigners there -- tourists, government representatives, and dealers from America and Europe. As it was difficult for him and other northerners to contact foreigners directly, usually they would sell to the shop dealers; occasionally, by displaying their goods on the street, they were able to sell to tourists directly and realize a much better profit. For several years, Jora went back and forth between Akcha and Kabul in this way, usually staying in Kabul for about one month at a time.


The Russian Invasion

Like everyone else in Afghanistan, Jora was caught up in the Russian invasion and the war that followed. In the early period of the war, the fighting was especially intense in the North and around Akcha. During that time Jora was himself a Mujahit for about one year and a half, fighting in the northern region. He says that during that early stages of the war the Mujahideen had not yet organized themselves into chains of command, nor was there much structure of any kind; just any 20 or so acquaintances would get together, form a unit and fight as best they could. By this time, however, he had a family whose safety was in jeopardy and, realizing that he must somehow get them out of Afghanistan, he moved them to Kabul late in 1981. In this he was fortunate; many others who did not leave until somewhat later had to make the very long and arduous trek from the North over the rugged central part of Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, then out to the dangerous plain around Ghazni, through Wardak and the frontier ranges, finally crossing into Pakistan south of Parachinar. Many thousands of families made this grueling trek of 700 kilometers or more. Jora and his family, however, were able to flee by a much shorter route over the border range northeast of Jalalabad. Arriving in Pakistan in early 1982, he settled his family first in a temporary camp near Kemalpur, then in another near Haripur, and finally, in 1983, in Haripur refugee camp.

In leaving Afghanistan, Jora and his family escaped with only the clothes they were wearing; they brought no household goods whatsoever. However, he did bring some kilims, carpets, and tent bands, which were extremely cheap in Afghanistan at the time as, in trying to leave, everyone was selling them for whatever price they could get. These he sold in Peshawar, making a good profit, and immediate got money to support his family. He started doing business in Pakistan right from the beginning, getting goods sent out of Afghanistan as he could. He sold wholesale in Peshawar and also would attend the weekly Juma bazaar in Islamabad where he sold to foreigners, diplomats and aid workers. He later took a small shop in Islamabad from which he sold both wholesale and retail whenever he could. His son Baz Mehmet now runs this shop.

Collaborating to Help Afghan Weavers

I met Jora in 1987 and we became close friends right away. As I already spoke Turkish, it was easy to pick up Turkmeni. While the entire Turkoman community in exile in Pakistan was very kind to me, Jora especially gave me immeasurable assistant in establishing my business there. We worked together for a year or so, dealing in the older stock goods that were still coming out of Afghanistan. In visiting the refugee camp where Jora and his family lived, I became acquainted with the Turkoman families who were weaving there. Recognizing the quality of their work and their diligence, I longed to see them have access to the materials that their skill merited. Having developed a familiarity with the vegetal dye revival in Turkey over several years of involvement there, I conceived the idea of applying this concept to the Turkoman weavers in exile.

Jora was enthusiastic about the idea from the beginning. Partially this was in anticipation of the carpets themselves, and the wonder and pleasure in developing a new carpet which recaptured all the subtle beauty of the carpets of his forebears, carpets with which he had occasionally been able to deal but only when lucky enough to find one that was affordable. At the same time, he realized the social potential of the project: work for the refugees at a somewhat better rate than the market, the opportunity for Ersari Turkoman weavers to relearn designs that were part of their heritage, and the chance for them to regain familiarity with the superior materials -- handspun wool and vegetal dyes -- used by their forebears.

Establishing the Ersari Project

Because of Jora's status with the Turkoman refugee community, he was a natural candidate for a job that involved coordinating a large number of people and enlisting their respect and cooperation. This was essential if we were to realize the ultimate purpose of the project: to achieve all of the aims previously stated as well as to generate a substantial profit for reinvestment in health, education, and other areas deemed necessary within the Turkoman community.

For almost five years, we worked together on this project and, I am happy to say, we accomplished many of our original objectives. The first two or three years were especially difficult for both of us as we struggled with many technical issues -- dye stuffs, sources, color, wool, spinning and carding, weave, design. Happily, most of these issues were resolved, if not permanently at least in a fashion that lends credence to our original intent of recreating an authentic Ersari Turkoman carpet.

Still one of our initial objectives remains unfulfilled: to make use of the resources we have accumulated to make substantial infrastructural contributions to the Turkoman community. We realize that our status as a refugee population in Pakistan is transient; indeed, the consensus from all hands is that this era of exile in Pakistan is drawing to a close. Within the past year the welcome to all refugees from the Pakistani side has been wearing increasingly thin. Perceiving the war against Communism as being won, the Pakistanis have little patience or understanding of the myriad ethnic conflicts that continue to make Afghanistan a very unsafe place to live. From their side, no one is more eager to go home than the Turkomans, whose 12-year history in Pakistan has indeed been a case study of thriving amidst adversity. For the moment we bide our time, reluctant to expend our hard earned resources in a land of temporary exile, waiting for the situation in the north of Afghanistan to reach a state where people can return and live in safety.

Jora believes that when he and the other Turkomans return to the north of Afghanistan, when we move our project there, then he will make better rugs still. In his homeland, in the plains, mountains and valleys surrounding Akcha and Mazar-i-Sharif, he and his fellow Turkomans know the land, the sheep, the plants, the water -- where and how all the necessary components of fine rugs can be found.

Well-Earned Pride of Product

There is hardly an instance where I have sat down to write with greater pleasure and anticipation of illuminating a subject well deserving of exposure. Contemporary rug literature and trade magazines are replete with accounts, observations, and promotions by rug producers living in the country of sale or distribution, be they originally of eastern or western birth. Most of these individuals spend 90 percent of their time in the respective countries of sale and, while undoubtedly having considerable input into the rugs that are produced, are often rather removed from the functional mechanics and day-to-day labor and struggle of making rugs. There are more than a few major rug producers who would be hard pressed to tie a knot, throw a weft, spin yarn, dye the colors they want, or finish and wash a rug properly by themselves.

Not so another group of people, people whom we may call the real rug producers, the local on-the-scene rug producers who follow the process through from start to finish. From among this group of people there are, of course, great variations in ability and artistry. The individuals to whom I pay tribute in this and in subsequent articles are those who have made extraordinary efforts and contributions to this field of endeavor and who have committed their lives, usually with a passion, to making beautiful rugs. They have been involved in every aspect of hands-on rug making and could do any of the tasks which are required to make good rugs.

These are people who have devoted their lives to rugs, rug making, and the rug business, who are known and respected within their own society and community, yet who would probably never normally come to the attention of the rug world at large. As people with whom I have worked closely, in most cases for a number of years, I owe a great deal to them for their persistence, hard work, and enthusiasm for and devotion to rug making. Jora Agha is the first real rug producer to be highlighted in my series of articles.”

-- February/March, 1993


Note: Jora and his wider family moved back to their Turkoman homeland in Northern Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. Some families stayed in Attock and Peshawar as the younger generation had married into the local Pathani tribes.

Of my other Turkoman friends, the AllahBerin brothers have moved permanently to Lahore where they wash and prepare all the rugs coming straight off the Turkoman looms in the homelands. Most of the traditional Mughal style carpets in my shop originate here. AllahMurad’s wider family have returned to breeding the famous Akhal Teke horses in the homelands. Habbibullah and Jawad have remained old and antique Turkoman rug specialists, and each year bring their rare goods south and meet me in Peshawar or Lahore.

Credit must be given to Harald Boehmer and Hans Bruggerman whose successful research into the actual dye plants used in the pre-industrial carpets helped reboot the art of Eastern Weaving. There are many “Joras”, in Shiraz, Persia, Kurdistan, the D.O.B.A.G project, Turkey etc.  expressing a vibrant cultural re-establishment following the imperialist nightmare.  U.N.E.S.C.O. provided expert organic chemists, dye specialists from France, Stanford University associates provided venture capital, and small time specialist dealers around the world supported the productions.