Afghan carpets take beating

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HERAT, Afghanistan -- Abdol Satar huddles in his shop, wrapped in a blanket against the bitter cold as he waits for customers.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/03/2010 (4548 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

HERAT, Afghanistan — Abdol Satar huddles in his shop, wrapped in a blanket against the bitter cold as he waits for customers.

“Come on, brother,” the 28-year-old calls out to everyone who passes his shop in the city of Herat in western Afghanistan. “I have all kinds of top-quality carpets.” But not many people take him up on the offer.

“Until three years ago, I would sell around 50 carpets in a day,” he said. Now, he said he’s lucky if he can sell 15 carpets a month.

Manufacturing carpets has been a mainstay of Afghanistan’s economy for centuries. But weavers and traders say the domestic market for Afghan carpets, long highly prized for their designs, natural materials and colour, is under threat from cheaper, machine-made imports from Turkey and Iran.

Zarmina, 38, who uses only one name, has spent almost half her life weaving carpets. She complains there are no longer customers for the items she produces. Even though she is the main breadwinner for a family of seven, she is considering giving up weaving.

“In the past, the buyers would pay me in advance for still uncompleted carpets. Today, I take my carpets to the market many times a week, but they will only buy at prices that don’t even cover my outlay,” she said.

“I am so fed up that I may leave the industry if I can find another job, because I can’t earn enough to cover my family’s costs through carpet weaving,” she said.

About 80 per cent of the weavers are women, making the trade a vital source of income for many families.

The traders who sell the raw materials for rug-making are unhappy with the collapse in the trade. Mohammad Yunus says most weavers buy their materials from him on credit and pay him only after they have sold their carpets.

“When the weavers used to borrow the materials from me, their carpets would sell quickly and they’d pay me back on time,” he said. “However, the weavers haven’t been making good sales recently, so they’ve been unable to pay me for months. When I ask them for my money, they complain that their carpets haven’t sold. And I am about to go bankrupt.” But if the domestic market is collapsing, exports appear to be soaring.

“Carpet exports from Herat province were more than 250,000 square metres (in 2008), while the figure for (2009) was 450,000 square metres,” said Torialai Ghawsi, deputy head of the carpet industry association in Herat.

Roughly three out of every five carpets made in Afghanistan last year were exported, with Germany, the United States, Belgium, India and Tajikistan among the top markets.

Within the domestic market, however, imports of cheaply made knock-offs from other countries are hurting sales of Afghanistan-made carpets.

Khalil Ahmad Yarmand, deputy head of the chamber of commerce in Herat, complains many of the carpets imported and sold as Afghan carpets aren’t up to the country’s quality standards.

“To curb imports of low-quality products and fake goods, we have asked the commerce and finance ministries several times to set up standards offices in provinces that have borders and trade routes, but unfortunately these requests have been ignored,” Yarmand said.

Yarmand is among those who believe a dose of protectionism could help sustain Afghan carpet-makers, through the imposition of high tariffs.

It is a view shared by economist Mohammad Ibrahim Foruzesh, who says the absence of customs controls and quality standards encourages traders to import low-grade, cheap goods.

“If high taxes are imposed on imports of Iranian and Turkish carpets, they will be priced higher than Afghan carpets,” he said. “People will then go back to handmade Afghan carpets again and traders will refrain from importing foreign ones.”

Mohammad Shafi Ferozi is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a non-profit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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