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Diamond In The Rough -
Peshawar - "The Jewel of the Pathans"

Original photos and text appeared in HALI 80, © 1995

The title of this article was adapted from the 19th century British descriptions of Peshawar as it existed at that time. Always known as a bustling bazaar town, a crossroads for trade from all over the Asia, populated by different sorts from Hindu fakirs to gun wielding tribesmen from the surrounding mountains to the bearded Sikh traders to Uzbek khans and the descendents of Moghul royalty, Peshawar was known in the 19th century as the "jewel of the Pathans", a distinctly Pathan town but a jewel, a treasure like no other city on the sub-continent. In spite of the many changes, the political upheavals and inbred colonial corruption, it remains an invigorating city, full of the vitality of life with its thumb on the very pulse of Central Asia itself as well as touching the mysteries and intrigue of the vast Indian sub-continent to the east.

Finally, someone out there makes the unlikely request for me to go in search for what must be some of the worst rugs made -- late 19th century aniline-dyed East Turkestan carpets that have literally turned gray -- and they want to pay me for them! One would think that such a task would be easy. After all, 99.9% of the things I see in Asia are almost that bad.

Some years ago I saw literally hundreds of late Yarkand-style rugs in Pakistan, so with high hopes I plannned a return after a relatively long hiatus. Off to Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, bordering the no-man's land which straddles the remnants of a shattered Afghanistan. Situated near the foot of the Khyber Pass, Peshawar is the first great sprawl of sub continental civilization which greets travelers from Central Asia. Known as 'the jewel of the Pathans' in the 19th century, it was and continues to be the crossroads of Asia. Though the 20th century has descended upon Peshawar with a scarcely muffled roar, it remains a medieval city.
The population appears to be more ethnically diverse than ever, for instead of being merely a crossroads for travelers, the city has now become a haven for Turkmen, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns from all over Afghanistan -- and their families, both immediate and extended. Prior to the first communist coup in Kabul in April 1978, Peshawar's population stood at something close to 400,000; now it approaches 1.1 million. yet the face of the city hasn't changed that much. There are a few new buildings standing a little taller, but certainly not shinier, than the rest. It is a very dirty city, but the water is potable; Islam has limited the type of deadly filth found in other Asian locates by encouraging personal modesty and cleanliness.

Peshawar is divided into two parts. The old city is dominated by beturbanned, gun-toting tribesmen and cacophonous traffic, while the quietly spacious and exclusive military cantonment area (a British colonial legacy) constitutes most of what today is called the new city.

Overlooking the main intersection of the Khyber Bazaar in the old city, the traffic consists of a incongruous blend of horse drawn carts, three wheeled motorized richshaws, city buses, Japanese pick up trucks and foot traffic. The air is relatively clean in this photo as a result of seasonable spring rains the previous day.

It is the old part that most of the carpet shops are found. In one way Peshawar is a little like New York; the rug merchants gather together in seedy, dusty buildings, making it easy to survey the scene, with not much walking involved but an inordinate amount of hustle. The markets, in converted hotels, go by such names as Balkh, Zarghun Khel, Shan, Kamran, Qaisar and, biggest of all, the Saadat Market in the heart of the Khyber Bazaar, a five-story building with carpet dealers occupying the first three floors and repair shops on the final two, all run by Afghans.

The idea of Pakistanis successfully dealing in antique rugs and textiles from Central Asia is a contradiction in terms, Pakistan is a contrived country, born in 1947 out of the communal enmity

and religious strife of the partition of India. Before the Afghan influx, contemporary material culture was limited.
The food has never been an attraction, the kahwa (green tea) is too strong and sweet for my taste and the 'Bokharas' churned out in vast numbers by Punjabi carpet factories are infamous. Antique textiles made by the hill-tribes of Swat and Chitral are nice, but are virtually unknown outside Pakistan and have anyway been unavailable for years. Few Pakistani dealers have been able to compete with the relocated Afghan merchants whether selling carpets and textiles or involved in the more lucrative underground (zeer hoqui) archaeological artifacts business.

Above is pictured the sign which is fixed over the main entrance to the famous Saadat Market, advertising the exclusive variety of goods to be found within.

The building in the photo directly above is one of the older rug buildings, a relic of the colonial era built in the 1940's when the British still ruled all of the sub-continent, when Pakistan and India were one.

Though antique carpets are next to impossible to find in the bazaar, the Afghans still dominate the rug business, trading mainly in new, chemically washed Maimana kilims from Afghanistan's northwest. The bazaar relies on these kilims of dubious quality and unfathomable attraction. But who buys this stuff? The inventory in the shops is frighteningly large; the sheer weight of the stacks makes me wonder if the cement in these structures is up to standard; adding extra sand to the mix is a common form of cost control and buildings have been known to collapse.

There are literally tons of Chinese Turkestan rugs here, but none of the ultra-poor quality which I have been commissioned
to seek. I find it scarcely believable that out of all these countless late rugs, I am unable to find any that are bad enough! The absence of chemical dyes is not the problem; it is rather that they haven't faded quickly enough. They have been preserved too well in Kashgar, Yarkand, Aksu, Urumchi and the outlying villages on the old Silk Route. They sold well in the past; the Italians used to come and buy, and no sooner had they left than the locals returned to China via the newly opened Karakorum Highway to purchase more. The Gulf War put an end to that market; Italy's economy (already fragile) went into hibernation and hordes of schlock merchants soon followed, leaving these rugs languishing as moth fodder.

Unloading new kilims woven in the style of Uzbek flatweaves from Maimana.

A rug vendor sits atop his wares in one of the main intersections of the old city.

A loosely related group of Pashtuns from Logar province in eastern Afghanistan provided the main outlet for such goods. This band of aesthetically impaired dealers works extremely hard and has achieved degree of commercial success. They are kept at arm's length by most of the other Afghans in the bazaar and fraternize primarily with each other-- their aggressive manner and outlaw mentality are anathema to the traditional Afghan style of greeting Western visitors (and each other) or of conducting business. After a few days of visiting their shops, I throw in the towel. It is difficult to explain to them why I don't want their rugs. Of course there are language barriers, but I'm told my Farsi is more than adequate. I get the feeling they don't want to understand, they just want to relieve themselves of this burdensome stock they have over invested in. I can't blame them. But one dealer claims to have what I want, and we go to his repair shop to check it out. Yes, a few gray, ugly rugs are in the piles awaiting the repairman's hand (or scissors), but the prices quoted are incomprehensible. Twelve thousand US dollars for vase and pomegranate rug, gray and horrible! They scoff at my hesitation, insisting their pieces are 'old', hence valuable. I beat a hasty retreat and thank them for their trouble, thinking "Who are these guys anyways?"

Horse drawn carts are the chosen method of transporting rugs and other heavy loads around the city. This is a relatively modern cart with automobile tires for wheels. Often these carts have wooden wheels.

Christmas in Peshawar is an unexpected holiday. It is not the birth of Christ that they celebrate, but rather the birth of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the respected father of modern Pakistan, whose face graces the currency and is found in all public buildings throughout this land. Portrayed as a strident nationalist in the movie "Gandhi", he did much to introduce what few vestiges of national pride are still evident in this abused country after years of cynical neglect by his various successors.

The sweeper in the hotel is the first person I see, greeting me with a warm smile and a "Merry Christmas". All sweepers in Pakistan are Christians, relegated to this type of work by an unofficial caste system, a by-product of Islam and an old tradition on the subcontinent.

But now that I am here, what should I do to justify the time and expense of coming all this way? Of course, the cost of staying here is minimal; Pakistan is one of the poorer countries in the
world, with an economy subsidized virtually since its inception by the United States and the International Monetary Fund. Recently the price of natural gas and electricity has been raised from artificially low levels at the insistence of the IMF, followed by an inevitable increase in the cost of cooking oil and flour, presenting a serious problem for the impoverished masses in this rather basic economy. The locals blame Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a popular scapegoat for all of Pakistan's many problems.

In fact, Pakistan is caught in some sort of time warp; they haven't enjoyed the economic benefits of the tourist boom which has touched most of the Far East and Southeast Asia, and are consequently surprised and pleased to see anyone who appears to be a causal visitor. It is as if they suffer from a national complex, prompting frequent shy inquiries as to my well being, "Are you are alright here?". When I emphatically reply in the affirmative they break into relieved smiles, reassured that a foreigner can actually enjoy the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, as it is officially known.

Repairing rugs is a big industry in Peshawar. Here, a group of boys and young men are seen repairing a variety of old rugs, primarily using old wool to match colour and texture.

Given the strength of the all-pervasive British legacy here, it is odd that extreme Islamic fervor has become the single unifying element in this ethnically and politically divided land. Peshawar is known for its many mosques, one seemingly on every street corner, all equipped with loudspeaker systems to facilitate the call of the faithful to prayer. Artistic vocal calligraphy it is not, and awakening at 5.30 every morning to a raspy "Allah-u-Akbar" followed by coughing isn't my idea of the way to start the day. I always get the feelings that the educated people are slightly embarrassed by the strictures imposed by Sharia (Islamic law), though in reality it is, for the most part, minimally enforced. Rampant corruption has ensured the ready availability of whisky and other inebriants on the thriving black market. Meanwhile the absence of a vibrant contemporary culture is bemoaned in the local English language press; Pakistan, a land of more than 110 million souls, reportedly publishes only 1,200 books a year, while India published proportionately more than twice as many per head.

A few faithful enjoy the afternoon sun and join in prayer at a mosque situated in the densely populated old bazaar.

I scour the bazaar in hopes of picking up something worthwhile, but antique goods are extremely scarce. My request to see anything truly old ( "kadeem" ) are more often than not met with a hopeful offering of a new-made-to-look-old 'Turkmen' rug or, at best, a 50-year-old Baluch or Afghan rug. It is possible that the have forgotten what an old rug looks like, as it's been so long since they actually had one. Or maybe they never knew or cared in the first place. others are perceptive enough to know there is no point in trying to mislead me, and they respond honestly. The Pathans, now realizing the Chinese rug business had turned into a commercial disaster, have 'discovered' another marketable commodity- rugs from Azerbaijan. Many of them now descend on the Baku bazaar as vigorously as they had once moved into Xinjiang. Unfortunately, the results will not be much different: most of the rugs they bring back are late 19th or early 20th century pieces with at least one bad dye, making them unsuitable for even a decorative market. Not to mention the prices, which must account for the allegedly stiff unofficial customs duties ("baksheesh") at both Baku and Karachi airports. Time will tell, but no doubt these rugs too will languish.

Repairing an old Caucasian rug in Peshawar.

A handicraft shop in the new city.

A short distance from the Saadat, though the fabled Kissakhani (Storytellers) Bazaar, is the gold market of Ander Sher, a narrow alley designed solely for foot traffic in which the Shinwar Market building is located. here Turkmen and Kazakh silver jewelry, both new and old, can be found, as well as textiles and excavated relics and beads. A few Turkmen embroidered appliqué camel-trappings have recently arrived in the marketplace, adding to the usual unexciting assortment of late "chyrpys" and ikat "chapans". Lakai embroidery is now present in quantities. I had not noticed in the past. With the relatively recent phenomenon of Istanbul shopkeepers coming here in search of these textiles, prices have risen dramatically, at least doubling in the past year, I have been told. They compete with Japanese tourists in this distinctly insular market environment. My timing is right and I am invited to see fresh loads recently arrived from Mazar-e-Sharif. Of at least eighty pieces show, only one appears to be earlier than the rest, so I bite the bullet and buy it for what seems an absurdly high price.

The narrow streets of the Ander Sher bazaar. A truly medieval scene as nothing but foot traffic and the occasional small cart is able to navigate this tiny alley. Lining this narrow passage through the bazaar are shops selling gold. The street may be more than 100 meters in length with numerous shops offering gold and precious stones, ie. rubies, tourmaline, emeralds and lapis lazuli.

Further pickings are slim, making the cost of flying here from Bangkok tough to justify. So, I investigate some of the new production from the refugee camps and am pleasantly surprised. Good quality new flatweaves, including kilims and sumakhs, are being made here, copying designs from Caucasian originals. They are finely woven, the wool acceptable. But production is limited and commercial viability has not been established as the critical mass doesn't yet exist. Marc Roy's project is progressing steadily with other designs newly incorporated into the repertoire. The embassy types and aid workers I meet all extoll the virtues of this production, which far surpasses the Afghans' monochromatic color schemes and mechanical designs. It is said that Germans and Americans buy those boring pieces, but who knows? I've been told expatriate Afghan businessmen import them to the West and sell them to other refugee families who need coverings.

Eventually I meet one of the near legendary figures who come here to buy kilims. Pierre Mahaim from Santa Fe gives me a clue to where they all go. As it turns out, Santa Fe virtually supports the Peshawar rug market; vast quantities of these flatweaves are taken up by various players for distribution all over the American Southwest. In addition, he scours the buildings and is actually able to locate three older Maimana weavings . The appetite of the Santa Fe rug market apparently never wanes though prosperity has not fostered a more congenial or co-operative business climate in the small and incestuous marketplace. Backbiting, jealousies and downright loathing typify this thriving retail center, and the repercussions are felt in the rug buildings of Peshawar. Some dealers here are however, lucky enough to have other eager clients for these kilims in countries as unlikely as Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

An old man selling apples in the old city.

Vendors of Uzbek nan in the old city.

An enormous amount of commercial activity takes place at the Saadat Market, with huge quantities of stuff taken into and out of the building, often using the conveyance of choice, horse-drawn carts. Peshawar is one of the few cities in the world where the horse still provides an important means of transport. It is strange to see these carts plying the streets, competing with buses and swarms of smoky, noisy auto-rickshaws for space on these overcrowded and at times very narrow roads, which have hardly been upgraded at all since partition. Kebab shops line many of these subsidiary routes through the old city, belching forth aromatic charcoal smoke as an enticement to the passing multitudes. The government has declared two days a week "meatless", in an attempt to conserve enormous but apparently fragile flocks of sheep and goats. Chicken comprises the alternative on such days, though I did perceive a degree of uncharacteristic disrespect for this national concern as some restaurants openly displayed small cuts of mutton.

A "garbage truck" in Peshawar. A large wooden cart drawn by a water buffalo skirts the city, picking up refuse. Actually it is somewhat of a miracle that the Peshawar municipality has it this together to serve the needs of a growing population.

Peshawar, medieval madness in the 20th century, is still a charming and refreshingly unspoiled destination from a tourist's perspective. Though anti-Zionist and anti-American graffiti is found scrawled around town, and Middle Eastern terrorists supposedly lurk about, it is generally a friendly city; smiles from anonymous roadside vendors are common and there is a energy and vitality on the streets which many foreigners who have had the good fortune to work here remember wistfully after re-assignment to more austere Central Asian locations. Hospitality, an important Qur'anic precept, is alive and well amidst economic uncertainty and tenuous political stability. Peshawar is an extraordinarily entertaining slice of life from the past. Even if the old rugs are, for the most part, not around any more, I consider the trip worthwhile; at the very least I've enjoyed a raucous journey though time.

Seated outside the gold bazaar in the Chok Yadgar square, a Pashtun man waits for customers for the two new rugs he has standing beside him. In the background can be seen some of the newer buildings that have sprung up around the city.


The last time I visited Peshawar was on September 12, 2001. With the dust and debris of the collapsed Twin Towers still swirling through Manhattan, I hastily entered the Peshawar bazaar attired in local garb to confer with my Afghan friends and contacts, and wondering just how our business would be affected by the calamitous events in the US. Through contacts in Quetta and Peshawar, a pipeline of goods had flowed to me over the past few years from SE Persia, a steady trickle of antique rugs and kilims from Persia and Afghanistan. I quickly viewed what they had to show me, completed my selection, and made arrangements for the goods to be sent to the US. I flew early the next morning to Karachi and out that evening to Istanbul.

Everyone in the bazaar knew who was responsible for the havoc in New York and Washington, DC. There was no mystery, it was not a point of debate. The only party that could carry out such a horrific and ambitious plot was Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. We expected Bush to retaliate immediately with missiles raining on Kabul and other locales in Afghanistan. One friend immediately called his younger brother in Kabul, pleading with him to leave and return to Peshawar. He had gone there to meet his bride to be and bring her to Pakistan for the marriage.
Fortunately he was able to leave just in time, one of the last Afghans allowed to pass through the border post, Torkham, situated at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Soon after, the Pakistani government sealed this crossing, denying legal access to the safe sanctuary of the Northwest Frontier Province.

I stay in touch with my Afghan friends in Pakistan. Things have changed in that part of the Afghanistan. For the better I presume. Many Afghan refugees have returned to their country. The new carpet industry which had been established in Pakistan re-located back to Afghanistan, for the most part. The number of Afghan refugees in Peshawar must have dramatically decreased as the coalition peace keeping forces have created a stability of sorts in the urban centers of Afghanistan. But the more visible and affluent antique rug dealers remain in Pakistan, unwilling to re-locate, unwilling to move their families back to the ancestral homeland. While Afghanistan is much more stable now than before, a much more viable place to actually live and thrive, the richer Afghans refuse to commit at this time. Perhaps they are waiting for the dust to settle and the final defeat and elimination of extremist elements from the Afghan political and military landscape. Who knows how long they will have to wait. As they would say, “in’shallah” (if Allah is willing), it will be soon.

Original photos and text appeared in HALI 80, © 1995
No parts of this text or any photo may be re-produced, transmitted or copied by electronic means or otherwise without permission from the author.
I also wish to thank the publishers of HALIfor permission to reproduce this article on the site.

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