This story is part of a cycle in which women play a major role
Dear Zari is a book by Zarghuna Kargar, an Afghan woman now living in London, who presented the BBC World Service programme “Afghan Woman’s Hour”. This was a profoundly influential project that gave support, education and encouragement to millions of women and men across Afghanistan. For several years “Afghan Women’s Hour” aired discussions, covering difficult – often taboo – subjects, and Zarghuna heard from hundreds of women eager to share their stories. It is these true stories which have inspired her to write this book – a powerful collection of testimonies that depict the oppression and suffering of Afghan women.
“Samira’s story” is one of the thirteen life stories included in the book.
Qamar is a Turkmen girl who composed a poem about carpet weaving which we broadcast on the programme. When our reporter first made contact with her she was sixteen years old, and living in Shirbighan in Jawzjan province in the north of Afghanistan. Qamar told us she would rather be at school so she could one day become a doctor or a teacher, but as she was the family’s main breadwinner she had no choice but to spend her days at the loom. We broadcast her poem because we wanted our listeners to be aware that Afghan carpets tend to be made by women and girls whose skill and hard work is hardly ever acknowledged. When did someone like Qamar’s name ever appear on the small label on the backs of those carpets, which sell for hundreds of dollars?
Much of the story of Afghanistan can be seen in its carpets. The country’s ethnic diversity – Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, Kuchi and Pashtun – is there in its patterns. The wool comes from the sheep, goats and camels that graze on our hills, and the traditional dyes from our plants, fruits and vegetables. Pomegranate peel and walnuts make brown, red comes from the roots of the madder plant, yellow from saffron or chamomile, and blue from the indigo plant. But above and beyond the materials, our carpets are threaded through with the emotions and feelings of the women and girls who weave them.
No one knows when Afghan women first started carpet weaving. Whenever I ask about its history I’m told that it goes back centuries and is a skill that has been passed down from mother to daughter, along with particular carpet designs. One thing is certain, though, and that is that our carpets represent the very finest example of Afghan art. In the past Afghan kings would offer carpets as gifts to foreign dignitaries, and now the president gives them to other national leaders. When there is an official event with top politicians or celebrities, everyone will walk on a red Afghan carpet, and when an Afghan girl marries she is given a carpet for her bedroom by her parents or relatives.
Setting up a loom in the home is easy and the tools needed to weave are both inexpensive and easy to obtain. For nomads there are even small portable looms – with the threads of wool attached to them – that can be hitched to a donkey. Carpet weaving is mostly something women and children can do without having to leave their homes. During the Taliban period when women were prevented from going out to work – and girls banned from going to school - they could still earn money by weaving carpets, and women and girls who were not originally from carpet-weaving families acquired the skill. Then when many Afghan became refugees in Pakistan and Iran they took up carpet weaving again, and from there exported their handicraft to the rest of the world.
Through making Afghan Woman’s Hour I met many female carpet weavers, but up until then I had no idea of the hardship they had to endure to make these works of art, and I was struck by quite how unhappy many of these women were. I discovered that in the north of the country girls are valued according to their capacity to weave. These girls were pouring their hearts into their carpets, but no one cared how they felt; they were only concerned with how much money the carpet could fetch. Some girls told me that they were forced to become carpet-weaving machines by their parents. All they did was knot, tap, tie and cut for hours every day. They were becoming old and tired behind the looms, their energy, beauty and health ebbing away. They had no concept of what price their carpets could fetch on the international market, and knew only that they were chained to the loom. I now look with fresh eyes at the Afghan carpets in my home and wonder about the women and children who made them.
Samira, like Qamar, is from Shirbighan and is a typical carpet weaving-girl. After reading Qamar’s poem I was keen to meet other girls like her, and in north Afghanistan they are not hard to find: almost every house has a wooden loom. The north of the country is predominantly made up of Turkmen and Uzbek people, and they certainly value their girls according to their degree of skill in carpet weaving. If, for example, a girl is able to make beautiful carpets that can fetch a high price then a boy’s family will pay a high price for her in marriage, and the girl’s family would say. ‘Her five fingers are five chiraghs (lights).’
I am permanently reminded of those five lights when I look at the Afghan carpets I have bought. After hearing the stories of Samira and Qamar I now value those carpets even more because I recognize the real cost of them in terms of sacrifice and dedication.
Samira swiftly wove the colourful threads together. Beside her on the floor lay the blade for cutting the threads, and in front of her was a drawing of the carpet pattern. She barely glanced at it, though. She didn’t need to because she could weave with her eyes shut. After a while, her small, thin fingers began to ache from all the twisting and turning of the thread. Samira sat on a round cushion in front of the kargah, a large wooden loom on which the carpet strings were stretched. It reached to more than six metres long and filled almost the entire length of the room. Samira had to stretch up high to reach where she was sewing.
The room she was sitting in was dark and full of dust from the wool. Samira would start carpet weaving early each morning before her mother joined her. She was the eldest child; her younger brother went to school and her sister was still a baby. By the time her brother left the house for school, Samira was already at work at the kargah (loom) that her father had built. Samira and her mother would have to sit in front of the loom all day. This was their job. Samira wore a square scarf tight around her head and sat hunched over her threads as she worked. Sometimes, when she was very tired, she would lean against the kargah, resting her body against its frame.
Samira was busy weaving and cutting the threads when her mother called out to her, ‘Oi! You lazy girl, the minute I turn my back you stop weaving and lean on the kargah.’
Samira began weaving even faster. ‘No, Mother, I’ve been weaving all the time you weren’t here. Come and look. See. I’ve done the first pattern already. Are you happy now?’
Her mother looked closely at the piece she had woven.
‘All right, my child. Well done, you’ve sewn it beautifully, but you’ll have to work faster now because your baby sister won’t let me do as much work as I need to do, and if we don’t finish this carpet in time your father will get angry. And what excuse will he give to the trojar (trader)?’
Samira stared at the kargah and threaded even faster. With every knot she tied she got even angrier, and with every breath she took she swallowed yet another mouthful of carpet dust. Her mother came to sit near her.
Samira always asked her mother lots of questions and her mother would answer without missing a beat of either her own weaving or her checking of Samira’s work; she would watch her daughter’s work carefully and correct any mistakes, teaching her to weave with precision and style. Samira’s mother also had a talent for mixing colours and creating new, elegant designs.
‘Mother, when we finish this carpet, do we have to start another one?’ Her mother smiled. ‘My child, you ask this question every day when we start weaving and my answer is always the same; yes, we will have to this all again. We will have to carry on weaving for as long as we can, as your father has already taken so many orders from the tojar.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ Samira replied, ‘I know, but I am bored of it, and I want to go to school like Naeem. How come he gets to go to school and I don’t? I’m eleven years old and he’s ten. There’s not much difference in our age, is there?’
Samira shook her head. ‘No, I know you didn’t go to school.’
Her mother waved the large metal needle in front of her daughter.
‘So! There’s your answer. Your mother didn’t go to school, so you won’t either. But your father did go to school when he was a child, so now your brother goes too. Don’t forget you only have one brother. One day you and your little sister will go to live in someone else’s house and then you will both help your husbands with all the household jobs in just the same way as I help your father now.’
Samira wasn’t too happy with her mother’s response, but said nothing and kept on weaving, their fingers moving in and out of the threads at great speed. It was soon lunchtime and Samira asked her mother if she could stop and have something to eat. Her mother agreed and Samira went outside. The air was dry and crisp. Autumn had turned the leaves on the trees in the yard to yellow and orange, and a strong breeze was blowing them to the ground. Samira tried to look up at the sky, which despite the cold weather was bright and sunny, but found she couldn’t open her eyes because the light hurt them too much, so she covered them with her hands. As she traced her fingers around her face she felt an ache in her joints, and when she tried to stand up straight she felt a stabbing pain in her back. Hours hunched over the kargah in a darke ned room meant she could no longer stand up properly, and because she had been in the weaving room since early in the morning, this was the first time she had seen daylight.
Samira walked slowly towards the kitchen and headed straight for the breadbasket, which was filled with the round flat bread her mother had baked in the tanoor early that morning. She took out a piece, and then went to the gas stove and put the kettle on to boil. Every day at about midday she would come back to the kitchen, make some green tea, take two cups, some sugar and bread and carry it back to the weaving room. This was their lunch. Her mother would only cook in the evenings when her husband came home; she wouldn’t take a break from weaving during the day to make food for the children. Besides, it was cheaper to make only one proper meal a day.
Samira sat by a small window near where her little sister was sleeping in her gahwara (cradle). She poured tea for her mother and herself, adding lots of sugar, and bit into the bread. Samira enjoyed every sip of her tea and every bite of her bread. After a while, Samira’s mother asked her to check on her baby sister. It had been a long time since the baby had stirred, so Samira knelt down by the gahwara and looked at her closely.
‘Yes, Mother, she’s all right. She’s just sleeping.’
‘I don’t understand why she hasn’t woken up. She’s been sleeping since nine o’clock this morning and now it’s almost one.’
Samira joked that perhaps her little sister was tired like them, and then asked, ‘Mother, when she’s older will you make her weave carpets too?’
Her mother replied, ‘Of course, she’s no different to you or me. She’s a girl and she must learn to weave or no man will marry her.’
Samira knew what she meant. She had been told many times by both her mother and the local women that to secure a decent husband, a Turkmen girl must be able to weave carpets. Most girls in the village tended to start carpet weaving at home with their mothers, sisters, aunties or grandmothers at the age of seven or eight. Meanwhile the men of the family would find traders to buy the carpets or locate markets where they could sell them to customers. Some boys would go to school, but not all of them, and some families would even train their sons to weave, but Samira’s brother didn’t have to weave carpets. As he was the only male child of the family he was especially valuable and his mother knew that carpet weaving was bad for the health – many women and children contracted lung diseases from working in such a dusty atmosphere day after day. Also, his mother wanted him to go to school and one day become a doctor so he could treat both her and his sister for the pain in their backs and fingers.
As Samira was taking her last bites of bread, she turned to her mother and asked, ‘Mother, do you think my five fingers are like five lights?’
Her mother smiled, went up to Samira and took her hand and put it in her own. She looked at Samira’s small fingers.
‘My dear daughter, your fingers are not yet five lights but they are on their way. Shall I tell you when they become lights?’
‘Yes, please, Mother,’ Samira said enthusiastically. ‘Tell me how and when they’ll be like five chiragh?’
Her mother gave her fingers a gentle massage. ‘My dear little princess, when I tell you to get up early and go straight to the kargah and you do it immediately, that will be the day. When you stop complaining that your brother goes to school and you don’t, that will be the day. When you stop moaning that your fingers are tired and you don’t want to weave carpets, that will be the day. And finally, when you weave a six-metre carpet on your own without complaining, that will be the day your fingers become like five chiragh!’
Samira didn’t much like the answer to her question, and got up and went to sit in front of the kargah where she began weaving again. She wove quickly and then started to cut the strings with the carpet knife. Her mother got up to check on the baby before coming back to sit down next to Samira and look at the section she had just woven.
‘Stop it! Stop, Samira. Look at what you’re doing.’
Samira stopped immediately. ‘What have I done? I’m weaving just like you.’
Her mother took the blade and cut open the stitches on the piece that Samira had just woven. ‘If you don’t push the thread through enough, and if you don’t cut neatly or copy the pattern properly, you’ll destroy months of our work.’
Samira began to unpick the section she had just woven and let her mother start weaving first, before copying her. They both wove swiftly and without speaking. Occasionally the silence was broken by the sound of their wooden mallets hammering down a row of knots they had just tied. Samira’s mother had a fixed target of how much work they should do every day, so Samira wasn’t allowed to get up and leave the room, except to go to the toilet or the kitchen. Her mother was well aware that Samira would find any excuse she could to escape, even if for a short while. Samira was too young and didn’t care if the tojar, or anyone else, liked her carpets. She was bored of weaving and wanted to be out playing with her friends, or making clothes for her dolls. For three years now, Samira had been expected to work constantly, and hadn’ t been allowed to go out and play. Her mother and father considered her grown-up enough to stay at home and perfect her weaving skills.
‘Mother, if I weave faster today can I go to Shakila’s house later and play with her dolls?’ asked Samira.
But her mother said, ‘Look at me, Samira; since early this morning you’ve been pestering me with excuses and irritating questions. Why don’t you just sit down quietly and get on with your work? Stop talking and concentrate!’
Then Samira’s mother glanced anxiously at the baby in her gahwara. ‘I’ve got you pestering me, while your baby sister has still not woken up. She’s been fast asleep for too long now and I’m starting to get worried.’
Samira’s mother kept looking at the gahwara, but she couldn’t relax and eventually stopped weaving and went over to it. She untied the straps on the cradle, took the baby in her arms and touched her face, then told Samira to run and fetch some water. The baby’s face was pale and she was breathing very slowly. She looked like she was unconscious and Samira’s mother couldn’t wake her. Samira brought some water on a small spoon and her mother tried to push a few drops into the baby’s mouth. The baby swallowed some water but didn’t open her eyes, and now Samira’s mother was starting to feel really anxious. She needed help, and told Samira to go to the neighbour’s house and call Khala Shah Gul. ‘Ask her to come here. Tell her your sister won’t wake up.’
Although Samira was worried about her sister she couldn’t help but feel a sense of release at being allowed out for a few minutes. As she ran to her neighbour’s house she felt excited about calling for Khala Shah Gul. She heard her mother shout after her, ‘Don’t get sidetracked and run off with the other girls. Go straight there and come straight back.’
Khala Shah Gul was one of the older women in the neighbourhood, and she helped deliver babies. She herself had given birth to twelve children – most of whom were now married with their own children – and lived near Samira’s family. Khala Shah Gul was also from a family of carpet weavers, but she was known to give advice to mothers on how to keep babies quiet so they could get on with their weaving. While she waited for Samira to return, her mother cradled the baby in her lap, holding her small hands, but there was no energy in her tiny body. It was as if she was drunk. She began kissing the baby’s hands and feet.
‘Darling little one, wake up. For the love of your mother, wake up. Why are you still asleep? Mummy is getting worried now.’ She kept talking to her baby and cuddling her. ‘I know that when you’re screaming then I want you to sleep, but now it’s time for you to have your favourite milk. Wake up, my love, wake up!’
The baby kept breathing slowly but otherwise didn’t move, and Samira’s mother began to get increasingly anxious. She opened the top of her dress, took out her breast and rubbed it gently against the baby’s face. Milk seeped out of her nipple and onto the baby’s mouth, but she did not latch on and the milk spilt over her face. After a few minutes Samira came back with Khala Shah Gul, and Samira’s mother ran over to her.
‘Khala, look, my baby isn’t moving, she doesn’t cry and she won’t drink milk. She’s been sleeping for hours and hours. I’m worried something has happened to her. What should I do?’
‘I’ll have a look at her, but I’m sure she’s fine.’
Samira’s mother handed the baby to Khala Shah Gul and told Samira to get back to weaving while she went to make tea for their guest. Samira went back to the kargah and began pulling the threads together, pleased to have had the chance to go outside. Meanwhile Khala Shah Gul sat with the baby on her lap. She touched the baby’s cheeks, checked her pulse and noticed that her skin was cool and her pulse was slow and steady.
Samira’s mother came back into the room with a tray of cups and a teapot, and put the tray on the floor in front of Khala Shah Gul.
‘Khala Shah Gul, is my baby all right? Do you know what’s wrong with her? Why won’t she wake up?’
Khala Shah Gul was completely untroubled. ‘My child, your baby is fine; she’s just in a deep sleep. From what I can see I think you’ve just given her a bit too much opium.’
Samira’s mother touched the baby’s hair. ‘Tut, auntie, I didn’t give her that much. I only gave her the amount you suggested. It was just one seed.’
Khala Shah Gul passed the baby back to her mother. ‘Here you go, try now to give her your breast milk and force her to have some water. As soon as the dizziness wears off she’ll wake up, don’t worry.’
Khala Shah Gul took a piece of opium from a pocket in her dress, just under her breasts, and broke off a small amount – the size of a seed of wheat – and held it out in the palm of her hand.
‘Tomorrow you should decrease the amount of opium you give your baby because she’s obviously one of those who can’t take too much. Don’t worry, though; she’ll get used to it and there will soon come a time when her crying won’t let you weave even if you’ve given her a piece the size of a grape.’
Khala Shah Gul began to laugh and sipped her tea noisily. Samira’s mother told her to have Khala’s shoes ready for her, and Samira immediately put Khala’s shoes in front of the door so she could step straight into them. The older woman looked down at Samira.
‘Well done, my child. God bless you. In addition to being good at carpet weaving you also know how to respect your elders.’
After Khala Shah Gul had left, Samira shut the door and went to kiss her baby sister who was still sleeping on her mother’s lap. She kissed her on the cheek and tried to wake her up but she didn’t stir. Her mother then asked her to empty the potty, which was under a hole in the gahwara, and as usual Samira did as she was told. The mother changed the baby’s clothes and tried to breastfeed her, and much to her joy the baby finally started to move her lips and tongue and began to suck on the nipple. Samira’s mother kissed her baby’s forehead fervently.
‘Thank you, God! My baby daughter is alive. I’m a lucky mother.’
At the same time as the baby drew milk from her breast, tears began to flow down her mother’s face. She was so relieved. It was as if someone had given her a second chance at life. Samira wiped away her mother’s tears with her fingers. ‘Mother, why are you crying? What has happened? Is everything all right?’
Her mother kissed her on the forehead. ‘My dear daughter, these are tears of happiness. See, your sister is sucking at my breast. I’m so happy that she’s all right.’
Samira was happy too. She placed the potty back under the gahwara and her mother put the baby back into her basket. The baby now had her eyes open. Once the gahwara had been placed in a corner far away from the kargah, so that it was well away from the dust, Samira got up and poured some tea for her mother.
‘God bless you, Samira. Now let’s weave as fast as we can to make up for the lost time.’
Even though Samira had been worried about her baby sister, she felt much more relaxed than usual because she’d had so many breaks from her weaving, and because she knew her mother had been paying less attention to her because of the baby.
‘Mother, why did my baby sister sleep for so long? What kind of medicine did you give her?’
‘It was to do with the amount of opium I’d given her; it was more than usual. Now I will show you the amount I’m going to give her every morning, and you must help me check that it’s no bigger than a seed of wheat.’
‘But, mother,’ asked Samira ‘why do you still have to give it to her if it makes her ill?’
‘When you were a baby, I used to give it to you. It’s because it makes babies sleep well. Otherwise your baby sister would be waking up constantly and disturbing her poor mother who has to weave a huge carpet with her naughty big sister.’
Samira’s mother smiled at her eldest daughter and carried on weaving, while Samira took a deep breath and stared ahead at the kargah, wondering if she would be spending the rest of her life in front of this loom. She wanted to be free of it but knew she would never escape it. Her future had already been mapped out for her, and it would consist of her weaving, weaving and then weaving some more. And then when her mother finally declared that her daughter’s five fingers were like five flames, Samira would become the bride of a Turkmen boy and be expected to weave for him and look after her children.
Samira got up and turned the radio on, and as it was playing music she turned the volume up high. She told her mother that if they were going to have to stay in this dark room all their lives then they might as well listen to their favourite songs. Mother and daughter both smiled and carried on weaving.
Samira’s mother isn’t unusual in giving opium to her baby. I’ve discovered that it’s an age-old practice among families who weave carpets to silence their children with opium until they are two or three years old. We invited a doctor onto Afghan Woman’s Hour to talk about the dangers of opium for a baby’s health, and he told us that it is harmful for their brain, their growth and their long-term development. The doctor also said that one of the reasons drug addiction was so widespread in Afghanistan was because as babies people had become addicted to it, and then explained how babies who scream and cry until they are given opium are already addicts. Unfortunately Samira’s mother didn&rs quo;t have access to this information, but a survey carried out on behalf of BBC World Service Trust about Afghan Woman’s Hour showed that many female listeners felt sympathy for her circumstances. We also found that listeners were grateful to the programme for providing them with this information, and that as a consequence many mothers said they would now stop giving their children opium because they’d understood how harmful it was. I was delighted that the reporter and I had managed to bring this problem to our listeners’ attention, but knew there was nothing I could do to relieve the pain that so many women endure to weave the carpets which adorn our houses.
The skill and dedication of people like Samira and her mother have brought Afghanistan an international reputation for its traditional handicrafts, but at what price? No one acknowledges the hardships women like Samira and her mother endure to turn yarns of wool into works of art. And no one thinks of the babies that are silenced by opium so that their mothers can weave sufficiently fast to meet the demands of the tojars and buyers.
Dear Zari: Stories from Women in Afghanistan
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