SCMP Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Rug-price inflation woven by conflict


Among the rug shops of Wyndham Street, Central, where some merchants expect the value of Afghan carpets to rise now the United States is striking against the Taleban, one trader has a strong interest in the fight over his homeland.
Faiq Zaman, sales manager of the Persian Carpets Gallery, describes himself as an Afghan born in the Pakistan border city of Peshawar, a third-generation member of a family which left Afghanistan more than 100 years ago.
Mr Zaman and other carpet dealers in Central district have been feeling the pinch of the economic downturn and the drop in tourists visiting Hong Kong since the September 11 terrorist attacks. For them there is a silver lining in the US attacks, which began on Sunday night and are expected to disrupt the supply of Afghan carpets and send prices soaring.
But that is not enough to make Mr Zaman support the American attacks on his homeland, although he is waiting for further information before drawing any firm conclusions. "They must have proof against someone [in order to carry out the attacks]," he says. "If you are talking about [bombing] civilian people, it is not a good idea."
Mr Zaman, 24, is a member of the Pashtun race, from which the Taleban - the fundamentalist Islamic movement ruling Afghanistan since 1996 - is drawn. He came to Hong Kong five years ago on a Pakistan passport. "My soul is there. But in the Muslim religion we are not allowed to do anything bad," he says.
Standing in the store, clean-shaven and wearing casual Western business clothes, he looks a world away from the Taleban where men wear traditional clothing and are not allowed to shave. Mr Zaman says he is sometimes upbraided by "Talebs" he comes into contact with in Hong Kong, or during buying trips to Pakistan, for his Western appearance. But he explains he is a modern Muslim who is doing business with the world and wants to avoid extremism.
Afghans, some from Afghanistan and others from Pakistan border areas, often come to Hong Kong to trade, he says. Most are visitors, seeking second-hand electrical and electronic goods to sell back home. Although few actually live here, at any one time there are normally about 1,000 passing through the SAR. But traders in Tsim Sha Tsui's Chungking Mansions, where visiting Afghans normally congregate, said there had been very few since the September 11 attacks.
Mr Zaman, along with some other carpet sellers, expects rug-making within Afghanistan, already disrupted by war for more than 20 years, to come to a standstill and the trade along the border with Pakistan to dry up. As a result, he believes the supply of rugs for the international market will diminish and prices will rise. "With this war, the market will really go up."
About 40 per cent of the 2,500 rugs stocked by his gallery are Afghan carpets, he says. They are identifiable by the use of only two or three natural colours.
Handmade rugs coming from Afghanistan have usually been used by families, some for decades, before being sold. "They will eat on it, sleep on it, pray on it," he says. But those who had been displaced by war and starvation in recent years and fled to Pakistan are selling their precious family heirlooms to raise money. "All they have is carpets. They are a kind of antique. When they move to Pakistan, they sell the pieces to Pakistanis for fairly low prices."
In Hong Kong, Afghan carpets are not cheap. A small rug sells at $1,000 while a large carpet can fetch $120,000.
Carpets are also made in refugee camps along the Pakistan border. Peshawar is a major rug market and pieces end up in Hong Kong. Mr Zaman compares a hand-made Afghan rug with a reproduction Afghan rug made in a Pakistan factory, pointing out how a commercially produced rug has brighter colours.
Refugees now leaving Afghanistan are unlikely to bring carpets with them because they are mostly poor or leaving in such a rush that they could not arrange to transport their rugs.
While Mr Zaman is expecting the Afghan carpet market to improve due to the outbreak of hostilities with the US, he says trading conditions in Hong Kong have been difficult since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. His business had fallen by about 40 per cent due to weak consumer demand and the drop in tourists. About 70 per cent of his customers are Americans, many of whom have stopped travelling since the attack on their homeland.
At the Oriental Rug Gallery, business has also been slow reflecting the worldwide economic downturn, says manager Azmut Butt. "These carpets are considered a luxury item," he says.
The proliferation of carpet stores along Hollywood Road and Wyndham Street, a popular spot for antique shoppers, has been hit by tougher times since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Only a handful of shops remain open and a number of former stores remain empty with a few forlorn rugs still on display windows.
Most Afghan rugs are now coming from refugee camps where hand-weaving is still practised, says Mr Butt. "Fifteen to 20 years ago, we would go into Afghanistan ourselves to purchase carpets but since the troubles started we have been doing business in border areas," he says.
Heena Mir, chief executive of Mir Oriental Carpets, says she visited Kabul when it was a relatively open and prosperous capital in the 1970s. "I saw Kabul in its heyday but when I saw the pictures on CNN recently I was totally shocked."
Ms Mir says it is extremely difficult to source handmade Afghan rugs because production has virtually stopped in the past few years. "They have been at war for the past 20 years," she says, adding thousands of pieces were available up to 15 years ago.
Afghan carpet production has also been hit by the Taleban's prohibition on women working outside the home. "I would love to sell Afghan carpets, but there aren't any," she says.

All she has left are three pieces in her showroom, which she likes to keep to show people interested in the rugs. "I have a lot of people who want Afghan rugs. There's a big demand because of their simplicity," says Ms Mir.

Glenn Schloss ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's Editorial Pages.