PYRAMID OF WOOL |
February 19, 2013
Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan
The carpets sat like a dense woolen pyramid in the middle of his store. The smallest ones were on top while the giant pieces that took up the entire space were resting at the bottom. He was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt with a woolen waistcoat and a tan pakol cap rested permanently on his head. He sat comfortably atop his pyramid of wool. We drank tea for half an hour. My Dari is not as good as it should be and, like a tolerant elder, the old man gently corrected me as often as he replied to my questions. It was my third or fourth time in his shop.
I had never purchased anything from him, but had also never arrived without a small gift — a box of cough drops, some tea or a bag of coffee — just a small token to acknowledge the value of his time. He looked as if he might have been eighty, but judging from his two sons, who were also in the room, his age was probably closer to fifty — an old man by any measure in Afghanistan. When we were done with tea one of his sons whisked away our cups.
We knelt on either side of the meter tall stack of carpets and slowly pulled them back, examining each one as we went. His thick hands, toughened by years of steady work guided the carpets with a deft flick of his wrist, which I tried to no avail to imitate.
I asked him the names as we poured through the stack, and he recited them with a gentle smile as each carpet appeared. The names rolled off his tongue and I repeated them, trying to chant them into my memory: Balouch, Tiamani, SarGul, Yamut, Turkmen , Kuchi, Fil Pah, Bokhara, Purdah and on and on. We travelled through the patterns, textures and colors as varied as the people of Afghanistan. Coarse, refined, uneven, delicate, bold; we steadily dove deeper and deeper into this complex country. To understand carpets is to have a window into Central Asia, a glimpse of what was and what remains. In these carpets there is also a hope for the future.
When we reached the Kuchi carpet, I paused and brushed my hand over its soft wool, loosely spun and matted deeply when run with the lay across the top: deep colors of blue and red with natural browns and beiges of un-dyed wool. The design was simple and rough, the pile deep with thick cords for the warp and weft. The carpet had the tactile qualities of a sheep. It was dense and heavy under my hand and, had I touched it with my eyes closed, I believe I could have felt it breathing under my hand. This carpet was very much alive; it was as restless and nomadic as the people who made it. I wondered what plants had been used to dye the wool. How far had it travelled? What things had it heard and seen? How many tents or homes had it been in? What twist of fate or misfortune had brought it here?
“Do you ever get a massage?” the old man asked me.
I was not sure where this line of questioning would lead, but the response was “Yes.”
“If you sleep on this carpet, you’ll never need another massage; it will take care of you and your back,” he said smiling and leaning forward from across the stack brushing the thick wool towards me. I suddenly found myself wishing it could talk. I thought for a moment I heard it say that it wanted to travel with me.
A soldier in uniform walked into the shop and the shopkeeper’s son said hello to him. Without greeting or acknowledging anyone in the room he simply asked to no one in particular, “Do you have a ten dollar rug?”
“Yes,” was the only reply from his eldest son.
The old man looked at me. “Business is business,” he said quietly in Dari, a knowing smile on his face.
The son flipped through a stack of tiny placemat sized rugs that soldiers often put next to their beds or outside their doors. He pulled one out and said “Ten dollars.”
“How much for that one?” the soldier asked, pointing to one three times as big and with a basic design on it.
The soldier repeated the price back with a bit of incredulity in his voice then pointed to the ten dollar rug. “I want that one.”
“How about two for twenty?” Came the response.
“No,” he said and passed the son a ten dollar bill.
The rug was folded and placed in a small bag and handed to the soldier, who turned and walked out without saying thank you or shaking hands. This transactional encounter in a world built on trust and relationships left the shop suddenly cold. The old man motioned for more tea and we returned to the stack of carpets.
When we reached the bottom, I asked him if anyone had ever walked into his store and asked for a thousand dollar carpet. “No,” he replied with a smile, “no one ever asks for a thousand dollar carpet.”
I spent another ten minutes helping him flip all of the carpets back, smoothing out the wrinkles with our hands as we went. He called all the names out and I repeated them back to him as we passed decades of work, lifetimes and livelihoods back into a neat orderly stack.
We chatted for a moment, exchanged pleasantries and then I left without buying a carpet.
I have been sleeping on a thin foam pad for almost half a year now. I woke this morning and my back hurt. As I sat in bed thinking about my day, I thought I heard a carpet calling me. The restless nomadic carpet is there, deep in the pyramid of wool, waiting for the next leg of its tireless and timeless journey. It is patient, and perhaps when the days grow a bit longer and the green returns to the hills it will begin to move again.