Carpet Wars By Christopher Kremmer, HarperCollins, Rs 595
Afghanistan and the taliban, Baghdad and the Gulf War, Kashmir and the Kargil conflict… Thanks to technology and the media, we have seen these events unfold before our eyes, but words and distant television images are all they remain to most people.
Carpet Wars is about the victims caught in the conflict, the people who are hit the hardest but who have no say in what happens to their land or their lives. They watch silently as their destiny is determined by power-hungry, often ignorant, individuals and groups. All they have left is their dignity, culture and religion, which they struggle to keep intact even in the midst of hostility.
These are the poor, illiterate families who send their teenage sons to fight with the taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba, to save their “Muslim brothers” — the new-age terrorists the West is trying to eradicate.
Christopher Kremmer is an Australian journalist and carpet collector who has travelled through Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on many assignments for over two decades. The book is a collection of his experiences. It is alive with individuals who work in the carpet industry and whom he has meets again and again, in different circumstances. Kremmer traces their lives through their rich and chequered history — from Babylon and the arrival of Islam, to the Russian invasion and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, events that are mirrored in the colourful and symbolic carpets.
Even as the entire economy of the region is falling apart, the carpet industry battles on, providing support to thousands of weavers, dyers, washers and carpet-sellers, helped on, no doubt, by the smuggling that goes on in the mountain passes. Although dependent on the trends of fashion and the whims of wealthy Western collectors, the adaptability of those engaged in the business reflects their determination.
Carpet Wars has its funny moments as also some poignant ones, like when two families on opposite factions take cover under the same roof during a battle. There are also the sad bits, like the drive through the dessert where starving nomads roam the sands.
Violence abounds, in this region, and so does the duplicity of those in power. Close to the surface are the racial, ethnic, religious and political differences.
Carpet Wars also affords a view of the “Muslim world”, even if it is from the eyes of the outside world. The breaking of the fast on a Ramzan evening, a carpet-seller’s store in Baghdad, the carpetwallah in a Kabul or Kandahar bazaar haggling with a customer with the noise of shelling or sniper fire in the background. Here guns are readily available to even young children and might is always right. This is the land of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar but it is the ordinary citizen — displaced and desperate — who is the real face of this troubled region. The image is often frightening, no less because the West has very little idea how to deal with it.