You won't find rugs like these in IKEA, but you might find them on eBay. That's how Max Allen acquires many of the ones that make up his collection.
That collection of 118 Afghan war rugs is on display at the Textile Museum of Canada, and yesterday Allen, the museum's curator, shed light on these records of wartime calamity as part of the Ulyssean Society's speaking series at Hart House.
Why they're called war rugs is pretty self-explanatory. If a peaceful rug has flowers, war rugs show tanks, jets, helicopters, missiles, bombs, Kalashnikovs, and landmines in their depictions of daily life in Afghanistan. Of course, an image of an airliner hitting the World Trade Centre applies too.
The rugs first appeared in the country following the 1979 Soviet invasion and have shifted over the past 30 years as the military equipment has changed from Russian-made to American-made. Info, however, has remained consistently sketchy. There are no photos of people producing them; they're always made anonymously; tracking regional techniques is impossible because much of the production is in refugee camps and dealers will never give information leading to their suppliers.
Allen can say this with certainty: they're predominantly made by illiterate women (not children), though with the increase of interest in the rugs, Afghan men have taken up the work as a way to make ends meet.
The rugs are also noticeably anti-killing. For example, images of children missing limbs in the most mine-ridden country in the world doesn't send a message of the glory of warfare. The question of which side weavers are on is a hazier one.
Allen also shares details on the imagery and other rug research in an essay found here.
The earlier Soviet examples are more overt in their opinions on the military occupiers. One shows a hammer and sickle clawing at an outline of the country, another shows a puppet leader being manipulated. More recent War on Terror versions have doves, but the lighter messages might have something to do with the demand for these items.
Originally the rugs were meant for home use, but after realizing NGO workers and foreign soldiers would pay in excess of $100 to have the rugs many weavers began targeting the foreign market. They also realized that including the word "Afghanistan" would help with sales.
If you want to find an Afghan war rug, here are some tips. First, you don't need to be in Afghanistan - North American dealers are just as good at finding and importing them and has fewer Taliban insurgents. Second, if you're already there, block off two hours for haggling. A price in the range of $5-100 will buy you a telling, albeit gloomy, reminder of the daily consequences of military conflict.
Of course you can also get your fill at the Textile Museum exhibit, which runs to January 27.