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KARACHI: A view of carpet wali gali in Al-Asif Square.—Photo by writer
KARACHI: A view of carpet wali gali in Al-Asif Square.—Photo by writer

LEAVING behind a war-torn home over decade ago, Muhammad Azeem moved to an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar. The skilled carpet-maker started weaving carpets in his tent to support his extended family, which had accompanied him here. At that stage, he could never have imagined that he would one day run a factory, and become the largest producer of Afghan carpets in Peshawar.

Initially, he used to sell the carpets at very low rates. While working on them, he also continued building ties with salesmen, exporters and traders in Peshawar, as well as in other cities. After years of resolute effort and sleepless nights, he managed to attain enough of a financial standing to rent a small house in Peshawar’s Faqirabad area. His family finally moved out of the relief camp, ready to start a new chapter.

Of the many stereotypes that exist about Afghan refugees and migrants in Pakistan, one of the strongest is that they are a burden on the economy. This assumption fails to take into account the fact that over the years, Afghans have assimilated into Pakistan and contribute to various industries including food, transport and, of course, the carpet industry.

Today, Azeem’s carpets are best known for their artistry, colour palette and design — “both locally and internationally,” he claims.

When he started, the demand for handwoven Afghan carpets was high, he says. “But there were no factories in the city. This gave us an advantage, and we worked day and night, engaging more skilled workers to meet the demand.” In time, Azeem was able to employ more workers — creating about 80 jobs — and rent a building on Charsadda road which he used as his factory. Pakistan gave Azeem the opportunity to make it on his own through sheer hard work, and he took the challenge up with determination.

Then the Army Public School attack occurred. The police started raids and crackdowns against Afghans, forcing many to return to Afghanistan to avoid harassment or even arrest. As Azeem’s buyers and workers started to leave the country, he found himself back to square one. More than 30 of his factory’s workers, skilled Afghans, have left the country.

“Production has decreased by 95 per cent,” Azeem rues. “We have stopped purchasing material. We’re nearly ready to close the factory down.”

Dozens of other Afghan carpet producers have closed up shop, too.

The carpet market is not doing much better in Karachi. Towards the heart of the daunting maze that is Al-Asif Square is a street known to every man, woman and child in the area as ‘Carpet wali gali [Carpet street]’. With a block of residential apartments on the left, the right side is lined with shopkeepers and carpets from all over the world.

In one of the shops sits Baba Nazar, a second-generation Afghan immigrant who was born in Karachi. The 22-year-old says that his ties to the land his father was born in are still strong. His father, an Afghan who moved here in the late 1970s in the hopes of settling down, started their carpet business making, buying and selling all sorts of carpets, daris and dastarkhwans. He still runs the small shop in Al-Asif.

“He moved to Karachi before I was born. He has spent at least 35 years in just this city,” Nazar tells Dawn. He explains that along with locally handcrafted carpets, they also sell carpets and rugs made in Iran, Turkey and Belgium.

Nazar shows us the most expensive item in the shop, a deep red carpet from Turkey. The price can fluctuate from Rs45,000 to Rs55,000 depending on the buyer (and their bargaining skills). The shop also has several cloth and jute dastarkhawans on sale ranging from Rs1,500 to Rs3,000. He adds that Iranian carpets are another category altogether: “I have Iranian carpets starting from Rs12,000 to Rs22,000, for there are different rates for different patterns, threads and types of work.”

Like Azeem, Nazar too enjoyed good business until recently. “Most of my own customers are from Karachi,” he explains. “I get a lot of people from Orangi, Banaras Town and many other far-off places,” he adds.

On the average, the shop did good business, he says. “We would make around Rs30,000 to Rs35,000 in one day if we had a good buyer. It always depends on the number of buyers. But with the government asking the Afghans to leave, I believe that my business will be affected.” Then he pauses to reconsider: “Actually, I feel that it already has. I cannot say what is happening in other markets but just buying and selling carpets in our own market, our business depends on the residents of this area and the Afghan community,” he says.

“If you send them back to Afghanistan, who will buy all these carpets?” he asks. “Business will go thapp [down].”

This story is part of an online special about the lives of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Continue reading on Dawn.com.

Published in Dawn January 31st, 2017