In his quest to track down the last of Afghanistan’s antique rugs, Chari Allahqul has weathered high-country blizzards, suffered beatings from robbers, and skirted fighting with armed attackers.
Often on horseback with donkeys in tow, he travels deep into the jagged badlands of northern Afghanistan, searching for hand-woven carpets made by the country’s nomadic tribes.
“The roads are dangerous, full of wolves and full of enemies. We have to spend nights in the forests or in the desert,” said Allahqul, who travels with a hardy Afghan sheepdog to keep him safe while he sleeps.
Rug hunters can spend weeks – if not months – going through villages like sleuths along old caravan trails, offering cash or bartering modern goods to amass a diverse selection of pieces they can later peddle in rug bazaars or to collectors.
But the journeys are often full of peril.
Allahqul, who began carpet hunting as a child, said he was once clubbed with a Kalashnikov by bandits who passed over his carefully collected rugs while looking for cash, dismissing his wares as ageing junk.
“They said, ‘these rugs are old rugs, throw them away,’” he recalled with a grin while admitting it took over two weeks to recover from the thrashing.
Dangers are nothing new to the job, according to Allahqul, who remembers his father telling the story of a friend who was eaten alive by wolves after being stranded in a snowstorm during a rug expedition decades ago.
“The only thing they found were his shoes and the rugs,” he shrugged.
The rug hunters combing Afghanistan’s carpet heartlands complain that antique pieces are now increasingly difficult to find.
The roads have also become more dangerous, with international troops withdrawing from Afghanistan while lawlessness and the influence of the Taliban armed group grow.
“The factory-made rugs have hurt the hand-woven rug industry,” Zalmai Ahmadi, a carpet hunter from western Afghanistan’s Herat, told AFP news agency.
“The journeys are very, very difficult and we come across the Taliban, government forces, and thieves – either they ask for money or you get killed.”