SEATTLE – When Afghanistan's Taliban government became America's avowed enemy, rug dealers started to worry.
Some customers at Rugs and Arts of Asia, a store in Seattle's Pioneer Square retail district, were asking whether they were buying from the Taliban, and in New York some dealers noted a dropoff in sales of carpets from Central Asia and the Middle East after the September attacks.
But H. Homion Rahmati, owner of the Seattle store, said that Afghan rugs are selling briskly at his store now, and sales may even be on the rise. One woman came to the store soon after the United States launched air strikes against Afghanistan and demanded an Afghan rug, he said.
``I asked her if she knew anything about Afghan rugs and she said she didn't but she wanted one anyway,'' said Rahmati. ''People are more interested in Afghan rugs now. Can you believe it? My sales have gone up by about 20 percent.''
Other rug retailers said that sales have climbed even as U.S. planes continued to bomb in Afghanistan. But U.S. ground troops have had support of Afghani ground troops in its effort to flush out Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda militants and the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime that gave them shelter. The U.S. government believes bin Laden masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people.
``Many customers ask where the money goes because they don't want to buy if they think it goes to the Taliban,'' Rahmati said. ``I tell them it absolutely does not go to the Taliban but to weavers in Afghanistan. I'm sure because I've been to those areas and I know the weavers.''
Afghans who had quietly run businesses in their adopted country while struggling to explain the woes of their homeland have suddenly found themselves the center of attention.
``When I moved to the U.S. 17 years ago, I lived in Dallas for a while. I would tell people I was from Afghanistan and they wouldn't know where it was,'' said Fahim Karim, owner of the Turkman Collections rug store in Palo Alto, Calif.
Karim said he has found a supportive clientele in Palo Alto, the center of Northern California's Silicon Valley and the home of Stanford University. The region has one of largest populations of Aghan immigrants in the United States.
``Unlike the hate crimes that we've heard about in other areas after Sept. 11, people here have been calling to see how we are,'' he said. ``Customers that I haven't seen in two or three years got in touch and told me they wanted to make sure I was alright.''
Karim, a Kabul native, said Sept. 11 and the bombing of Afghanistan had been a boon to his 13-year-old rug business.
``People came to my shop to see how we were doing and then they would look around and buy rugs,'' Karim said. ``My business has increased by 50 percent.''
That may be understandable, given that carpets are perhaps the country's best-known export. Indeed, with rugs seen as collectible items, some buyers have been acquiring them in anticipation of a scarcity
Valued for their deep red color and bold geometric designs, a typical 5-by-7-foot rug can take up to five months to finish, and sells for about $600, Rahmati said.
Some rugs in Rahmati's store were made by Afghan refugees in northern Pakistan's city of Peshawar, where the rug dealer stocks up twice a year. But the bulk of his rugs are ordered from northern Afghanistan via dealers in Peshawar.
Rahmati was in Peshawar on Sept. 11 and witnessed the desperation of Afghan refugees eager to escape feared U.S. strikes but who spent days stuck at the border after Pakistan slammed shut its doors.
The stream of trucks crossing the border with rugs had trickled down to just a few, leaving Rahmati with very little to choose from and sending prices rocketing.
Prices may continue to go up as Afghan leaders hammer out a new administration in the recently liberated capital, Kabul. Karim, the Palo Alto-based rug dealer, said once refugees began returning, many who had woven rugs in Pakistan camps would try to return to their previous work or schooling.
It could take up to five years for the rug market to return to normal, Rahmati said.
``It will take time for people to settle down and relax. Rug weaving needs you to be relaxed. You can't weave a rug while bombs are falling around you,'' he said, adding, ``If bombs have fallen near weavers then lots of looms will be destroyed and sheep and goat killed.''
Rahmati, whose father's Kabul rug factory was destroyed by the Soviets, is more hopeful about the U.S. campaign.
``When the air strikes against Afghanistan started and I saw the map on television, I cried,'' Rahmati said. ``It felt like a part of my body was being bombed. But I convinced myself it was like an operation -- if it was successful, Afghanistan will be healthy. Bombs are like an operation to take the bad part out.''