Peace Corps Online: Directory: Afghanistan: Peace Corps Afghanistan: Peace Corps In Afghanistan: THE PEACE CORPS AND THE MAKING OF A RUG DEALER By George W. O'Bannon

By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, June 28, 2001 - 1:00 am: Edit Post

The Peace Corps and the Making of a Rug Dealer by George S. O'Bannon


[Editor's Note: This was a three part article that appeared in ORR Volume III/1, 2, & 3; April, May and June 1983. The war in Afghanistan was raging and while we had no idea the Russians would eventually be defeated, we did know that Afghanistan was experiencing irreversible change. We asked some of our friends to write of their experiences in Afghanistan during the 1960s and 1970s, a period that some equate with Paris in the 1920s, so that some record of what had been would remain.]


By George W. O'Bannon

The New Breed

I am frequently asked, "How did an Irishman get in the oriental rug business?" Since I have an Irish surname rather than the more typical Armenian or Arab name, Americans associate with rug dealers, the question is usually asked after a period of conversation. I do not look Irish but more like the stereotypical Middle Eastern rug merchant.

The question is an interesting one. But it should not be how did an Irishman get in the rug trade but how did someone with a non-Middle Eastern name and background get in the rug business? I feel that is more appropriate for I am not unique today. I am merely representative of what I call the "new breed"; of rug dealers. I say "new breed" because others like myself have entered the rug trade for very different reasons from those of the old Armenian and Arab families who came to the business after the turn of the century.

Just as the new breed are a reflection of a time, so were the old dealers. These families came to the U.S. in the first quarter of this century largely as immigrants because of the turmoil which was occurring in the Middle East. The Armenians came because of the persecutions resulting from the Turkish Revolutionary movement. During the same period many Christian Arabs came to the U.S. from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine as a result of World War I, the Turkish Revolution, and the return of those countries to Arab political control after centuries of Turkish rule. They happened to come at a time when oriental rugs were enjoying their greatest period of popularity in the U.S. As immigrants they had to find a way of making a living, and one thing they knew were rugs and how to sell them. Therefore, throughout the U.S. they became purveyors of oriental rugs. With time, they began to assimilate, learned English, moved into the educational stream, and in succeeding generations the sons and daughters moved into new professions and out of the rug business. The depression forced many more to close their businesses. Certainly, the rush to broadloom carpeting after World War II forced even more to leave what had become a very poor business.

In the late '60's when the interest in oriental rugs began it's slow rebirth, there were few rug dealers left across the U.S. I am told by old timers in Pittsburgh that between the wars there were probably 20 oriental rug dealers in Pittsburgh. When I arrived there in 1968 there were only two left, and one of the best known shops was being liquidated by the heirs. In reality, however, there was only one active shop, that of Wade Shehady.

It was this rebirth of interest in oriental rugs and an overseas experience which led to my becoming one of the new breed of dealers in this area of expanding economic opportunity and diminished marketing structure. But it was a significant experience, that of the U.S. Peace Corps, which had initially brought me into contact with oriental rugs and made me aware of this special world. It is the Peace Corps experience and how it affected me with which this article is concerned.

My writing of these experiences will, I think, also reflect similar experiences of many other dealers like myself who lived abroad in rug producing countries with the Peace Corps. Some of the ex-Peace Corps dealers I have known are Mark Treece, Alex Fazio, Holly Chase and Peterson Conway. I am sure there are many more whom I have not met.

Without this experience I would never have become an oriental rug dealer. I was not raised with oriental rugs. My first exposure to them was in a job preceding the Peace Corps where I worked for a man who owned orientals and had them in his office. He loved to talk about them, what they were, how he acquired them in Egypt and Beirut and how he viewed them aesthetically, It so happened that his favorite rugs were Baluch. From this job I went to Afghanistan as Associate Director of the Peace Corps in February, 1966.

To Rugs Through the Peace Corps

As Associate Director, I was supervisor over approximately 80 Peace Corps volunteers in Afghanistan. Fortunately for me, most of the volunteers assigned to me were living in provincial locations rather than in the capital city of Kabul. The result was that I travelled around the country a great deal visiting the volunteers.

The Rug Bazaar, Chaman, Kabul,1960s

The interest I developed in oriental rugs during my prior job was re-awakened. I started visiting rug shops in Kabul soon after my arrival. in Afghanistan at that time, there were few rug shops in Shari Now, the new section of the city, where the Peace Corps office was located. Most of them were located at Chaman, the large park area where the annual Jeshyn, or National Holiday celebrations, where held. There were only a few other shops scattered in other sections of the city. I soon got to know most of the shops in Kabul. As I started travelling around the country to Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and Khanabad, I would spend time visiting the rug dealers in those cities and towns. Some reminiscences about specific experiences and trips are perhaps the best way to convey how I began to learn about rugs.

Beginning with New Rugs

In the mid and late '60s most of the foreigners in Afghanistan were associated with some international governmental agency. The foreign buyers were not there in great numbers and tourism was minimal. The interests of this foreign community directly affected the rug market. In my first few months in Kabul, I spent time in the new shops in Shari Now and at the main rug bazaar on Chaman. One of my earliest remembrances of rug shopping was finding a silky and lustrous rug in deep purple colors along with a stark white. The rug was offered along with the new Mauris of the day and it had a totally different handle and look to it from these other new rugs. I was shown new rugs since the foreign community bought almost nothing but new rugs and primarily those of the Mauri quality. This rug, however, had a sheen and a pliable, floppy handle compared to the Mauris. The dealer told me that it was silk and that was why it felt so different.

I hesitated on it as my first purchase and never bought the rug. I subsequently learned that the rug was a Pakistani rug in the Sariq ensi design. Thus I ignorantly escaped making the mistake of many first buyers; that of purchasing not only a copy but a falsely labelled silk rug. How many tourists in Turkey have not been so lucky with their "silk floss" Keyseri prayer rugs?

There was another rug that I also admired. It was one of a pair. It was finely woven, with an ivory ground, a center medallion, with floral arabesques filling the field. The main border had red ground and carried designs complimentary to those in the field. This piece, too, supposedly had silk warps and weft,but wool pile.

The shop where I found it was the only rug shop at the time in what was called the Fruit Street. Most of the foreign community came to this block to buy fruits, vegetables and meat. It was at Chahar-rahi Turabaz Khan, a main intersection in Shari Now, that later was an extension of the famous Chicken Street. At this time Chicken Street which was the opposite extension of the intersection had virtually no shops but for chicken and duck vendors, hence the name. Later this was to change and it became the main street for the vending of tourist goods in the 1970s.

At the fruit bazaar rug shop, I began to learn rugs. The owner was friendly and open, and it was here that I learned that by sitting and consuming endless cups of tea with an amiable rug shop owner, one could learn about rugs.

I gravitated toward an Isphahan, or was it a Nain? It was one of a pair. I hadn't seen anything else like it in Kabul and here were two of them. I was encouraged to take the rug home on trial, and I did. Having just arrived in Afghanistan with my wife and two children, the price of the rug at $500 seemed daunting. I took it back to the dealer. A few weeks passed and I went to the rug store to look at the rugs again and one of the pair was gone, having been sold to a Brazilian who was with one of the foreign agencies in town. Panic set in. The remaining rug was the one I liked best. I decided to take the rug home for another trial. My wife agreed it was a nice rug, as did some of my Peace Corps colleagues, some of whom had a lot of experience abroad. The decision was made to buy the rug and after the requisite bargaining I paid about $350 for what turned out to be a 4'x6' Nain, an Iranian rug. I was delighted with my first purchase.

Prices for an approximate 4'x6' Mauri ran from 8,000 to 12,000 afghanis, or at the exchange rate of the time, $80 to $150. There was little bargaining over the prices of these goods. The dealers operated on a rather firm per square meter or foot price depending on the quality of the rugs. They nearly all had red fields and the standard Tekke gul. Some in a much deeper, liver red, with the Salor gul, were called Sariq and seemed rarer.

Pir Mohammad

In the course of my wanderings at Chaman, I had found the shop Pir Mohammad. He was the quality rug dealer in Kabul at that time. He was affectionately known in the foreign community as "The Robber." His merchandise was wonderful. Looking back with clearer and more knowledgeable eyes, my mind reels at the memory. He not only had the best of the best in newer goods, but he was the only dealer in Kabul with an extensive inventory of older and antique rugs.

Pir Mohammad and his shop were an experience. One entered the shop through a door into a foyer and then ducked under a curtain to gain admission to the shop proper. The shop was a large square with rugs all round on the four sides. The center area was taken up with cases of Turkoman jewelry, pottery, ikats, suzanis, guns, swords and chain mail suits. The lighting was good because the wall facing Chaman had many windows. One usually encountered Pir Mohammad reclining, so it seemed, on the Afghan equivalent of a fainting couch. He was about 5'4" tall, roundish, usually dressed in Afghan clothes, and totally disinterested. Upon entering, your presence may or may not have been acknowledged. You could walk around the room and one of the attending men might open up a rug you showed interest in. Pir Mohammad, himself, remained reclining, talking with visitors, his children, or was sleeping. If there was something you wanted to see you could disturb him by asking.

On one of these visits I was intent on a Mauri, but I did not want the run of the mill type which was to be had everywhere. At Pir Mohammad's I found one truely different. It was a Tekke Mauri with a deep hunter green field. I had not seen anything like it and decided I wanted this rug. We talked about the rug. In those days one the first things a dealer wanted to know was who you were and where you worked. My relationship with the Peace Corps was early noted and remembered by all the dealers I encountered. Pir Mohammad was no exception. I took the green Mauri home and decided to buy it. I returned and began the tea drinking and bargaining process. The first price on this rug was 16,000 afs., a very high price for the time, but I had been warned by others that I was dealing with "The Robber." So hard bargaining was in order. In most of the Middle East the bargaining process is something to be enjoyed and savored by both parties. It is an act of personal interaction and a game which is played to determine a winner. Although the seller has the obvious upper hand, through dint of perseverance and most importantly, personality, it is possible for the buyer to be the winner. For Westerners, however, it can be a very time consuming process.

With Pir Mohammad the buyer never won and perhaps that was the reason for his nickname. He was the only rug dealer I ever met who could be so disinterested in the bargaining process that he could go to sleep while you were bargaining. Perhaps it was the effect of the fainting couch. But this happened on more than one occasion when I was bargaining with him for a rug and it may have been a reflection on my bargaining technique.

The green Mauri was my first purchase from Pir Mohammad, and I ended up paying 12,000 afs. Given my adversary, I considered it a very good deal. So, my second rug in Afghanistan, the green Mauri, was a real product of Afghanistan and not one from Iran. I had broken the first mold of the American buyer; that of wanting the ivory field, medallion design and soft colors. Breaking the mold of buying only new rugs was still ahead.

By this time I was beginning to travel to some of the provincial locations to visit various of my Peace Corps volunteer charges. The first place I visited was Charikar, north of Kabul, but noted for its knives and grapes, not rugs. I remember my first trip there. It was in March and the trees were just beginning to green. Fields were being plowed and late trimming and tying of grape vines was being done by the farmers. Water was flowing through the irrigation ditches and crocuses were blooming along the banks. The red buds were blooming on the hillsides of Istalif. It was beautiful, peaceful, and friendly.


This was followed by a trip to Kandahar in the south. The paved road to Kandahar was being built at that time by Morrison-Knudson, an American firm, but was not yet finished. It was a long trip taking about 10 hours. It was still spring and in places the almond trees were in bloom covering the hillsides with a soft pink. The landscapes although bleak and barren by many standards were strong, brown, gray, and eternally powerful by another standard. Having been born and raised in New Mexico there was much in Afghanistan that I felt in tune with, the climate, the plains and mountains, the adobe construction and the agricultural society.

The reason for my visit to Kandahar was because of what "headquarters" perceived as a problem among the volunteers there. I was to go to see how the volunteers were living, what were their interpersonal relationships and how their jobs were going. I was not trained as a psychologist but that was the nature of the assignment. One of the ways in which I melded my job as journeyman psychologist and ingenue rug enthusiast was to ask volunteers to take me on tours of the bazaars. During these visits I not only had a relaxed, private conversation with the volunteers, but they could be my guide and show off their local knowledge. As things evolved, they all learned that the rug bazaar was a favorite interest of mine, so we would always end up in that section of town.

Kandahar was never an interesting town for rugs although there were rug shops there. I also felt that it was the only city in Afghanistan which did not seem friendly. The people seemed to eye one with suspicion and disdain, and so my memories of it are not particularly warm.

The Passage to Old Rugs

At this time almost all the rugs in the Kandahar bazaar were Baluch, and Kandahar's saving grace may have been that it introduced me to old rugs. On this particular visit, I remember going to the bazaar. It was memorable because it vas my first encounter with the classic covered Middle Eastern bazaar. It was not extensive, being only two blocks long in an "L" shape. It was busy and bustling, filled with sounds, smells and traffic. At a point there was a break in the lines of shops and one could look into the open, quiet and serene calm of the bazaar mosque.

The rug dealers were not in this section but were more exposed to the sun in the part where horse equipment was sold. There were only five or six shops which had rugs in addition to horse blankets, kilims, bridles and other horse paraphernalia. One shop had a Baluch prayer rug which was old and showed some slight wear of the pile. It was coarse compared to the Mauris; it was dull compared to the bright colors of my green Mauri: but it was somehow simple and very expressive of Afghanistan: plain, unornamented, direct, used and warm.

In passing the shop the first time I looked at the rug and made a minor bid. I passed it by, looking at other items, such as donkey bags and balishts but I was not really interested in buying. In leaving the bazaar I had to pass by this same group of shops. The owner came out with the Baluch prayer rug. He engaged me and the bargaining ensued. I was not particularly interested in buying the rug. I was still in my "new" rugs phase. However, a young man from the street came up and began to act as an intermediary. He started bargaining for me. I was still not convinced I wanted the rug at any price. By some fluke, understandable only in the Middle East, I ended up buying the rug for 800 afs., about $12 for a rug I did not want but had somehow or other been coerced into buying.

Thus this plain simple Baluch prayer rug became one of our possessions. We used it in our home in Kabul but not in a prominent place. It went back to the U.S. with us and early in my transition from rug collector to rug dealer, I sold it. I also sold the Nain and the green Mauri. The only one I now regret selling is the Baluch for it was a type which I have not encountered since.

t was the purchase of the Baluch prayer rug which caused me to start looking at old rugs and Baluch rugs in particular. In this first year in Kabul as I returned from trips I passed a shop which always had a black rug with white details hanging out front. It was different from anything else I had seen. At some point the rug disappeared and I did not see it for weeks. Finally it reappeared at a shop not far away and I stopped to look at it more closely. It had nicely finished kilim ends, something which I had not particularly noticed before since the new Turkoman rugs did not have them. After some consideration and trying the rug at home I purchased it. It was identified for me as a Mushwani Baluch. I was somewhat hesitant to buy it because the blacks were worn more than the other colors, but I was sufficiently fascinated with it that I overcame this reservation. I was beginning to learn that the beauty of a rug was more than its condition. Just because a rug was new, it was not necessarily better than an old piece. In fact these two old pieces were giving me more pleasure than the new Mauri and Nain.


In this first year in Afghanistan I made a trip to Herat. As a city it is my favorite in all Afghanistan. In Herat one can truely experience what the old cities of Central Asia must have been.

The ancient Central Asian cities were surrounded by high protective walls and gates opened to the roads leading to the other cities of the region, and the gates frequently carried the names of the major cities to which those roads lead. Within the walls was the citadel, the mosques, the bazaars, the homes and streets and alleyways connecting them all. In Herat one could see all of these things.

There remained enough of the thick, towering mud walls and several gates that you could sense the medieval Herat of Shah Rukh. The Masjid-i- Jami, one of the most complete and historic mosques of Central Asia dominates the city with its tiled walls, minarets and large ceramic covered courtyards. Resident tile makers maintain and expand this ancient architectural monument. The citadel, once the military garrison, still exists. Within the tree-lined, cool bazaar streets, one could visit the covered reservoir, Hauz-i-Chahar Suq, which provided water to a section of the inner city. Outside the city was the Takht-i-Safar, a public garden, the Mausoleum of Ansari at Garzagah with buildings dating from the 11th century and a short distance on the Hari Rud (Herat River) is the Pul-i-Malan with its buttressed and arched causeway. Many of the main streets outside the old city are lined with pines 30-40 feet high. These trees contribute greatly to the character of Herat and make it a pleasant and cool city in the summer months. While Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif bake in the blazing sun of summer, Herat remains, or seems to remain, cool. At night the gentle breezes whistle through the needles providing an air of serenity and languorousness.

When I first visited Herat in the spring of 1966, it was probably the most ideal time to go. As a horticulturist, I was interested in the plants and I will never forget the roses which I saw blooming in the gardens. Heratis pride themselves on their gardens probably more than any others in Afghanistan, although gardening, not just of vegetable but of flowers as well, is practiced by everyone throughout the country. Roses there were related to one known in this country as the American Beauty. But whereas the American Beauty is three to four inches in diameter, the Herat cousin is six to eight inches across. They are full, scented, and the softest shade of dusty rose. The gardens were also filled with stocks, snapdragons, calendulas and larkspurs. It was marvelous.

But, on to the rugs. Herat is one of the country's major centers for the collection of rugs and carpets. It is probably best known as a center for Baluch rugs. Weavers of Baluch rugs surround the city and it is a major market for them. It is a secondary market for rugs moving from Farah, Chakharan, Qala-i-Now and Khushk. It is also a center for new Turkoman production, primarily by Tekkes and Sariqs. Some Yomuds are also found here.

Most of the Turkoman production is in the new Mauri quality which feature the Tekke gul. There are some woven in the Sariq (Salor) gul. The Yomuds in the Herat area weave rugs of this type, not the traditional Yomud designs and qualities. A Peace Corps volunteer, who was a weaver, learned to weave the Mauri quality in the home of a Kazakh family. Therefore, when considering these new Mauri rugs, one must bear in mind that they may have been woven by a member of any of these various groups, including a woman from New Jersey, and it is next to impossible to distinguish them. I have seen Jamshidi Baluch Mauris which are as fine also.

Visiting a Turkoman Home

By the time I made this first visit to Herat; I had decided that I wanted to visit a rug weaving family and so I prevailed upon the Peace Corps volunteers to try and find one. As things would have it one of the volunteers had a Turkoman boy in her class and asked him if we could visit his family and see the weaving. This was arranged and in the afternoon we set off for their home which was in a section outside the walls of the old city. Since our visit was pre-arranged, the father was at home and admitted us. We were taken to a room within the house compound which was a guest room. There was a stack of approximately a dozen new Mauris in one corner. We were joined by the teenage son, a younger son and a daughter. The rugs were opened and the weave and clip were discussed by the father.

This was my first introduction to how one should feel the clip of a rug. It was obvious that the man was more proud of the clip on some rugs than others. He spent more time discussing the clip than the fineness of the weave since they were all equal in this respect. Likewise color was hardly mentioned since it, also was uniform, except for the difference between the Tekke and Sariq rugs. As we looked and explored these rugs I began to "feel" the difference in the clip. I could feel a roughness in some pieces and a velvety, uniform quality in others. I began to understand why they valued one rug more than another on this basis. I had not been stroking rugs before. I had now learned that one's tactile as well as visual senses must be employed in the appreciation of a rug.

While learning this lesson, I was aware that women occasionally peeked in the door but quickly hurried away. I finally asked if we could see the weaving. The teenage son left and returned shortly, having dispatched the women into the house and out of the open compound area. We left the guest room and went out into the open courtyard. The typical house in Afghanistan consists of a walled-in rectangle. The rooms, usually one or two stories high are built around the perimeter of the courtyard with a gate in one wall. In this house the guest room was located next to the gate as one entered. That wall of the courtyard contained about five similar small, one story rooms. Opposite these was a two story structure where the family lived. Two of the small rooms next to the guest room were set aside as weaving rooms. The women were weaving most of the year. In one room was a horizontal loom with a 1/3 completed Mauri rug about 4' x 6'. This was my first confrontation with the actual weaving process. One side of the room was open so that the light was adequate.

It had never occurred to me that the weaver squatted over the rug as she wove and that the task was so laborious, tedious, and physically demanding.

I returned to this home on several occasions. The family was always hospitable and friendly. I can say that I never had a disagreeable experience with a Turkoman. I particularly remember an occasion when I made a visit to Herat with my wife. Since I knew where the house was I wanted her to see the weaving. On our own we made our way to the house and knocked on the gate. An older woman, the wife, opened the gate and admitted us. She took us to the guest room and brought tea. She and a teenage daughter sat with us in the guest room as we looked at the rugs. They did not speak Farsi, only Turkmeni, and communication was mostly by hand signals and expressions. We looked at the rug rooms and I took pictures of her and the daughter. After about five minutes, the father, apparently summoned by the teenage son, arrived. The women retreated to the house, and we did not see them again during that visit.

On my first visit I had asked if the rugs were for sale and was told that those we had been inspecting were sold. However, he took me to a man in the bazaar who did have rugs for sale. This shop was filled with literally hundreds of Mauris. It seemed that he was the jobber for a group of Turkoman families, and that in Herat, sales were handled through him. I looked at the rugs with my newly acquired sense of touch, feeling somewhat like Helen Keller, seeing rugs with a new kind of sight. I finally selected a new Mauri with a camel grounded field instead of the ubiquitous red of most of these rugs.

This Mauri was the last new rug that I bought for myself in Afghanistan. By this time I was learning what made a rug. I had learned about fine weave with the Mauri purchases. I learned about materials from my near purchase of the "silk" Pakistani and the silk warped Nain. The two Baluchi rugs had introduced me to age, color, and variety. The Herat experience opened my fingers to the touch of a rug, its wool, quality and clip.

There are two other events which I remember vividly from this city. The first involves buying rugs in the bazaar. The second is about another encounter with Turkomans.

I was walking the bazaar with a Peace Corps volunteer. By this time I was more confident about buying rugs and bargaining. We looked at the rugs in a shop, and the dealer had a pair of old Ersari juwals which were nicely woven, no backs, but excellent design and color. I bought them. This was in 1967. In 1972, I returned to Herat not having been there in the intervening years. I sought out this shop since I had always had a good experience with the owner. I arrived at his shop with eight American students in tow. He welcomed us as he would any group of tourists and invited us in. We sat down, tea was brought, and we looked at rugs. After a time, I asked if he remembered me. "Oh yes," he said, "You are the man who bought the juwals for X afghanis." I was astounded. I asked how long ago that was. He replied 1 or 2 years. It was actually five years. Two things strike me about this. First is the cultural difference regarding time that exists between the East and West. To us time is of the essence, while in the East time is nothing.

The second thing is literacy. Afghanistan is essentially an illiterate country. Not more than 10% of the population is literate. In the West we equate illiteracy with ignorance. In doing so we do not understand the power of memory and oral tradition. To succeed in an illiterate society requires an exceptionally keen and retentive mind. It is the retention of facts, peoples' faces and positions, the amounts things are bought and sold for, etc. which makes the successful person. I developed a great admiration and appreciation for these "illiterate" shopkeepers. As a member of a society which is increasingly turning its retentive memory capacity over to computers, I am more concerned about our individual abilities to be successful than I am of these illiterate merchants.

By Lisa Joy ( - on Tuesday, January 01, 2008 - 9:45 pm: Edit Post

I bought a Baluchi Tree of Life prayer rug from a Mark Treece, in Washington DC in 1983. Would like to know more about Mr. Treece. THANKS! Lisa Joy

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