Volume 73, Number 35 | December 31 - January 6, 2004

9/11 rugs: Kabul to the East Village

By Michael Luongo

Villager photos by Michael Luongo

Haji, left, and his father, also named Haji, outside their new rug store in Kabul, Afghanistan. The son said he has sold over 1,000 rugs depicting planes crashing into the Twin Towers, mostly to American soldiers.

I swore I would not buy any rugs. I’d been to the Middle East before and the come-on was always about rugs. Kabul was no different. Here I was on Chicken Street, the main tourist area, on my first day, surrounded by dozens of rug stores. Since Afghanistan isn’t exactly a tourist haven, I wondered how these places made it. The seemingly unjustified quantity of rugs made the come-ons all the stronger.

Still, there was something about young rug seller Haji that put me at ease. His store was literally rising from the ruins of Kabul. “That was my father’s old shop,” he explained to me, pointing to a pile of rubble lying next door. Now, nearly two years after the ouster of the Taliban, the family had returned. I watched as a young man painted the signs on the shop window in misspelled English. I had seen him doing the same on a few other storefronts earlier that morning. The pace of rebuilding in this city meant he was a very busy man.

Well, I thought, if it’s Haji’s first day open, and my first day here, it was a perfect match. Still, I was resolute about not buying carpets.

I sat down in the dim shop, lit like the others by a weak generator. Stacks of carpets, piled nearly to the ceiling, surrounded me. Haji pulled carpet after carpet out, timed for each sip of the tea he had offered. Each was beautiful, but he knew his spiel was not getting through to me. Finally he asked, “Where are you from in America?”

“New York,” I responded. “New York City, you know, where the buildings were.” For the first of many times on my trip, I waved my hands in front of me to represent two tall buildings and pushed them down, showing their collapse.

“Oh,” he said, and he pulled out a small brown rug that left me speechless. It showed the Twin Towers being smashed into by airplanes, surrounded by text about terrorism and Sept. 11. Like the words on the shopfront, much of it was misspelled. Under the buildings was an aircraft carrier, and smack in the middle was a dove with an olive branch, flying over the flags of the U.S.A. and Afghanistan. I was intrigued and repulsed, and completely mesmerized.

“Have you sold this rug?” I reluctantly asked Haji, my mixed feelings clearly showing on my face.

“Here, no, but in Bagram at my other shop, I have sold over 1,000 to the soldiers,” he answered. The reference was to Bagram Air Force base, the U.S.’s main military outpost in Afghanistan.

My whole reason for coming to Afghanistan was to make sense of what had happened to my own city. I felt that after 9/11 and the subsequent fall of the Taliban, New York and Kabul were sister cities, forever linked by historical circumstance. As I stared at the rug in Haji’s hands, I realized it was the best expression I’d ever seen of that special relationship. I understood instantly why the soldiers wanted it and I knew I couldn’t leave Afghanistan without it, either. I can’t remember Haji’s original price, but after some haggling, for $18 (the Afghan tourist economy runs on American dollars), it was mine.

I remained in Kabul two more weeks and found numerous versions of what I would come to know as war rugs. Some were maps of Afghanistan with American aircraft carriers surrounding the country on nonexistent seas. Others, such as those that adorned the United Nations Mine Museum, had images of tanks, guns and landmines. They intrigued me as well. Some were used to teach illiterate children what to avoid stepping on in this war-torn country.

I understood the rugs. I learned very quickly however, that few others do. My return to the United States was via Istanbul, shortly before the terrorist madness had ensued in that city. I arrived many hours early for my flight, but I almost didn’t make it. I was detained as a terrorist.

The initial reason for my being questioned was completely idiotic. Being Italian-American, with dark brown hair and brown eyes and olive skin, I didn’t fit the Turkish security guard’s image of a U.S. citizen, in spite of my passport. She insisted I was a Turk trying to leave the country illegally.

In a world where “Baywatch” and Barbie are the most recognizable U.S. imports, perhaps it’s not too hard to understand why she might only think of Americans as blond and blue eyed. The woman switched into speaking Turkish, so I simply ignored her, to my obvious peril. I was hauled into an interrogation room. In addition to being a brunet, having been in Afghanistan, even as a journalist, didn’t help my case any. When they searched my luggage and pulled out that Twin Towers rug, the guards screamed frantically for backup security. Now I was worried about a hell of a lot more than missing my flight. I tried to explain, that as a New Yorker who even had dug through the rubble looking for bodies, this was a souvenir meant to help me make sense of it all. To the guards though, possession of the rug clearly marked me as a terrorist.

After hours of repetitive searches and interrogations, I was finally allowed on the now long-delayed flight — with the rug remaining in my luggage. Nothing happened in customs in J.F.K. but I feared the same possible treatment. In New York though, we know not all Americans are blond.

Knowing the feelings the rug can illicit, I decided never to take it out of my apartment. My roommate even looked at it and said, “No wonder they thought you were a terrorist.” I wrote about the rug as part of a New York Times article, but I discussed it discreetly, not even explaining what it pictured exactly.

It wasn’t long though before New Yorkers knew the rugs loud and clear through the work of Kevin Sudeith, a rug dealer based in Long Island City. He’d been quietly selling such things in city flea markets and on his Web site, www.warrug.com, since the late-1990s, getting them from Pakistani dealers. Most of what he sold, though, didn’t directly have anything to do with 9/11. Twenty-three years of war in Afghanistan meant that when a woman got down to weaving, guns, mines and planes were never far from her mind.

Then, in April of 2003, Sudeith saw his first Twin Towers rug. “I was disturbed by them,” he explained. “I wasn’t sure if they were mourning rugs, or what they were.” They had already been described to him by a photographer who had seen them in Kabul but regretted never having bought one.

Either Sudeith or his salesperson hawks them in the East Village on Avenue A and 11th St. on Sundays from 10 a.m. till dark and on Seventh Ave. in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Saturdays and Sundays. The East Village flea market will be closed this weekend, however. Sudeith’s prices range from $150 up to several thousand dollars, depending on the rug. In the East Village in particular, he has had strong reactions from people who feel that he should not sell them. Among them was a firefighter involved in the rescue operation on 9/11. Following a recent New York Times article about his selling the 9/11 rugs, messages have been posted on Sudeith’s Web site, threatening to burn his vendor’s booth. Sudeith has notified the police.

Sales on Avenue A haven’t been as brisk as in Kabul, though. Sudeith displayed the 9/11 rugs for a year at the flea market, during which time he didn’t sell one. But following the Times article a few weeks ago — which he felt was “a little negative” — he has sold a dozen.

“Generally, New Yorkers don’t like them,” he said. “Generally, people find them disturbing. They’re complicated, though. They’re the latest iteration of a kind of rug I’m interested in.”

And yet, some of his customers rave about Sudeith for the same reasons other revile him.

Among them is Linda Phillips, a retired Long Island schoolteacher. She had never been to Afghanistan, but she felt some of the same things I did when first seeing the rugs in a Forbes article. “I was so deeply affected by 9/11, I’ve never been able to feel it out,” she said. “I needed something tangible that would remind me of it. This is the one thing that hit me and gave me a connection to people thousands of miles away.”

Phillips’s relationship to 9/11 is closer than just the television, however. She told me that her son was in the Merchant Marine Academy near the Throgs Neck Bridge and watched the buildings fall. He was then stationed in Iraq, moved there on an aircraft carrier that looked like those on the rug. After she saw the article in Forbes, Phillips said, “My heart went boom, because this is what I wanted.” She called Sudeith immediately.

While she finds much about them childlike, from the cartoonish quality to the misspelled English, Phillips would use the rugs to teach children to better understand 9/11 and Afghanistan. “This is historical enough and tells a true story,” she said. To her, they are no different from famous war tapestries like that of the Battle of Hastings. She worries people are sanitizing the truth about the horror of Sept. 11, and the rugs in her opinion depict the day truly and uncensored. “Everyone can interpret the way they want to,” she said, “but I don’t understand why they would be offended.”

While Phillips said the country is not in her personal travel plans, the rugs might just inspire Sudeith to take a trip to Afghanistan to meet some of the women who create them. He came to New York from Minnesota with dreams of being an artist. Because of this, he feels a connection to the makers of the rugs, regarding these women as artists. “I would like to go and find the people who weave the rugs,” he said. “To me they’re excellent artists who create works that are an infusion of what is going on in the world right now.”

Sudeith would like to see more of the styles and the variety of the rugs that might be available to bring back to the United States. Visiting might also help him to gain a better understanding of the decades of war that made the creation of this genre of rugs possible. As we sat together in a coffee shop, I showed him pictures of Afghanistan, including landmines dug up all over the country. He remembered them from some of the rugs he had sold, and was able to rattle off the names of them.

Of course, if Sudeith brings some new rugs home in his luggage through Turkey, he probably won’t have any problems at all. He’s blond and blue eyed. I am sure he’ll have a very different experience at the airport than I did.


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