Conn College student shares hidden story of Afghan rugs
New London — When most people see an Afghan rug, they don’t look beyond the surface. They’re quick to note its beauty and perhaps its intricacy, but they fail to notice that it, unlike other rugs, is the product of a meticulous, by-hand process.
For 21-year-old Afghanistan native Wali Hairan, however, the rugs conjure painful memories of hours spent weaving within a refugee camp in Pakistan. More than anything, he remembers how the country’s overbearing heat nearly suffocated him as his young hands tried not to make mistakes.
It’s that story the Connecticut College sophomore shared Thursday evening as part of an ongoing exhibit at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. The exhibit, called “From Combat to Carpet: The Art of Afghan War Rugs,” features mostly rugs made by women weavers that depict maps, political portraits, cityscapes or items related to war.
To Hairan, though, the phrase encapsulates more than that: All the rugs he and other refugees toiled on, he said, are war rugs, too — even if their colorful threads reveal beautiful flower beds or scenic landscapes.
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Sitting in a ground-floor conference room in the Blaustein Humanities Center, Hairan told his story.
He ended up in Akora Khattak, where the camp was located in Pakistan, at 10 months of age, he said. At age 5, he began weaving, a trade that would take up much of his time until he left the camp at age 7.
“Once you were 5 years old,” he explained, “you were an adult. You had to participate in whatever capacity you could.”
So he and four young cousins would gather in a windowless stone room — one of three stone rooms in one of his uncle’s houses — and work with tiny knives that had hooked points. They would use the tools to fill about 40 horizontal frames with 20 knots each, often laboring until their hands bled. Then they'd attach a long string of material and set to work on the next row.
Every row, Hairan estimated, was about 2 millimeters thick. The average rug typically is 3 or 4 meters in length.
“This whole process takes, well, you can imagine,” he said.
It was a process he called suffocating, not only because of the heat but also because the colored strings shed dust — dust, he said, that left one of his cousins and many others with chronic breathing problems.
The whole industry, Hairan explained, came about because predatory companies would enlist desperate refugees as contractors of sorts. The companies would provide the strings, the overall frame — some upright, some horizontal — the tools and a blueprint. When the companies received a completed rug, he said, they’d scan the whole thing. If one knot had even the smallest defect — whether noticeable to the human eye or not — the companies sometimes would withhold payment.
Hairan said his relatives received the equivalent of about $500 for most of the rugs they produced — money that, combined with the regular sale of his father’s intricate woodwork, supported his large family — even though those rugs later sold for thousands of dollars.
“I think every day pretty much felt like a whole year because of what it entailed and how hard it was,” he said.
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On the heels of the country’s first presidential election in 2004, Hairan and his family returned to Afghanistan. It wasn’t safe — “the whole nation remained armed” — and infrastructure was poor. But not long after that, Hairan met Bruce Freyer who, along with his wife, Dana, would change Hairan’s life.
The Freyers, who cofounded a nonprofit that worked with Afghan farmers to promote sustainability and reduce poverty, took Hairan under their wing. Upon learning of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and love of reading, they gave him dozens of books. Later they were instrumental in ensuring that his education at King’s Academy, a prestigious nonprofit school in Jordan, was as fruitful as possible. When Hairan expressed a desire to attend Conn College — he was hooked on the idea of designing his own major — they helped him cover the costs left over after the sizeable scholarship he earned.
“I received more help and guidance and support from them than from anyone,” Hairan said of the Freyers, who are “as much my parents ... as my biological.”
“Without them, my story is not a story,” he said.
Hairan is on track to graduate a year early if he sticks with computer science as his main focus and Chinese as his minor. He’s considering pursuing a major in neuroscience, though, which would push his graduation date back to the originally scheduled 2019.
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Looking back, Hairan and other members of his family — he has four siblings and seven uncles — miss how close they were while at Akora Khattak, despite their harsh circumstances. When Hairan’s family left the camp, many members of his extended family did not. When he decided to attend first King’s Academy, then Conn College — and expressed that he could not be devoutly religious or traditional like his father along the way — the family became further divided.
Hairan still calls home when he can. But he worries his two younger sisters, who are curious like him, won’t see their dreams come alive — his father, he said, won’t let them attend school because it’s unsafe.
Hairan knows his experiences, which played a crucial role in shaping him, are not well known. Of exhibit visitors and attendees of his Thursday evening lecture, he hopes only that they look deeper the next time they see an Afghan rug.
“Those rugs are not just rugs,” he said. “Those are movies and stories and books of a family’s struggle to survive and a refugee life that was imposed on them because of the war.”
What: From Combat to Carpet: The Art of Afghan War Rugs
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays through May 21
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
Admission: $10 for adults
More information: www.lymanallyn.org or (860) 443-2545