HERAT, Afghanistan – With hands that fly and tie, Shirin Waziri repeats movements made for centuries by the carpet-weavers who worked in the shadow of Herat’s ancient citadel.
“This is our history, our tradition,” says Waziri, not pausing as her razor-sharp sickle trims each knot. “We must keep it going, because everyone knows Afghanistan’s carpets are best in the world, and Herat’s are the ‘best of the best’.”
Still, Waziri, 50, worries about the time she’s lost. She first learned her craft at age seven, but almost four decades of war followed, with harsh times, including the Taliban regime. Many families, such as Waziri’s, were forced to flee the country and leave their looms and other assets behind.
Recently many returned, hoping to rebuild their lives, but it’s been an uphill struggle for some like Waziri. Unmarried, she came back to Herat with her elderly mother and no other family support. She tried weaving again but couldn’t earn enough. Then two years ago, she joined hundreds of others getting small business assistance from the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program (AREDP) in Herat province.
Supported by the World Bank and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), the Ministry of Rural, Rehabilitation and Development’s program helps the rural poor pursue training and jobs outside of agricultural work. About 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population live in rural areas and is generally dependent on farming and livestock. But the AREDP encourages small business development, and offers advice on access to markets, business planning, obtaining bank loans and other financial expertise.
Opportunities for women
Opportunities for rural women are particularly emphasized. It was AREDP assistance that led Waziri and other weavers to set up shop in the ancient arcade that circles Herat’s great citadel.
Called Qala Ikhtyaruddin, the citadel was first fortified by Alexander the Great in 300 BC after he captured the city at an important juncture in the Silk Road between Persia and Asia. Recently restored, the fort’s 16-meter-high walls, parapets and towers dominate the city skyline. And in the citadel’s arcade, art houses, calligraphers, and others ply historic trades. In one tiny cubicle, a camel tethered to a massive stone mortar and pestle grinds sesame seed oil in the ancient way.
In Waziri’s tiny studio, four looms are set up. Frequently, the women are moved by their historic surroundings, she says. “I really feel proud now. I am doing the work of my ancestors again, and I am able to support my old, sick mother,” says Waziri.