Buy in Afghanistan
Afghani (AFN) is, perhaps non-surprisingly, the currency of Afghanistan. As of December, 2009, US$ 1 equals about 48.50 Afghanis, while € 1 trades about 70 Afghanis.
Carpets sold in Kabul. 1m sq. costs $300
Haggling is very much part of the tradition.
Afghanistan’s most famous products are carpets. There are carpets described as “Afghan”, but also at least two other carpet-weaving traditions. The Baluchi tribes in the South and West weave fine rugs, and the Turkoman tribes in the North do as well; both groups are also found in neighbouring countries. All three types tend to use geometric patterns in the design, usually with red as the background colour and with repeated elements called “guls” to make the pattern. Generally, these are not as finely woven as carpets from the cities of neighboring Iran. However, many of them are quite beautiful and their prices are (assuming good haggling) well below those of the top Iranian carpets.
Baluchi rugs are usually small since nomadic people cannot use large looms; sizes up to 1.5 by two meters (4×7 feet) are common, but not many beyond that. They are popular with travellers because they are fairly portable. One very common type is a prayer rug, just large enough for one person to kneel facing Mecca. Another is the “nomad’s chest of drawers” — a bag, often beautifully decorated, that is a saddlebag when travelling and hangs on the wall of the tent when camped.
Turkoman rugs, often labelled “Bokhara” in the Western rug trade, come in all sizes and a very broad range of quality. Some are woven by nomads, with the same range of sizes and types as Baluchi rugs. Others are made in city workshops; the best of these are almost as finely woven and almost as expensive as top-grade Persian carpets. One fairly common design is the Hatchli, a cross shape on a large rug.
Afghan rugs are generally made in city workshops, mainly for the export trade. They are often large; 3×4 meters (10×12 feet) is common. Most are quite coarsely woven to keep costs down, but others have a fairly fine weave. If you need a big rug for the living room at a moderate price, these are likely to be your best choice.
“Golden Afghan” rugs were fairly common in Western countries a few decades back; they were invented by Western dealers who bleached Afghan carpets to eliminate the red colour, leaving a blue or black on orange or gold design. They are rare in Afghanistan, where the traditional colours are preferred. In the West, collectors also prefer the traditional colours and bleached rugs generally bring a lower price. Also, the “golden” rugs may not wear as well as unbleached rugs since bleaching can damage the fibers. In most cases, they should be avoided.
It is fairly common for rugs woven by nomads — such as many Baluchi rugs and some Turkoman — to show minor irregularities. The loom is dismantled for transport and re-assembled at the new camp, so the rug may not turn out perfectly rectangular. Vegetable dyes are often used, and these may vary from batch to batch, so some colour variation (arbrash) occurs and this may be accentuated as the rug fades. To collectors, most such irregularities come in the “that’s not a bug; it’s a feature” category; they are expected and accepted. In fact, a nice arbrash can considerably increase the value of a rug.
Turkoman designs are widely copied; it is common to see “Bokhara” carpets from India or Pakistan, China produces some, and the Afghan carpet designs show heavy Turkoman influence. To collectors, though, the original Turkoman rugs are worth a good deal more. Good Baluchi rugs are also quite valuable in Western countries. Afghan rugs, or lower grade Baluchi and Turkoman rugs, generally are not collectors’ items; most travellers will find the best buys among these. Experts might pay premium prices for the top-grade rugs, but amateurs trying that are very likely to get severely overcharged.
Kelims are flat-woven fabric with no pile. These are nowhere near as tough as carpets and will not survive decades on the floor as a good carpet will. However, some are lovely, and they are generally cheaper than carpets. Things like purses made of carpet or decorated with kelim weave are also common.
Another common product and popular souvenir is the Afghan sheepskin coat. These have the wool on the inside for warmth and the leather on the outside to block wind, rain and snow. They often have lovely embroidery. Two cautions, though. One is that the makers use the embroidery to hide flaws in the leather; top-quality coats will have little or no embroidery. The other is that Australian customs have been known to incinerate these coats on arrival, to protect their large sheep population from diseases (notably anthrax) that poorly tanned Afghan products might carry.
There are also various bits of metalwork — heavily decorated pots, vases and platters, and some quite nice knives.
Guns are very common in Afghanistan and some are of considerable interest to historians and collectors.
The traditional Afghan jezail is a long muzzle-loading rifle often elaborately inlaid with brass or mother-of-pearl. Be extremely cautious about actually firing one of these. The genuine ones are quite old, perhaps with metal fatigue or other problems. Many of the jezails available are not genuine, just copies made recently for the tourist trade; these were never designed to be fired and are more likely to kill the shooter than to hit a target.
There are also pass-made rifles, from the Khyber Pass area. The most common are copies of the 19th century British army Martini-Henry rifle, a single-shot lever action weapon. Some are .451 caliber like the original Martini-Henry, but some take a more modern round; .303 is common. Until the Russian invasion in the late 70s — when anyone who could kill a Russian, rob an armoury, or pay the price (i.e. almost any Afghan) got an AK-47 — these were the most common rifle in Afghanistan. There are also pass-made copies of various other guns, anything from Webley revolvers to AK-47s. Quality is often dodgy, in particular the steel is often of low quality, and firing any of these guns is risky. Ammunition made in the pass often contained less powder or lower-grade powder than the standard ammo; some pass-made guns blow up if subjected to the higher stress of standard ammo.
These make a rather problematic souvenir. Importing a firearm anywhere can be difficult and it may be impossible in some places. If you are travelling overland and passing through several countries before you reach home, it is almost certainly not worth the trouble. Also, if you actually fire any Afghan gun, there is a risk that it will blow up in the face of the shooter.