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Herat’s silk weavers struggle to keep an ancient trade alive

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by Beatrice Khadige
Mon Oct 15, 7:28 AM ET

HERAT, Afghanistan (AFP) – An important stop on the ancient Silk Route, the beautiful city of Herat has for centuries lured travellers and businessmen.

But today it is fighting to keep alive one of the symbols of this splendid past — silk spun from the delicate cocoons of silk worms.

About 120 kilometres (74 miles) east of the Iranian border, the key city in the 14th century Timurid empire of conqueror Tamerlane still prides itself on the skill of producing the precious material.

But the small industry is being crushed by competition from China, which has 70 percent of the world silk market, and its neighbours Pakistan and Iran.

Of the 156 enterprises in the province, few are dedicated to the production of silk and only 100 families make their living from the craft. This is a marked drop from a few years ago.

“In 2002 there were more than 300 manufacturers with 800 employees in the province,” says the head of Herat province’s trade unions, Abdul Qadir Akbari.

“We prefer to invest in products that are easy to export, like biscuits sold in the neighbouring former Soviet republics,” explains the secretary of the province’s separate industrial union, Mir Mohammad Mashouf.

In Afghanistan the delicate work of producing silk is still done by hand because there is no money to bring in modern machines, says Akbari, himself involved in sericulture.

“It takes between 45 and 50 days for an average family of five people to raise 40 kilogrammes (88 pounds) of cocoons,” he says.

“We give them boxes imported from China that contain the leaves of the white mulberry tree to feed the eggs, which will develop into the cocoons,” he says.

The next stage is unravelling the cocoon, when one has to avoid breaking the fine thread that can reach between 300 and 1,500 metres (yards).

In Herat, just four to five manufacturers are in the industry and they “barely survive,” says Akbari.

Ghalem Haidar Azimi runs his business from an old suburb of mudbrick houses.

His dozen employees work eight hours a day, six days a week, to produce 40 kilogrammes a month of rough silk which he says he can sell for 40 dollars a kilogramme. This thread then has to be treated and refined.

It is too expensive to hope to export on a world market where one can bargain for silk half the price.

“Here we find silk from China and more often a Pakistani imitation (polyester) much cheaper,” says Azimi.

Mohammad Amine, who runs a fabric shop near the city’s landmark Friday Mosque, says: “Today, artificial silk from Pakistan costs 20 dollars for a quarter kilogramme, already dyed. Here, four kilogrammes of silk costs 160 dollars and it still has to be dyed.”

The Pakistani thread is also easier to use, says this former warrior who lost a leg fighting the Taliban in the 1990s. “In one day, we can make three shawls with this material, compared to one with the real silk from here.”

Silk shawls are prized in the region. Men traditionally keep them for their turbans, even though it’s a sign of wealth forbidden by Islamic teaching.

“It is hard work that benefits few people,” says Jamshedi Ghulam Mohammad, an expert in their manufacture.

There are also silk carpets, he says, although those from Iran are more valued.

“Thirty years ago, Afghan silk carpets sold well: 75 percent of them were exported compared to hardly two percent today,” Mohammad said.

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Written by afghandevnews

October 16, 2007 at 2:57 pm

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