A Man and A Country, Woven Together


May 17, 2002

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    For three decades rug dealer James Opie has worked to improve the lives of Afghans. Photo: Jacob Colie/Mercy Corps Photo:

James Opie squats down and delicately runs his hands over a small square Afghan rug lying on the floor of his office in a warehouse in Portland, Oregon. His fingers trace its elaborate spiral patterns with a familiarity that suggests that they had followed a similar path many times before.

"Look at the intricacies of this," he says in soft whisper. "Look at the care that goes into this. You have to say that these things are made with love."

It is clear from the emotion in his voice and the gentle smile that comes to his face that these rugs - hand-woven by veiled women in homes half a world away - hold a special meaning for James Opie. That beyond their beauty and beyond the patterns that date back hundreds of years they connect him with a country and a people which first took hold of his heart during an initial visit in 1973 and has never let go.

"There is some essential strength in human nature that is much closer to the surface in Afghanistan. Even in dealing with rug dealers who are trying to get the best deal from you there is always a sense of kindness which I truly think is part of the essence of their being," he says.

It is this affection for the Afghan people that has guided Opie through nearly thirty years of work as a rug dealer and writer. And it is the relationships he has formed over the years that has made it so painful and so personal to watch the country experience one hardship after another for more than two decades.

But now, with the world’s attention focused on Afghanistan, Opie is optimistic that the country he describes as being like "Shangri-La" in the 1970s will move forward to a better future. He also is hopeful that businesses such as his that provide women an opportunity to earn a living through traditional handicrafts can play a role in improving the lives of Afghan families.

"I see carpet weaving as an area where people in the West can make a point. Until recently I had never viewed it this way, but I think that this is a very practical way in which westerners can support Afghans. They need the work and we have the homes that can make use of the craft objects that they make. There is a very practical connection," says Opie whose business imports nearly 3,000 rugs a year from Afghanistan.

In addition to importing and selling rugs made by Afghan women, Opie is trying to expand this connection by educating people in the West about carpet weaving in Afghanistan. He has created www.afghanprayerrug.com, a Web site that features carpets from various regions of Afghanistan. Twenty percent of all sales on the site are donated to Mercy Corps. To date, the site has raised more than $6,000 to support relief and development programs in Afghanistan.

Carpet weaving is a craft in Afghanistan that dates back centuries and the knowledge is traditionally passed down from mother to daughter. Opie estimates that women perform almost 90 percent of the labor and that the average weaver can produce six, 3-by-5 foot rugs each year.

While Afghan rugs are rich in design and texture their prices are generally well below similar rugs made in places such as Iran and Pakistan. Opie attributes this to the widespread use of synthetic dyes in Afghanistan, which drive down costs but are not nearly as valued as rugs made with vegetable dyes. He says switching to vegetable dyes would increase the value of rugs made in Afghanistan and eventually have a noticeable affect on the income of the weavers.

"Trying to promote the use of vegetable dyes is just one example of an idea that we should be looking at for the development of Afghanistan," Opie says, his fingers again gliding across the carpet.

"We have to find ways to give Afghans some hope. For many years they have had nothing to hope for."