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Afghan traders hope for foreign boost

December 16, 2007 (BBC News): "All I want from the people of the world is to teach me how to fish, not give me fish," says bearded, 80-year-old Khal Mohammad.

He is the oldest of 40 Afghan traders who recently visited the Indian capital, Delhi, for an international trade fair.

Khal Mohammad is well known in the Afghan carpet industry and has survived in the business for nearly three decades amid a backdrop of unending war.

"During times of heavy fighting I sold fewer carpets, but I never left Afghanistan!" he says proudly.

"The whole world knows that I established myself in my own country and among my own people."

Now Mr Mohammad is hoping to travel the world to help pave the way for a better future for his country.

"I want to show the Afghan carpets to the rest of the world and demonstrate our skills so we can find possibilities for trade. For every carpet that is bought, one Afghan family stays alive," he says, stroking his silky white beard.

Forgotten silk route

Centuries ago Afghanistan was part of an ancient trade route that supplied precious goods to the West.

Creating international markets now is hard for small businesses. Being landlocked creates problems.

"About 150,000 carpets are woven per month in Afghanistan. But they are sold as 'Made in Pakistan' because the final processing (cutting and washing) is done there," says carpet weaver Mohammad Nabi Saifi.

"We do not have the machinery in our country to do all the work at home, so we lose out on our brand image," he adds.

Said Zahir, a dry fruit supplier, also says Afghan traders are at a disadvantage.

"The taste and quality of Afghanistan's dry fruits are incomparable because we do not use chemicals.

"But we have many competitors - China being the first followed by Iran and Turkey; they are able to insure and securely export their products, a luxury that we don't have," says Mr Zahir.

New platforms

So international exhibitions are now seen as a vital way for Afghan traders to find new opportunities.

Afghan products on show in Delhi ranged from exotic musk melons, vermilion pomegranates to antique lapis gemstones and handmade embroideries.

Zaheer Ahmed, of the Kabul House Company, says visitors to the fair were fascinated by Afghan culture.

"They are intrigued by outfits of the rural Afghan people, and often wonder how they can wear such heavy garments. A lot of these outfits weigh 10-12 kilograms, so we tell them how strong and powerful the Afghan people are."

Yet amid the tradition, new cultural trends are settling in.

Women entrepreneurs

The latest trend on the streets of Kabul is beauty parlours. But not everyone is impressed with what they offer.

"People in Kabul used to be very fashionable," says Belqis Basher Dost, the Director of the Afghanistan Beauticians and Handicrafts Union.

"But now they copy fashion, like the current Arabic style which makes heavy use of make-up. Afghan women see catalogues of Arabic women and want to look the same."

Afghan women can earn about $400 a month before perks in the parlours, 10 times what a typical government worker gets.

Despite the money, women's lives are still limited. For example, it's rare to see a woman commuting on her own.

"Most families don't allow (women) to leave home and work outside," says Fawzia Hashima, a widowed-carpet weaver.

"So carpet weaving is a good option because they can generate income sitting at home."

Ms Hashima is the only breadwinner in her family and has to support her five children. She often travels to Bagram in the Parvan province to sell her goods.

But the journey, which begins in the early hours of the night, is a worry.

"My goods are very popular at the bazaar in Bagram, but it is difficult for me to go there as a woman. I've been questioned about travelling alone and even threatened."

"Life is a constant challenge," she says, smiling. "You either win or lose."