Local rug shop imports Afghan rugs to support weavers

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Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Shams Frough opened Kapisa Rugs, an Evanston rug store, in March of 2020 to make a little money before starting medical school and to support weavers in Afghanistan.

Avani Kalra, Assistant City Editor

When Shams Frough graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, he had two major goals: to make a little money before starting medical school and to support weavers in Afghanistan.

The Taliban seized control of the Afghan government and captured the capital city of Kabul on August 15, 2021. 

“I knew that the economic situation and personal situation was going to get bad,” he said. “I wanted to help in any way I could. I didn’t have the cash to help a significant number of people, but I thought if I could sell the products I could help people get working.”

He opened Kapisa Rugs, an Evanston rug store, in March of 2020, and began selling hand woven carpets imported from a number of countries, including Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan to accomplish those goals. 

According to The World Bank, economic growth in Afghanistan was “low” in early 2021, as the Taliban took over much of the country amid a pandemic and severe drought conditions. By early August, The World Bank said the Taliban had gained 57% of total customs collections, or roughly 27% of total government revenue.

Frough sought out rugs from Afghanistan in part because he was worried about the industry dying. He said the trend in recent years has led to less rug production in Afghanistan. 

Herat, a city in the Western part of Afghanistan, used to be a main exporter of rugs, Frough said. In the past few years, he said Herat’s production has died. 

All of those changes have affected Frough’s business. After the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan fell last year, countries like Pakistan closed their borders in anticipation of a wave of refugees. Some of the rugs he had purchased were not able to get to Pakistan, and by extension, to his shop in the U.S. 

Through September, Frough said there was almost no chance of obtaining rugs directly from Afghanistan, so he was only able to purchase Afghan rugs that had already been exported to Pakistan or the United States.

“Once I was able to buy from Afghanistan again, I did,” he said. “Weaving is one of the only industries that was strong enough during the civil wars in 2011. We have to keep the business going on, so people can continue weaving and those people don’t have to migrate.”

Frough said stimulating the local economy is important. A UNHCR report released in December said that 23 million people in Afghanistan were facing hunger, with 70% of teachers working without salaries. 

Mo Jamali, owner of Evanston’s Connoisseur Oriental Rugs, said it’s important to continue buying rugs to support a creative outlet in countries at war, as well.

Growing up, Jamali said he didn’t understand the impact of the rug trade. He worked for two years in Iran after college, and became familiar with the ins and outs of the rug industry there. 

“That was my first introduction to weaving products,” he said. “It took me more than twenty years to understand that I was stupid to not understand the right of expression of the person who creates and sells art from her own imagination.” 

Even given the civil war in Afghanistan, Frough is hopeful the efforts of rug shop owners will help provide opportunities for that creative outlet and revitalize the weaving industry in the country.

He said the presence of aid organizations in the country, in addition to massive unemployment in industries like the government, might even expand the industry. 

“Rugs are one of the few things during war to support families,” he said. “If we’re not able to continue doing business on importing rugs, people will have to leave. Already about two to three million people are involved with the rug trade in Afghanistan –– we have the potential to stop a lot of people from losing their lives.” 

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Twitter: @avanidkalra

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