If Afghanis are showing how Americans view themselves via World Trade Center war rugs, Americans also project their views of Afghan culture onto these textiles. In particular, the idea of the oppressed Muslim woman comes up again and again when Americans are asked to consider the rugs. "Women in that part of the world have a limited ability to speak out," says Barry O'Connell, a Washington D.C.-based oriental rug enthusiast. "These rugs may be their only chance to gain a voice in their adult life." Columbia University anthropology professor Lila Abu-Lughod takes issue with this view in a post-9/11 article "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?" She notes the importance of challenging such generalizations, which she sees as "reinforcing a sense of superiority in Westerners."
Whether in agreement with Abu-Lughod or O'Connell, most conclude that the women who weave Afghan war rugs have a tough job. "It's very hard work," says Omar. "Weavers experience loss of eyesight and back pain—and it's the dealers who get the money."
But as long as there's a market, war rugs will continue to be produced. And in the U.S., this compelling textile certainly has its fans. "These rugs continue to amaze me," says dealer Sudeith. When I get a beautiful one, I get a lot of pleasure out of it." And Gold, who owns five war rugs in addition to the hidden one he points out to visitors, simply says, "They're on our floors. And we appreciate them underfoot."
Mimi Kirk is an editor and writer in Washington, D.C.