What I Learned About Afghan Politics by Selling Rugs

A carpet dealer from Kabul reflects on the inauguration of his country's new president.

Caren Firouz/Reuters

The inauguration on Monday of Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, has left Afghans profoundly conflicted—simultaneously hopeful for a better future and anxious over the many unresolved issues that his election has created.

Since the June 14 voting and the long recount and protracted negotiations that followed, Afghans have been grappling with the unfamiliar concept of a “winner-take-all” race, deeply worried about what the loser might do. This summer, Abdullah Abdullah, who claimed to have beaten Ghani in the runoff election, declared that his supporters would not accept results he called fraudulent, amid hints of a “civil uprising” from his well-armed followers.

Afghans’ concerns are well-founded. Look at the horrors that commanders of competing factions unleashed during Afghanistan’s brutal civil war, which raged from 1992 to 1996 following the Soviet withdrawal from the country. My family and I lived through all that in Kabul—the endless rocket attacks, the bodies in the streets—and I still live with the memories. I know better than most what it will mean if the hard-fought deal between Ghani and Abdullah that led to this week’s inauguration falls apart.

Yet, I am optimistic.

You see, before I became a writer, I was a carpet seller. I was brought up in a family of carpet traders. For many years, we had a shop on Chicken Street at the heart of Kabul’s carpet bazaar. There I was taught from a very early age how to bargain for hours, and sometimes for days, to get the best price on a carpet.

I was 17 years old when I purchased my first carpet. My father took me with him to a friend’s carpet shop on Chicken Street. As we were about to enter, he asked, “Do you know what to do?”

“Yes, Father,” I assured him.

“Good. If you master the art of bargaining,” he told me, “you will know how to resolve any disagreements you ever encounter, whether they are between people, or families, or even tribes.”

It took me years to truly grasp what Father told me on that sunny day. His words echoed in my head when my grandfather resolved a dispute between two branches of a large family in our neighborhood, using the same skills required for bargaining over a carpet.

That dispute centered on two cousins, Abdul and Haji, who had grown vegetables for years on a shared piece of land. When the cousins died, each left two sons. Abdul’s sons wanted to build a house on the land, while Haji’s sons opposed the idea. Their argument lasted for weeks and then grew violent, with the disputants hitting one another with shovels. It was time for the neighbors to intervene.

The neighbors forced the family to solve their problem through a shura, a local assembly. First the disputants had to identify a mediator, a senior community leader or a local notable known for his honesty and good deeds. That person happened to be my grandfather. As the mediator, Grandfather heard from both sides. Then he formed a shura of the community elders to whom he presented the details. The shura considered the case for weeks until its members reached a consensus on a solution that satisfied both parties, with each feeling they had gotten at least part of what they wanted.

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The land was separated into four pieces. Abdul’s two sons built a large mansion on their share, while Haji’s two sons kept their land and farmed.

At its heart, this is a very pure form of democracy in Afghanistan that has worked for millennia. The tradition of the shura—or its national-level equivalent, the jirga—forms the very foundation of Afghan society. Shuras exist across all ethnicities, all language groups. Special shuras of female elders are held to deal with women’s issues.

Over the past six months, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Afghanistan twice, seeking to ease the differences between Ghani and Abdullah. In effect, he was taking on the role of an elder. Each time he came, Ghani and Abdullah shook his hand, smiled, and raised their arms together in front of television cameras. But within days, they went back to their old ways, as if everything they had said to the media with Kerry present had never happened. This was no surprise to me. They simply had not yet finished their bargaining.

While others grew impatient over the delays, and a long parade of political analysts expressed opinions and made predictions, some dire, I just waited. I asked myself, “Why should I watch a movie for which I already know the ending? Ghani and Abdullah are Afghans. They were raised in educated families. They know the ancient protocols deeply rooted in our culture.”

Eventually, they agreed that Ghani would be the president and lead the Cabinet, while Abdullah would fill a newly created position of chief executive officer and head a Council of Ministers. Tellingly, the deal included a commitment to hold a jirga within two years to change the constitution and create an executive prime minister’s office to replace the undefined role of the chief executive.

This means that the real bargaining has only just begun.

And that is no surprise. The bad feelings between Ghani, Abdullah, and their supporters echo the anger Afghans feel about many things that have happened to us over the past four decades. It will take years to work that out.

As I walked into that carpet shop on Chicken Street at age 17, I told Father, “I will bargain like you.”

“Don’t be in a hurry,” he reminded me, though he had told me this many times before. “There is an art to making a deal, son, and it takes time.” Father greeted the shopkeeper with all the required formality, asking about his health, his family, his father, and so on. Then he sat on a chair in the corner and left the rest to me.

The owner started rolling out one carpet after another, stroking his beard as he did. I inspected each one closely. After four hours, I put three carpets aside, then chose one. The bargaining began and went on for an hour. I was getting exhausted and wanted to walk out of the shop without buying anything. On the way there, I had seen hundreds of carpets through the large windows of other shops on both sides of the street. My father saw the fatigue on my face. When the shopkeeper stepped out of the room to make tea, my father whispered into my ear, “Son, you can’t walk out of here empty-handed.”

“But he doesn’t come down with his price, Father.”

“As a carpet dealer,” my father cautioned me, “once you start to bargain seriously, you can haggle over the price for hours and days, but at the end you have to buy. If you don’t, you will gain a bad reputation. Word will spread, and no other carpet seller will trust you or ever do deals with you.”

It took me two days, but I managed to buy my first carpet at the price I had in mind. This was my first step in gaining the trust and respect of the carpet dealers on Chicken Street.

Ghani and Abdullah are each driving a hard bargain. But I am confident that in the end, they will make it work. They have to, or they will lose their reputations. Both are surrounded by individuals and groups who have too much to lose if they walk away. Through these years of turmoil, some of their supporters have made so much money that they cannot risk losing everything, again. They know all too well that war is not the solution.

Abdullah, for his part, does not want anybody to know the vote count from the recent election (he threatened to boycott the inauguration over the weekend after Ghani’s supporters posted what they claim is the official vote count, showing Ghani winning by 10 percentage points). Given the high price Afghans have paid for their new government, I understand why Abdullah does not want to talk about the votes. When someone bargains seriously for a carpet in Kabul, he is unlikely to reveal its true cost.

“If you love a carpet and are happy with it, what difference does the price make?”

We say that all the time to our customers on Chicken Street. Maybe I said it once to you.