The War Rug, by Hazara artist Khadim Ali, is overwhelming. The title references a distinctly Afghan art form: rugs populated with war imagery. Ali’s artwork however is a digital animation projected on a plain rug. It is full of war, specifically American forces in Afghanistan, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha by the Taliban, the battle of Rustom and Esfandiyār from the Shahnameh, and the recent botched American evacuation from Afghanistan – all against a backdrop of a map of Afghanistan and its surrounding countries and in the incongruous medium of retro video game graphics. Rockets, drones, anti-aircraft guns, fighter jets, a GBU-43 bomb, tanks, a warship, Chinook helicopters, coronavirus cells and all manner of military vehicles swarm the screen. There are countless explosions and fireballs, accompanied by the comical arcade hall pew-pew sound effects. As the Buddha crumbles we hear shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Subhanallah”. People are lowered into position via helicopters, running to a commercial airplane, manning guns atop military vehicles, and once it has taken off, falling out of the airplane – their individual screams piercing through the hellish soundscape of a screaming crowd, airplane engines, and helicopter blades.

This bombardment of visual and auditory stimuli triggers both the happy nostalgia of childhood games and the trauma of a very contemporary war: simultaneously playful and horrifying. It’s a multilayered meditation on the complicated history and cultural heritage of Afghanistan; presenting us with neither a linear narrative or a didactic point of view. Yet, embedded within the violence and destruction are moments of hilarity, fantasy, and beauty. In the first half of the animation a line of bullets and shells dance at the bottom of the screen and a herd of goats hops across the map, oblivious and immune to the ongoing battle. In the second half of the animation otherworldly birdlike creatures, robot-esque figures and brightly patterned helicopter and tanklike shapes dot the space. The most powerful however is the music, a man singing in Pahlavi, his clear haunting voice, full of yearning and sorrow, soaring above the cacophonous chiptune symphony of war.

Kajal connected with the Australian based artist to learn more about the making of this powerful work, beginning with a discussion on the textile genre it evokes in both title and aesthetic: war rugs.

Click here to watch the animation.

Afghan war rug art created by Khadim Ali

Khadim Ali, The War Rug, 2022 (From the “War Rugs” series), Digital animation projected onto rug, 230 x 180cm. Installation view from the exhibition There Is No Other Home But This, 2022 at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

Kajal: Do you remember the first time you saw a war rug? 

Khadim Ali: I was six or seven years old. War rugs were actually invented at the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the refugee camps for Afghans. I was born, and grew up in one of these border towns, Quetta city. Our house was close to the refugee camps and some of the Hazara refugees stayed in our house and I went to the camps too, that’s where I saw the war rugs for the first time.

War Rug with Map of Afghanistan; Knotted wool, Baghlan (Afghanistan; Acquired in Peshawar (Pakistan), 1998; 71 3/4 x 45 1/4 in. (182 x 115 cm); Private collection. From the exhibition Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia. Image courtesy of curator Annemarie Sawkins.

How did this strange and decidedly modern genre develop? 

In the refugee camps they were setting up these smaller looms in the tents, looms that were not too big, not too small, just enough to accommodate a good size prayer rug. So that the refugees could sell them and earn money. They started with prayer rugs but then those were replaced by machine woven rugs.

I don’t know whose idea it was to encourage the children to bring their own imagery into the rugs, but they encouraged it and the children brought images from their school books into the rugs. The books that were used in their schools at the time, that they were taught from, were brought by the US, they were published by the University of Nebraska. Their books were very interesting to me because they had a lot of imagery of tanks, weaponry, a person holding a gun and “heroic content.” They said “J is for Jihad, I is for infidel, K is for Kalashnikov.” These schools were more like training camps than an educational school. Look at this [holds up book], it begins with “Alif is for Allah,” and then it breaks the order, it goes to the prophet, and then the Quran, and then “Bay is for Baba.” And for Baba the sentence is “Baba goes to the masjid.” Then “Pay is for panch [five], Islam has five pillars.” Every letter is connected to religion or war. Dal is “Din” [religion], Hay is “haj”, Toy is “Talib” [student], justifying, glorifying the Taliban.

Images from an Afghan first grade reading and math book, published in the 1980s by the University of Nebraska.

And in the mathematics books the problems were like “If you kill five Soviet soldiers out of ten how many Soviet soldiers are remaining? Ten minus five equals five remaining.” Or “Ali snatches this many rifles and Ahmed snatched this many rifles from the infidels, or the Communists, how many rifles have they got together?” And the images in the counting books were like “One equal to one grenade, two is equal to two daggers, three is equal to three rifles, four is equal to four bullets.”

This book is kind of unbelievable. What a toxic combination of manhood, violence and religion. 

Exactly. These books were not just books, they were a mentality, now this is a psyche. They created a psyche in that region. Now the females in Afghanistan are banned from going to school. There’s nothing feminine in these books. Everything is about war. None of the texts say my mother dies, or my sister. It’s all my father, my uncle It’s all very masculine.

You trained as a miniature painter at the National College of Art (NCA) in Lahore and now you are making rugs, monumental tapestries, and animations. Can you talk about this evolution?

I went to the National Art School in Lahore to learn calligraphy and to know a little bit more about Persian miniature painting. My great-great-grandfather and grandfather were Shahnameh singers. They were singers of The Book of Kings and people were always gathering around them and they entertained them with their recitations. I grew up listening to their stories. And when they were going for prayers or they were going to eat something, we were allowed to go in and see the illustrations, see the manuscript. Sometimes we would just take the book down and look at the illustrations without their permission. So I built on this childhood knowledge of calligraphy and miniature painting at NCA.

Then on the 31st of August 2011, I think it was nine in the morning, there was a suicide car-bomb outside of my parents house. The entire house collapsed. I was in Sydney, Australia and my elder brother called me from Kabul, Afghanistan. He said, “This explosion happened in the house. Luckily, our parents survived. They are critically injured but they survived, but we have lost whatever we had in the house.”

The house used to be my studio and my parents were living on the ground floor. I lost my paintings and we lost all the precious things we had, as a family, we lost the books. In the 1890s my great grandfather escaped a massacre, we are Hazaras, and there was a great massacre of Hazaras, where 62% of the population was massacred, and he was one of the survivors and he bought two books with him. One was the Quran and the other was the Shanameh. Both of those were in the house and they were destroyed.

Afghan war rug art created by Khadim Ali

Khadim Ali, The Arrivals, 2017, Hand-woven, hand embroidered techniques on an existing rug, 200 x 300 cm. Installation view from the exhibition There Is No Other Home But This, 2022. Installation view, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

The objects that survived, that have been in our family for generation to generation, were our rugs. And that gave me this indication that if I have to work in Kabul, I had a studio in Kabul at the time, which is very prone to explosions – we’d actually had so many explosions next to our studio in the past 15 years, at least four or five – if I have to work in Kabul I should choose a resilient medium, a local medium. So I chose the medium of rugs, keeping in mind that if something happened to our studio the work would survive.

Afghan war rug art created by Khadim Ali

Khadim Ali, Untitled 3 from the series Home, 2021, Synthetic wool, 220 x 175 cm. Installation view from the exhibition There Is No Other Home But This, 2022. Installation view, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

How did you educate yourself in this medium?

I went to Herat and many other cities of Afghanistan and met the families who have been practicing rug weaving for centuries, they are masters, they are known for their rugs. Their specialities are certain types of rugs. I went there to get to know more about the structure of rugs, to analyze the structure and to see the possibilities of bringing images into them, of the possibilities of bringing them into the galleries. One challenge was color, dying wool the different shades of colors we wanted. So we also worked with some very good dyers.

Afghan war rug art created by Khadim Ali

Installation view from the exhibition There Is No Other Home But This, 2022. Installation view, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

Rug patterns transpose so well into the retro video game graphics. I never considered their similarities: the flatness, the pixelation. How and when did you get the idea to create this war rug animation? Specifically this style of animation?

When I started working with the idea of rugs I started with a mixture of three major themes that were happening in my work at the time: one was weaponry, the disused weapons left by the Soviets in Afghanistan along with the active weapons that are there on a daily basis. The second was childhood, I was thinking about my childhood versus the childhood of the rug weavers – the child labor those weavers were going through as refugee children and I, as a child, was enjoying my life at the time.

When I went to Afghanistan I contacted some of the rug weavers who were weaving rugs during the Russian invasion and I asked them to come and work with me. They had a kind of trauma from the rug weaving. They lost their childhood to the rugs and they hated the structure, the structure of their body became like this [stiffens hands and hunches over] and while weaving, they inhaled a lot of particles of wool and they were coughing for a very long time, because they were dying synthetic wool and when the synthetic wool was going into their lungs, it was impacting them. So they didn’t want to work.

That was also pushing me to think about childhood and what if these kids were playing games, what if they were playing video games like the other kids their age did. At the time kids were playing Atari games and the design of those games was very much inspired by the rugs. In Atari games there are 16 pixels in one square centimeter, they are also called 16 bit games, and in the rugs there are 16 knots on one centimeter. So there was one group of kids who were spending their time with 16 bits on the screen and another group of kids who were spending their time with a 16 bit structure weaving rugs. I was putting the childhoods side by side.

And then I was also thinking about the books, the books that these kids were taught in school, how they were brainwashed…these books were designed for a generation 15 to 16 years after. The kids reading these books weren’t going to the war. They were finishing school but there was something in the minds of those book designers…most of those kids became the Taliban and now they are ruling Afghanistan.

But I also wanted to make it fun. To play with the trauma. I wanted the weavers who had lost their childhood to see their images moving. First I did an experiment with their [the former rug weavers’] images, the images they’d woven, and it was really raw and I was showing it to them and none of them were really inspired or invested now, everyone of them was like “Fuck it. I don’t want to get into these images. They are the symbols of my trauma, the trauma of childhood.” They don’t like the rugs anymore or the smell of the wool. They hated it. So one of my reasons to put this in a digital screen was to get away from the materiality of the rugs.

Afghan war rug art created by Khadim Ali

Still from Khadim Ali, The War Rug, 2022

Focusing on the digital part of this artwork, on the animation. There’s a lot happening here: medieval warriors on horseback, the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, a military invasion, and the horror and chaos following the American exodus in 2021. Can you tell me more about this multi-layered narrative?

There are two animations joined together. One is the fall of the statue, and one is the evacuation.

I wanted to create something that showed the multiple layers of trauma Afghan’s have, their childhood trauma, their current trauma, and the never ending trauma in their life. Yet again, they become refugees, yet again in the same war, in the same mediums of war: airplanes, helicopters and all this and these war vehicles…the brutality of people running.

On the 15th of August (2021), when the Americans were evacuating from Afghanistan and the Taliban were coming in, I still had a studio there. My assistants were still there. We had started evacuating a few months ago. But when I was telling my assistants to evacuate as soon as possible, they were taking it as a joke. They couldn’t believe the Taliban would come like a shadow. That the government, with such preparation, with such slogans, with such, you know, anti Taliban mentality within the society…that it would just collapse. Everything collapsed overnight. They couldn’t believe that the night before they were under one government and then they would be under the Taliban regime the next morning. So they were caught there.

And then all of those in the emergency situation, running for their life and when people are running they’re leaving everything behind. And people were getting stressed, people were depressed. The borders were packed with people, the borders were closed. I grew up on the border, we had herds of sheep and goats and other animals. It reminded me how… when a wolf jumped into the herd all of the animals would run away, scattering. It was the same situation, you know, people were running, the borders were closed, the airport was closed, people were jumping on the airplane, and falling from the airplane…all this crazy desperation to get out. Like when death has come in the city and if they don’t run away, they will die. It was such a black and white situation at that time for them.

We were all witnessing that desperation. Looking at those visuals of desperation on the TV, on people’s photographs with their phones, on WhatsApp, on Instagram and other other virtual apps. And all of us on the outside trying to help get people out. I worked so hard to get my assistants and their families out.

Afghan war rug art created by Khadim Ali

Still from Khadim Ali, The War Rug, 2022

The other animation is more complicated. Why pair the battle of Rustom and Esfandiyār with the destruction of the Buddhas? 

I’m questioning the notion of identity. I’m still very sensitive about identity. And in my imagery of demons and demonology I’m analyzing how somebody loses their identity and how they will be demonized and dehumanized. In the work that we are talking about, there are two heroes fighting each other. There are no demons in the animation – despite their friendship and trust these heroes are fighting each other. Because now, there’s not enough space even for the demons. Before, in theology, there’s the shaytaan [devil], there’s god, there’s a certain dushman [enemy]. There’s good, there’s bad. And then in Afghanistan, there was always the Taliban, the government, and the internationals. But then the internationals are reconciling with the Taliban and not putting the Taliban on the terrorist list, despite the continuous war for 20 years, they’re still not putting the Taliban on the terrorists list. And then in the end, they gave 20 years of a lie to the Afghans, 20 years of a lie to Afghan women. They were promised a good future. They were promised that they would have a better future. They were promised security. They were asked to go to the school. But after 20 years, when they were ready to emerge in society – all of a sudden they were presented to the Taliban.

The animation has multiple layers of memories and my experiences. Before, even in a story, there was always the dark side existing but now there’s no dark side. There’s no line between the good and bad. This is a time when everything becomes gray. Are the internationals good? Is it the Taliban that are bad? Or what? So this is Esfandiyār and Roustan they’re fighting each other and there is no demon, there’s no shaytan, there are no Divs in it, no animalized features. They are both heroes.

How did you make the animation? Was that a collaboration with video game makers? Or was that something that you did all by yourself?

This was a collaboration with a friend of mine, in Islamabad, who is also an animator. So I contacted him and he was sending bits by bits to me and then I was just, you know, patching them, collaging them, running this from here, running back from there. And then once the animation was done we found a sound designer who could go and find the Atari game and the 16 bits gaming sounds.

The soundscape is incredibly powerful – video game sounds, planes and helicopters taking off people screaming, and then of course the singing. I’d love to hear more about how all of that came together. 

We also found some sounds from the Internet. When the statue of Bamiyan Buddha is destroyed, you hear “Subhan Allah! Allahu Akbar!”of the Taliban when they were destroying them. That’s the actual voice from that video. And also the scream when the guy is falling from the airplane, we tried to find some real screams of the Afghans but it was too traumatizing. We couldn’t do it. We made that scream. And the singing is me. I’m singing a verse from the Shahnameh, in the style that my grandfather used to sing. It is also a rag pahari, a mountainous rag, I start with “Yazdan.” Yazdan is the word for Allah, God, in the Zoroastrian language, Pahlavi, which used to be the older name of Farsi. I’m singing “By God, if we were having wisdom. We were not ending with such dark destiny.”

That’s a heart wrenching sentiment.

It is. It comes into my mind again and again when I look at the destiny of the Hazaras, or the people in Afghanistan. Look at the Shahnameh, now people in Iran claim that the Shahnameh belongs to them, that it’s their heritage.

Iran was started from Badakhshan, which is the eastern part of Kabul up till Nishapur which is now the western part of Iran, present day Iran. The capital of Iran was Balkh, where Maulana Rumi was born, Balkh where Ibn Sina was from. In the 1930s, the country Persia or Pars named itself as Iran. And Afghanistan was a country that protested that because all the glory from this part of the world actually went into that [Iran]. And during the 19th century, the 20th century, the Qajari’s or the Shah, they started this nationalistic movement. And then instead of looking into their Achaemenid history, they went into the Sacae history. Sacae history is Rustom, Sohrab, it comes from present day Afghanistan. Achaemenid was present day Iran, the Persian’s history where the Khourosh, Darius, you know, where all of those Persian rulers were coming from. So instead of owning that, they actually went into the mythical stories of present day Afghanistan and then they say, “Oh, well, it is Eastern Iran.” It was not Eastern Iran. That was Iran. And in the Book of Kings, it was the Sacae kings, the Sacaei family from the Sacae dynasty. Their stories revolve around the mountainous peoples.

The mountain in our region is very, very important. All our stories revolve around the mountain: God is behind the mountain, the birds, the phoenix is behind the mountain, the dragons, demons and enemies are behind the mountain, the friend, the beloved…all the poetry, all the stories starts from behind the mountain.

Even according to the Shahnameh. Rossum was conceived in Kabul and he was born in Zabul. They’re both now in Afghanistan. Their stories were gathered, collected from central Afghanistan, or from Balkh, from Ghaur, from Kabul from Zabul They’re all in Afghanistan. And it was rewritten in the Ghazni Province, which is now in Afghanistan. And now, if we say, if we openly talk about the Shahnameh how it belongs to us, the Iranians will protest it. In many of my talks, actually, so many Iranians stood up and say, “Well, this is our thing. Why were you talking about this?” No, this is my family story. This is my story. I am Sacae. I am the indigenous Aboriginal of central Khorosan.

War rugs have been positioned as Afghanistan’s cultural history. How do you feel about war rugs? Like the fact that this industry even exists for the people who buy these rugs? How do you feel about that?

I don’t like them as a product. But I like them as an object, the genuine ones, the early ones that were archiving their time — the genuine ones not those mass produced ones. They are archiving the images from these kids’ books, from these kids’ minds…it’s a durable, long lasting medium. The books are all gone but they [war rugs] are also telling us about the politics of international intervention in Pakistan and Afghanistan, how the concept of jihad was misinterpreted in Pakistan, how the internationals were interpreting it according to their benefits. How the misinterpretation of jihad killed the childhood of a generation. How it promoted the concept of war, a Western style of war in the region, which later went out of their hands and then they went back to control it. But the question is: Why kids? What were they training them for? For 20 years later? What were they preparing the kids for? Is it for this day when they are trained as a Taliban, when they’re coming back into society and Afghanistan is given to them? The biggest question for these rugs, is the question of good or bad? Now we don’t know. Who is the enemy? Who is the bad guy? But it’s a good lesson, as a person from that region, to never trust the Western powers. But then who do you trust?

Further reading:

For more on the exhibition: Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia contact curator Annemarie Sawkins at  annemariesawkins@yahoo.com. View the virtual walkthrough of this exhibition when it was presented at the Museum of International Folk Art, NM as From Combat to Carpet: The Art of Afghan War Rugs.

For more information on the textbooks mentioned in this interview: A is for Allah, J is for Jihad” Craig Davis, World Policy Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 90-94 (5 pages), Published By: Duke University Press.

All images courtesy of the artist unless noted otherwise.