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Post 9-11 Afghan 'War Rugs' Stir Strong Sentiments Among New Yorkers - 2004-03-04

After the United States went to war in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, rug collectors across America rushed to buy up as many Afghan rugs as they could. Many worried these works of art wouldn't be available in the United States for too much longer. As it turns out, the rugs are still plentiful, but some of the designs woven into them are generating controversy. Images of the burning Twin Towers appear on some of these Afghan rugs, and many residents of the city where those towers once stood think the designs are inappropriate.

It's an unseasonably warm winter morning in Brooklyn, New York, just across the East River from the former site of the World Trade Center. Karen O'Malley is one of a few dozen neighborhood residents strolling through an open-air flea market. She pushes her baby carriage up to vendor Kevin Sudeith's display and asks him about the rugs he's selling.

O'Malley: And is this… Afghanistan?

Sudeith: That's a map of Afghanistan.

O'Malley: Yeah, OK.

Sudeith: This is an image from propaganda leaflets that we dropped in northern Afghanistan.

O'Malley: I can't tell if this is pro-American or anti-American.

The rug Ms. O'Malley is looking at is woven out of wool and features an image of the burning Twin Towers, with two planes flying in the background. In the foreground, there's a banner that consists of the American and Afghani flags, separated by a dove, with an olive branch in its mouth. As she walks away from the marketplace, Karen O'Malley says she would never have a rug like that in her home.

"I don't know what it says. It's an unpleasant reminder of September 11, and it's actually kind of violent. Like, that's the impression I get as I look at it," she said.

It's a sentiment vendor Kevin Sudeith says he can appreciate. Mr. Sudeith has been selling so-called "Afghan war rugs" for a number of years now and says they aren't for everyone. He started his business long before September 11, as did the weavers in Afghanistan, who began incorporating images of tanks and missiles into their traditional designs in the early 1980s, when the Soviet Union invaded their country. Mr. Sudeith says the September 11 rugs are the latest artistic rendering of the violence that's a normal part of life in Afghanistan.

"The tradition of art about war is rife with controversy. I mean, Picasso's Guernica was very controversial. Goya's The Horrors of War are still controversial. But that doesn't mean they should be dismissed," he explains. "They are a unique perspective on what's going on in the world today."

But it's an Afghani perspective on an act of violence that didn't happen over there. It happened over here, and for many New Yorkers, like Jane Korensky, that's an important distinction. Ms. Korensky says she's familiar with another vender who sells Afghan war rugs that don't offend her the way the September 11 rugs do.

"The others were almost like a protest of what was happening on Afghani soil. To me, this [Twin Towers image] is pride in what was done here," she said.

The majority of people we spoke to at the market agreed with Jane Korensky. But Kevin Sudeith says he has sold 40 war rugs depicting images of the burning towers to people who live here in New York. Those people may have been motivated by thoughts like the ones expressed by this man, who didn't want to give his name.

"I think I'd probably pay something like, upwards of $500 for something like that. Because you figure 20 years from now, my grandchildren, I can tell them, "Yeah, I remember seeing that," and you know, pretty much interpret it and what the rug expresses to me," he said.

And that, says vendor Kevin Sudeith, is the reason he sells the rugs… even though he, too, is haunted by memories every time he looks at them.