‘Would you like some tea?’ asks Najaf, the rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif. I accept his offer gratefully as I step into his shop – Afghan Traditional Rugs – on High Street in Prahran, Melbourne.
Moments earlier, from the opposite side of the street, I was so disappointed to see the sign ‘Closed’ on the shop door, but thought I’ll cross the street anyway. Peering in through the glass door, I saw two people in the dim recesses of the shop beckoning me in. Najaf himself opens the door, flipping the sign to ‘Open’. I blurt out, ‘I’m from Adelaide. I read your book.’ and he offered me tea.
Najaf was apprenticed as a rug-maker in his village in northern Afghanistan, near Mazar-e-Sharif, before the Taliban captured him and tortured him, leaving him no option but to flee to Pakistan, aided by, of all people, a Pashtun, one of the traditional enemies of Najaf’s people, the Hazara.
Najaf told his story to award winning biographer, Robert Hillman, who captured Najaf’s voice so well in the book The Rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif that I felt quite sure, just by reading the book, that Najaf was a good and friendly person, the sort of person who won’t mind if I visit him to talk about refugees and about his book, even if I don’t buy a rug, though I hasten to add that there is a 50% sale on right now because Najaf is clearing stock in preparation for an overseas purchasing trip.
Inside the shop, a young lady, wearing a beautifully embroidered hijab, removes a pile of bright cushions from an office chair and offers me the seat. She sits in the other chair in front of the computer and we chat about the Australian tax system before Najaf reappears with a thermos and a cup of steaming green tea on a saucer for me.
I notice a picture of two stylised birds beneath a mosque with the words Masawat Development Fund. I ask Najaf about it. As he leans on a column, carpets hanging on either side, he tells me that funds from his book sales have been used to buy an ambulance for the area around Mazar-e-Sharif to transport pregnant women to the nearest hospital – a three to four hour journey along hilly, rocky, windy road.
He is returning to Afghanistan in October, with his daughter, to give school supplies to the children in his village. ‘Put pens in the hands of children, not guns,’ said Najaf. ‘Don’t blame the refugees, blame the people who drop bombs and put guns in the hands of people, because this is why there are refugees.’
We talk for almost two hours. Najaf offers me advice on agents and publishers before I leave his shop at noon. Only then, as I say goodbye, when lady turns around from her work on the computer, do I realise that she has been waiting all morning for Najaf’s input to finish the accounts. Nothing in her body language or her demeanour had suggested any impatience with my nattering on and on, keeping her from finishing her morning’s work.
Such is the kindness of strangers.