“Find Noor Sher. Noor Sher Knows.”, by James Opie

A remarkable man of old Afghanistan

When I first met Abdul Wassi (A.W.) Noor Sher in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1973, he was the most successful rug dealer in all of Central Asia. In contrast, I was one of the smallest dealers in North America, a small dealer in a big jam. For I had waited too long to arrange shipping all the goods purchased in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and elsewhere in Afghanistan during my first trip there, and needed to leave for home the next morning. Only in fairy tales do “magic carpets” transport themselves without human help. Preoccupied with buying from dealers who continually popped up with tempting offers, and with barely enough money remaining to pay my modest hotel bill, I had neglected a vital part of my work: shipping. Facing this at such a late hour, could a single day possibly suffice to resolve my dilemma?

Shipping challenges in Iran had been simple. The Iranian “post” accepted twenty-kilo packages, wrapped in flour sacks or “gunee” (gunny sacks), addressed to me in the United States. Using the Afghan post in this way was impossible, as regulations discouraged sending multiple packages of rugs and some pieces were room-sized, as large as 10 x 14 feet. A practical shipping method had to be found, and I had only one day to find it.

Mid-morning during this final full day, a Kabul dealer who had sold me a half-dozen pieces, responding to my plea, said, “Go Shar-i-Now. Find Noor Sher. Noor Sher know.”

It was easy to locate the Shar-i-Now (“New City”) district of Kabul and the name “Noor Sher” was familiar. I had heard this name spoken a half dozen times, always with tones of deference, and pictured a commanding personality, tall, with a strong voice. A man in his fifties or sixties, or perhaps older and with a white beard.

Noor Sher’s shop, not far from “Chicken Street,” as that street was known by both Afghans and foreigners, was easy to find but he was absent when I first entered. His brother-in-law, Walli, was there. Walli heard me out and said that, yes, Noor Sher could help me. Within an hour, Walli and I were moving all my goods from my hotel to Noor Sher’s shop, where we began measuring everything, to prepare export documents.

Halfway through this work, A. W. Noor Sher himself—not tall, but a short man with a quiet voice, not a “graybeard,” but appearing to be about my age—entered the shop in the company of a Turkmen. Noor Sher led the Turkmen—identifiable by his hat—to his desk, where the two spoke together earnestly. I saw Noor Sher hand across some money. A payment for goods? Perhaps a gift? I couldn’t tell.

Walli and I continued working as the two men drank tea. After twenty minutes Noor Sher escorted the Turkmen to the door. Walli then introduced me to Noor Sher and the latter invited me to sit with him at a desk cluttered with antique pistols and other artifacts. Calling to a teenage employee, he ordered more tea before asking about my family—parents, children, wife. He asked if dealers had helped me to fulfill my goals in Afghanistan and if Afghans had treated me well. He made no attempt to interest me in his goods and did not mention an obvious fact: after not spending a single afghani in his business, I now appeared at his door, desperate for help. (An “afghani,” the national currency, was then worth about two cents.) 

Walli joined us to outline the terms of our agreement: shipping charges would be calculated and I could wire payment after returning home. There would be an export tax, plus “baksheesh” (tips … minor bribes) for this and that. Local transportation charges would be added, plus a bit more baksheesh for that. To pay Noor Sher for managing all this, he would add one hundred dollars.

Noor Sher smiled and said, “Very low price. Yes?”

Indeed. It was a fraction of what I expected.

Minutes later Noor Sher rose from his seat, pressed his right hand to his heart and shook my hand. He mentioned my next trip to Afghanistan and asked where I planned to come first when I returned.

“To you!” I said.

He smiled. 

“First go to hotel near me in Shar-i-Now.” 

He wrote the name of the hotel, pointed in its approximate direction, and handed me the paper.

“Give taxi driver. First hotel, then here. You promise?” he said.

I promised.

Ten months later I returned, and then again, and again, so that by 1975 Noor Sher and I were conducting steady business. A friendship took root, enhanced, surely, by hours spent with Noor Sher’s father, a retired rug dealer who often sat alone in an upstairs office. Noor Sher devoted as much time as he could to his father, who, alone for long hours, with Noor Sher busy downstairs, needed company. Sitting with this old gentleman became a consistent part of my visits. Though he spoke barely more English than I spoke Farsi, our exchanges were gratifying to Noor Sher senior, and I knew they pleased Noor Sher.

Women weaving. Photograph by James Opie

From 1975 through 1978 I had a business partner named Bill and in 1977 Bill and I traveled to Afghanistan together, making a beeline for Noor Sher’s shop and entering the ground floor office, decorated with rugs, Turkmen jewelry, Uzbek textiles, and antique firearms. At that moment Noor Sher was beginning his afternoon prayers, a habit he maintained punctually, no matter who was present or what was happening around him. Considering the frequent presence of visitors, he prayed with a surprising atmosphere of privacy by pulling a rug from one of his piles, pointing it toward Mecca and beginning to pray.

Bill and I retired discreetly to one side and waited. After completing his rituals, Noor Sher welcomed us with the most radiant smile I had seen since my last visit with him. I introduced
Bill and the usual questions about family followed. Parents? Children? Wife? I asked about Noor Sher’s family, and especially his father. With these essential queries complete, I explained to Noor Sher that our luggage had not arrived but would come, we were told, in a day or two. To this prediction Noor Sher responded with a phrase he expressed often: “Inshallah.” (“If it is God’s will.”) 

Whether he literally believed that everything, down to the level of lost luggage, depended on God’s will, I never asked. But he said “Inshallah” in many contexts, especially when a person voiced predictions regarding future events. Since the weather, the flow of business, the fate of nations all depended on God’s will, so did the timely appearance of our bags.

I asked Noor Sher if he might suggest a store where we could buy clothes to last several days and he said nothing. Rather, he telephoned a tailor who came moments later to measure Bill and me for loose, pajama-like Afghan garments. 

Noor Sher suggested that Bill and I visit shops in the neighborhood, but only buy very small rugs and bags. 

“At first, you pay too much, so important only buy small things first few days. When you see how you pay much too much, it shock, and then you begin serious to buy.” 

He had rendered similar advice before, and was always right, for the real price, the wholesale price, of goods was so much lower in Afghanistan, relative to prices in Iran, than at first I was not a good bargainer and too readily paid prices close to those rug dealers could soak from tourists and local embassy people. 

We returned to Noor Sher several hours later and the tailor soon appeared with our new garments in hand. When I asked for the bill, Noor Sher stepped forward.

“Impossible!” he said. He paid the tailor and, turning to Bill and me, brushed off our thanks.

The next morning, our first full day in Kabul, dressed like locals but surely sticking out like sore thumbs, Bill and I further surveyed the local market. Around lunchtime we returned to Noor Sher’s shop, as we had promised, to find him standing on the sidewalk, hands clasped behind his back in a characteristic posture, with prayer beads dangling from them. The stack of rugs at his feet belonged to an Uzbek man who stood next to Noor Sher.

I had met this Uzbek in Noor Sher’s shop during my previous visit and enjoyed watching him communicate with Noor Sher. Whatever engaged them—usually rug business but other interests, as well—the depths of attentive openness apparent in their exchanges revealed an impressive side of Central Asian culture. A friend who traveled there observed, “Notice that they pay attention to each other to degrees that rarely happens in the West, touching nearly every encounter. Even as one walks by an Afghan on the sidewalk, there is a silent contact. You can feel the Afghan holding you in his regard.”

Noor Sher’s Uzbek friend spoke some English and during our last encounter he shared the outlines of his difficult life and the history of many Uzbeks stuck on the wrong side of a prison-like situation in the Soviet Union. Only eight years earlier, the USSR’s forced atheism led this Uzbek to escape to Afghanistan. He immediately enrolled in a madrassa, a theological seminary, and visited Kabul often. He met Noor Sher, who began teaching the Uzbek how to deal in carpets, especially with local embassy employees, who had gradually taught him English.

Only a skilled poet could convey the unique look in this man’s soft brown eyes. Was it suffering or years of prayer that instilled such unusual depths? Perhaps both? I saw great kindness and patience in these eyes, as well as understanding, as if life was viewed from a level above the rest of us. I have seen hints of this look in a great many Afghans, making this nation a highly appealing destination for me. But Noor Sher’s Uzbek friend was unique. That he could also conduct business, buying and selling with the rest of us, amazed me.

The depth my enjoyment of such encounters was influenced by the writings of G. I. Gurdjieff, who traveled in Central Asia in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and wrote about “remarkable men” he met. I sometimes viewed the Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmen, and other Central Asians I encountered as related, somehow, to Gurdjieff’s experiences. Whatever romanticism and naiveté flavored my outlook, the wordless strength of Afghans was real, and these humane nuances must have been part of Central Asian life for extremely long periods, even before the arrival of Islam, with all its concern for how individuals treat each other.

The “Blue Mosque” in Mazar-i-Sharif. Photograph by James Opie

Before heading north to explore markets in and near Mazar-i-Sharif, Bill and I saw Noor Sher often and I observed his knack for balancing generosity and shrewdness in conducting business. An expression of this was his talent for keeping a visiting dealer’s social calendar completely filled.

 During our first hour together Noor Sher insisted that Bill and I “come to shop each day” for lunch. We agreed, but my tone of voice must have left room for doubt.

“You promise?” he said.

We promised.

These lunches, with an ever-shifting assembly of guests seated on carpets, served as a gathering point for diverse figures in Noor Sher’s business and social life. Dealers from several continents, an employee from a local foreign embassy, perhaps an ambassador, plus a Turkmen or Kirghiz trader fresh from smuggling merchandise across the Chinese or Soviet borders, family members, and friends all sat on the floor around large trays of rice and lamb, unleavened bread, and regional delicacies. Noor Sher’s cook, a young Uzbek touchingly devoted to him, worked in a back room all morning, preparing this food.

A broad spectrum of communication styles characterized these meals, from the stillness of self-contained Afghans, who often ate in silence, to talkative visitors from the West. During Bill’s and my visit a loquacious judge from California attended several meals and I recall a gradual shift among the English-speaking Afghans, from genuine interest in the judge’s remarks to a tentative receptivity, and then a subtle withdrawing of attention.

So many words…and during a meal!

Noor Sher said little but his presence was potent. Listening carefully to everyone, he appeared to inwardly sort “the meat from the bones” with the same dexterity exercised with chunks of steaming lamb on his plate.

I came to see Noor Sher’s generous invitations to lunch as based on business acumen as well as generosity. Given the great role of hospitality in this part of the world, other dealers wished to invite me to meals, too, but Noor Sher left no openings. In short, he fed me and shared his world with me, and cut out the competition. Evening dinners were approached similarly, with Noor Sher instructing key employees and family members to invite Bill and me to a succession of evening meals, or to his own home. When invitations came from other dealers, not a single evening was open. 

While he did not pretend to be more than a carpet dealer, a businessman, occasionally I heard Noor Sher address deep human concerns. He saw the center of any religion as residing not in books or doctrines, but deep in the heart of each individual. Though his devotion to the teaching of Mohammed was unequivocal, he viewed the inner reaches of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism as merging into one. At times he raised a single index finger, as if this said everything: One. And the prayer beads dangling from his hands were not a cultural ornament or distracting habit. His fingers moved the beads in a continual, silent, circumference.

As I picture my beloved friend now, decades later and with him no longer with us, Noor Sher slowly raises a single finger. One. And within reach of me as I write—sent most kindly by Walli after Noor Sher’s death—a string of his prayer beads.

He and I were born within months of each other in 1939, yet I knew who the elder was, who the teacher and who the student. Never adopting a superior posture, he quietly communicated his understanding of business and of human nature, abandoning himself neither to judgments nor the need to be liked. Individuals in the West may make billions, but none will approach the artistry and humanity of Noor Sher. Although he sold so many rugs that entire cargo planes were sometimes chartered to transport sold goods to Europe, he accomplished all his buying and selling face-to-face, touching every rug he sold and looking everyone who came to him in the eye.

He did not pretend that business was unimportant to him but it always seemed to be what we would enter into … later, after personal matters were attended. He asked many questions and when I mentioned this talent once he said, “How you learn more, by talking or by asking? What more important, this new person learn about me, or I learn about him?”

Noor Sher taught me a great deal about conducting business in Afghanistan, or anywhere. 

Islam offers many points of guidance for believers in their mutual relationships, including business exchanges. According to the Koran, prices will be set by the forces of supply and demand, but with an additional factor. Figuratively—some would say literally—Allah is always watching, and an individual helps or hurts himself through one’s own behavior. Perhaps this explains why dealing with Noor Sher was so different. Many Afghan dealers were better actors than they were Muslims and it was not easy to know when a dealer’s sincerity was genuine, or contrived. 

In this regard Noor Sher shared quite valuable advice, especially regarding a late stage in the bargaining process. He insisted that when I had made an offer and a dealer began to fight hard, trying to force the price upward, I was to stand pat, refusing to budge by a single “afghani.” He said, “If you not offer reasonable price, dealer not talk so strong, work so hard. When dealer talk strong, never pay afghani more!” 

Beginning to experiment with Noor Sher’s counsel, it surprised me to immediately begin saving money, for often my stated “final offer” remained less than I was willing to pay. Remembering Noor Sher’s advice, when a dealer raised his voice or complained bitterly about my offer, I held firm. If the dealer spoke English I might even say, “Aqa [sir], you surely will receive more from another dealer for this piece. Please, you keep it! Later you will make a big profit!”

With this, the deal was done, on the basis of the offer I had made.

 Arriving at prices inside Noor Sher’s shop was far simpler, but with a twist, for Noor Sher was busy with sellers from around Afghanistan and with buyers from around the world, and rarely gave off-the-cuff prices on pieces of interest to me. If I pointed to something when he was near and asked for the “gaimat,” the price, Noor Sher would say, “You like, we put aside. Later we speak price.”

By the closing days of our 1977 trip Bill and I had explored the market thoroughly and were reasonably attuned to values. Consequently, it was not difficult to estimate what most goods in Noor Sher’s inventory were likely to cost. With an antique rug or something especially attractive, however, I could only guess. None of Sher’s employees dared suggest prices for anything and pleas for “ballpark” figures inevitably evoked the same response: “Talk Noor Sher. Talk Noor Sher.”

Bill and I waited until all the rugs interesting us were gathered. Then, late in our trip, Noor Sher made an appointment in an upper room where he would give the price of everything, one rug at a time, and we would make our decisions.

The hour of our appointment came and our session with Noor Sher proceeded comfortably. I was accustomed to Noor Sher’s preference for “yes” or “no” decisions and his distaste for prolonged hesitations. If I delayed too long he might say, “Jeem Opie…‘Yes…No.’” With his rugs priced at realistic current wholesale levels and with stacks of rugs to go through, an experienced buyer was expected to know the market and keep moving.

Noor Sher sat near Bill and me, indicating the price of each piece and we voiced our acceptance or rejection. Most pieces I purchased; some I rejected. We worked this way for most of an hour, proceeding through several stacks of goods, when Noor Sher said abruptly, “Jeem Opie, I tired giving price. You give price. I say ‘yes…no.’”

It was a startling challenge. Each piece was unique. Aesthetic factors varied and the goods belonged to a man absolutely attuned to values, Noor Sher. Nonetheless, he and I reversed roles and I began setting the prices and the ground under me gradually solidified.

After fifteen minutes, Noor Sher surprised me, and also Bill.

“Mr. Bill, now you name price and I say ‘yes…no.’”

This must have been an interesting moment for Bill, who understood that being tested is part of business. But to suddenly be tested by Noor Sher was highly unexpected, and I was not sure who Noor Sher saw as the recipient of the “lesson” here, Bill or me. 

Bill tried to peg the price or two but quickly deferred to me. Soon, to the relief of both Bill and I, Noor Sher seized the reins again.

Kabul rug dealer Muhammed Unise and James Opie

A life of “dealing” had not closed Noor Sher’s nature to a
 narrow opening, above which is carved the word, “money.” To the contrary, his work opened him to relaxed perspectives wherein parties to a transaction experience genuine concern for each other’s welfare. Beyond the fact that relationships of this quality feel good, such relaxed approaches to business encourage both sides to speak more candidly and this leads to sharing valuable market information. Freely shared information can be worth far more than fleeting dollar benefits.

Further, subtle but valuable benefits attend any dealings with balanced human beings, and Afghanistan had, and still has, unusually balanced individuals. 

A lesson from Noor Sher I have tried to apply throughout my career engages approaching relationships, especially long-term ones, in ways that balance material interests, the other party’s and my own, with something anchored in the relationship itself, akin to a “neutralizing” force. For if we take our eye off the other person, we risk losing ourselves, too. 

Looking toward our final evening meal in Afghanistan, Noor Sher invited Bill and me to dinner in his family compound, an old fort. After we arrived, Noor Sher absented himself for ten minutes to say his evening prayers and then joined us for a fine meal, cooked by his wife. Toward the end of dinner, Noor Sher’s six-year-old daughter joined us and stood next to her father, leaning her head on his shoulder. Noor Sher doted on this sweet girl, whose eyes shone like her father’s. He asked her to bring tea for all of us and, smiling, she set off, returning ten minutes later to carefully pour our tea.

 As we sipped our final cup of tea—the very last enjoyed in Noor Sher’s company—he spoke about changes in the Afghan government and feelings of deep foreboding. Left-leaning elements were, he said, “testing strength.” He said that while most politicians are “dogs of the same mountain”—indistinguishable from each other in their motivations—the possibility of a communist government, then a strengthening possibility, constituted a serious crisis.

“If communists come,” he said, “Afghans will fight.” In that eventuality, Noor Sher saw Afghanistan’s future as disturbing and uncertain.

Our conversation continued in this unhappy, prescient vein for a half hour. Our tea consumed, conversation subsided and it was time for Bill and me to leave. We expressed our thanks and, chauffeured by one of Noor Sher’s servants, headed back down the mountain to the Shar-i-Now district and our hotel.

The night was cold and the stunning star-filled sky so reduced the urge to speak that Bill and I said nothing throughout our descent into Kabul. I could not know I would never see Noor Sher again, yet felt heavy-hearted. Something Noor Sher had said several times came to mind: “Often heart know more than head.”

Afghanistan’s status as one of the world’s most peaceful nations would soon end. After our return to the United States, a leftist, and atheist, government, aligned with the Soviet Union, took power in Afghanistan. As Noor Sher predicted, Afghans fought back. The Soviets invaded, ostensibly to protect a neighboring government, and the ensuing war turned millions of Afghans into refugees. Finally, assisted rather haphazardly by the West, various anti-Soviet factions drove the Russians out. 

 Tragically, the addictive power of war survived their departure, and the warlord-led factions began fighting each other. From that point forward, a downward spiral continued, with profound consequences continuing into the present.

I did not return to Afghanistan for thirty-five years. In 2014 I traveled to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif to organize a project bearing my name. By then my former partner, Bill, and I were friends again, but Noor Sher had been gone for six years. (Noor Sher signed his final letter to me, “Your brother.”)

One day I asked the head of a family in Mazar-i-Sharif that was working with me if he had known Noor Sher. He said he had, and spoke with feeling of Noor Sher’s role in his younger life.

I noticed this man holding prayer beads in one hand, as Noor Sher always had, and I commented on this. My host understood but said nothing. Silently, he moved one bead at a time as we quietly completed our meal.

However much some things have changed in Afghanistan, Inshallah, something essential will never change. ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2020 issue of Parabola, BALANCE. You can find the full issue in our online store. Please consider a print or digital subscription to Parabola or support our work by making a tax-deductible donation here.

By James Opie

James Opie writes and also deals in Oriental rugs in Portland, Oregon. He is a consulting editor to Parabola and is the author of Approaching Inner Work: Michael Currer-Briggs on the Gurdjieff Teaching.