Dying Carpet Weaving Tradition in Kurdistan Gains a Revival

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Hidden deep in the labyrinth of the Erbil bazaar, finding Haji Karhi’s carpet shop is no easy task. But once you arrive, your efforts prove worthwhile. The dimly-lit corner shop where he has been conducting business for over 50 years brims with traditional Kurdish carpets, weaved into intricate designs from an array of exuberant colors.

I was brought to Karhi’s shop by a gregarious carpet merchant named Lukman, who was insistent that I meet him because, as he put it, “He knows everything about carpets in Kurdistan!”

When I set out for the carpet bazaar, I was uncertain how easy it would be to find hand-made Kurdish carpets. I visited several shops lining one of the bustling streets winding away from the citadel, where an abundance of unoriginal and uniform machine-made carpets, primarily from Turkish factories, were hung on display. Finding local hand-made pieces fast proved more difficult.

When I entered Lukman’s shop and explained that I was only interested in Kurdish carpets, he first took me to a musty hole-in-the-wall shop situated so out of the way it was difficult to fathom how it had stayed in business. The selection was disappointingly limited and the owner had stepped out and thus the idea to introduce me to Karhi was born.

As Lukman led me through the twisting lanes and crooks of the bazaar, he explained that local demand for Kurdish carpets has all but plummeted in response to the cheaper machine-made Turkish carpets flooding the market. For locals, he pointed out, it has become an issue of cost.

“It’s really only tourists interested in buying Kurdish carpets these days,” he added.

The relative scarcity of Kurdish carpets in the bazaar was a telling indication that the centuries-old tradition of carpet weaving, long intertwined with Kurdish heritage, is likely suffering under modernization.

In a region where growth and development have been highly prioritized, moving forward often takes precedence over preserving the past. But it is not just a matter of losing individual traditions, such as carpet-weaving: Modernization is often attained with a greater loss of traditional culture and associated values. Which raises the question of what exactly modernization means to Kurds and Kurdistan.

Karhi offered his thoughts on the matter as he pulled a predominantly purple carpet, a little over a half-meter on each side, from a pile and laid it out on the floor in front of me.

“For the new generation, different skills are in demand. It takes three months to make a small carpet like this – it’s very time consuming. But youth these days don’t want to spend three months making a carpet, as people in the villages did in the past. They want to go after different opportunities,” he said earnestly.

“Many of the old people with the skills for carpet making have died and the craft is not being passed on,” Karhi added.

Later, when I continued my interviews, his disquieting thoughts would be echoed by every other Kurdish carpet merchant I spoke with: An important part of Kurdish culture is being lost.

Aziz, whose family originally comes from Korie village, nodded in agreement with Karhi.

“People have left the mountains, left the villages, left their farms, left their animals. Before, everything was hand-made by people. But now, everyone is leaving behind the traditional way of life to move to the city.”

Directing my attention back to the carpet he had laid out on the floor, Karhi pointed out that unlike most carpets, this one was squarer in shape and consisted of two distinct types of material which were alternated amongst six smaller rectangles.

“These kinds of carpets, made by the Herki tribe, are all 30 to 40 years old. They’re very difficult to make, as much effort is required.  But they aren’t being made anymore. Once I sell all of these – that’s it, there are no more,” Karhi explained.

“We are losing part of our heritage as aspects of our culture disappear,” Aziz added, tracing his fingers across the carpet’s intricate and painstakingly woven pattern.

Varying in the materials used, thickness, color and design, there is much diversity under the umbrella of Kurdish carpets. However, similarities can be recognized regionally, as each tribe traditionally had its own unique carpet design. Weavers deftly incorporated animals, geometric patterns, whimsical florals and impressive motifs into their carpets.

The most unifying feature of Kurdish rugs is their bold use of colour.  You will struggle to find a Kurdish carpet that lacks a striking melange of colors: Rich reds, brilliant fuchsias, deep purples, saffron yellow, warm terracotta, burnt oranges, vivid blues and earthy greens.

Nakeb, who owns a small shop at the foot of the citadel, confirmed that Kurdish carpets are renowned for their use of color, especially those made in Iraqi Kurdistan. Laying out several different carpets for me to see, it was apparent that Iranian Kurdish carpets are slightly more muted than the Iraqi Kurdish pieces.

Nakeb said business has improved in recent years, as the number of tourists visiting Erbil has increased.

“I sell some Kurdish carpets to wealthy locals, but most of my customers are tourists who are looking for a high-quality, unique product, and with hand-made carpets no two are ever the same,” he noted.

Like Karhi’s shop, most of the carpets Nakeb was selling were made in Iranian Kurdistan, and the few that were made in Iraqi Kurdistan were woven back in the 1970s.

Karhi was adamant that no carpets are hand-made in villages in Iraqi Kurdistan anymore, and that all so-called “Kurdish carpets” these days come from Iranian Kurdistan, where carpet-weaving remains an important livelihood. In Iran, carpet exports are second only to energy exports.

Troubled by the possibility that this could be true, further research revealed that it is not.

Several years ago, when well-known expert on Kurdish nomads Lolan Mustafa first realized traditions like carpet weaving were at risk of disappearing, he set out to ensure this did not happen.

“In the 1980s, when Kurdish nomadic tribes were forced to relocate to concentration camps or other areas of Iraq, I recognized that with the abandonment of their traditional way of life, textile culture was also disappearing,” Mustafa explained.

In response, Mustafa established what would eventually become a successful weaving revival project at the Kurdish Textile Museum in Erbil, where he is also the director. First launched in 2008, the project brought in elderly nomadic women from villages to teach their skills to a younger generation before their knowledge was lost forever.

Initially funded by USAID, the project was later extended by the Erbil Governorate. When that round of funding dried up in September 2013, the project was temporarily put on hold. But Mustafa remains confident the project will resume soon, most likely when the museum reopens this March in time for Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year.

“The governorate is still concerned about the project and recognizes it’s very important for it to continue,” he added.

Mustafa said the goal of the project is to train young women, who will then reintroduce the skills back to the villages and nomadic communities, but acknowledged that doing so will take time, because it requires the right people with the right attitude.

This was first published in Rudaw.