Unravelling culture in Iraq’s Kurdish region

Weaving and handicrafts are being re-taught to a younger generation of Iraqi Kurds, but not without challenges.

It is getting harder for Iraqi-Kurdish vendors to find stock of genuine Kurdish handicrafts [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

Erbil, Iraq – In the heart of the ancient city of Erbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, stands the Erbil citadel, or Qalat, as it is known locally. A walk along the city walls, which are currently under restoration, brings people to one of the region’s gems: the Kurdish Textile Museum.

It is here that the lost art of weaving and handicrafts is being re-taught. Shereen Fars Hussan, one of 40 women trained in weaving at the museum since 2009, sits quietly in the building’s cool upper interior as her colleagues chatter with pride at having learned these traditional skills.

Hussan, 30, remembers how she used to watch her grandmother weave carpets and kilims (tapestry-woven carpets). “She would tell us stories about the old ways of life in Kurdistan, how she would weave carpets with the patterns that her own grandmother and mother had taught her from childhood, but war and genocide meant that she couldn’t pass on the skills to my mother and me,” Hussan told Al Jazeera.

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Lolan Mustafa, director of the Kurdish Textile Museum in Erbil, has long had a passion for Kurdish culture and handicrafts. “From childhood I have been interested in Kurdish textiles. My grandparents raised animals close to Erbil and had good relations with many of the nomadic tribes that would pass through the plains in winter,” he told Al Jazeera.

But it would not be until attending university in Europe that his passion became more academic.

Iraqi Kurds are fighting to preserve their cultural heritage through textiles and weaving [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

“After taking an anthropology class, I wrote a paper on Kurdish nomads. During the research process I found a few books on Kurdish carpets and that was it; I was hooked,” he said.

In 2004, Mustafa returned to Kurdistan and was determined to do something with the large collection of carpets and kilims he had amassed in Erbil. By then, he had lectured in the United States and exhibited some of the carpets at an exhibition in Sweden. The local Directorate of Antiquities granted him a six-month lease for one of the large houses in the citadel.

Ten years later, the museum is still there. It has just undergone a refurbishment and officially reopened this month. 

Traditionally the carpets and kilims exhibited in the museum were woven in the villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, or by nomadic Kurdish tribes, on small transportable looms, which were often hung from door frames.

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It is almost impossible to find a carpet or kilim produced in the Kurdistan region of Iraq after the mid-1980s. Following various Kurdish uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s regime embarked on a mission to destroy the villages in Kurdistan, and with it much of the unwritten history and culture of Iraqi Kurds.

The culmination was the 1988 Anfal campaign, which Kurds consider a “genocide”, during which the Ba’ath regime waged a systematic assault on more than 4,000 villages in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Many people come and ask if I know anyone that can still make these beautiful carpets, but sadly I have to say no. They have all passed away or are too old to weave.

by - Aram Ismail, carpet trader in the Sulaymaniyah bazaar

Up to 182,000 people lost their lives, and many nomadic tribes were exiled to settlements in the south of Iraq, losing their centuries-old way of life. A trip to the bazaars of any of the region’s big cities, such as Erbil or Sulaymaniyah, will reveal only a handful of shops that sell real Kurdish carpets.

Aram Ismail, a carpet trader in the Sulaymaniyah bazaar, lamented that one would be hard-pressed to find one of the original weavers. “Many people come and ask if I know anyone that can still make these beautiful carpets, but sadly I have to say no. They have all passed away or are too old to weave,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ismail’s shop is piled high with examples of woven and hand-knotted Kurdish carpets, some of which date back over 100 years.

“In the 1990s, Kurdish carpets went out of fashion locally and many were thrown out, destroyed or sold out of the poverty of war. Many people regret it and come looking to buy old carpets, but most of my customers are either foreigners or Kurds that come back from Europe. They love them,” he said.

The carpets and kilims, known locally as Barra, are distinctive in their use of vivid colours, from burnt oranges and fuchsias to deep reds and browns. The dyes used were all organic, often made from indigenous plant roots or flowers by the nomadic Kurds who would trade them with villagers on their migration paths from the plains to the mountains.

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The old kilims sell for between $60-$150, whereas those produced by the weaving project cost close to $2,500 and take up to six months to weave. It is hard for these new rugs to compete with new factory-woven kilims from Iran and Turkey, which can start from as little $150.

Kurdish carpets are distinctive in their bright, vibrant colours [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

In Ismail’s corner of the bazaar, there is a cluster of shops selling these old colourful local carpets, with maybe one or two others across the city. It is getting harder and harder for them to find stock.

“Every so often from a house clearance or from villagers coming to town to trade we can find more local carpets to sell – but once our stock is gone that’s it, there will be no more. We will have to import them from other parts of Kurdistan,” he said.

In order to help preserve this local tradition, in 2009, alongside the museum, Mustafa set up a programme to teach young girls how to weave carpets, kilims, jajims (decorative covers/wall hangings), lebat (pressed felt) and highly decorated windbreakers for nomadic tents. 

Selling the region’s history is something Mustafa fervently opposes: “We really shouldn’t be selling off the final pieces of our history so cheaply. We should be preserving them and treasuring them.”

It has not been an easy programme to run; funding has been intermittent and finding experienced weavers to teach the girls was no easy feat – most had passed away or were too old. The museum and weaving programme have benefited from grants from USAID, the German Consul and the Erbil Governorate, but consistent funding for their work remains problematic.

Shereen and co-weavers Khanda, Eman and Awin lamented the lack of work for the last six months.

Khanda, 23, enthused about how proud they all were to work on a project that is preserving the culture for future generations. “It was not an easy learning process, but I am glad that we mastered all the knots and patterns to produce the carpets and kilims,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I just hope that at some point we resume work and perhaps we can pass on our skills to others too.”

Source: Al Jazeera