Carpet and Art Oasis: Weaving their own future
While Persian carpets enjoy a walkover in the industry, now new dark horses are coming up
IT’S THE end of Saturday evening and exhausted festival-goers are leaving in their cars, giving the Carpet and Art Oasis a deserted look. The sprawling pavilion looks like something straight out of Arabian Nights. Everywhere there are carpets, rugs, tapestries and more carpets, in diverse colours and designs, on the floor, the walls, and stacked in little heaps. Then there are some more in intriguing glass-topped caskets that look like coffins at first glance.
The people around them speak in hushed whispers as befits either death or some work of great note. Indeed, it’s just that.
On display is a priceless Persian carpet that took 14 years for its creation. The $6 million price tag is nothing compared to the immeasurable love, care and artistry that was lavished by three Iranian master weavers to craft a timeless work of art. These creations by the Azimzadeh Carpet company have captured the public imagination but then, Persian carpets have long been known to rule the roost in the industry.
Tread with reverence
Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri & ?Sudeshna Sarkar
IN THE Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan, the Turkmen carpet is not just a carpet, it’s a way of life.
A toddler takes his first tottering steps on the family carpet that is its pride, passed on from generation to generation. Girls store their dowry in carpet bags, and every day, the family prays on the prayer rug. Finally, when a Turkmen essays out on the final journey, the body is lovingly wrapped in a ritual carpet.
This integral part of Turkmenistan life is woven from the wool of the delicate Saraja sheep that can be grown only in the bracing climate of Turkmenistan.
“The government spent $1 billion to breed the sheep in Europe but they did not survive,” says Arslan Ahmedov, representing the Hatudzha Company.
Tukmenhaly, the state-owned corporation, oversees the carpet industry and the export of carpets was allowed by the government only in 2012. Since then, Turkmen carpets have taken part in exhibitions at the Global Village in 2013. “We sold five tonnes,” says Ahmedov. “Of that three tonnes were bought by Russian buyers.”
Turkmen carpets, made by women, boast a long antiquity. But because the brand is not as well-established as Persian carpets, Turkmen designs are often wrongly attributed to others.
“People ask us, are you from Russia? Or are you from Turkey?” Ahmedov says.
The Turkmen President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, is said to take a special interest in the industry and is seeking to promote it.
This is the first time that Turkmen carpets straight from Turkmenistan are taking part in the Carpet and Arts Oasis. To mark that, pride of place is given to a tapestry sporting a wonderful likeness of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
“If the breed of Saraja sheep dies out, the art of Turkmenistan carpets will also vanish,” says Ahmedov. “Perhaps then the only place where you will see them will be in the museums.”
Perhaps what is not so known is the emergence of new players with their own unique characteristics.
The Fatema bint Mohammed bin Zayed Initiative (FBMI) is one of them. Started three years ago by Shaikha Fatema bint Mohammed bin Zayed, daughter of General Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with Tanweer Investments, an Afghan carpet maker for three generations, FBMI is promoting Afghanistan’s carpet industry, where the weavers are mostly women, and giving it a global footfall.
“We provide direct employment to over 4,000 women and the number is rising,” says Walied Jabarkhyl, FBMI’s executive director. “Plus indirect employment to another 20,000 like nomadic wool suppliers and farmers who provide the vegetables for the dyes.”
Though a major export earner, Afghanistan’s carpet industry suffered due to lack of transport facilities. A landlocked mountainous land, its exports are mostly by road, through neighbouring Pakistan. When there are disturbances, the routes are disrupted, bringing exports to a standstill. Also, Afghan carpets have been bulk-sold with the “made in Pakistan” label, causing the Afghan government to lose revenue.
But FBMI belongs to the new generation of entrepreneurs whose tools range from the computer to aircraft. It has strategic alliances with major airlines and the consignments are flown out to the UK, US, Brazil, China and Scandinavia.
“Everything is from Afghanistan,” says a proud Jabarkhyl. “The wool comes from Afghan sheep, the designs are done in Afghanistan and the weavers are from Afghanistan.”
Women weave FBMI’s carpets. Given Afghanistan’s conservative society, they work from home. The looms are set up in village houses and coordinators monitor the progress of work and collect the finished items. This way, the Taleban threat to women who venture out of their homes does not affect the workers, who can make their living from home.
The factory in Kabul produces about 4,000 metres of carpet a month, using wool and silk, and the weavers are paid between $2-5 a day. It is a windfall in a country where people on average live on less than $1 a day. Designers and senior weavers earn more.
As FBMI is a social project, it provides workers with vocational training as well as education so that a “weaver does not have to remain a weaver all her life”. It also provides medicare and makes education mandatory for workers’ children. About 7,000 children are currently being educated under the FBMI programme. In areas where water is hard to come by, FBMI constructs wells for its community of workers.
In addition, it boasts an extraordinary feat that few carpet businesses can rival. It has set up looms inside the Women’s Prison in Kabul so that women prisoners can also earn money.
From their village homes, Afghan women are keeping an eye on the world of sports. Soccer is the current favourite since of all sports it generates the highest business for them.
Birth of a tradition
THE CARPET and Art Oasis was started 19 years ago by Dubai Customs to complement the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF).
The current edition will run at Dubai Festival City till Feb 1.
“(It) is one of the most remarkable events regularly scheduled for the Dubai Shopping Festival,” said Ahmed Butti Ahmed, Executive Chairman of Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation, Director General of Dubai Customs.
“Dubai Customs is proud to organize the Carpet and Art Oasis that increasingly attracts larger crowds, giving DSF greater splendour as traders, rug lovers and visitors gather in to acquire some of the scarcest and most gorgeous handcrafted carpets.”
Jabarkhyl rummages through mounds of carpets to drag out an assortment with some carpets as small as doormats. Each piece is the emblem of some famous football club. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea — you name it, FBMI has it.
“There are lots of football fanatics,” Jabarkhyl smiles. “But there is only one place where you can buy this novelty item. From us.”
This is the third year that FBMI has been attending the Carpet and Art Oasis. Jabarkhyl says the response has been most encouraging: “It is one of the largest carpet fairs in the Middle East and we are the only representative from Afghanistan,” he says. “FBMI is now known to major floor designers and the footfall has been immense.”
Besides the promotion in Dubai, FBMI has something more to cheer this month. Afghan carpets have created a buzz at Hannover’s Domotex 2014, the largest carpet and flooring exhibition in the world.
This time, there was an AfghanMade initiative as a tribute to the Afghan carpet industry. Of the hundreds of designs pouring in, six were handcrafted in Afghanistan by FBMI and showcased at Domotex, giving viewers a glimpse of Afghanistan’s rich heritage. FBMI also won the Domotex Carpet Design Award 2014.
Like Chinese tea or Indian spices, Afghan carpets are considered to be fit for kings. FBMI’s collection has a carpet designed in 1936 for the then Afghan king Mohammad Nadir Shah by weavers in North Afghanistan.
Woven into the royal carpet is a couplet in Dari. It could also be the motto of the Afghan carpet industry: If you decide to work hard to complete a task/Then even thorns will turn into flowers.