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A Turkish carpet odyssey

About the author
Adam Munthe’s Asad Company has been making carpets and kilims in Turkey for fifteen years. He is the author of children’s books, The Last Unicorn, and Anna and the Echo-Catcher. He also wrote the novel A Note that Breaks the Silence.

Working over many years with the villagers of Anatolia to revive traditional skills and produce carpets for western connoisseurs has been an education in life as well as a business venture. In serving to regenerate a community, it has also invited the westerner to reflect on the limits of his outlook. Now, post-11 September, the challenge to our consciousness is even sharper.

carpet detail
Fifteen years ago Asim Kaplan and myself set up a company, based in Konya, to make carpets and kelims of any size, shape, colour, and design to the highest standards. We did this because weaving to any kind of standards had died in Turkey. We started with one old woman of seventy-eight working with her two granddaughters (as well as Asim and myself, rudimentally!). Today we work in about fifteen villages with approximately three hundred families, and a crew of eleven at headquarters. Here we have our dyeworks, our washing and cleaning facilities, the restoration workshop, and our design studio. The wool expert travels all over the country choosing and buying wool, principally from the mountain villages where we have developed good relations and proper quality control. We are not a big operation.

If we had known at the beginning what energy, empathy, care, patience, and time would be required to develop our enterprise, perhaps both of us would have run away. The essential tool that I lacked – as a non-Turk, non-Middle Eastern, non-Muslim, non-Oriental – and had to learn, was a quality of patience. This had nothing to do with holding my breath, or waiting for a bunch of rough-necks to appreciate my superior standards of efficiency. It had to do with learning from zero that real change occurs organically, and in no other way. Change is not taught but brought about, by the growth of opportunity in the ‘right’ time, the ‘right’ place, and with the ‘right’ people. In other words, in order for me to learn to give, or to create possibility, I had first to learn cultural awareness of the context in which I was operating.

When we started, making textiles was a socially unacceptable drudgery for the poorest, the most disenfranchised in the community. It’s not difficult to imagine our first products. We worked with people who initially gave no creative thought – either to what they were doing or how they lived, beyond minimal daily survival. They were greedy, dishonest, careless, and selfish to my Western eyes. They lacked any sense of collective (village) responsibility, were happy to double-cross their neighbours, accepted and lived according to their place in the ruthlessly de-sensitised local power structure, and expected nothing but what they could reach for with seduction, intimidation, or piracy.

After a couple of years – and against my partner’s misgivings – I asked one village Boss (female) what we could do for them. Of course, this would be on a quid pro quo basis. That is, good work on the looms, reliability, care and loyalty – in exchange for something they needed… No favours!

Change comes dropping slow

It took three years of her family asking for tractors, colour television sets, a dowry for the eldest daughter, a backhander to ensure her loyalty to us, and so on, before she whispered to Asim that a village warm-water system for clothes-washing might be handy. It took five years for the weavers to start competing, and publicly showing off their skills. It took six years for the first families to return from slum city life to rebuild their village homes, and lives, because of the work and opportunities being generated. It took eleven years before the men accepted that the women could deal with money…

kelimA carpet made in the village of Senir in Central Anatolia (click for bigger image)
Ah yes, money! Practically, and rapidly, it became very clear to us how closely associated personal and civic decency were with economic self-respect – not economic freedom (a far dream for most) but survival. The day I was told that not a single family working for us in one Central Anatolian village was still paying multi-generational interest to a bank or money-lenders, was the same day I heard that our best weaver had turned down the opportunity to work for another production company at higher rates.

And the women’s economic freedom? The same village Boss approached us one day to ask for new incentives for the weavers. We negotiated ruthlessly. The thinnest gold bangles for the largest, most complex rugs, completed to Class A standards, on time or earlier. A couple of years later my partner was handed a shoe-box containing four hundred bangles. It became the ‘bangle’ account. On it the women (borrower plus two guarantors) took out loans to a maximum of one hundred dollars. If the money was paid back on time, the guarantors got the next tilt at the till. It was their idea (echoes of the Grameen bank?), and we haven’t had a single bad debt in five years.

The male population are not, as is commonly presumed, just sitting about watching their women slaving. They are the shepherds, the dyers, the restorers and finishers of our textiles. They set up the looms, cut kelim and carpets from the loom, wash, clean, and complete the work. After they had identified that the women’s innovations were not in competition but in harmony with their aspirations, they dealt with their male ‘traditions’ functionally. That took a couple of years too!

We now make carpets and kelims from one to one hundred and fifty square metres in size. The weavers (one or two males among them these days) can use the Turkish, Persian, French Savonnerie, Spanish, or English knotting techniques. We dye with natural vegetable colours and the cleanest chemical-based colours, which we’ve developed ourselves. Innovative ideas on design, wool production, dyeing, spinning, weaving, finishing, come from the ‘rough-necks’ as much, or more, than from us. In private homes, as in larger workshops, hang the photos of, or articles about, their work: a carpet for a palace in Kuwait, the great room at Spencer house in London, an exhibition catalogue in New York or L.A., Milan or Paris.

kelim makersThe team of the 'Boss' lady, Fatma Pinarcaya, known as the 'Gendarme' (click for bigger image)
A zone of fear

Today I’ve just returned from Eastern Turkey. It was a harrowing, painful, and beautiful journey. I was visiting villages where we had tried to give people work – people living in poverty, refugees, victims of guerrilla wars with the PKK (Kurdish terrorists or freedom fighters); places where work had been taken away, immorally, illegally and unnecessarily (and after it had been started) by the Phillips people in Miami. I was also looking to see how we might work there again, if we survive this economic crisis. And finally I was there – travelling through the principle war zone – to see how ordinary Muslims, Jews, Aramaic Christians, Arab Christians in an Oriental culture, were facing the events of 11 September and after.

There was fear and grinding poverty. Farmers hacking life out of stony soil; women carrying the rocks from tiny fields to create some space to cultivate wheat, lentils, vines. In the cotton fields the children’s hands were covered with henna – and blood from the sharp plants they picked. They were barefoot in late October, and will be barefoot through winter, I think. In the village studios, women looked at me mutely as I photographed empty looms from which our half-finished kelims had been cut. There was no work, and the drought had ruined their husbands’ crops.

But they talked. The women asked who would feed their children this winter. The men asked whether the first bio-chemical bombs from Iraq would land on Israel or Turkey. Some of the men said it was the Americans who had bombed the Trade Centre themselves, to restart an arms industry. Others, more sophisticated, said that given our Western arrogance of money, self-righteousness, imperialism, and conditioning, the only alternative was fundamentalism as a defining principle which would hopefully lead to a more rational functionality – like Europe with the Inquisition after the chaos of Mediaevalism. Another, (representing many, I suspect, from both ‘sides’) spoke of a different scale Third World War which would continue for years…

I passed through a town called Mardin, looking down to the plains of Mesapotamia from its rocky heights not so far from Mount Ararat – where civilisation began. There, for thousands of years, Moslem, Christian, and Jew, Kurd, Turk, Aramaic Syrian, Iranian, had lived in a successful multi-cultural environment – and were still doing so. Sane families, happy children, matriarchal mums, working fathers. I met them with my Aramaic school-teacher.

We travelled down to Sirnak on the Syrian border to meet the Governor – which remains the principle theatre of combat with the Kurdish separatists. We passed seventeen military checkpoints, were constantly held-up, delayed, searched, accused of being spies. We watched eighteen-year-old recruits, white-faced and terrified, preparing to go out with the local Kurdish Militia to “hunt and kill”. It was dusk. The sun had gone down behind the yellow rocks. They were singing, slapping each other on the back to keep their courage up, before leaving, heading single-file into the hills. They gazed at us – it seemed with envy, and to me also as if they were saying goodbye to a glimpse of ordinariness.

The pity of war

Yesterday, thirty per cent of our production was hand-made for the American market. Today that has not diminished – it no longer exists. But in fact what truly damaged our operation happened before. A large American hotel chain asked us to organise looms for the biggest order we had ever received. The work took months of preparation. Samples were delivered, accepted, praised. Monies were invariably in the pipe-line, until the contracts were signed, and the weavers started, in order to meet the deadlines. The large American company reneged on the contract; the monies had never been sent. I was told, when someone finally agreed to speak to me, that no, there was nothing wrong with our work… but they’d spoken to their lawyers, and were “comfortable”. They asked me if I “expected pity for my peasants”. And yes, I should have known better. In the villages they shrugged their shoulders. “What do you expect?” and they looked pityingly at me, “You Westerners never finish anything – not even a war! And as for keeping your word…”

carpet in situCarpet from Anatolia in Spencer House (click for bigger image)
I was absolved from personal responsibility on this occasion, but I’ll never forget the shock of seeing that I couldn’t deny our lack of consequence – and this because we show ourselves incapable of identifying or empathising with other cultures’ ‘principles’.

We need so desperately to learn to look again – not at others now but first at ourselves, and at how we dare to think that we have the answers, the knowledge, the means to provide solutions for others. We need to think about what our human functionality is and can be, not about how others should behave. By this I mean ‘we’ as part – all of us – of humankind.

A female Palestinian poet sent me a poem. It was unexceptional except for its title: Kindness. For the first time in fifty-five years I looked at the word. As far as I can check its etymological meaning is simple: oneness of kind. Kindness, therefore, as the practical requirement to operate as a human being on this planet – and also the means to avoid blowing ourselves to smithereens.

For the moment I’m drained. I feel shock, but no surprise at what I’ve seen. Sadness at our behaviour. Sadness and shock at my own intellectual and emotional subterfuges. Finding easy ‘liberal’ ways out of my intellectual dilemmas. Our world has changed, and we will be forced to change too, I think.

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