TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, June 30, 2008

Five Faiths: Religious Head Coverings, Part 1 (Islam & Christianity)

This post is part of my Five Faiths series. I'm taking a look at religious textiles used in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Click Five Faiths to see all the articles on one page. The topic of religious head coverings is huge and controversial, so I am breaking it down into two parts. This part takes a glimpse into Islam and Christianity. The second part looks at Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

A couple of years ago, my husband humored me by taking some role reversal photos for our Christmas card. I come from farmer stock, so he dressed up in my bib overalls, and he is part Berber. He helped me put on a shawl and drew a pretend tattoo on my face. I always have fun dressing up! I asked him what his mother, a real Berber, would think of me if she saw me like this and he shook his head and said, "Very weird..." Well, his mother and my mother would both agree on that!

Those of us who love ethnic textiles, know that shawls, hats, and other head coverings can be absolutely drop dead gorgeous. But, we also know of all the controversy that surrounds the religious coverings of women, especially in Islamic cultures. The burka has been strictly condemned by the West and shedding it is a symbol of emancipation.

Burka Graduation. Click on the photo for the source, although I could not find any information there about the context.

The rise of fundamentalist Islam in the last 20 years, especially through the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and modern Saudi Arabia, has created a public outcry against the burka (a full body cover which allows limited vision) and the dark veiling where only eyes are exposed. Women have suffered greatly not because of the veiling in itself, but because of the limitations that have been imposed on them in terms of employment, purchase power, education, access to sunlight, and mobility. Renowned photographer Harriet Logan documents the lives of several women in her book, Unveiled. These women had enjoyed the liberal 70's in Kabul and then were subjected to humiliation, beatings, and obscurity under Taliban rule. Logan interviewed Zargoona in 2001. She had been a physics teacher in the Polytechnic. She said she had a good salary and a good life. Now she was stricken with cancer, lived in a small room with no heating and no glass in the windows. Logan says they sat under blankets during the interview and Zargoona cried the whole time. She taught in secret to earn some income as her husband had passed away. "I was beaten by the Taliban for teaching only three months ago. My door was not locked, as I was expecting my students that day. One of the neighbors had shown them my door. Three Talibs just walked in; two more stood outside. They were terrifying. ... they said it was forbidden to teach girls, and they started to beat me with a cable until my leg bled." (page 60)

Stories like this one are abundant in areas where extremism is dominant. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was raised in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. She was excised (female circumcision) with no warning when she was around 10, forcibly married to a man she did not like, and survived a childhood of violence. I recently read her book and was quite moved by her story. Ali made it to Denmark as a refugee, put herself through University and ended up in Danish Parliament, only to be then kicked out of the country because she had lied about her status when she first arrived. I think she now lives in the United States. Ali's experience made her question her traditions, religion, and finally the existence of God. There is a fatwa against her and a Danish colleague was shot to death while riding his bicycle because of a movie the two of them made.

Yet, not all women veil themselves or wear the burka because men force them to. In fact, Ali talks about the radicalization of Islam while she was a teenager and describes how a few crazed men drew crowds of women who hungered for the law. She describes how Islam for her nomad mother was a part of life, with certain rules, yes, but also mixed in with ancient lore that preceded it. The new Islam that they encountered in urban areas was imported from Saudi Arabia, very foreign to historic Somalia. Many of the husbands begged their wives to stay away from these new preachers, to take off the veil, to go back to a more flexible way of life. Divorces happened left and right on both sides, spurred on by women who refused to step back into normalcy. Some of the stories are absolutely unbelievable! Click on the photo below for an article about a woman from Saudi Arabia who divorced her husband because he lifted her veil while she was sleeping. He hadn't seen her face in 30 years! The article stated that this is a practice done by a small minority of people. Make sure you read the comments, too!

In terms of interest to fiber enthusiasts, the burka and Saudi veils are extremely boring as textiles. In other Muslim cultures, the coverings can be absolutely stunning! Intricate embroidery, bejeweled and exotic, these are pieces coveted by museums, cultural associations, and film directors. African Ceremonies documents the peoples and religious customs of Africa. Here they show a Rashaida dancer in Eritrea:

Veiled Rashaida Dancer, Eritrea At a Rashaida wedding, a young woman dances in celebration of her friend's marriage. Surrounded by admiring guests, the girl swirls in circles as the many layers of colorful fabrics she wears, including her richly appliqued skirt, enhance her movements. Veiled from the age of five, Rashaida women are required by the law of purdah to cover their faces when they are in public. The mask is considered an expression of female beauty and its elaborate style has remained unchanged for more than 150 years.

When I see photos of women dressed in these garments, yes even with the facial coverings, I feel a sense of sadness for the lack of ritual, adornment, and festivity in our modern lives. No, I don't want to be covered through a social decree, but there is something beautiful here that we do not see often in Western society. Perhaps there is a glimpse of this mystery in the bride who wears a veil over her face as she slowly approaches the altar... I grew up in Brazil where wearing nothing is an acceptable social code. I have to agree that when you see it all, the air of mystique is almost gone.

Accompanying some of the gorgeous head scarves and covering we also find beautiful jewelry that is often hidden under layers of cloaks and shawls. The Turkmen women are known for their large head pieces and pendants that hold shawls together or are incorporated into elaborate hair styles. This crown is a sample of Turkmen jewelry carried by Afghan Tribal Arts:

Abdul, my friend and owner of Afghan Tribal Arts, once teased me saying that I probably should not wear a burka in Afghanistan. I am tall, almost 6', and he said I would probably get bopped on the head, someone thinking that a man was hiding in there and up to no good. He struggles, too, with the question of how to raise his four daughters here in the United States. At first, they wore shawls to school, but it attracted attention and the principal spoke with him after 9/11 and encouraged him to let them blend in as much as possible. It is interesting to watch these girls as they mature. They are pious yet they have questions. It is not easy to choose what cultural practices to maintain and what to give up.

Another liberal Muslim Turkish friend of mine once said that there is also something liberating when you wear a covering that hides your face. She laughed and said you don't have to worry about "bad hair" days. And, you disappear in the crowd, which can sometimes be a relief. But, she said that it is nice to have the choice of whether to cover or not. In Turkey, you can do both.

And, yes. Muslim women cover themselves not because of the Koran, but because of cultural norms. Blogger Alixianna has a wonderful post in her blog, Beautiful Muslimah. She uses this photo to introduce her article on the context and history of veiling.

It is extensive and I encourage you to read it if you are interested in this issue. But, here are a couple of things she says:

"Misconception: The veil is homogenous.

Contrary to popular belief, there are many different kinds of veils. There is no one Arabic word for "veil" and even the English dictionary lists four distinct definitions of the word veil, in terms of material, space, communication, and religion. In regard to Islamic culture, the veil is best viewed as a part of dress in the manner that, like other elements of dress, it is specific to time and space. In different areas of the Islamic world, styles of veiling and reasons for it are distinct.

Here are three common types of veils:
a. Hijab- a head scarf that usually is worn for religious reasons. There is not one type or color.
b. Chador- a large black shawl that covers the hair and entire body. The chador is most commonly associated with Iran today. If it covers the face with a mesh screen it is the blue body garment worn by Afghani women.
c. Veil or burqa- two peices of cloth sewn together with a slit for the eyes worn over hijab, or a stiff mask made of cloth.

Misconception: The Quran states that Muslims have to veil

The Quran does not specifically mandate veiling, but simply speaks about modesty, respect, and the covering of the body. In fact, male modesty is more frequently referred to in the Quran then female modesty. In most Muslim societies veiling is not enforced, but a choice. It is a way for Muslims to outwardly show their devotion and respect for Islam."

She also points out that men also choose to veil in some Muslim cultures. The Tuareg men, for example, veil themselves, while the women do not. This transitions nicely to talk about Islamic head coverings for men, does it not? I've never understood why Western articles about Muslim women covering their heads do not also talk about men. The same circles that have strict codes for women do the same for men (Uh, except that they do get to have jobs, education, mobility, and all of that...). Men may have to wear beards and cover their heads as well.

Photo by one of my favorite photographers, BabaSteve.

The turban is the most recognized head covering worn by Muslim men. Again, Abdul explains how ingenious this long piece of cloth is in a nomadic culture. It's a helmet. If you fall off your horse, your head is protected. If you broke your arm in that fall, you have something to wrap it with. If you are cold, you can wrap yourself in it. If you need to carry things and don't have a bag, well, just cut off a bit and there you go! I found this photo of a Sikh, which doesn't really fit in this subject, but had to share it:

It's from an article from the Times Online: "This is Major Singh wearing a major turban - purported to be the biggest in the world at 30kg and 400 meters of cloth. He hopes it will be a source of inspiration to young Sikh boys who are opting for having their hair cut rather than covering it."

Sikhnet has an interesting article on the history of the turban in the Old Testament. Sikhs and Muslims both have historical ties to the Old Testament, along with Christians and Jews. Many texts there use the turban as a symbol of purity, royalty, courage, self respect, dignity, and strength.

But, turbans are only one of many styles of Muslim head coverings or hats. The kufi style is popular in Central Asia and in Africa.

Another photo by Baba Steve from his Pakistani collection.

Sometimes a turban is wrapped around a kufi. The hat style represents the region or village one belongs to. The two vintage Pashtun hats below are an example of a skull cap type style that would be worn with a turban around them. They are hard and would offer good protection, almost like a helmet.

Sometimes a hat will transcend its original context and become popular world wide. The Afghan "Rebel Hat" became popularized during the war against Russia. It's actually a traditional hat from Nuristan, a cold, mountainous region. The hat is ideal for that climate as it can be pulled down during extremely cold weather, although it is normally rolled tight and worn on the top of the head. This is a big seller for us on eBay during the Fall and winter!

All of this discussion of Islamic head coverings may seem exotic and foreign to Westerners. However, these traditions are not that far from home. Western women also covered their heads in public with hats and scarves until not long ago. Think of movies from the 50's and 60's and the stars from that period wore something to protect their heads. I lived close to a Polish neighborhood in Chicago and the older women still boast flowery scarves when they are in public. My parents live in rural Wisconsin and in the last 15 years they have seen more and more Amish families relocate to their area. This photo is from the Library of Congress, around 1940.

Amish women do not cut their hair and must have their heads covered, especially during prayer. They believe in keeping their appearance simple in order to focus on their inner qualities. OK. Still too exotic? Actually, as Islam has grown in fundamentalism, so has Christianity. There are many, many Christian pentecostal groups and non-denominational groups that adhere to head coverings, especially in Church. My own sister frequented a church where she had to wear a doily on her head. The church did not recognize women as equals nor give them a voice during the service. Eventually, she and her husband compromised on a Baptist church and I think both are very happy there.

The main text these churches use to support this practice is I Corinthians 11:2-16 in the Bible's New Testament:

2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason the woman should have authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 In any case, woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman, in the Lord; 12 for as woman is [created] from man, so man is now [born] through woman. And all things are from God. 1314 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

Michael Marlowe of the Bible Researcher dissects this text and explores it historically, reaching the following conclusion, among others:

"The old claim that fashion in clothing is morally neutral and essentially devoid of symbolism has now been destroyed by recent downgrade trends in women's fashion, and Christian parents are keenly aware of the significance of clothing in the case of their teenage daughters. Moreover, the feminist movement (which knows very well what clothing may say about a woman) has created a social environment which is so inimical to Christian values that many Christian women now finally recognize that they cannot allow themselves to be creatures of fashion. And so the church is ripe for a reconsideration of this whole question. In any case, church leaders and evangelical authors who have been discouraging the use of head coverings should reconsider their opposition to it."

Chapel Veil, available through Modesty Veils

Thus, the industry for Christian head coverings for women abound online, all quoting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Oh, that Paul! Such interpretation of Biblical text walks that fine line that determines the roles women and men have with each other. Wikipedia describes this line of Biblical thought as expressed by the Plymouth Brethren:

"There is no distinction made in Brethren teaching between men and women in their individual relation to Christ or position before God as believers. However, in most Brethren meetings, the principle of male "headship" is applied in accordance with teaching found in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, verse 3 and elsewhere in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 11:3 says:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

Thus most Brethren meetings reserve leadership and teaching roles to men based on 1 Timothy 2:11, 12...

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
From this, Brethren teaching traditionally (there are regional exceptions) outlines a system in which the men take the "vocal" and leadership roles, and the women take supportive and "silent" roles. In practical terms, what is traditionally seen is the men being fully responsible for all preaching, teaching, and leading of worship. Therefore, in most Brethren groups, women will be heard to sing the hymns along with the group, but their voices will not otherwise be heard during the service. Often the men are, practically speaking, the only ones involved fully and vocally in all discussions leading up to administrative decision making as well."

The Bible is the Other Side states: "We need not to forget, with remaining sin in the world, and with radical feminism which is the liberal dogma on how women should act and their redefining roles contrary to Scriptures. Christians need to pray for these lost souls who believe in such things as they need the Gospel to be presented to them. Because just believing in head coverings as a Scriptural foundation and not knowing who Christ is, makes one's faith vain. The Lord doesn't save people who don't know Him."

The hope is that men will love and honor their wives and thus take their private counsel into consideration. How far removed is this, though, from the tyranny of the Taliban when society was perceived as a bit too free?

Still not mainstream enough? Well, alright, we'll finish this glimpse into Islam and Christianity by taking a look at Roman Catholicism. Although a diminishing church, Roman Catholics still have a strong presence in the United States, but much more in Latin America and other parts of the world. And, they like to wear hats! Or, traditionally, at least, they have a rich history of interesting head coverings. This book looks like a fascinating read! Click on the photo for the link.

The description says: Curiosity about nuns and their distinctive clothing is almost as old as the Church itself. 'The Habit' presents a comprehensive visual gallery of the diverse forms of habits through the ages and explains the principles and traditions that inspired them. Author Elizabeth Kuhns also examines the gender and identity issues behind the veil and presents engaging portraits of the roles nuns have played in ministering to the spiritual and social needs of the wider society.

I attended a Brazilian Catholic school, Regina Mundi, for a few years when I was growing up. I remember right after Vatican II, the order of nuns that ran our school opted out of the habit. Our head nun showed up from one day to the next in high heels, make-up, a skirt down to her knees, and wowzers! Was she gorgeous! It was hard to take her seriously anymore. (So what does THAT say?) Somebody sent me this photo in an e-mail a long time ago. I have no idea where it came from, but the nuns I knew had a good sense of humor and they would have enjoyed it.

Pope John Paul II, who hailed in Vatican II, also knew how to laugh. Tradition in Action states: "As a sign of the Vatican II spirit of inculturalization, John Paul II dons a feathered African headdress during his 1980 six-nation African tour. Curiously, he never wears the papal crown."

The current Pope Benedict XVI probably did not wear this hat as a sign of humor:

The Roman Catholic Church uses the same text by Paul to encourage women to veil themselves. The Catholic Planet has a page dedicated to the proper dress and behavior for Catholic women. Here is their take on the text:

"In obedience to Sacred Scripture, many Catholic women wear some kind of veil or headcovering. Some wear a headcovering only at Mass. Others feel called to wear a head covering at other times during the day, as well as at Mass. Many non-Catholic Christian women also wear a head covering. These women are following the call of the Holy Spirit. Society discourages women from wearing a head covering and from doing anything else which shows submissiveness and obedience. Yet these women have found the light of truth in the midst of dark times. The moral law requires all women to wear the veil on their hearts."

"The Virgin Mary wore a veil or head covering because she understood this symbol of the different roles given to men and women. Those women who wear the veil are imitating the Virgin Mary in her humility and submissiveness. Nearly every Catholic Church has a stature or image of Mary wearing a veil."

They have a sizable list of links on articles examining the topic.

So what is the moral of these stories? To me, nothing is simple when it comes to evaluating society and religion. I believe that our challenge is to look at our history and what is around us and try to sift the wheat from the chaff. Keep what is good, get rid of what isn't. Each of us has to decide what that might mean, but I believe that it has to do with breaking the cycles of violence in our lives.

Well, this post took all day, so hope you like it!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Turkish Textile Arts in Transition: A Sisterhood of Weavers

by Catherine Salter Bayar
Catherine is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus.
Click on her name to see all of her posts on one page.

My mother-in-law, doing a handcraft that she and I share – knitting

Long before I moved to Turkey in 1999, the manufacturing of hand woven rugs had begun to move out of this country to nations farther east, where labor and production costs were cheaper. I’d been familiar with this economic market reality as I traveled the world for the garment industry, which is in constant search of cheaper countries to manufacture clothing. In the same way, Turkish rug wholesalers took their production of hand woven rugs for the tourism trade or export to countries such as Pakistan or China, while mass producing machine-made carpets in Western and Central Turkey for use in the modern Turkish household. The cost of hand weaving in countries to the East is roughly a third of the cost of weaving a rug in Turkey, East or West.

My mother-in-law’s generation used to weave, but she is in her sixties now. She and her sisters had to weave if they wanted functional or decorative textiles for their homes. Weaving was not only utilitarian, but social as well. When girls and women wove for their dowries and households, they would gather together in the afternoons after their farm chores were completed. My mother-in-law wove the kilim, below, on a narrow, easily transportable loom, in four long strips of 17” (42 cm) wide cloth, embroidered together with wool yarn.

This entirely wool piece would have taken her at least 6 months of afternoons to complete. She used the natural dyes of madder red and indigo blue to bring prosperity and protection; the triangles represent the mountains that encircle their childhood town of Derik, in the eastern province of Mardin. It was used to drape the horse her sister rode to her wedding, and then as a bedcover. The numerous fabric strips tied to the bottom, below, are ‘wishes’ from each woman in the family for a healthy, happy, abundant life for the newly married couple.

My mother-in-law thinks it’s quite absurd that we have kilims she and her sisters wove in our shop. She sees little value or beauty in them at all, and has often teased me about the threadbare but exquisitely striped kilim I insist on keeping in our bedroom, below. Perhaps someday I’ll get that big hole repaired by one of the expert reweavers here, all men for some reason, who can make it look like new, but to me it’s already perfect. I like seeing it just this way as I get out of bed each morning, as a reminder of a time when a woman would spend perhaps an entire afternoon per 1/2 inch of this finely spun wool kilim, about 3 feet wide by 5 feet long; a woman who obviously took joy in combining such bright reds, oranges, pinks, chartreuse and periwinkle. This piece was given to us by the family in Abit’s home village in Eastern Turkey. They were cleaning out storerooms and would have thrown it away! Abit gave his aunt $200 for several kilims she was discarding; she clearly thought he was foolish to give her good money for them. Word of the ‘big spender’ from the West got around the village. The next day, numerous relatives showed up with their cast-offs, amused that the boy who’d left more than 20 years ago was now making a living selling these old useless things.

These days, the easy-care machine made polyester/cotton textiles for cushions and bedding plus wool and synthetic carpets being churned out by factories all over Turkey are the preferred house wares of the Turkish middle classes (behind and beneath my bread-making sisters-in-law, below). Turkey grows its own cotton and is still predominately an agricultural country, so the wool gathered from sheep and goats now goes more to urban factories than it stays in the villages. These textiles are targeted at the domestic market, so reflect the color combinations and patterns of vintage hand woven pieces, but are prized for being modern and machine washable.

None of my seven sisters-in-law weaves, unless you count the sister who asked to be sent to a local government-run program that trains women in the art. She and I had begun collaborating on carpets of our own design, but the family decided that she should move East to marry and raise a family rather than stay in Selcuk and work for us. I know she does not regret having the adorable children in the photo below, but she does miss the chance to express her originality and talent through weaving. It is still common for women in Cappadocia in Central Turkey or in East to work at home weaving for various manufacturers. They are usually paid by the piece, though it cannot be much money for their labor based on the wholesale prices of new goods. No wholesaler would divulge how much the women make, another reason we don’t sell new rugs in our business.

My husband’s family is traditional and typical for Eastern Turkey even though they have lived in this Aegean region town since 1985. The girls are expected to be homemakers and mothers, and if they must work, they do so together in the fields and orchards, picking crops such as cotton or peaches. Abit and I do not agree with these limitations and have had countless discussions with the family, to no avail. However, most girls in Selcuk complete mandatory schooling by the age of 16, and many go on to universities. Our town is filled with women in business, medicine, law and service occupations in percentages that are similar to Eastern European countries.

A portable loom for small rugs less than a meter (39”) wide.

The majority of women schooled in hand weaving today in Western Turkey work in ‘carpet villages’, traditional style complexes to which the tour companies take captive busloads of tourists to demonstrate how rugs are made. They make for a good show of the craft, but little do the tourists realize that most of the rugs they are being shown and sold were woven far from here, in countries with fewer regulations about child labor and fair wage laws. Most carpet villages near Selcuk pay their workers – male sellers and female weavers – a salary, not in commissions or by the piece. They usually do get healthcare and other benefits, including meals and transportation to their jobs, and work regular 8-hour days, though often 6-7 days a week during the tourist season from April to October and far fewer days in winter.

A former carpet village of traditional style buildings near Selcuk.
The looms are dismantled, but colored yarns still hanging from the rafters.

The pieces hand woven today by manufacturers have been ‘merchandised’ to cater to the buying tastes of the visitors. Traditional color combinations of reds and blues are replaced by more subtle Westernized palettes of pastels or earth tone combinations. Unlike in the West, where rugs woven in undyed natural wool colors of off-whites, browns and blacks would fit in well with most home décor, these ‘drab’ pieces would have been pitied in a Turkish village. It would have been assumed that the family did not have the skills or money to gather dyestuffs or purchase them in the local market. The traditional long, narrow rugs to fit a Turkish living room are now woven instead in standard sizes revised to reflect room proportions in Western homes. What in the West would be used as hallway runners, for instance, would have been attached to the lower walls of a Turkish salon to comfort the backs of those seated around the room on low cushions.

The predominant art of the Turkish culture, the art that has survived centuries of population migrations, the art truly inclusive and expressive of women’s emotions, desires and creativity, has been hijacked by mass commerce. This is not a story unique to Turkey of course; as countries modernize and mechanize, traditional handcrafts are less prized by the culture and fade away. Beyond the tourism-driven carpet villages, there are groups of entrepreneurs in Turkey who want to sustain traditional hand crafts and offer women the alternative to support themselves though weaving, but these enterprises may never create the same works as a woman who is weaving from her soul would.

A strictly-for-commerce ‘new’ piece that combines multiple portions of old prayer rugs – a creative way to reinvent authentic carpets, but sold for thousands of Euros – as seen in the window of one of the most expensive carpet shops in Sultanahmet.

Has the art of weaving been completely lost to commerce here? Not quite yet, but with women no longer weaving for themselves and shopping hordes of tourists in the tight control of tour conglomerates, businesses like ours have fewer authentically Turkish-made alternatives to offer our visitors. And the uniquely expressive voices of our sisters, the weavers, are being silenced.

Catherine Salter Bayar lives with her husband Abit in Selcuk, near Ephesus, Turkey, where they own a vintage textile shop and a water pipe & wine bar.

Visit them at www.bazaarbayar.com or www.bazaarbayar.etsy.com

This article is a companion one to
Turkish Textile Arts in Transition: A Brotherhood of Carpet Sellers

Friday, June 27, 2008

Turkish Textile Arts in Transition: A Brotherhood of Carpet Sellers

by Catherine Salter Bayar
Catherine is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus.
Click on her name to see all of her posts on one page.

The Carpet Merchant, Jean-Léon Gérôme

The occupants of the cavernous room, with walls of hewn stone punctuated by arabesque carved doorways and filled with a soft light from above, are rapt with attention. Three men in flowing robes and large turbans watch while a barefoot carpet seller with a long beard works his best sales techniques on a fourth potential buyer, while the second, white-bearded carpet seller gauges the reaction of the group. The two sellers – one perhaps Persian, the other Afghan - gesture as they point out the unique qualities of a vast Heriz carpet, hanging from a balcony above the room and enormous in scale, even in the huge space. Other Persian and Turkish carpets are strewn around the floor behind the men in rejected heaps. Around the periphery of the room, several young men and boys watch and await instructions from the carpet sellers; the most attentive assistant is an African, perhaps a slave. A woman veiled in blue brazenly peeks from the corner doorway, ready to completely cover her face if the buyers, one of whom is a European wearing a dashing red coat, happen to glance her way. The question “Will the visitors buy?” tangibly pervades the scene.

It’s possible that French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme accurately captured what a carpet shop was like more than 100 years ago, when he painted this Orientalist scene, The Carpet Merchant,while visiting the rug market in Cairo. The nostalgic setting this 1887 painting portrays, a mysterious market place full of colorful carpets from all along the Silk Road, with Egyptians, Turks, Persians and Europeans vying to purchase the best pieces, is still much what visitors to Turkey expect to find today.

Though there are a few places in Turkey that replicate this exotic environment, buying carpets to resell these days is not that experience, though this painting appears on countless carpet shop walls, even ours. Perhaps because we trade in weavings from the past, we’d like to recall those days, however romantically portrayed, in which such magnificent, authentic carpets were highly sought after by every visitor to our region.

Carpet district, Nurosmaniye near the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

I’d never seen The Carpet Merchant before I moved to Turkey, though the idea of wading through deep piles of those vibrant rugs in alabaster rooms greatly appealed to my sensuous nature. At least I didn’t have to be that woman peering from the doorway, excluded from participating in the business proceedings. Or so I thought when Abit and I first started buying for our shop in the Western Turkish town of Selcuk in 1999. No novice to textile commerce worldwide, I was not surprised to find myself once again in a business completely dominated by men. Those in power in the carpet trade here, at least the traders with whom Abit, my husband, had developed the essential relationships, were very traditional, very powerful men with origins in Van, a region in Eastern Turkey, on the Iranian border.

These men were not the chic, European-educated business owners I worked with when I first visited Istanbul in the early 1990’s. Dealing with those men – whose offices and factories were almost completely run by extremely bright and well organized Turkish women – gave me a favorable impression of Turkey as a modern place to work. But I’d also shopped the Grand Bazaar and surrounding lanes on my own during my early trips enough to have discerned that carpet dealers were not cut from the same progressive cloth.

During our first season of purchasing in the Turkish carpet trade, I immediately realized that the exotic stroll through an ancient marketplace my romantic mind’s eye pictured had little basis in reality. Visits to the wholesalers we used when we first started our business were in the old quarters of Nuruosmaniye within the walls of Istanbul’s old city near the Grand Bazaar (with one palatial entrance to this enormous complex pictured above), or along the cramped narrow lanes of Kemeralti in Izmir. These districts have a certain seedy charm, with their greyed, unpainted wood exteriors concealing vast warehouses of colorful carpets within. And like the painting, the men we visited were eager to fill our shop with their wares, spending hours unfolding kilims and unrolling carpets to convince us that they had the finest rugs on offer. But other than our dealings also being among people from several ethnic groups – Kurds, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and me, the solo ethnic European - the resemblance to the painting ended there.

Upon a first visit to a wholesaler, I might be completely ignored after the initial greeting, and sometimes even then. Just like my clothing industry visits to China and other countries in the Far East, I could not possibly be the person in charge of finances, so was of no importance, until the surprised men discovered otherwise. We drank endless glasses of tea while the men chain smoked cigarettes. Obviously, business dealings required constant supplies of nicotine, no matter what harm all that smoke may do to the fibers.

Abit (center in the photo above) and I would select the pieces we wanted. The men were clearly intrigued and sometimes quite mystified that Abit would consult me at all about what I liked. Though he had explained my textile background and ability to know quality when I saw it, the men were not at all convinced that I, a foreign woman, had any idea what I was doing. As the meetings went on though, sometimes for hours late into the night or even several meetings over days, the men grudgingly began to understand that I knew what I was doing. Not that this was stated, and in those early days my Turkish was not sufficient to know what they were saying. And the men were also speaking Kurdish in their negotiations, since that was most often the mother tongue to everyone in the room but me. Nonetheless, I understood the looks of admiration I eventually got from some of the dealers, and Abit was told more than once how lucky he was. I was sure however they were convinced Abit had caught a wealthy American fish and they were eager to reel in as much of our cash as they could.

In the early years of our business, the semi-annual visit to the wholesalers was still a treasure hunt, with dealers emptying never-ending black bags crammed with perfect suzanis, or leading us through rooms stacked to the high ceilings with old rugs from all over the Near East. Today, buying merchandise from these same dealers would be like going to Pasadena’s Sunday Rose Bowl flea market on a mission to find the genuine vintage handmade textile buried under heaps of machine-made odds and ends. In the decade since we started our business, wholesalers have become merchants of newly woven goods. In traditional Turkish patterns, yes, though they are imported from countries such as Pakistan, Nepal or China.

Interior, Grand Bazaar

Working with only a few main wholesalers, each specializing in different regions, therefore differing types of textiles, was logical for 1999. In the barter system used here, the more we bought, in “American cash dollars”, the phrase always used, the better the wholesale prices got. Ten years ago, that meant that we could buy a wonderful assortment of vintage rugs – those kilims and carpets woven decades before as dowry pieces with no concern for what a Westerner would buy, with nothing newly made, and all of it woven in Turkey or Central Asia – for amounts of money that seemed very reasonable to me. Now, in 2008, it would be impossible to buy the same goods for three times the price, if you could find them here at all.

Thankfully, we bought so much when prices were good that we have some of those original purchases in stock. Selcuk does not often get buyers who are looking for collectors’ pieces; frustrating for income but fine in the long run since these vintage rugs do not lose, but increase, in value if they are well taken care of. Investing in dowry kilims and carpets in the late 1990’s turned out to be a wise decision, since they are truly a vanishing market in Turkey. These days, we buy very few pieces, and only from trusted older men who scour the villages looking for rugs no one wants any longer. Like all things vintage, once these weavings are sold, we will be looking for a new business.

Our shop in Selcuk, with most of the carpets and kilims kept inside
these days to protect them from the hot summer sun.
The minaret behind to the left is the oldest in town, from the 14th Century Seljuk Empire.
One stork is just visible on top – Selcuk’s high places host
enormous nests where the storks live from May to October.

Next post: Though a brotherhood of wholesalers and sellers control the carpet trade in Turkey, it is a sisterhood of weavers that is very much affected by this weaving art in transition.

Catherine Salter Bayar lives with her husband Abit in Selcuk, near Ephesus, Turkey, where they own a vintage textile shop and a water pipe & wine bar. Visit them at www.bazaarbayar.com or www.bazaarbayar.etsy.com.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Five Faiths: Images of Deity in Textiles

Rejoice, by Christine Adams,
shown at "Roots of Racism: Ignorance and Fear" Art in Embassies Quilt Exhibit
in Islamabad, Pakistan, 2003
"Rejoice is one of several pieces from the "Celebration" series made in response to a compelling need to celebrate all life, all people. This quilt features raised hands in many skin tones. Ecumenism, diversity, the world’s potpourri of dissimilarities and contrasts, are all a part of my message for harmony.” Christine Adams

This is the first of several posts I am going to do on the five major world religions that have influenced, if not dictated, cultural behavior in the world over the past several centuries: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Click on the Five Faiths label at the bottom of the article to see all the posts in this series on one page.

All five have interesting textile and costume traditions, impacting industry both within and outside of their belief systems. Those of us who are drawn to ethnic and tribal textiles must have a basic understanding of the religious beliefs of other cultures in order to appreciate a piece beyond technique and materials used. Obviously, there are many, many other religions beyond the "Big Five". These, however, have been the five which have impacted the world the most in terms of the populations they represent and political power. All five have been victims and victimizers throughout history as well as instruments of peace and liberation, whether on a personal or institutional level. I am no theologian nor an expert on these textiles, although I have had great interest in both religion and fiber traditions for many years.

For many years I had a gallery in Chicago that had textiles and artifacts representing the Big Five and I often thought about how ironic it was that these items could be displayed together in the same room, while their makers might not only refuse to be in the same space but might even want to kill each other. So, this is a small effort towards understanding and reconciliation. I believe firmly that racism and intolerance thrive in environments of isolation. The more one engages with the other, the more we find how much common ground we have, even as we celebrate our differences.

My springing board for these posts is a wonderful book by Huston Smith, World Religions. Huston Smith is a renowned theologian who has studied and taught about world religions for several decades. A Tibetan friend was sponsored by him and talked about his gentle spirit and kindness. The book reflects this statement as Huston Smith examines these and other religions through art with curiosity and joy . He states in the introduction:

"It is a book that seeks to embrace the world. That hope can only be approximated, of course. Arms are short and feet must be planted somewhere, so this book has a home. But it is a home whose doors swing in and out- in study and imaginings when not in overt travel. If it is possible to be homesick for the world, even places one has never been and knows one will never see, this book is the child of such homesickness. ... These thoughts about world understanding lead directly to the world's religions, for the surest way to the heart of a people is through their faith if it has not fossilized. ... Religion alive confronts the individual with the most momentous option life can present. It calls the soul to the highest adventure it can undertake, a projected journey across the jungles, peaks, and deserts of the human spirit. The call is to confront reality, to master the self." (pages 13 and 14) Smith's book is filled with art inspired by the religious traditions he examines. My focus will be on textiles and garments, although I will use him to remind me and guide me through the vast terrain of historical traditions I could tap into. I can only hope to introduce a few seeds here and there that might lead you, the reader, into further discoveries.

All that said, let's look at these big five and see if we can pinpoint a departure point starting with the concept of a deity or god.

Hinduism is the oldest of the five and the most foreign to me. Hinduism knows no boundaries and through the centuries has incorporated new myths and traditions into its own all-inclusive pantheon of rich stories. Huston Smith organizes this wealth into a heading of yoga, "a method of training designed to lead to integration or union. It includes physical exercises, but its ultimate goal is union with God." (page 26) And, who is God? God is abstract, life's creative power. God is understood through stories and myth, with thousands of characters that lead to a glimpse, but not a totality of this creative power. God is reached through knowledge, love, work and psychophysical exercises.

Although God is abstract, the creative power can be understood through the Hindu deities. Perhaps the closest deity Westerners could relate to in terms of the "Lord over all" would be Vishnu.

Vishnu, watercolor painting on cotton, Art of Legend India, $24

Here is the Wikipedia entry on Vishnu:

"Vishnu (IAST viṣṇu, Devanagari विष्णु), (honorific: Sri Vishnu) also known as Narayana, is supreme being or Ultimate Reality for Vaishnavas and a manifestation of Brahman in the Advaita or Smarta traditions of Hinduism. The Vishnu Sahasranama[1] describes Vishnu as the All-Pervading essence of all beings, the master of and beyond the past, present and future, the creator and destroyer of all existences, one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within. In the Puranas, Vishnu is described as being the color of clouds (dark-blue), four-armed, holding a lotus, mace, conch and chakra (wheel). Vishnu is also described in the Bhagavad Gita as having a 'Universal Form' (Vishvarupa) which is beyond the ordinary limits of human sense perception [2].

It is also within the Puranas that the information regarding Vishnu's avatars is given. Nine of these avatars, or 'incarnations' are described as having occurred in the past, with one still to happen at the end of Kali Yuga. The Bhagavad Gita mentions their purpose as being to rejuvenate Dharma[3] and vanquish negative forces. In virtually all the Sanatana Dharma traditions, Vishnu is worshipped, either directly or through avatars such as Rama, Krishna, Varaha and Narasimha. It should be however noted that although its is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the avataras, this is only one of the names of god in Vaishnavism who is also known as Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna and behind each of those names is a divine figure with attributed supremacy in Vaishnavism.[4]"

Buddhism grew out of the teachings of one man in what is now Nepal, born around 563 B.C. Siddhartha, known to us now as The Buddha, was brought up in nobility in a Hindu world. He rejected his riches and set forward on a path to seek truth. Huston Smith tells the story:
"Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message, people came to him asking what he was. "Are you a god? An angel? A saint?" they asked. "No." he replied. "Then what are you?" His answer was, "I am awake." (page 60) The chapter goes on to discuss Buddhist ideas of god, reincarnation and life after death. These concepts are difficult to understand as they introduce an organic measure of life and consciousness. No, there is no life after death, yet strands of consciousness survive and become a part of others. No, there is no god, yet the Buddha became regarded as a divine incarnation. Buddhism split into different schools of thought, and in some there is a heaven and hell. Tibetan Buddhists have a bunch of horrible hells to avoid, including Hungry Hell, which I never forgot. (Those in hungry hell have mouths and necks to small to allow food to enter. They have large, empty stomachs...)

So, although Buddhism may not overtly embrace the idea of a god, the Buddha himself has become the central deity in popular Buddhism. Tibetan thangka paintings are highly prized by collectors of Asian art. Tibet Collectibles has some good history on thangkas it offers for sale such as this one:

Buddha, circa 1890, $795

They state on their website:

"Tibetan Buddhist art, brightly colored and elaborately detailed, performs more than one function in Tibetan religious life. Devotional images are often used as the center point of rituals or ceremonies. Art is also used as a teaching tool by telling the story or the teachings of the Buddha or other deities (gods). Tibetan art, however, is mainly used as a tool for meditation. The meditator visualizes themselves as the image of the Buddha or deity in order to embody the qualities of the chosen subject.

Paintings of the Buddha or of deities, otherwise know as “thankas” are one of the most popular forms of Tibetan Buddhist art. The word thanka comes from the Tibetan words “than” and “ka”. “Than” means flat and “ka” is the word for painting. Monks traveling from monastery to monastery would take these flat paintings and roll them up for easy transport. Personal thankas, wallet size paintings, were also created for the traveling monk or religious devotee. Thanka art is explicitly religious and its two main functions are to teach disciples and to provide beauty which is believed to be a manifestation of the divine."

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the same God, having evolved out of one tradition. Their understandings of God, are common in that God is the creator, the parent figure, the almighty, and that there is only one God. They each have their own particular representations, however, for God. Neither Judaism nor Islam depict God through images. Christianity, differs from the two in its concept of a Trinity, three faces to one god.

Judaism, the oldest of the three, explains Huston Smith, "was lifted from obscurity to greatness through their passion for meaning." (page 180) He continues, "From the beginning to end, the Jewish quest for meaning was rooted in their understanding of the Supreme Being. Whatever a people's philosophy, it must take account of the Other. ... Where the Hebrews differed from their neighbors was in focusing the personal traits of the Other in a single, nature-transcending will. For other Mediterranean peoples, each major power of nature was a distinct deity; whereas in the Bible, nature in its entirety was created by, and under the sovereignty of the Lord of all being." Yahweh is the Hebrew name for God. Jewish art is replete with symbolic meaning. Here is a quilt with the Star of David:

Christianity came next in historical terms. With it, Jesus of Nazareth revolutionized the concept of God, introducing three characteristics to one Supreme Being. There is God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father, or more inclusively, God the Creator, is the historical, absolute conscious presence who is all-powerful, all knowing, and all encompassing. Then, this God becomes incarnate and appears on earth as Jesus, the Christ, who was born and raised a Jew. Followers of Christ became known as Christians. After his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, arrived on Earth as the Spiritual manifestation of God. All three are the same, each with their own identity, like a towel folded into three parts.

Christianity has splintered into many denominations, some of which adhere to the Jewish and Islamic traditions of no art depicting God. There are three main divisions within Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Protestantism is subdivided into hundreds of splinter groups that are often in opposition to each other. All three, however, adhere to the belief that God is triune, three in one. The Roman Catholic Church, especially, has an immense historical tradition of religious art, and in the last Century, of folk art with religious themes. The Trinity is often depicted as a triangle, but each also has an image often associated with its persona. God the Creator often is shown as an old white man with a beard, Jesus on the cross, and the Holy Spirit as a dove. This painting shows all three divine manifestations of God together:

Huston Smith begins speaking about Islam with the following paragraph:
"With a few striking exceptions that will be noted, the basic theological concepts of Islam are virtually identical with those of Judaism and Christianity, its forerunners. We shall confine our attention in this section to four that are the most important: God, Creation, the Human Self, and the Day of Judgment. ... As in other historical religions, everything in Islam centers on its religious Ultimate, God. God is immaterial and therefore invisible." (page 157) God is invoked through 99 names. Art cannot depict images of people or animals for fear of idolatry, so words, geometric form and floral arrangements lead the devout towards God.

Perhaps the most symbolic textile in Islamic art relevant to this article would be the Prayer Rug. Having to pray five times a day can be an inconvenience in terms of finding a clean space. So, many devout Muslims will carry their personal prayer rugs with them. Small and portable, they can roll them out when needed and keep themselves clean. A prayer rug is normally depicted with a doorway, window, or building that has a definite point. This point should be directed towards Mecca. It is useful to have direction on the rug so that the feet never touch the area where the hands and head use the rug. This beautiful Turkish prayer rug was featured in an article on the blog, Coffee and Carpets:

All five religions have exquisite textile and fiber traditions. We will look at more of them in future articles. But, to me, I think the most interesting common thread through all of these paths is that they teach the abandonment of self as a way to enlightenment or to find communion with God. They all stress the importance of loving the neighbor and working towards peace. Wouldn't it be something if all the adherents to these religions really followed these precepts? I think the world would be a different place!


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