‘Culture thrives in peace;’ Iraqi weavings come to IFAM

For the first time, the country of Iraq will be represented at Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market this year.

The market will sell embroidered wedding blankets and rugs made by weavers in southern Iraq, a cultural tradition kept alive by a handful of women in their sixties and seventies.

Salma Abed Damej, a weaver from Samawa, just north of the Iraqi marshland, will have her rugs and blankets at this year’s International Folk Art Market. She is the primary artist whose work is represented by Nature Iraq, an environmental and cultural nonprofit organization. (Courtesy of International Folk Art Market)

The artisans live in a small village in what once made up ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, just northwest of a wetland area known as the Mesopotamian Marshes.

The wool textiles are described as a revival of a craft that was part of Marsh Arab culture before the population was driven out of the wetlands nearly 30 years ago by the regime of former Iraqi ruler Sadaam Hussein, retribution for an uprising against his government.

Today, as local leaders work to restore the land Hussein drained, they hope also to expand the knowledge of their traditional woven art form.

The rugs “are a reflection of people’s enduring connection to nature, land, their place, environment and to spirit,” Meridel Rubenstein, a Santa Fe-based artist and photographer, said of the craft. Rubenstein helped bring the weavings to the attention of community organizers in the Iraqi marshlands and to IFAM.

Traditional wedding blankets like these made in and around the Arab Marshlands are unique to the region because of their vibrant colors and depictions of the natural world, including animals and humans. (Courtesy of International Folk Art Market)

At the Santa Fe market next weekend, the Iraqi booth will have selections of colorful blankets and rugs, both large and small, made by four weavers. The blankets, which are several feet long, are made with two rugs seamed together and were traditionally created by brides prior to their nuptials.

Due to the difficulty of getting travel visas from Iraq, the artists who made the weavings were unable to secure travel approval to come to Santa Fe and present their wares themselves.

They will be represented by their sponsor, Nature Iraq, an environmental nonprofit organization founded in 2004 to restore the destroyed marshlands, as people who had fled were beginning to return to their homeland.

Tens of thousands of Marsh Arab people were forced out in the early 1990s after Hussein secretly ordered the building of several dikes that gradually drained the wetlands. Hussein wanted to expose Sh’ia rebels who had been hiding there.

At her studio south of Santa Fe, Meridel Rubenstein poses with embroidered blankets from Iraq that will be on sale at next weekend’s International Folk Art Market. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Rubenstein has been working with Nature Iraq for nearly a decade on the creation of a wastewater garden to manage a sewage treatment problem in the area.

She became interested in the organization and the marshland area while working on a photo project on concept of “Eden,” turning her focus to a part of the world where some believe the biblical Garden of Eden was located.

Her work in the marshes on the wastewater project led her to discover the region’s textiles, which she later found out were still being made by elderly women in the village of Al Khuter, near the city of Samawah. Rubenstein said she brought the traditional textiles to Nature Iraq’s attention.

Over the past year, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, the nonprofit has been organizing training for the weavers on how to teach their skills to a handful of young girls, according to Nature Iraq co-founder Jassim Al-Asadi. The nonprofit has also started to digitally record various handicraft traditions of the region.

What makes the weavings unique, and different from other Iraqi textiles, Al-Asadi and Rubenstein explained, are their vibrant hues, as well as the embroidery’s use of motifs from the natural world.

In other areas of Iraq, textile designs are often geometric. But the marshland blankets and rugs depict animals, people, houses and other cultural symbols.

“Nature Iraq (was) born to serve the marshes, to serve the environment of the marshes, and also to serve the culture of the locals who live inside marshes and around marshes,” Al-Asadi said during a recent Skype interview from Iraq. He will attend the market next weekend.

“The handicraft is one of the important culture(s) of the locals here inside and outside of the marshes,” he added. “The roots of this weaving are more than 4,000 years ago. It is the same culture of the Sumerian and the Akkadian and the Babylonian.”

Colorful, figural motifs

Though weaving and embroidery itself is known to have existed in the marshland area for millennia, it’s unclear how long this specific type of weaving with these particular types of patterns has been around, said IFAM Creative Director Keith Recker.

He has been researching the Iraqi rugs and blankets since the group’s acceptance into the Santa Fe market. Textile preservation in wet parts of the world like the Mesopotamian Marshlands is difficult, and scholars don’t know what colors were used in early civilizations. But Recker doesn’t rule out the idea that this style of weaving has ancient roots.

“The notion of cultural continuity is definitely supported by the architecture, by certain ways in daily life,” Recker said. “If (the artists) see this expresses cultural continuity to them, I value that. There’s some echoing of tradition bounding through the generations.”

The kinds of marshland weavings made today date back at least to the 19th century, Rubenstein said, noting that she met an Iraqi dealer with one that was made in 1840. Recker said that 20th-century mystery novelist Agatha Christie, who was British, apparently collected the rugs.

In any case, the women who specialize in this style now say it’s a tradition that has been passed along for generations.

“These women who make these rugs, much of them do not know how to read or write, but they have a good and high knowledge of the art … from their grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” Al-Asadi said.

During years of war, from the early ’90s to the early naughts, marshland weaving essentially came to a halt as markets for the textiles disappeared. But now, as locals have begun to rebuild, “the weavers, they became very active to make this material,” Al-Asadi said.

As Recker put it, “culture thrives in peace.”

Net proceeds from sales at the Folk Art Market, after the women weavers are paid and Nature Iraq is reimbursed for its services, are set to be used for workshops for a younger generation to learn traditional techniques from the older women.

“This is our goal: Not to sell this material as ours; our goal is to get some money to get good training for small girls and small boys for the rugs,” said Al-Asadi.

Supporting cottage industries

In 2010, when Rubenstein’s relationship with Nature Iraq and the marshes began, it was to help design and build a wastewater garden.

Before the marshes were drained and the population left, people were living on islands and water was flowing. Once the area was desiccated, there was no place for running water or sewage. The garden, Rubenstein explained, was designed to have a complex series of pipes to dilute sewage like septic tanks do and also recycle the wastewater to feed the garden’s vegetation.

The $1.6 million project has faced setbacks over the years, including in 2015 when ISIS began to become established in the region.

The terrorist organization’s withholding of water and closing of the Euphrates, combined with the closing of a dam in Turkey that dried up the Tigris, set back the marsh restoration. But in recent years, as the area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park, and ISIS has moved out, Iraqi officials have become more willing to invest, Rubenstein said. The Ministry of Water Resources has committed to funding the first phase of the project. This means the garden is expected to break ground in late summer or early fall this year.

Parts of the proposed design for the garden are based on the wedding blanket patterns. And as Rubenstein pointed to renderings of the garden, she talked about the site being surrounded by facilities for small cottage industries, including handicrafts like weavings.

When the marshes received their national and international designations, Rubenstein said, these kinds of economic ideas – things that could drive tourism – were at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

“It’s just right now things are getting calm enough to envision,” Rubenstein said.

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