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In Iraq, the carpet art threatened by mass production

Ⓒ AFP – SABAH ARAR – | Sheikh Hazem al-Hiyali looks at traditional carpets at a carpet market stall on October 12, 2017 in Hilla, Iraq

In the shadow of Imam Hamza’s mosque, in the region of ancient Babylon, the carpet market, once buzzing, seems dormant.

The only visitor Hamad al-Soltani receives today in his stall in central Iraq is a tribal chief.

For nothing in the world, Sheikh Hazem al-Hiyali – Bedouin scarf on his head, black burnous on his shoulders and a green stole around his neck – would replace traditional carpets on which he makes his guests sit by imported carpets.

The latter, who flooded the country in recent years, are certainly much cheaper than those woven in Iraq, but also of much lower quality, he says.

Sheikh al-Hiyali adds that he can not imagine for a second his “diwan”, this traditional living room in the Middle East, without the long rectangular carpets decorated with geometric patterns, whether multicolored or woven wool not tinted in a gradient of beige and chestnut.

Ⓒ AFP – SABAH ARAR – | A salesman shows traditional carpets at his market stall in Hilla on October 12, 2017 in Iraq

“It is the beauty of its carpets that can be judged a salon,” he says to AFP by sliding his hands adorned with imposing rings set with precious stones on the carpets that cover the walls and the floor of the stall.

– ‘Mothers and grandmothers’ –

Ⓒ AFP – SABAH ARAR – | A man weaves a traditional rug in a market stall in Hilla on October 12, 2017 in Iraq

“Our mothers and grandmothers wove home” these carpets all length, placed on the floor or hung on the walls to form a U-shaped sitting around guests, recalls the man with a beard pepper and salt.

They also wove blankets to saddle camels and large pockets to harness the mounts. Pieces that today are sold almost no longer, or as an object of decoration, explains to AFP Mr. Soltani, 32, who inherited the stall of his father.

Covers, carpets and other woolen cushions, 70-year-old Mehdi Saheb, 50 of whom are behind a loom, can talk about it for hours.

Using the words before, those that young people have trouble remembering. Words borrowed from Turkish, inherited from the Ottoman era, to designate the colors and forms to give wool, in this agricultural area where livestock is an important activity.

Ⓒ AFP – SABAH ARAR – | A man weaves a traditional rug in a market stall in Hilla on October 12, 2017 in Iraq

“Before, foreigners came to place orders,” recalls the man in beige jellaba, his face chiseled, in his little house overlooking a dirt road. Saudis, Kuwaitis and Europeans came here to buy carpets, echoing the sellers on the market.

“Before”, it was before the invasion of the American troops in 2003. A time when “every day, about twenty groups of tourists came to visit the ancient sites” of Babylon, Borsippa and the other archaeological treasures of the neighborhoods, recalls Fallah al-Jabbaoui, a former official of Iraqi Antiquities.

Today, these wonders of Iraqi heritage are deserted by tourists, frightened by years of instability and conflict.

“Now, there are only Iraqis,” laments Mr. Saheb, who throughout his life has embroidered patterns inherited from different civilizations that have succeeded in the region.

– Millennium symbols –

Ⓒ AFP – SABAH ARAR – | A seller shows traditional carpets at a market stall in Hilla on October 12, 2017 in Iraq

Rounds, squares, animals or stylized flowers: these symbols date from the Babylonian period then from that of the Assyrian domination, while some motifs represent the Star of David or crosses, and still others, used in mosques, are said to be Islamic.

In homes, many families have kept tapestries inherited from their parents, state officials all have a reception room adorned with these traditional hangings and luxury hotels also perpetuate the tradition.

But today, on the market, the models that come to buy mothers in black long veil are industrial carpets from Syria, Iran and Turkey.

At least half as expensive as the Iraqi artisanal models, they have gradually invaded the stalls, assures Mr. Soltani.

Ⓒ AFP – SABAH ARAR – | A woman looks at traditional carpets at a market stall in Hilla on October 12, 2017 in Iraq

Today, he says, women regularly buy new carpets and throw old ones. Whereas before, “you could buy a carpet and then sell it a few years later or exchange it to take another,” says one who still keeps in his shop carpets more than half a century old, recovered as well with families.

For twenty dollars (17 euros), he accepts today to give up one of his carpets when he could easily get 100 dollars (85 euros) a few years ago.

While handicrafts do not bring in enough money, “neither the state nor the private sector support the weavers,” Saheb accuses.

In its neighborhood with the narrow streets of rutted dirt, of the thirty or forty families that made the weaving live, a handful hardly survives now with less than a hundred dollars (85 euros) per month.

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