I interviewed Sazan Gawdan, who is working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in northern Iraq on behalf of the United Nations and several other international contributors. There, the IOM established a carpet weaving community for a group of Yazidi women named Khanke, and Sazan is the focal point of the project. It is meant for Yazidi women in Northern Iraq who have fled Isis. In this article, I’ll show you who these people are, what they have been through, and how through carpet weaving, they literally knot their life back together. They now produce very special carpets, and they are for sale!
Dahuk Province, northern Iraq, is now home to a group of about 400,000 people called the Yazidis. While Brenda Stoter (2019) wrote a book about these people called Het vergeten volk (in Dutch: The forgotten people), there is a chance that you haven’t heard about them. What we do know is that their society was structured around tribal lines and strict class divisions and their beliefs combine elements of different ancient religions. They make a living with agriculture and the livestock they have. With local sheep’s wool, they would make all kinds of textiles, including carpets.
The history of these people is problematic. It seems that several Muslim rulers have worked with them to ensure their authority over the locals in a region far from their own locations. Besides, Yazidi tribes even had clans that not necessarily had the same religion, including Muslim subgroups. Yazidi tribal leaders seem to have worked with the Ottomans in the early stages of their expansion to Mesopotamia, but they also appear to have undergone different periods of persecution and massacres (Cheterian, 2019). The most recent attacks on the Yazidis started in 2014. Isis took control of the region and launched an attack on the religious minority in Sinjar. These attacks resulted in the deaths of approximately 3,100 Yazidis, which the United Nations describes as genocidal. According to the Board of Relief and Humanitarian Affairs (BHRA), there are 94,453 families (502,522 individuals) displaced in Dohuk, which represents 17 IDP camps with many more out of camps. These figures encompass a variety of different groups, many of which are ethno-religious minorities in Iraq, a large percentage of them are Yazidi.
The Yazidi women, often left without husbands, were given new opportunities at the Khanke carpet community. These families need livelihood and psychological support as they are unable to return home due to ongoing security concerns, damage to their homes and public infrastructure, and the lack of adequate services. Because of that, a project was started near a Yazidi refugee camp, with the help of German funds, the IOM, and the Dohuk Provincial Government.
Sazan quickly explained further the details of the project: “An essential part of that community is to promote livelihood opportunities. We have about 30 women who make carpets and spin the wool. Just like their traditional culture. For a long time, in the history of Yazidis, they were very good at working with wool. You know, most of them were shepherds. They made various products from sheep’s wool. That’s why we have this project. Because they are familiar with these things. And these women get a salary, they get paid.’’
Currently, these women have a hard time because of the pandemic. Sazan: ‘’With the pandemic, the factory closed. The women work from home. And luckily, we are still able to pay them fully. But, at the moment, we don’t have any marketing channels. Before we went to exhibitions, there, we were able to sell the pieces. But currently, we only have our Instagram account. And, it is not that effective. Some people are ordering carpets. But we only have DHL for the shipments of carpets here in Iraq. And DHL, for shipping products, is very expensive. And we don’t have any systematic, like banks in our government area, to manage the finances. And the business is very hard. So, since the pandemic, we haven’t sold any pieces.’’
What makes this project unique is that while knotting these rugs, these women are essentially knotting their life together. As a result of that, these rugs are often very inspirational. Their emotion and life journeys are tied into it, as seen on the project’s Instagram page. One carpet shows a design of a Kalashnikov and another a few blindfolded women. The Khanke carpet community is, therefore, the first attempt to empower these women. Apart from that, the project also promotes Kurdish-Yazidi culture and tradition. While doing so, the heritage of Kurdistan is preserved through the use of local eco-friendly indigenous materials and methods.
What is important here is that the community is led by the Yazidis themselves. In the future, the community plans to expand the project. By diversifying the product line to produce more traditional pieces and expanding their abilities to advertise the products made. As mentioned by Sazan, currently the only marketing channel is their Instagram account. That Instagram account already shows some very special pieces that can be bought. By sending a direct message, an order can be made. They even do custom orders too if preferred. Despite the shipping costs, a carpet bought at the Khanke community is still a bargain. Such a carpet represents a life trajectory of real-life threatening experiences and emotions, while it simultaneously represents a brighter future for these people.
Their catalog: https://drive.google.com/file/d/10_9SH6XuEQ6NtZGioIKWglRt28fGrxOt/view
Their Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/yezidi_crafts_and_enterprise/
Note March 2021: their company name has changed to ‘Free Yezidi crafts and enterprise.’
Vicken Cheterian (2019): ISIS genocide against the Yazidis and mass violence in the Middle
East, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2019.1683718
Boscolo, B. S. (2019). Het vergeten volk: Het verhaal van de Jezidi’s over de laatste
genocide. Singel Uitgeverijen.
Photos: The International Organization for Migration