Zahra, the Artisan
by Julia Terner, SolidarityNow intern – trainee
A woman reclines luxuriously on a bed of pillows, with flowers in her hair. Broad wisps of wind whirl around her and over the blue mountains beyond her. The woman is Layla, the ill-fated lover of Majnun, who together make up one of the most famous love stories of the Middle East. The scene is depicted in Zahra’s carpet, which she had almost finished when the family had to leave Afghanistan in 2016. The story, which took place in seventh century Arabia, tells that Layla and Majnun were childhood friends who fell in love. When Layla was married off to someone else by her father, Majnun fled for the wilderness, where, driven mad for his love for her, he recited poetry and eventually died. Having moved to Northern Arabia with her husband, Layla eventually died of heartbreak. In some versions of the story, the lovers do meet in the wilderness but eventually die.
Zahra is a tall, graceful woman who is living in Elefsina accommodation structure with her family. A wife, a mother and, before she came to Greece a year ago, a professional artisan; Zahra was ten when her mother first taught her to embroider and knit. Once her mother had taught her the basics, she moved on to learning from the TV and the Internet. She ran a business in Afghanistan, making and selling embroidery pieces, mostly as domestic decorations, and teaching the craft to students. She is also an accomplished seamstress, who made many of her children’s clothes as they grew up. Zahra is one among many women working with textiles, who dominate the industry in her area of Afghanistan.
Zahra shows me some of the embroidery pieces she has made on her phone. They are lace-like designs in white with occasional pastel tones and flower patterns. Geometric, intricate and delicate, the pieces combine rigour and intimacy. Zahra often works on commission and is adaptable to what the customer wants: “if we have a new variety and she comes with the book and asks for this design, I will make it for her.” A lot of her commissions are for embroidered pieces that Afghan women traditionally bring to their wedding when they marry, and which then feature as decorations in their marital home.
When working professionally, emotions don’t come into Zahra’s creations: the customer is always right. However, “for my own self I always do [use my emotions]”. Never more so than in her Layla carpet, as the emotions at the core of the story appealed to her: it “makes me upset (…) that’s why I depicted it.” Specifically, the “trust and the love that they had together” made Zahra want to depict the couple’s story in her carpet, and to hang it in her home. Zahra also enjoys the process of telling a story through images. The design for her carpet was based on a painting she saw, in which she was struck by how the painter had used the composition to tell the story. “… the most important and interesting thing in it is that Majnun had to walk through so many mountains to reach Layla and the painter painted all these things. The painter was clever so he gave the whole image together (…) If somebody knew the story and looked at the tableau, they would recognise it.” The same goes for some of the churches local to Elefsina and Larissa, where Zahra was staying before: “When I was in Larissa I went to a church and I saw [the paintings] and I recognised what they meant (…) It’s really interesting.”
But Zahra doesn’t make embroideries and carpets simply for the result. She also enjoys the process involved in creating her work. Firstly, it requires focus and critical thinking. Zahra explains that embroidery is “like you’re doing mathematics. Because you must do it one by one, if one of the stitches is missing you have problems with it all. Secondly, you go on a journey as the piece comes together”. As Zahra says, “At the beginning I don’t have anything to tell you but when it’s about to end, I always feel I must hurry because I want to see what will happen, what it is, how it looks. This excitement and anticipation helps to motivate you through the making of the carpet – a necessary boost when a carpet can take up to a year to make”. Zahra recalls that “sometimes when I was making it and I got tired, I lay down and looked up at the carpet and I thought to myself ‘Ok, when will I finish?’ and I could see all the colours together (…) when you put colours together then you feel like ‘oh, now I should do this’!” Ultimately, the focus and journey of making carpets combine to make them relaxing for Zahra: “it makes me feel happy… It’s really relaxing for me.”
This creative process continues to be an important part of Zahra’s life since she arrived in Greece. Zahra has a tub of knitting wool and needles in her room, and deftly knits a jade green piece for me while we talk. “For the past year since I arrived here, through the problems I have suffered, I feel like I’ve lost myself. But I’ll continue making carpets because I really like it (…) For me, working making carpets by hand, in these countries, it is good not just for the money but for me. It’s really good to work on that.”
The BlueDot program is supported by UNICEF and funded by the European Commission – Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid Operations – ECHO
[Note: The program in Elefsina was concluded after the closure of the local camp, on October 2017]