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The Future of the Persian Carpet

The 4th International Conference on Persian Carpets:
by Murray Lee Eiland III

The scene was set.
Amidst an almost primal fury of faxes, certainty emerged from where there was chaos. I would drop by the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran the day I would depart (which was tomorrow) to pick up my visa. I would then proceed to the airport to pick up my ticket and fly out. All went as planned, and it was with a sense of relief that I arrived in Germany to find the familiar faces of Mike Tschebull and Julia Bailey. They had undergone similar adventures, but we suspected that further tribulations awaited as we boarded the plane to Iran. We were met at the airport and whisked off to the, by now, familiar Azadi hotel, where we caught some sleep before the conference. Some six hours later, we were at the venue.

At the 4th International Conference on Persian Carpets, there was a surprising lack of western delegates. Of about 40 papers, of which about 20 were submitted from the West, only five westerners were selected; besides the above mentioned, there were two European carpet dealers. It emerged (from a source not directly involved with the organization) that, while there were a few more westerners invited, the conference organizers faced last minute financial difficulties that prevented further delegates from attending. Whatever the case, the future of the conferences, and of Iranian carpets in general, may benefit from closer patronage in the future.

We were informed of ongoing plans to establish a permanent secretariat to monitor and advise carpet production and organize future conferences. This was seen to be a critical need in the face of increasing competition in the domain of handmade carpets. Such an organization would disseminate information about European and American markets, as well as the growing markets of Asia and South America. While it is recognized that the production of carpets relies upon a low-wage structure, and that long-term economic development favors the development of more technical products, it is clear that carpets are capable of sustained production. Oil is a rapidly dwindling resource. While not specifically addressed in any paper, ministers were aware that there is increasing Western interest in curtailing child labor. A circulated pamphlet included a prominent editorial that noted the lack of child labor in Iran. It cites a number of laws that stipulate: "...forcing someone to labour or to exploit him/her is forbidden and everybody has the right to choose the profession he/she desires provided it is not against Islam... At present the Labour Law is being executed precisely at the carpet-weaving workshops of Iran. Workers under the age of 15 are not offered jobs at all even if they are familiar with carpet weaving."1 While one may have these assurances of government workshops, the position of private enterprises in remote areas is unclear.

There was a very packed program2 which began with ministers from various government agencies connected with carpet production and sales in Iran. There was a most notable difference in tone from previous years. A number of speakers stressed that Iran was losing ground to the competition. A particularly good presentation was given by H.E. Mr. Gholamreza, honorable Minister of Jihad. He outlined a number of important considerations (the following figures are from the paper). In 1980 Iran captured 40% of the market. In 1985 Iran had only a 16% share, with India taking the lead. In 1995 Iran maintains 28.6% of the market. There is the emergence of competition from China, with the potential of a huge population (with 16% of the market) and Nepal, with a very small population but a growing market share. He noted that the EU was the largest single market for carpets, importing some 1.2 billion dollars of rugs, some 62% from Iran. He noted that officially the U.S. has almost no imports from Iran, while many are aware that third parties are being used to circumvent import restrictions.

What is clear from the statistics is that, while Iran has managed to recover from a disastrous period in the 1980s, there is little room for error as there are new and potentially overwhelming rivals on the field. China is quickly appreciated as the biggest threat as, if such a huge population were mobilized by a effective central agency, Iran would stand little chance of competing with China in output. Instead, this conference stressed that Iran must use innovative designs to stay one step ahead of the competition.

The first session was not limited to considerations of the market, however, as Cyrus Parham delivered a lecture that outlined the origins of prayer rug design, using evidence from tiles and other arts. Dr. Parham also announced the publication of his new book, Masterpieces of Fars Rugs in Farsi and English, due in March 1996. Julia Bailey also delivered a paper on "Great Persian Carpets in Boston Museum Collections." The author delivered a paper on "The Origin of Classic Safavid Carpet Design" using Central Asian tiles, and carpets from contemporary book illustrations, to chart chronological developments. The dealer Fritz Langauer, noted in past conferences for his confrontational style, did not disappoint. He presented an alarming assessment of current Iranian production and gave dire predictions for the future unless major changes in design are implemented. Further, he feels that a gradual price increase, along with educating the consumer, would change the perception of the Iranian carpet in the West.

Zineb Lehmnan outlined the recent influence of Iranian carpets on Morocco. The imitation of Iranian carpets began about 100 years ago, particularly in Fes, and continues today. There is a discreet difference between "Berber" carpets on the one hand, and "Iranian" carpets designed for an urban elite. Detlev Werth, a carpet advisor/researcher, took the somewhat inauspicious (to purists) topic of "American-Styled Old Persian Carpets." These carpets were produced early in this century in a number of locations to meet the demand for carpets of a generally uniform production for large-scale sale. Raoul Tschebull discussed Heriz weaving. Paying particular attention to how commercial influence can create a distinctive type of carpet, this paper was of interest to the audience.

While many of the ministers were aware of the threats to the Iranian carpet industry, and were also aware that change must be implemented from Iran, one paper particularly addressed this controversial topic. Presented by Ali Hasoori, "Carpet in a General Economic View" covered well many areas of difficulty in Iranian carpets. He boldly presented the hypothesis that the government makes a bad trader and finds that further government control of the carpet industry will be fatal ("a comedy into a tragedy"). He noted that the Ziegler carpet company hardly needed government guidelines. In the same vein he noted that the exodus of Iranian businessmen from Iran was sparked by capricious changes in import/export laws that make stable business an impossibility. Dr. Hasoori notes that the future of carpets is in museums, as eventually carpet production will decline with changes in the Iranian economy that will make a labor-intensive industry not economically feasible. Till then, Iranian carpet dealers must be encouraged to engage in joint ventures with western counterparts who understand the market and who are able to order appropriate carpets.

After the conference, while there was some talk about a trip to Tabriz or more likely Isfahan, we were shuttled about Tehran. We were able to visit areas that were previously not included in our itinerary. A short visit to the carpet museum proved that large changes were taking place there. A number of exhibits had been changed, and the upper level, which housed an exhibit of "tribal" carpets from Iran (discussed by author in ORR 15:1), was being dismantled. A few new rugs were also added to the main area, including an interesting 16th century Zilu from the Yazd area. It brought to light once again how conservative the manufacture of Zilu is, as the example appears the same as new products from the region. It is clear that a major use of this fabric is as a durable and inexpensive floor covering for Mosques. There was perhaps little market incentive for change. Such is not the case for the modern carpets of Iran, where art and business live in much closer proximity.

Rasam Arabzadeh has recently donated 66 carpets to a museum that will display his work. Termed Arabzadeh's Cultural and Artistic Foundation for Carpets (ACAFC), it has the space to display a number of his more well known works, a number of which were on display at the Second Persian Carpet Conference in a special pavilion. The material on display is perhaps less of an indication of current carpet production in Iran as it is an art museum as a number of the designs would be effective in any medium. Nevertheless, from its opening earlier in the year, it became a major stop for anyone wishing to study Iranian carpets. Also on sale there, for about $40, is a sumptuous book entitled Knots of Love. It illustrates the rugs in the museum's collections. Mr. Arabzadeh also hopes to develop of line of inexpensive carpets designed for a large market. He feels that by using his innovative designs, coupled with a work force under his direction, his products can successfully compete with that of other countries by offering new designs at a regular pace. Such methods, although far from mainstream, are slowly gaining ground in Iran.

A good example of the kind of change Iran is undergoing is aptly presented in a glossy booklet that was presented to the speakers at the conference. It states:

Nowadays there is no censorship, thanks to the Islamic Revolution which left no room for one-man rule and tyranny. However, having voted almost unanimously for the Islamic Republic of 1979, Iranian journalists, like everyone else, refrain from criticising the basic tenants of the Islamic republic. But otherwise, any minister, vice-minister, or anyone else no matter what his position, can be criticised by the press for his actions and asked to explain.3

While the publication is clearly designed to promote foreign investment, it documents a radical shift from earlier stands taken by the government. After the revolution, carpets were regarded as "bourgeois" and were shunned; their production was discouraged. Later the economic benefits of carpet production were appreciated, and carpet weaving became critical for many regional development schemes.

The small amount of history presented in the booklet continues. It notes the penetration of Leftist elements into the Islamic Revolution, and notes the austerity measures imposed by the Iran-Iraq war:

The worst came after the war was over; low productivity, imbalance in distribution, alarming inflation... And so the disadvantages of a centralized economy became evident; the urgent need for expansion of production was felt; and one alternative was to resort to private enterprise.4

While the situation today leaves many optimistic, the conference noted a number of salient points. In order to benefit from foreign markets, it is crucial to attract joint ventures. To date there have been few takers, as the political situation in Iran is still unstable. A number of speakers and Iranian dealers in particular noted that the laws regulating the export of carpets, and of foreign investment, change frequently. As a result many ministries appear unsure of the correct procedure.

A major goal of carpet production today is to raise the standard of living so that the rural poor do not migrate to the cities. Between 1976 and 1986 the population of Iran grew from 33.7 million to 49.4 million. The growth rate had almost doubled from 2.7% to 3.9%, one of the largest increases in the world.5 This rate of increase has continued with many policies launched by the government to increase population yet further.

To accompany this huge increase in population, Iran has also undergone a transformation from agricultural to urban production. The result is that cities, such as Tehran, have absorbed huge populations.6 While in the beginning the government focused upon urban development schemes, it is clear that the various plans for urban development have been unable to cope with large numbers of people. This conference then presents an important shift. A "containment" policy is being developed, and carpets occupy a central position.

NOTES

1 Iranian Handmade Carpets, 2:1 Summer 1995, p. 5.
2 I have here only presented some of the most interesting papers in order to save space.
3 Iran: The Land of Norooz, Export Promotion Center of Iran, 1993, p. 60.
4 Ibid., p. 86.
5 S. Lloyd, Housing the Urban Poor in Iran: A Vicious Circle, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1993, p. 15.
6 K.S. McLachlan and F. Ershad, Internal Migration in Iran, SOAS, 1989.

Figures:

1. Unlike previous years, which had a large number of weavers on display, a number of dealers used large mannequins to decorate their stalls.

2. A small number of pictorial rugs bear the scars of war. Much like post-war German art with disturbing images, such products are designed for limited local consumption.

3. Some rugs clearly reflect the priorities of modern Iran. This example is one of a popular series of rugs. Many dealers display such pieces as a sign of their openness to trade in any currency.

4. This is a large example of the products of the Haghighi Carpet Co. This company provided many of the rugs that decorated the pavilions of both the first and second Persian Carpet Conferences. They impressed many with their use of color and perspective.

5. Although a number of Gabbehs simply follow a set pattern, few weavers are beginning to experiment with new designs and colors. Gabbehs are now so popular that demand far exceeds supply, and the rugs are selling for far beyond what one would expect based on knot count. The German market is particularly active.

6. An ever-popular theme in later Iranian art, old men and young women. These carpets appear to test the limits of modern Iranian society.

Courtesy of Oriental Rug Review Magazine


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