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News Student Blog: Preserving textile traditions

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​Left: Fahime, a senne weaver at her loom, from the village of Kakoye-Sofla, Iranian Kurdistan, January 2019. Center: Four senne weavers (from left, Amene, Anis, Sara, and Azade) discussing their work with a government official, the village of Kakoye-Sofla, Iranian Kurdistan, January 2019. Right: Mahin, a senne weaver from the village of Buridar, Iranian Kurdistan, January 2019. (Photographs by Reyhane Mirabootalebi.)

I started my research on Middle Eastern traditional textiles at the UD in 2016. My fascination with traditional textiles goes back many years ago to the time when I still was living in Iran before migrating to Australia in 2005. I have always been fascinated with traditional textiles, many of which, until recently, were produced primarily by women of cultural and linguistic groups in the regions that we conveniently call the Middle East. Traditional textiles are significant manifestations of living cultures. Although these pieces are highly functional objects of everyday use, their aesthetic aspects were never treated as insignificant by the creators; they enriched their surroundings with lively, beautiful colors, forms, and textures. What I find fascinating is that the traditional textile crafts in the Middle East, as in many other parts of the world, are primarily the work of women, and like their makers, the textiles often have a presence that is silent. Coming from the realm of culture and laden with social meanings, they reflect the contexts of their creation and use.  

I earned a master's degree in the conservation of cultural materials from the University of Melbourne in 2010. After graduation I worked as a conservator in several institutions in Australia. In 2015, I started to work as a conservator along with an international team in a major cultural heritage preservation project at the National Museum of Afghanistan (NMA), Kabul, where I worked, taught, and lived for over a year. My living and working activities in Kabul were among the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was not unfamiliar with war and its horror; my childhood in Iran coincided with the Iran-Iraq war (1980-89). The NMA building and the museum's collections bear numerous scars and marks of destruction inflicted during the decades-long conflicts. Working with Afghan colleagues, I heard their stories about daily struggles in a city that remained far from being a secure and peaceful place to live. These discussions were daily reminders of how war and conflicts could destroy people's lives even after the fighting had ceased. 

Golchin, a senne weaver with her son, and Reyhane, Naysar, Sanandaj, Iranian Kurdistan, January 2019. (Photograph by Saadat Aslani.)

My experience in Afghanistan led me to decide to study Kurdish textiles and textile artisans. The Kurds, one of the many indigenous populations of the Middle East, are among the most prolific weavers of flatwoven textiles of these regions. However, since the division of their homeland into several political borders in the early 20th century, they have suffered war and ethnic prosecution. The questions to be answered are: what has happened to centuries-old artistic and cultural traditions? How did Kurdish women weavers maintain or transform their textile traditions in the contexts of marginalization and ethnic prosecution? How does the production of traditional textiles provide Kurdish women with an avenue for commercial viability? 

This research became possible through the Preservation Studies Program (PSP) at the University of Delaware. This doctoral program has provided me with essential resources to pursue this study. My research is highly interdisciplinary. To have a deeper understanding of the research topic and its multifaceted nature, I needed to build my knowledge in several related fields of studies, such as women and gender studies, ethnography, the social and political history of the Middle East, and art history. I was able to do so under the guidance of the most incredible academic staff at UD. 

​Left: Reyhane with Lolan Sipan the director of Kurdish Textile Museum, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, October 2018. (Photograph by Prof. Gil Stein.) Center: Khale Rahime, a former weaver of traditional weaves including flatwoven carpets or barr, Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan, October 2018. (Photograph by Reyhane Mirabootalebi.) Right: Kahle Zahra, a former weaver of traditional weaves including flatwoven carpets or barr, the village of Balava, Badinan, Iraqi Kurdistan, October 2018. (Photograph by Reyhane Mirabootalebi.)

In the first two years of my study as a Ph.D. student at UD, I completed my coursework, passed the qualifying exam, and successfully defended my dissertation proposal. My research is based on ethnographic research as the primary means of data collection and collaboration with textile artisans in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran. In summer 2018, with the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Competitive Graduate Student Travel grant, I was able to undertake preliminary field research in Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan to identify active weavers and assess the possibility of situating my research within those communities. In July and October 2018, I traveled to the governates of Erbil and Dohuk in northern Iraq. During these trips, I visited several cultural heritage institutions and the existing textile collections in northern Iraq, including the Kurdish Textile Museum in Erbil, where I got a chance to study the fascinating textile archives of the museum. Due to years of wars and conflicts, there are not any active weavers of flatwoven carpets remaining in Iraqi Kurdistan; however, the highlight of the trips was when I finally met with and interviewed several former senior women weavers in the Badinan region, Iraq in October 2018. 

My field research began in Iraqi Kurdistan, but I soon learned that textile traditions were no longer practiced in these regions due to the consequences of war and conflicts that destroyed rural and tribal populations, the primary producers of flatwoven textiles. 

​Left: Naazoke, former weaver of jajim, the village of Buridar, Iranian Kurdistan, January 2019. Center: A master dyer at his workshop, Sanandaj Bazaar, Iranian Kurdistan, September 2019. Right: Salma, a senne weaver from the village of Buridar, Iranian Kurdistan, January 2019. (Photographs by Reyhane Mirabootalebi.)

I ended up situating my research in Iranian Kurdistan, where I focused my research question around a type of flatwoven textile known as senne gelim or sojaee, a centuries-old tradition of women of Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province, who have continued the tradition to the present. In December 2018, I traveled once more to the Iranian Kurdistan to resume field research and collect data by visiting production settings and interviewing senne artisans, officials in cultural heritage institutions, local experts, and associated craftspeople. I concluded my fieldwork in September 2019.

As we are all adjusting our lives to the unprecedented pandemic era ever-changing situations, my focus is on analyzing the collected data and writing my dissertation chapters. It has been a long and amazing journey with many ups and downs. This study would not have been possible without the mentorship and encouragement of my thoughtful advisors and the financial support from the University's grants and fellowships that have supported me through my studies. Further, and most importantly, I am grateful to the people of Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan. They generously helped me in this quest and shared with me their invaluable knowledge and experience. 

— Reyhane Mirabootalebi, Ph.D. candidate, UD Preservation Studies Program

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In this blog post, doctoral candidate Reyhane Mirabootalebi talks about her research on Middle Eastern traditional textiles and her journey in UD's Preservation Studies Program.

​In this blog post, doctoral candidate Reyhane Mirabootalebi talks about her research on Middle Eastern traditional textiles and her journey in UD's Preservation Studies Program.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489