• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The Kiwi rug repairer who helped capture the Qashqai's threatened way of life

Anna Williams with Ziba, whose family she has often stayed with in Iran. Photo/AC Productions

A new doco gives a portrait of the Iranian nomads through the eyes of Wellingtonian Anna Williams. 

Depending on how you slice it up, Iran’s population comprises at least a dozen distinct ethnicities, each with its own language.

Among the smallest is the Qashqai, a loose confederation of tribes in the dry and dusty centre of the country that were once all nomads, moving their sheep and goats between summer and winter pastures.

A day trip to the encampment of Koohmare Sorkhi near Shiraz gave me a glimpse of a way of life that is fast disappearing. Before a delicious lunch of eggplant and potato stew washed down with goats’-milk dugh – a refreshing sour-yogurt drink – I watched the herders, including children, bring the goats down from the upland pasture, some of the animals pausing only briefly to give birth and bleating as their newborns were carried down unceremoniously by one leg.

RelatedArticlesModule - Anna Williams Qashqai doco rug

Barely a tenth of Iran’s million-odd Qashqai population (the numbers are uncertain because many escape statistical reach) still live as nomads. Many of the younger ones are escaping a life that is increasingly unsustainable, and succumbing to the lure of the city.

The seasonal travel, once a dusty weeks-long droving affair, is now accomplished by truck in a few hours and the encampments are often outfitted with toilet blocks and water tanks. The facilities at Koohmare Sorkhi were provided by a United Nations programme whose work is delaying what the Qashqai themselves told me is a culture doomed to extinction within a generation.

Rugs for sale in Shiraz. Photo/Getty Images

A documentary film screening on New Zealand television this month gives a good portrait of Qashqai life through the eyes of Wellington woman Anna Williams, who has made a lifelong living repairing Oriental rugs and carpets. The film-makers followed Williams on her seventh and probably last trip to Iran – she has secondary cancer – and filmed her encounters with Qashqai weavers whose distinctive designs have made their work highly sought after.

The film, The Kiwi, The Knight & The Qashqai, is directed by Anna Cottrell and beautifully shot by Mairi Gunn, and its title reflects the presence of Sir David Attenborough, who recorded the Qashqai way of life in the BBC film Woven Gardens in 1975. Excerpts from the Attenborough film make plain the toll that time has taken.

It is quite something to watch Williams’ interactions in Iran: the locals react incredulously to such weaving proficiency in a Western woman, but at the same time she meets up again with old friends, many of whom have unhesitatingly shared with her the secrets of their art. She meets dyers who extract their colours from pomegranate and walnut, rather than using the synthetics favoured by cheaper competitors.

And the film-makers record fascinating side stories, too, including a wedding in which the women’s coloured finery, so sharply contrasting with the sober Muslim dress standards, is on dazzling display.

Williams with Sir David Attenborough. Photo/AC Productions

Qashqai weaving, like carpet-making all over Iran, is being squeezed from all sides: machine-made rugs from India and Pakistan are pricing the exquisite handmade work out of the market, even though it is dismally rewarded; one of the old women in Koohmare Sorkhi showed off a 3m-long carpet that she and three others had spent six months making, and that could be mine for just a few hundred dollars.

Under-pressure weavers are resorting to making to order hideously banal pictorial designs for the tourist market, reducing them, as Attenborough says, “from artists to artisans”.

The collapsing Iranian economy has crushed the domestic market for carpets and US sanctions have had an even more catastrophic effect on export sales.

The Kiwi, The Knight & The Qashqai screens on Choice TV on November 26, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.