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Exploring the dying art of the Qashqai rug makers with David Attenborough

The Kiwi, the Knight and the Qashqai.

The Kiwi, the Knight and the Qashqai celebrates the nomadic rug makers of Iran amidst reminiscences from the famous documentary-maker.  

“I love Iran,” says Anna Williams in The Kiwi, the Knight and the Qashqai (Choice TV, Monday, November 26, 8.30pm). “Maybe I was born in the wrong country.”

Williams, a skilled oriental-rug repairer, is captured in this documentary on one of her many visits to Iran, where she visits the bazaars of Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

She has visited Iran over the years in order to learn the tricks of the trade, new techniques and to supplement her yarns. As New Zealand’s only independent rug repairer, she has “no peer group, no professional body” so she needs to keep up with the industry by herself.

But, in particular, she goes to Iran to visit the Qashqai nomads who are famous for their vibrant costumes and colourful, detailed rugs. What she finds is a lifestyle that has changed dramatically since David Attenborough filmed his documentary about the Qashqai, Woven Garden, in 1975.

In something of a coup, director Anna Cottrell asked Sir David for an interview and he obliged. When Williams asks why he was willing to be interviewed, he tells her it was the uniqueness of the request. After all, it’s not every day he’s asked to talk about the Qashqai.

Anna Williams and David Attenborough.

In 1975, the Qashqai were migrating north on camels and horses and many of the women would weave during the month-long trek. However, nowadays, that journey takes five hours in a truck or car. Williams also finds that many young Qashqai have left for the city and are not interested in weaving. On top of that, there’s no money in it.

“We can hardly blame them,” says Sir David. When the rugs are so “labour intensive and very poorly paid”. There are 300-400 knots per square inch and even a small rug may take five or six years.

Williams’ gift is being able to get along with people of all stripes. She has even managed to circumnavigate the closed male world of rug repair in Iran.

“I haven’t met anyone like Anna to be so interested,” says her friend in Tehran. “It is a man’s world, but Anna will sit down with them on the floor and they are willing to teach her and share the way they do their repairs.”

It’s the loss of traditional patterns and institutional memory that saddens Williams, but some traditions persist. The Qashqai still dance at weddings, even though it is not allowed in Iran. “They are not going to be told they can’t dance,” says Williams.

For more information on the plight of the Qashqai, click here.

This article was first published in the November 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.