By Chris Aslan Alexander
I always feel emotional returning to Khiva, a desert oasis in Uzbekistan and the most homogenous example of Islamic architecture in the world. It’s the sort of place that can still take your breath away, however long you’ve lived there. Twenty years ago, I was a volunteer with Operation Mercy when we worked with UNESCO to establish a workshop reviving natural dye-making, silk carpet weaving, and 15th century carpet designs, lost but for exquisitely-detailed manuscript illuminations.
It’s been a bumpy ride since then, with ups and downs. The global covid pandemic hit hard with two years of poor sales as few people visited Uzbekistan. Things are improving again now. Tourists are returning to the madrassah in the heart of Khiva’s historic quarter that we’ve transformed into a workshop. Carpets hang from the courtyard walls alongside beautiful handmade silk embroideries. The thump of carpet combs can be heard from inside the madrassah cells, which are now full of looms, along with laughter, and music from weavers’ phones.
Today, Uzbekistan is experiencing a tourist boom and greater prosperity, giving women have more employment options. However, when the workshop started, unemployment was a huge problem and our workshop became the largest non-government employer in town. Many of the original weavers and dyers have moved on and there are fewer weavers and embroiders still working today although there are still seven or eight who’ve been with us from the start.
In Uzbekistan there’s only one way to celebrate a 20th year anniversary, and that’s with plov. A large cauldron of rice, carrots, currents and mutton simmers in the courtyard as the weavers chop salad and lay small dishes of pastries and raisins on a floor cloth. Some of the weavers work from home now, where they can more easily balance child-care with work. They arrive in high spirits and the air is soon alive with chatter, gossip and the occasional howl of laughter.
We eat plov together, and then there are speeches. My Uzbek is a little rusty, but I start. I remind them all that of the twenty years of the carpet workshop’s existence, I was only there for the first three. Since then, Madrim has faithfully run the workshop. We raise a glass to him. We celebrate our beautiful works of art that have been exported all over the world. Madrim gives a speech reminding the weavers to focus on quality. We’re interrupted by a tourist group who want to see what’s going on, and we enlist them to help us take a group photo.
Although I don’t live in Uzbekistan anymore, I visit regularly as a tour guide and stay on after to visit the workshop and to dream with Madrim about the future. We want to try paper-making with the waste silk carpet trimmings, and we have plans to relocate the natural dye-making work to the old city. There are still challenges, but one day I hope we’ll celebrate our 30th year anniversary together.
You can find out more about this project from Chris Aslan Alexander’s book: A Carpet Ride to Khiva