Live Issues... Iraq
Weaving Basra
Poetry, Politics and Prayer

by Meghan Sayres

Meghan uses her weaving as a meditative activity. Choosing to weave an image inspired by the 8th century poet Rabi'a Al-Adawiyya, who lived in ancient Mesopotamia, she realises that she actually came from Basra, a city now being bombed by American troops. Meghan's woven meditation leads her to conclude that her country's administration could learn a lot from the poet Rabi'a.
I spun some yarn to sell for food
And sold it for two silver coins.
I put a coin in each hand
Because I was afraid
That if I put both together in one hand
This great pile of wealth might hold me back.

For two years I contemplated this poem by Rabi'a al-Adawiyya, an 8th century sufi poet and favored saint of Islam who lived in ancient Mesopotamia. I had intended to weave images rendered from her words into a tapestry, to give them texture and shape, and for my own enjoyment in creating something from the wool of my sheep. In January of this year I finally came to peace with what I felt captured for me the essence of her poem. I looked forward to weaving this image, working with the indigo, camomile and madderroot dyed yarns I had brought home from the Middle East a few years ago.

I am drawn to Rabi'a because she created her own yarn and because I have a love for her part of the world—its carpets, architecture, food, literature, deserts and people. Who was it who said that place belongs to the person who claims it most passionately?

One dark, Pacific Northwest day in February I warped my loom, stringing it with one hundred lengthwise, six-ply threads. One hundred threads I knotted onto the upper crossbeam, passed through individual slits called heddles, and then tied onto the lower crossbar of the loom with square knots. One hundred or more thoughts, a thankfully lesser number of mistakes, and many wishes and worries were part of the preparation for weaving this tapestry. The real work, Rabi'a might have called this stage of the craft. A story about her may explain this notion better:

One day Hasan of Basra saw Rabi'a down by the riverside. He came up to her, spread his prayer-rug on the surface of the water, and said: "Come sit with me and pray."
"Do you really have to sell yourself in the market of this world to the consumers of the next?" asked Rabi'a. Then she unrolled her own prayer-rug in thin air, and sat on it. "What you did any fish can do, Hasan, and what I did any fly can do. Our real work is far beyond the work of fish and flies."

In my mind, Rabi'a's "real work" is the reflective part of any activity, including prayer, which leads to understanding. Real work is rarely for show, and often never seen. In this story, Hasan reflected little before making a show of throwing his carpet on the surface of the water, or expressing his views to Rabi'a—suggesting she pray with him. Knowing there is more to faith than showing up for prayer and following the ritual of one's religion, Rabi'a saw through his rhetoric and false actions. With respect to art, real work includes the preparation of materials, skills and passion that it takes to create the work. The Turkish call this iscilik.

For me, the real work in making a tapestry includes the hours required in skirting a sheep's fleece (removing grass, dung, thistles) and the more pleasurable tasks of washing, spinning and dyeing it. This labor, which can take months, is often done alone and rarely meets anyone's gaze as would a finished piece of art. I consider it a contemplative act and a time when my mind is concentrating solely on the work: What portion of this tapestry will be the border? How much wool will I need to spin for that? What colors best mimic the landscape where Rabi'a lived? Which dyes will I use for the yarn to make the mud homes, mosques and minarets: mineral soils such as hematite or limonite--the red and yellow sand I've saved from the Utah desert? Then my thoughts moved to Rabi'a herself. How would she dress? Could she, a freed slave, have afforded dyed cloth? Would she have splurged on dyed cloth even if she were able? Should I weave Rabi'a's face? Would she have wanted me to? All of these questions I considered. Each thought brought clarity to my goal that was essential to the work.

As I warped up my loom, I remembered the story in which Rabi'a needed a piece of cloth and she gave a man three coins to buy her one. The man asked her, "What color do you want?" Rabi'a replied, " So, it's become a question of color? Give me back my money! " And she threw it into the Tigris River.

No, it seems, as I imagined myself in her sandals, Rabi'a would not have worn a dyed garment, she would have thought it was extravagant. I can respect this about her life, I thought, and I will not portray her in my tapestry as such. I think this is the essence of what Rabi'a means by real work. Reflection which fosters familiarity. Familiarity which breeds understanding. Understanding that can lead to knowing and loving others as we know and love ourselves.

Beginning on the bottom right corner of my loom, working to the left, I wove four rows with yarn from my own sheeps' wool into soumac knots—two wraps around each warp—to form the bottom selvage of my tapestry. It is a medium-soft wool by most sheeps' standards and feels pleasing to my touch. I soon reached for the indigo thread that would color the background for this piece. Traces of blue rubbed off on my fingers as I worked, tinting also the wooden weft comb I used to beat the knots into place. My hands moved awkwardly at first. Separating warp threads with my fingers, my fine motor skills became more nimble with each woven row. Time escaped me. Mostly I thought about the knots, worried about the ripple which developed from uneven tension, and tried my best to keep the edges straight as the tapestry grew vertically up the loom.

The next day when I sat at my loom, a blue section of weaving awaited me which covered a two inch strip across the bottom of my tapestry. I decided to switch to natural-colored yarn and begin weaving Rabi'a's poem. How lovely the sensuous, swirling Arabic script looked as it took shape, like something between a letter and flower. Three characters appearing at once, the base of one word defining the sweep of the next, as this is the nature of tapestry—everything is interconnected, just as it is in the real world. Though unlike "real life," it is impossible in tapestry to ignore the interdependence of things. What appears at the top of a piece would not exist were it not for each knot below or on either side of it.

March 23 of this year I sifted among the yarn in my basket for shades of beige that would depict the mud homes of Rabi'a's hometown. I chose two yarns, one with a copper tint, the other yellow. Wrapping them around my fingers I made a wool butterfly which would pass easily between warp threads. Just above the words in the poem my hands moved back and forth to form a foundation of "sand-bricks." The threads blended into a saffron-colored tweed. Yes, I thought, this is the color I remember of the mud homes I'd visited in central Turkey. There must be some similarities in the soil of Turkey and Mesopotamia, I mused as I wove. But where exactly is Mesopotamia? I decided to find out. Getting up from my loom, I consulted Bruce Feiler's book, Abraham, and saw that the Tigris River runs through present day Iraq.

I sat at the loom again. Weaving a few more rows of the mud homes, I was forced to weave a part of Rabi'a's dress to prevent a vertical slit from occurring in the tapestry—everything being connected. Because her clothing had to stand out against a desert of indigo, I chose an eggplant color that when woven looks rather drab, an unflashy color of which I believe Rabi'a would have approved. As I wove the curve of her hip I realized, Rabi'a was from Basra. Basra! Hadn't I just seen that name in today's newspaper headlines? I got up again and consulted the Spokesman-Review. Choppers Pound Basra's Defense: Resistance Stiffens as U.S.-led Assault Wave Nears City.

How did it come to pass that I'm weaving an image of Basra? I thought, staring at my work. And today for that matter? A year ago the sketches for this tapestry did not even include Basra's mud homes.

Tapping the weft comb against my palm, a sensation rolled through me—something close to a low grade zing you might get from an electrified pasture fence. But this one was infused with a kind of awareness. Extraordinary coincidences like this one are something of which I've had my share, but such "mystical" occurrences usually happen when I'm in Ireland. Until March 23rd, I couldn't claim to have had any such experiences in my own mundane dining room—where the kids' clothing, school papers and crumbs litter the table, and with my cat dozing in the lanolin-smelling wool at my feet.

I wove some more to digest this most recent turn of events—a splash of gold for Rabi'a's head scarf, a bit of brown to cast a shadow on a wall. Here I am weaving Basra's mud homes together, I thought, when my country is blowing them apart. Wow. Why? "Because you are providing the balance," my friend, Mary, later said to me on the phone. Her explanation hung in the air. I knew what she meant. However absurd it would seem, these feeble, three-plied threads that had been spun back on themselves once to make them six strands strong—would stitch Basra together in my tapestry, and stitch Rabi'a's home place back together metaphysically, or perhaps the term is transcendentally. Somehow my efforts would contribute to the reconciliation of opposing events (the tearing down and weaving together of this city) and would bring harmony. This I knew to be a significant theme in sufism, one that Rabi'a might have appreciated.

Harmony--give me a break! chided a voice from within, so steeped that I am in the rational discourse of our day. The little voice reminded me it's easier to suppress ideas like these in this culture where alternative views are labeled "irrational".  Safer to live inside the land of the status quo. There, I need not think beyond my own culture, dining room, or loom frame. Knotting together a few more threads, I tried to discern this "coincidence" about which my intuition sensed something essentially gracious. But I couldn't. Nevertheless, it felt refreshing to be in its grip. Contented, I went on weaving Basra back together.

Days have passed and the newspapers and public radio express outrage over the fact that we haven't won this war in one week's time. I find it hard to listen to for a number of reasons, this example of America's need for immediate gratification. Yet, it is "time" and "waste" I want to explore, as in how much time the Bush administration allowed themselves for real work before committing this country to war with Iraq. How much real work would it have taken them to have resolved their perceived problem with Iraq nondestructively?

I wonder did this administration pause to ask themselves questions of this sort: Would I trade my life or the life of my child for Saddam's life? Would an Iraqi wish to trade his or her life or the lives of their children for Saddam's? In order to oust Saddam would the Iraqi people elect to bring such lethal weapons as "cluster bombs" into their communities, the kind which toddlers mistake for toys and loose life and limb? Would the Iraqi people choose to turn their lives into a living hell—become refugees or beggars, risk diseases such as cholera, typhoid or dysentery that kills victims of disrupted infrastructures in the time of war? Illnesses that cause more deaths than bombs, and as the death toll in Afghanistan this year revealed, a larger number than the last when the country was in the Taliban's grip (British Medical Journal, February 2003). "Freedom," it seems, comes at a very high price.

Besides health and mortality, did the administration ask what else will suffer as a result of their "liberating" invasion? What exactly does "freedom" mean—the kind of which we intend to bring to Iraq? There are many who would use the word interchangeably with democracy. But with a bit of real work, one might deduce that the two don't necessarily go hand in hand and that democracy is no guarantee of freedom. For isn't freedom also tied up in social mores, fear and superstition? How might our actions in Iraq make things worse for them rather than better? What losses might they suffer culturally? Spiritually?

Recent American headlines scream, Egypt's Murbarak warns of '100 bin Ladens,' accompanied with images of eager Middle Eastern volunteers waiting for a bus to take them to Iraq where they can fight a holy war against the American soldiers. Newspaper portraits of our leaders sport captions that read: Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials predicted a quick war, with American troops welcomed by the Iraqi people. How much real work would it have taken to predict otherwise?

A brief foray into Middle Eastern history would reveal that for centuries they've practiced tribal warfare, a desert survival system in which the winner gets the spoils and the death of relatives are avenged. Perhaps I can grasp this tradition because my Irish ancestors lived the same way in many respects. Thus, with very little real work, did I understand that many Iraqi people would not swoon at the sight of American soldiers. It should not have come as a surprise that the U. S. met "resistance" (bullets, their deaths) in holy cities like Rabi'a's Basra and An Najaf. Why would the Iraqi people have walked away from their communities, caravansaries and village wells—places imbued with their family stories, those of their Prophet, peace be upon him, and his revered son-in-law Ali, the first convert to Islam, I believe, after Muhammad's beloved wife Khadija?

I question the Bush administration's effort to gain understanding of Iraq's rich and varied cultures that might have shed light on America's policy toward a "regime change" (the premeditated killing of Saddam Hussein and his administration), or the planting of democracy in a country where the majority of the people are younger than voting age (and likely unprepared), where one in four are malnourished, and among a people who are split in many opposing groups such as: Shiite vs. Sunni, Shiite vs. Shiite, Arab vs. Kurd, Kurd vs. Kurd, and more. Is democracy the right fit—at any stage of a nation's development—in all circumstances?

I'd offer that less time was spent reflecting upon the wishes of the victims and would-be victims of war, and/or the consequences of military action, than the two years and some odd months that I spent preparing to weave the tapestry that I will use to decorate my wall. Less time than I tried to understand how Rabi'a might like me to represent her, even though she's long dead.

Perhaps the notion of putting men, women and children into "harms way" is not as important as the convictions the administration holds about world order and national security—perceived, of course, from within their own circles and therefore deemed the rational view—without consideration to alternative domestic or world opinions. Without real work, genuine efforts to educate oneself, empathize or step inside the shoes of people from different cultures, leaves the "other" as vague, unknown, and threatening. Without an appreciation for a people, it's much easier to allow fear to be the guide and entertain thoughts of destroying the "other." Without real work alternative views can be cast off, laughed at or satirized—but rarely considered or digested. Congress's reaction to the French is a case in point: What? They see things differently than us? Well, we'll show them. We'll change the name of French Fries to Freedom Fries. How our elected officials found time for such matters amidst war, and with the economy and environment quite literally under attack, begs scrutiny.

I feel great disappointment that our leaders and others in my country are threatened by varied perspectives. That their gut reaction is one of ridicule and inhumane acts such as calling for boycotts. "Throw away the wine! Don't import Perrier Water!" These boycotts end up slowly squeezing the life out of the countries they are inflicted upon. Iraq for instance. The death toll there, as a result of such embargos over the last ten or more years is in the hundreds of thousands, I am told. Most of them are women and children—the documented victims who suffer the greatest from such sanctions and war (Mertus, 2000).

As we've learned, some Iraqi's have rejoiced at the arrival of American soldiers, but many have grown angry at the troops who have "come through their towns and left them in disorder, creating a situation in which the strongest and most ruthless prevail." On a more particular level, a merchant lamented that $700 dollars worth of cheese in his store would rot because the bombs blew out the electricity for his refrigerator. Another expressed outrage at the terrible wastefulness of this war after having his workshop blown up. He said he did not ask the U.S. to come and liberate him. But rather than belabor this point, I would like to discuss this notion of waste by retelling a story.

In World War II, Sattareh Farman Farmaian, a princess in the Qajar dynasty of Iran, wished to attend college in America. She traveled across land to India and boarded a boat there bound for the U. S. The French ship she left Bombay on was torpedoed by the Japanese and sank. Afloat in the sea, she was rescued and then transferred onto a U. S . naval ship. In her book, Daughter of Persia, Sattarah Farmaian described this tale with about as much lackluster as I just have, only a splash of detail describing the hysteria she felt given her circumstances. I felt she gave more weight in her memoir to her initial taste of American culture. An incident she "remembered vividly" years after:

"I saw two sailors throwing what looked like a stream off fish over the side...I was told that this was food we had not consumed at lunch. I gasped, horrified at the thought of wasted food.
... That evening as I lay on my bunk, I thought about all I had seen on my journey. I remembered the tough, hungry Iranians in their desert settlements, whole families living off the milk from one goat and the eggs from one chicken; I thought of the emaciated Indians I had seen from the train and on the streets of Bombay. What the sailors had thrown overboard in fifteen minutes would have kept a whole Persian village alive for a week. If the Navy did not have hungry servants on its ships, why did it choose to supply us with so much more than we could possible consume? In countries like mine, a policy that wasted food in this manner would be tantamount to murder.
I felt that the countries of the world were complex and contradictory, and there was much I did not understand... Plainly, I would have to work hard to understand America. "

Rather than resort to ridicule, as we have done with the French, this Persian princess chose to educate herself in things American before she set out to judge us. She hurled no names at the Navy sailors though it seems she could have labeled them "murderers by default" had she chosen to judge us from within the viewpoint of her own culture. But instead, she willingly stepped outside of those constructs to see what good she might find.

Would that our president and this administration be so open-minded and gracious as this Middle Eastern woman of a by-gone era. Would that our throw-away culture become a bygone era. Yet, with policies that support the "disposal" of other nation's leaders—with "shock and awe" tactics that Rabi'a would have seen for the empty showmanship that it is—we feed our indifference to the consequences of war that cause situations of anarchy. Instances in which people's hard-won businesses are looted or destroyed. The mayhem wherein museums, mosques, minarets, mud homes, and, I would like to emphasize—carpet workshops and dye masters' colorful denizens—are ruined simply because we believe we can "remake Iraq," as Time magazine boasts. But in whose image, I wonder?

While we might build new airports, and perhaps replace that cheese merchant's shop with a "Dairy Mart," how do we intend to replace the irreplaceable: a bride's handmade wedding carpet; museum artifacts older than Sarah and Hagar and Abraham (our Biblical and Koranic foremothers and father); or the archaeological sites—those that might have been discovered—that our subterranean "bunker bombs" have likely destroyed? I could not have imagined treating Iraq—the cradle of civilization, an earthen palimpsest—with anything other than an art conservator's pair of white gloves.

If we have taken for granted these aspects of the demise of culture, we are a long way from any kind of self reflection on our proclivity and acceptance of waste as a rightful way of our lives. We are a long way from admitting that simply by living our consumer lifestyles, we are contributing to the deprivation of the majority of the poor in this world—everything being connected. We are a long way from asking ourselves questions like: Why did the U.S. Navy choose to supply us with so much more than we could possible consume? Surely few of us will soon toss coins into the Tigris because we realize we have more than we deserve.

Not only does our overconsumption deny the "other" from having what we have, our indifference keeps them, even, from telling their own histories. When the superstores go up, what memories will remain bulldozed beneath the sand?

"It is neither Islam nor even poverty itself directly which succors terrorists whose ferocity and creativity are unprecedented in human history, but the crushing humiliation that has infected third world countries like cancer," said the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. The crushing humiliation of not being seen, heard, or considered. "The wealthy, pro-modernist class who founded the Turkish republic reacted to resistance from the poor and backward sectors of society not by attempting to understand them, but by law enforcement measures, interdictions, and the army. In the end, the modernization effort remained half-finished and Turkey became a limited democracy in which intolerance prevailed. "

Mr. Pamuk is talking about seventy-some years of a democratic experiment in Turkey. A recent headline suggested that our leaders have not pondered this in terms of Iraq: White House Ready For 'Rolling Victory,' wherein U.S. forces "control significant territory and assert a new era has begun." Rabi'a would see that the Bush administration hopes to weave a democracy on a partially warped loom.

It appears that this "overthrow" has happened in a similar manner that Turkey has tried—from the top down, with force. Only unlike Attaturk, the U. S. does not have the benefit as he did of working from within his own culture. The Iraqi National Congress, the Pentagon's choice of Iraqi exiles who would run an interim government, lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the people and the Shiite clerics who have declared themselves "in charge" as of April 18th. Says a Baghdad citizen, "Why should we be governed by someone who got rich on the streets of New York or London? We must have someone who comes from Iraq and suffered like us."

The time I've spent cloistered at my loom tells me that our actions in Iraq, however noble they seem to some, may lead to increased feelings of inferiority or inadequacy which in any society breeds anger. Rather than offering the Iraqi's true independence, we risk instilling dependence on American might for years to come, thus deepening the humiliation. I have read that a few of the officials in the current administration spent the last decade since the Gulf War in think-tanks, studying and lecturing on what they believed might be done with respect to Saddam Hussein. Real work of sorts. But, as Edward W. Said has said, whom I paraphrase here, "American public discourse has yet to move beyond concerns about Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, the axis of evil, to a reflective, disinterested research on the delicate matters of faith and history of the Middle East because the latter aren't what the market requires. "

Zing! Had the Bush administration discussed such matters of faith and history (those often intangible but no less real aspects of Iraqi culture) perhaps our leaders would have come to view the "other" differently. Perhaps they would have discovered an artifact or handmade carpet and saw that the Iraqi nation, deemed as foe, are humans who create wonders. Had the administration developed such respect, common ground, or even an affinity for the Iraqi people, it would likely have precluded them from thinking that war was the best means to an end.

It is my prayer that as the mud homes and weavers' looms in Basra are rebuilt, that Iraq and the world at large will find it in their hearts to forgive America of its trespasses. I pray as this administration looks toward Syria and Iran that it pauses, comes to find there threads dyed with indigo, camomile and madderroot and sees peace.

I hope that the women of Rabi'a's homeland—the place which spawned some of the greatest of prophets, philosophers, and saints the world has known—are consulted in matters effecting their people's future. Women who have brought exquisite beauty and a tangible spirituality to the world through their woven carpets—who have spent hours each day practicing the ineffable art of real work. I know this because I've sat with them at their looms. Women whose weaving skills teach them how all things are interconnected; and give them the wherewithal—not to mention the attention spans—with which they would succeed at tasks that last years on end. (Have you heard about the carpet in Mashhad's Palace of the Imam Reza that contains 30,000 knots and took fourteen years to weave? This is staying power!) Women, like Rabi'a, who can spot false showmanship for what is—like that of Hasan and his public display of prayer—and recognize that the development of freedom of speech is of little use to anyone unless it is knotted to understanding.

April 21st and snow flakes scatter on bursts of wind outside my window. Snow the weather forecast did not predict. My fingers move back and forth across the soft threads of my tapestry, trying to ignore the voice that has intellectualized my "coincidence," mixed it up with the media frenzy of this war and implores me to, "Keep weaving those mud homes. Quickly, before the balance is lost!" I settle on a pace which responds instead to my intuition—that socially suspect yet reliable sense—that tells me there's no hurry. This irrational Muse of mine knows what it is doing. I'm learning to trust it, its transitory nature, and its generosity to share with me little flashes of insight. A consciousness within us all that would lead to a greater understanding of humanity—should we allow ourselves the freedom to indulge in it.

Why am I weaving Basra back together? I think I know the answer now—it lies within that little Turkish word, iscilik. I'd wager that the realness in my tapestry is guiding the threads, moving the piece beyond the work of fish and flies, transforming the mineral-dyed material into spirit. A spirit of compassion. Because aren't the methods and goal of any work of art one of the same love?

Author: Meghan Sayres is a writer who has published a number of children's and adult's books. She lives in Washington State, USA.

Source: This article was sent to us by the author.
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