Yorali Berdov’s Vision

Relearning Lost Arts

Khorog is the capital of the Gorno-Badakshan (GBAO) region of Tajikistan, a unique area in the northeast, six hundred kilometers from China, with distinct people, customs, and religion-- Ismaili, a very liberal branch of Islam. The GBAO is part of the Himalaya range, and the forbidding landscape has kept the region sparsely populated and its people isolated. But it has also been a refuge for those escaping the recurring wars of Central Asia. The language spoken is Shugnan, closer to old Persian than anything spoken elsewhere today--an indication of the region's isolation.
 
Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. While the Soviet regime brought much better education and medicine to the Pamirs, its emphasis on the factory system did much to discourage traditional handicrafts. When Yorali Berdov, founder of De Pamirii Handicrafts, came of age in 1992, he realized these arts were close to extinction.
 
De Pamiri Handicrafts is located in a small, attractive building in Khorog’s town center Inside is a shop filled with hats, necklaces, felted slippers, bags, and colorful socks all made by local artisans who are relearning the lost arts.
 
In August of this year, I visited De Pamiri and spent a week with Yorali, his family, and some of the De Pamiri artisans. What motivated my trip was my interest in the history of crochet, and my theory that the colorful socks made in this region might be very early examples of crochet. My research continues, and seeing the socks and their makers first-hand was an extraordinary experience.
 
Yorali is an exceptional man, for several reasons: his intelligence allows him to see far beyond day-to-day problems; he is immensely determined, yet soft spoken and kind, assured of his vision, yet very open to new ideas and approaches.
 
On my last morning before departing from the Pamirs, Yorali and I met to talk about De Pamiri and its history. He came by my guest house at 6 a.m. and we crammed in all the questions we could before my plane's departure.
 
DORA Ohrenstein: What inspired you to create De Pamiri Handicrafts?
 
YORALI Berdov: The main point is to protect and revive the culture of the Pamirs. I was born in this country and this culture, and it's very important for me to keep it up. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, during our civil war, the culture was slipping away. If we talked with visitors or tourists about our traditions, there was nothing to show them. Even very traditional musical instruments were not easy to find because there were only a few artisans who could make them.
 
DO: When did you start to be aware of this?
 
YB: When I was about twenty years old.  It started with musical instruments. I’m an artist, but I love music too, especially traditional Pamir music. At that time I had a lot of questions, but was not able to find the answers.
 
DO: How did your ideas evolve into something concrete?
 
YB: Years passed but nothing changed. About ten years later, in 2003, I met in Khorog my French friend Arnaud.  He was thinking about the same things, as he is an artist too. He was working with the Mountain Development Support Development Program, a part of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), developing crafts in a different region of Tajikistan. After about a year and many talks later, we realized that working together we could do something for local culture. We developed a proposal and sent it to the AKF in GBAO Tajikistan. In January 2004 the foundation gave us support, and we began in April of the same year. The support continued for a few years.
 
DO: What was the nature of the support you received?
 
YB: We received funds. They also sent us consultants, found working space for us, and gave us computers and technical support. 
 
DO: How did you go about reviving these lost crafts?
 
YB: The first step was to look for the remaining crafts, trying to find out what was there. We wanted to see how much knowledge still remained of how to make ancient and traditional things, not new models. We didn't find much. There were maybe fifteen artisans who had some knowledge and wanted to participate in our project.  
 
DO: What crafts were these original participants involved in?
 
YB: They were working with leather and woolen products, mainly colorful socks and felted carpets. 
 
DO: What were those early days like?
 
YB: There was huge enthusiasm of the founders, me and my friend, but people did not believe that this idea could work. They knew of similar projects which had been started by an NGO (non-government organization) but had disappeared. Projects like this, devoted to revival and development of craft, should not be short term. People found it hard to trust us after that kind of experience. Even the authorities had questions. They were worried we would leave the country, go to work in Russia like so many others.
 
DO: How did you overcome this attitude?
 
YB: Hard work and huge efforts, seven days a week. It’s not easy to start something from scratch. We had to go to all the districts of the GBAO, a huge territory-- 64,000 square meters.  We started working with artisans in the villages, and they found it interesting to have a connection with an organization in Khorog. Gradually, more artisans became involved. Those who were committed were invited to receive training and have their work in our exhibitions.
 
DO: What kind of training did you offer?
 
YB: Everything. There was very little understanding of how to produce and promote a product, how to calculate price, what a marketable size was, and how to choose designs and colors. If you spend a day making something, and two weeks on something else, the price can’t be the same. After the initial training, the artisans understood that to set a price, they should consider labor, materials, expenses, and how much profit they could make. We also gave them design training, since we’re both designers.
 
One thing we talked a lot about was color blending. Sometimes the artisans mixed colors that were not beautiful together, or used some modern patterns, like Soviet symbols. We trained them in color, shape, symbols, meaning. Now the artisans use traditional symbols only on the socks. Another important element was quality, which was not at a high level. There had been no tourist market, no customers, they made things only for themselves and never saw the need to finish the work properly.
 
The traditional felted carpets can weigh 12 kilos, tourists can't carry that. We started to make them smaller, and that worked. Felted small carpets in natural colors,well finished. That was our first product which sold well. Then we created crochet hats, which was a huge success. Soon it became one of the golden products of De Pamiri. Not strictly traditional, but now everyone accepts them as a product of the Pamirs.
 
DO: So this all happened in the last five years. Now you have how many people on your staff?
 
YB: Ten! Not all of them in administration; a large number are technical staff, because we have our own building and outside area. It grew much bigger than it was in 2004. Until 2006 there were only two persons running the organization, Arnaud and myself, and we did everything, including cleaning. The number of artisans has increased from fifteen to a hundred active, and another hundred passive--the ones who are not actively involved but come from time to time.  The active ones come regularly they sell their products in De Pamiri shop.
 
DO: Let me ask more about the socks, since I am a crochet specialist. What are your words for crochet and knitting?
 
YB: We make no distinction; we just call it four-tool or one tool. (NOTE: circular knitting for socks is done using four needles at once.)
 
DO: When you first worked with the artisans who made socks, they were doing both -- knitting and crochet?
 
YB: Yes.
 
DO: But now I don't see much knitting.
 
YB: This comes from my European friend. He found crochet more interesting than knitting.  He pushed it a lot, that we should revive and develop this technique more. I followed his advice, since he had more experience. Together we created this crochet hat.  Then we went further with felting, which is a very ancient craft among the Pamiri Tajik and Kirgiz people. An organization called Central Asia Craft Support Association based in Bishkek started to collaborate with De Pamiri. They sent us trainers and consultants for improving the felting product, and we started making felted hats, slippers, and bags.We got an American consultant in product development through TCF and Aid to Artisans.
 
DO: What's your next step with the wool items? I understand you recently got some spinning machines?
 
YB: Ten machines from Russia. We will organize spinning workshops in order to save the artisans time, and to provide them with quality yarn. Some local women are already experts on these spinning machines, and they will train the others. Now the artisans are spinning with no equipment, making spinning wheels using different parts of a car or whatever they can find.  It's very difficult to make good quality yarn that way. These machines will make it easier.  We will be able to use local wool, naturally dyed, and we will be able to revive the old traditional socks that are so beautiful. 
 
DO: What other plans do you have for the future?
 
YB: To develop the Center of Pamiri Arts and Tourism development. We have the opportunity for that now. To establish it and make it a true arts center, not only handicrafts, but traditional music, a place for artists and poets, a place for children to learn more. That's the direction we are going in. We want to contact as many artisans, carpenters, musicians, artists and poets as possible, all who have any connection to the traditional culture of the Pamirs. We will bring them together in Khorog and create a Center for the Arts, which in turn will attract more tourists to the area.
 
DO: I'm sure you will succeed Yorali, you've done so well thus far.
 
Dora Ohrenstein is the publisher of the online journal www.crochetinsider.com, author of Creating Crochet Fabric, and Crochet Insider's Passion for Fashion.

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