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Wandering through the Nomadic Tribes
of Iran and Afghanistan

Report of the lecture given by Brian MacDonald
on September 24th 2014

Brian MacDonald, in a colourful and entertaining lecture, described how he was stoned, held up at gunpoint and survived a bandit attack, relating in words and illustrations his accidental metamorphosis from civil engineer into dealer and consultant in rugs and tribal art.

In a brief background synopsis he explained that nomadic tribes migrated twice a year according to climatic conditions.  They lived in black goat-hair tents and sustained a self-sufficient life style practising a form of Shamanism similar to that of Siberian and North American tribes rather than Islam which meant the subjects of their weaving were not necessarily geometric and could depict objects.  To understand the story of a rug it was explained that peacocks represent prosperity, dragons good luck and protection, cockerels were harbingers of the day, stars exerted protective magic and were spiritual, five fingers warded off evil and human figures could represent family members or could be included for fertility purposes.

In 1971 Brian joined an expedition doing survey work in the Isfahan/Shiraz region looking for the second capital of the Persians.  For six months he lived with the Qashqa'i, a Turkic people, in basic mud huts or tents with sides that could be rolled up in the day and closed at night.  Kelims were used to compartmentalise these tents.  The young women of the tribe who marry at 15 or 16 sat on the floor on kelims and wove on simple floor looms which could be easily dismantled for transportation during migration.  The patterns are symbolic rather than decorative and as they wove the young women sang the pattern into the carpet and these are handed down from mother to daughter.  When their eyesight deteriorated the older women gave up weaving and became spinners using simple spindles.  Food was served on the floor on dining soffreh and multi-purpose rugs were called gabbeh.  They also produced beautiful, now very rare, vanity bags to carry cosmetics, jewellery and fuller's earth cream (presumably for saddle sores) and these are now greatly sought after.  Bread was rolled out on bread mats, which became heavily impregnated with dough, the pattern re-emerging in bright and startling colours when the mat was washed.  He also showed us a touching picture of a space-saving baby hammock guarded with the traditional blue eye to ward off evil spirits.

Post Iran our lecturer joined an expedition to Afghanistan.  In Herat he was stoned and then challenged at gun point for accidentally attempting to enter a military installation at the citadel.  Going through Kandahar and Kabul to the Hindu Kush on horseback he saw the yurts of nomads as they prepared to descend to lower pastures for the winter, and small boys wearing amulets on their tunics and coins on their hats to protect them as the first seven years of their lives are crucial to their survival, evidence of the harsh conditions.

Prayer Rug, Baluch Shahraki-Sarbandi Tribe
Sistan Province, South-East Persia

His next trip was with a London University archaeological expedition to Kerman in Iran living with a Turkic tribe in a caravanserai of black tents formed in a V shape as a protection against bandits, rather like the covered wagons in the Wild West of America.  Then, amazingly, in 1973 at the age of 23 he was asked to run a college of 500 pupils in Kerman, managing to increase pupil numbers to 2000 during his tenure.  While there a Baluchi student invited him to go to meet his tribe who employ the specialised sumac weaving technique which is done with a needle.  It was an arduous and exhausting journey by camel.  This time he had personal experience of bandits as on the second night of their journey they were attacked.  Our hero was shoved to the back of the tent amongst the storage bags on which Baluchis sleep and covered by goatskins emerging early next morning to find the bandits had been driven off and that one man had been killed.

Brian MacDonald returned to Britain at the end of the 1970's, the Iranian revolution having taken place in 1979.  He studied rugs, eventually owning a gallery in the Cotswolds for 18 years.  In 1990 he returned to south west Iran to visit the Luri Bakthiari.  Tribal areas being sharply demarcated, he was challenged at gunpoint when he attempted to enter the territory and accused of gun running.  When he explained he was looking for rugs he was offered a military escort.  He declined the offer as he had a bodyguard who he thought was knowledgeable but on arrival at the black tent encampment the bodyguard enquired where the nearest hotel was.

Bakhtiari Rug, Western Persia

The Bakhtiari produce beautiful black and white designs but since the 1940-50's they have been replacing their elegant storage bags with plastic bags so storage bags are becoming increasingly rare, and are much coveted and highly priced.  They may be less labour intensive but what an artistic and cultural loss.  Women do 70% of the manual labour so maybe they are grateful and benefit.  Our lecturer was fortunate enough to be asked to join their migration to summer pastures which takes 40 to 50 days.  The men in their striking black and white costumes led the way on horseback followed by the women in their swaying vividly coloured bell-like skirts sometimes carrying babies on their back or spinning while they walked.  It looked like a tale from the Arabian Nights.  Pulley systems allowed them to ford fast flowing rivers while the sheep, goats, donkeys and horses swam.  Mountains of up to 14 thousand feet had to be scaled.  Up to 10% of livestock perished and they made this exacting journey twice a year.  How did the old and very young survive?

Salt-Bag, Shahsevan Tribes
Moghan Region, Azerbaijan

On a subsequent visit to Iran in 2000 MacDonald visited the yurt-dwelling prolific weavers of the Shahsevan tribe in Azerbaijan where a ceremonial meal of lamb stew, mint, goat cheese, radishes and tarragon bread was given in his honour.  He eventually returned to Fars province which he had first visited 20 years before when he knew little about carpets and where his interest in tribal weaving was first triggered when he had visited as a civil engineer.  The 20th century brought commercialisation with attendant change due to increased demand for carpets.  Originally, every village had a specialist dyer and dyes were made of natural substances such as madder, walnuts, saffron, pistachio, willow, indigo and insects.  Each dyer would produce slightly different colour values resulting in interesting striations in the weaving and the dyestuffs permeated the weave.  Dyes would also be made in small quantities en route.  Chemical dyes have resulted in degeneration in the work and in the quality of the fabric.  Brian MacDonald described new work as having no soul.  Some attempts are now being made to bring back natural dyes.

This lecture was three stories in one, that of the nomads, that of their weaving and that of Mr. MacDonald’s personal odyssey and it is obviously impossible to describe in detail the photos we were shown of rugs, saddle bags, vanity bags, salt bags, and storage bags.  He brought many examples of the art of the weavers to show us at the lecture but more can be found in his book, “Tribal Rugs: Treasures of the Black Tent.”

Incentives have been offered to the nomads to settle but these have been only partially successful.  Migration still takes place having been largely unaffected by political events but it is often now accomplished in 4x4's.  Of course the women still walk.  And some of the men!

The nomadic way of life may be dying but there can be no better epitaph than that spoken by an old nomad who said:-

"Wherever lies thy carpet there is thy home".

Ann Brookes

With thanks to Brian MacDonald for permission to use images from his website

Our lecturer, Brian MacDonald,
displayed a selection of items from his extensive collection