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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Mini-Salon 25: A Call for Standard Terminology

by Yaser Al Saghrjie

Speaking from personal experience: it was - and still is - very frustrating to discuss textiles with people from different places and\or backgrounds. It happens quite often that people argue about a certain idea merely because of the lack of a solid ground of common terms when they are talking about exactly the same thing. I think the complaints about a lack of "widely accepted terminology for structural analysis" to which Marla Mallett refers in her very important book, Woven Structures are only part of the problem. I believe that the issue should be dealt with from head to toe.

Textile enthusiasts at all levels (buyers, collectors, dealers and researchers) have still not agreed on clear definitions of the words rug, carpet, kilim and textile, let alone different shapes and techniques or, even worse, the names of weaving areas (Persian, Anatolian, Turkmen, etc.). It is simplifying to say that everybody agrees that pile-knotted rugs are called "carpets" when even dealers disagree until this very day on naming a Turkmen flat weave with knotted stripes! When it comes to kilims the issue is ten times more complicated. The way the very word is written in English is still not agreed upon: should it be gelim or kilim?

There are still further complications. According to "old school" enthusiasts only slit-weaves are called kilims; other types of flat weaves are what they are technically: sumack, jajims, cicims and so on. Things don't stop here, what is called zili in Turkey is called verneh in Iran; what is called suzani in Khorassan is called cicim in the bazaars of Istanbul.

And what is a textile after all? Is it a general term that contains every woven item or is it only woven items that are thinner than kilims? The subject becomes even harder in a book written by a more serious researcher. In Persian Flat Weaves, Parviz Tanavoli introduces a more local name, palas. I have been to Iran more than twenty times over the last ten years and I still don't know what the difference is between a kilim and a palas!

When asked what a certain piece is called, one is confused about whether to name it on the basis of its shape or its technique or to use the local term or the English translation. Should a Beluchi salt bag with a weft-substitution technique be called a namakdan, a tuzluk, a salt bag, a gelim, a kilim or a Beluchi? Or if it is a combination of those, how do we arrange them? Should we say a Joliasp, an atchulu or a horse-cover? Do we call something a torba, a tobra or simply a storage-bag? And I can give you one example after the other.

Then comes the issue of attributing a piece to a certain place or ethnicity. We all know that Iran geo-politically is Azeris, Turks, Kurds, Luris, Bakhtiaries, Arabs, Beluchies, Turkmens as well as Persians. Turkey is Kurds, Yuruk, Armenians, Arabs, Laz, Azeris as well as Turkmen. During the embargo on Iranian products by the USA, dealers would take rugs to Pakistan, Turkey or Syria, label them according to their ethnicity, and ship them to the USA.

No one expects the world to come up with an acceptable standard codes for textiles in the near future. It is disappointing, however, that after London's ICOC in 1983 the issue hasn't been put on the table for discussion. Since English is currently the language in which most literature about rugs is written and is the language in which the majority of textile enthusiasts from different cultures communicate, English has the responsibility of adopting more vocabulary from the local languages of the weaving nations. This happened with Turkmen rugs. The words: gul, turba, chuval, engsi, and many others are used widely in English texts. But this is not true for other languages such as Kurdish, the language of a great weaving nation. It is also incorrect to call a salt bag from a Turkish speaking area a namakdan when those people have their word for it, tuzluk. For this reason there must be tolerance of more than one word, all of which are in the hypothetical textile dictionary in the same way English dictionaries have more than one word for a raised part of land: hill, mountain etc. The phenomenon of adopting local vocabularies is not at all an alien one to English. Sushi in cooking, intifada in politics, kitsch in art, are but a few examples.

I think there is a pressing need for a serious dictionary of standard textile terminology in English that take into consideration the above concerns, a situation common with other arts. The already available The Oriental Rug Lexicon by Peter F. Stone (Thames and Hudson, 1997) is a gigantic effort in the right direction. But it is far from comprehensive and needs updating urgently. Personally, I have no experience in putting together a lexicon but with my language-issues-knowledge and my location in Damascus where I still meet dealers and weavers, I am ready to help any possible way.

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