Posted by Muhammad Thompson on 09-10-2003 03:11 AM:

Berber (Amazigh) history and society

thread, The Amazigh, (Berbers) in north Africa

In reading "The Berbers" (Brett & Fentress, 1997) I was struck by these descriptions of their villages and markets:

"Berber villages, or Thuddar (sing. Thaddart), are regularly found on an almost inaccessible summit dominating a valley ........ The usual accessory explanations will not hold here. Neither the necessity to leave good soils free nor the desire to isolate the vilage from a malarial plain justify placing a village in the frozen discomfort of a peak in the high Kabylia. Defence and the desire for isolation must have predominated in their choice of site ...... every village has its mythical memory of the happy times spent on the plains with waving fields of grain."
(page 245)

"In the older villages of Kabylia or the Aures, markets do not exist at all. There is more than one reason for this. First, markets imply commerce with foreigners, which goes against the principle of the inviolability of the Berber settlement. The principles of privacy and exclusion combine here to keep traders away from the interior .... In fact, commerce seems antithetical to the town's ethos of autarchy. Even today, it would be shameful to buy milk, for "someone always has extra to give away". Craft production was until recently for the household or for exchange"
(page 257)

"Markets thus arose outside the village, usually at the territorail boundaries between a number of villages, preferably on a major line of communication followed by traders from other regions... Ideally a market would ensure exchange between two economic zones - say, a predominantly pastoral area and an agricultural one - but in practice similar villages would have little to exchange with each other."
(pages 258-9)

One of the reasons these passages are so resonant is their relationship with an hadith (Al-Bukhari, vol IX, no 210): Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri (may Allah be pleased with him): Allah's Apostle (peace be upon him) said, "There will come a time when the best property of a muslim will be sheep which he will take to the tops of mountains and the places of rainfall so as to flee with his religion from the afflictions."

There is for the muslims and other relgious groups, a conception of history which TurkoTek readers' appreciation of textiles will possibly make them sensitive to. A conception of history which is at odds with notions of "progress" and consequently with the mission of worldwide commerce to improve and modernise.

It was from these hilltop refuges that the three, great muslim and Berber revolutions swept down to change north African and Islamic history, each time led by Berber, muslim puritans with a mission to cleanse the religion. Of the third great revolution, that of the Almohads, Brett & Fentress write:

"So (Ibn Tumart) roused his fellow tribesmen to challenge the masters of the plain below, just as the Fatimid da'i Abu 'Abd Allah had stirred up the Kutama against the Aghlabids of Ifriqiya. At Tinmel, high in the valley of the Nfiss at the foot of the Tizi N'Test, the pass across the High Atlas from Marrakesh to Taroudant in the valley of the Sous, he transformed yet another "stateless" Berber society into a new muslim community under religious and military discipline, which formed an army to fight in God's name. Under his successor, his disciple and Caliph 'Abd al-Mu'min, this army took Marrakesh from tha Almoravids in 1147, and proceeded to conquer not only their empire in Morocco and Spain but Ifriqiya as well. In this way, although the (Berber) Almoravids were massacred, their achievement was upheld... By the year 1200 the old political division of North Africa, inherited by the Arabs from the Romans, had been finally overcome; and overcome moreover, not from the old starting point of civilisation at Carthage/Tunis in the far north-east, but from the new city of Marrakesh ... The Almohad empire was a considerable advance upon the simple Berberism, simple tribalism, simple legalism, of the Almoravids. Ibn Tumart had claims to be the most advanced scholar of his age; his successor 'Abd al-Mu'min was no tribal chieftain but his favourite disciple. Berbers they may both have been, but their faith had provided them not only with the force but also the learning to take command of the great civilisation that Islam in the Maghreb had become... Where the Almoravids had enslaved themselves to the legal rulings of the Maliki school of jurisprudence. the Almohads boasted their own theology in the works of the Mahdi, written in Berber and subsequently translated into Arabic, an appeal like that of the Protestant reformation to the people at large as well as to the highest principles of the faith... After 'Abd al-Mu'min's death in 1163, his sons and successors made Seville into the second capital of the empire where they extended their patronage not so much to the schoolmen as to the more broadly learned circles of the peninsula. The Almohad caliphs of the second half of the twelth century presided over a distinguished court of physicians, philosophers and scientists headed by the Aristotelian Ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he was known in the Latin West. At a time when the monarchy was committed by its zeal to the continued defence of Islam against the Christian kingdoms of the north, it was their learning which was passing in translation to the schools of Paris and so into the intellectual life of northern Europe."

But even at the height of their success, the hilltop and fortified refuge was still their most common habitat and, perhaps, ideal.

"When 'Abd al-Mu'min ascended the Rock of Gibraltar in 1161, he was monarch of all he surveyed", Brett & Fentress say and they quote Ibn Sa'id, "Ignore the sun, think Saturn's measure short; see on the mountaintop the peak of peaks."

It was to such a mountain hideaway that Ibn Khaldun retreated in the 1370s to write his Muqaddima (introduction to his Universal History), which we may consider to be his thoughts on the master race of the Maghreb, the Berbers:

"Empires have Their Natural Term

"An empire, as we remarked, seldom outlives three generations. The first maintains its nomadic character, its rude and savage ways of life; inured to hardships, brave, fierce, and sharing renown with each other, the tribesmen preserve their solidarity in full vigor: their swords are kept sharp, their attack is feared, and their neighbors vanquished.

"With the second generation comes a change. Possessing dominion and affluence, they turn from nomadic to settled life, and from hardship to ease and plenty. The authority, instead of being shared by all, is appropriated by one, while the rest, too spiritless to make an effort to regain it, abandon the glory of ambition for the shame of subjection. Their solidarity is weakened in some degree; yet one may notice that not≠withstanding the indignity to which they submit, they retain much of what they have known and witnessed in the former generationóthe feelings of fierceness and pride, the desire for honor, and the resolution to defend themselves and repulse their foes. These qualities they cannot lose entirely, though a part be gone. They hope to become again such men as their fathers were, or they fancy that the old virtues still survive amongst them.

"In the third generation the wandering life and rough manners of the desert are forgotten, as though they had never been. At this stage men no longer take delight in glory and patriotism, since all have learned to bow under the might of a sovereign and are so addicted to luxurious pleasures that they have become a burden on the state; for they require protection like the women and young boys. Their national spirit is wholly extinguished; they have no stomach for resistance, defense, or attack. Nevertheless they impose on the people by their bearing and uniform, their horsemanship, and the address with which they maneuver. It is but a false show: they are in general greater cowards than the most helpless women, and will give way at the first assault.

"The monarch in those days must needs rely on the bravery of others, enroll many of the freedmen, and recruit soldiers capable, to some extent of guarding the empire, until God proclaims the hour of its destruction and it falls with everything that it upholds. Thus do empires age and decay in the course of three generations."

Posted by Steve Price on 09-10-2003 05:39 AM:

Hi Muhammad and Nasima

Thanks for this very interesting acount of Berber history. The isolationist nature of their culture and its roots present my addled old brain with a line of thinking that is completely new to it, and I don't often get the privilege of having my mind expanded in new directions.

There is one thing that I'm having trouble digesting, though. On the one hand, the Berber culture is isolationist as a religious imperative. Among the manifestations of this is an avoidance, even a prohibition, on commerce outside the local unit. On the other hand, the women weave kilims for sale outside the local unit and your affection for these textiles has led you into the business of selling them. This all seems a little internally contradictory to me, or, at least, to include dissonant information. Full respect for their culture (that is, abandoning ethnocentrism to the greatest possible extent) would seem to me to prevent the purchase or sale of their production. Am I missing some important point?


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-10-2003 08:19 AM:

Appropriate Claims and Distinctions (Muslim Perspective) About Moroccan Rugs

Dear folks –

Last night I was looking at a couple of books on Moroccan rugs and weavings, trying to “ground” aspects of the arguments that our hosts have set forth in their opening essay. What I have found may relate to the previous posts in this thread.

I have been looking to see what classifications the authors of these books use and what distinctions they adopt and have been attempting to determine whether these are in some sense instances of the sort of western ethnocentrism about which our hosts complain. And if they are, to attempt to make concrete both, the particular ways in which they are objectionable, and the alternatives that a Muslim perspective might offer. I will provide illustrative rugs taken from these books.

The first book is “From the Far West: The Carpets and Textiles of Morocco,” a series of articles and pictures of rugs, published in 1980 in conjunction with a TM exhibition. The names of all the contributors, excepting possibly one, indicate that they are westerners and likely non-Muslims.

One chapter is entitled “The Rugs of Settled and Nomadic Peoples: A Contrast in Expression” is by one Bert Flint, of whom I do not know.

Mr. Flint begins by indicating first that “The urban tradition in Morocco has a very different origin than that of the countryside.” That “the Morrocan countryside has followed its own course through history and has shown itself to be more dynamic than the town in many ways.” “Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that until the beginning of the colonial period...the Moroccan countryside managed to compete economically with the towns.” “Textiles made in Bsou in the Beni Mellal region could easily compete with the finest handwoven textiles made in Fes or Marrakech.” So the first point claimed here is that the countryside weaver is separate from and not dependent on the town.

Second, Flint says that rural art in Morocco, is “real art” with an “accent on creativity.” More, it “has always been “popular” art,…in which “most members of each community would take an active part.” “The learning by everyone of a technique that permits personal expression is most important.”

Flint does not deny that there are more urban rugs. For example, a “Rabat” rug from the 19th century would look something like this.

He just seems to rather emphatically deny that there was much influence from urban areas that affected the art of the countryside, a point seeming in some tension with the claim of our hosts in this salon that the Islamic conquering of Morocco opened even its rural art to the wonders of historic Islamic art. They hold this view, by the way, as Steve Price has pointed out, while seeming to accept that the countryside was rather self-consciously isolated from the town and even, oddly, seem to claim for Islam some credit for this latter tendency. But to continue with Mr. Flint’s discussion.

Next, Flint distinguishes three different rural traditions in rug making in Morocco. His treatment seems to focus primarily on pile rugs. (Since our hosts often refer to “kilims” it may be that they are referring primarily to flatwoven rugs, acknowledged as distinctive in both of these books, but not treated with full, separate discussions in either of them.)

First is the Azrou weavers of the Middle Atlas area. They are Berber speaking, cattle breeding nomads. Their rugs “have neither a precise center nor a border. These characteristics and the dominating pattern of diagonal lines forming diamonds or zigzags result in outward moving design.”

The second rural set of rural weavings are those from Tazenakht in the High Atlas mountains. These folks are Berber speaking settled farmers. Their rugs “are centered and have a well-developed frame or border. The horizontal vertical organization of patterns conveys an impression of stability.”

The third set of rural weavings are those from Chichaoua in the Plains of Marrakeck. These are Arab speaking weavers who are farmers and cattle breeders. With the rugs from these weavers, “the ornamental space appears much less organized that the other groups mentioned above. …Patterns are disposed upon an open space, usually red. Individual expression seems to prevail” where there are no “commercial” pressures.

The second book I examined is the volume “Moroccan Carpets by Pickering, Pickering and Yohe, 1994. These authors, all Americans, accept the three categories of rural Moroccan rugs above (although the design variations they offer within each of them seem wider than those offered as typical by Mr. Flint) but add one to them.

This fourth category they designate “the Zemmour Confederation.” They describe it as on the “from Meknes to Rabat” that “cuts through the market centers of Khemisset and Tiflet.” They say the weavings in this area are different enough to justify distinction from those of the Middle Atlas weavers. (There seems to be a preponderance of flatweaves presented for this grouping.) Here is one of the pile rugs offered.

Pickering, Pickering and Yohe also seem sometimes to acknowledge some urban design influence as visible in some rural pile rugs. But there is not much of this in their discussion either.

These are the major claims, distinctions and classifications these western writers have made concerning Moroccan pile rugs.

From an Islamic perspective are these claims and distinctions the appropriate ones to be made here? If not, why not? And what are the alternative claims and distinctions that a given Muslim might make about Moroccan pile rugs and what is the basis for them?


R. John Howe

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 09-12-2003 11:18 PM:

Cyclical Nature of Islamic Civilizations

Dear Muhammed and All- I have noticed, as I have become better aquainted with the history of Islam, as with the study of carpets, a cyclical process in which regions and peoples have been conquered by Islamic armies which then establish Islamic empires, only to be conquered by neighboring peoples who again establish Islamic societies. The Arabs, the Persians, the Samanids, the Seljuks, the Gaznavids, the Turkmen, Mongols, Timurids and Moguls as well as so many others have all played a role in the history of both carpet weaving and of Islam.
A westerner would perhaps explain this cyclical phenomena as a consequence of geographical and ecological circumstances of these regions of the world; it is my understanding that the capital of Morocco was removed from Marrakech owning to the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, and that some four hundred years ago this area was temperate. I have been to the palace ruins and seen from whence the massive carved marble portals were removed and carried by draft animals over the Atlas mountains to the city(?) in the north wher they are still extant.
Is this cyclical process, as evident over the course of history, viewed by the Moslems as affirmation of the legitimacy and prophetic nature of Islam? As a westerner I must admit that the above interpretation of the history of Morocco does seem somewhat romanticized, abeit historically accurate. But it should be mentioned that a certain western scholar of rather lofty stature going by the name of a certain John Milton uttered the maxim "from whence all things proceed" as his most sage words of advice.- Dave

Posted by Muhammad Thompson on 09-13-2003 04:13 AM:

Dear all,

Steve, we do not maintain that any people (not even the Americans) might be characterised by a few broad brush strokes, eg isolationist.

How did we get kilims in Morocco. Many are easy to obtain and difficult to avoid. The story may be different for others .... Some kilims were available for purchase because the family which owned them for maybe 30-60 years, took them to dealers. Those dealers were well known to them, (perhaps in the same way as your bank manager is known to you). We referred in our article to the Berber saying that: a good rug is better than money in the bank. In times of trouble or a need for cash, you can cash them in; in the meantime you get enjoyment and use from them in a way that you cannot from other savings.

David, we apologise for appearing to be romanticising Berber history. We were trying to describe a tendency, perhaps an ideal, which we consider to be a theme of Berber history having almost mythological power for their imaginations and motivations, (maybe). Such a theme would impact upon the thinking of artists and artisans. We do not claim to be experts on Berber history but wished to sketch for TurkoTek readers an account from people who are.

The cyclical nature of empires was Ibn Khaldun's thesis and beyond the scope of our meagre intellects. Another cause of historic cycles (east and west) is economics. TurkoTek readers may find of interest, an account of the Genizah papers given by Miriam Ali De Unzaga at an ICOC seminar and which was on Cloudband's site (until recently?). Hopefully, even if our horizons are not expanding as a result of our discussions here, our reading lists are!


Miriam Ali De Unzaga
27 September 2001

In the classical period of Islamic civilisation (which roughly corresponds to the European Middle Ages) textiles were highly valued objects. Textiles had an economic value were durable and easily portable, which made them ideal items for trade. However, the documentation of textile trade has received relatively little attention. In the case of North African textiles (the Maghreb and Egypt), for example, contemporary studies tend to concentrate on aspects of technology and aesthetics but the historical impact of trade has been neglected, and the analysis of external influences in the production of textiles has been minimised. In fact, it has been suggested that, until recent times, North African textiles have always incorporated the same patterns and designs which have been left "unspoilt" by outside influences. Several researchers have assumed that the geographical remoteness of some locations have accounted for local production and domestic consumption alone.

This presentation will draw attention to the aspect of textiles as commodities and will intend to raise questions about the impact of trade in the production of textiles. By focussing on the past of North African trade I will present how textiles have been an integral part of the local economies throughout the region's Islamic history. In order to present this argument I shall discuss documentary sources and illustrate my talk with images from two collections, the Newberry collection in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Bouvier private collection.

While the trade and exchange of North African textiles have been referred to by early travellers and studied by contemporary scholars, a general outcome has been somehow incomplete.

On one hand several Muslim historians and travellers [such as al-Muqaddasi (10th century), Abu'-Qasim, (11th century) al-Bakri (11th century), Nasir-i Khosraw (11th century) Al-Idrisi (12th century) Ibn Khaldun (15th century) Ibn Battuta (15th century) and al-Mubarrid (16th century) among others] referred to the North African textile trade but their information refers mostly to the patronage of the ruling elite and the transactions of the rich segments of the society.

One the other hand, from the studies carried out by modern scholars, including anthropologists, art historians and carpet experts we learn that: 1) In the 12 century rural North African carpets were exported in big numbers to sub-Saharan Africa (Spring and Hudson). 2) medieval Italian and Spanish notary contracts and inventories affirm that North African textiles were present and available in European markets (Pinner). 3) A record of over 20,000 hanbels were exported to Portugal in the early 16th century. (Amahan and Khatibi). 4) In the 15th and 16th centuries Portuguese, English and other European merchants bought inexpensive carpets from Morocco with a view to reselling them in sub-Saharan Africa (Housego).

Informative as these accounts are, they contain few references to the visual aspect of the textiles, their local uses, or their prices and they are insufficient to present a comprehensive picture of the general society in the classical period of Islamic culture. However, the discovery of the Genizah papers has changed this situation enhancing our understanding of the past of North African communities and their textiles. The Genizah papers were found in 1890 when the storeroom of the synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo) was renovated (Figure 1). Today, the documents can be found in 17 well-known collections of libraries and private institutions around the world (Figure 2). They consist of approximately 225.000 manuscripts, most of them written in Arabic with Hebrew characters. The dates of the documents range from the second half of the 10th century to the first half of the 16th century (Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods) with a concentration on the 11th and 12th centuries which approximately coincide with the rule of the Fatimid caliphate (North Africa, Sicily, Jerusalem and Egypt.) Therefore this paper will focus on that period. Geographically, the documents cover the south side of the Mediterranean basin with areas such as Al-Andalus, the Maghreb, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, including Sicily, as well as correspondence with the Yemen and India. Even if the Genizah papers refer mainly to documents written by Jewish clerks and merchants, these documents provide crucial evidence to further our understanding of the daily lives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities (from the lower strata to the middle class) in North Africa. The papers can be categorised into several sections (Figure 3).

This large corpus has been studied by a number of scholars, the most prolific among them being the late Professor S. D. Goitein who concentrated on the study of non literary documents and published a book called A Mediterranean Society which relates the social and economic history of the common people. From these documents, Goitein has shown that, contrary to previous assumptions, Muslims, Jews and Christians of North Africa under Islamic culture inhabited the same types of houses, used similar fabrics, and even traded similar goods.

According to Goitein's research, textile production was the largest "industry" and textile trade was the largest commercial activity in the Islamic Mediterranean of the 11th to the 12th centuries, with the majority of the population, urban and rural, involved in it in one way or another. Although we know of the existence of weaving workshops, textiles were not mass produced, so when a merchant had an order for 20 carpets he would collect them from several places. Despite religious differences those activities related to textile production and trade were not monopolised by an specific ethnic group. Many instances have been recorded in the Genizah of interfaith partnerships and collaborations.

Textile transactions in the rural areas are referred to in the Genizah papers on numerous occasions. Maghrebi merchants came primarily from the cities but also from small towns and villages. We know, for instance, that the latter used the same commercial strategies which they used in rural contexts, such as the practice of cabotage (maritime peddling). Cabotage consisted in several stops at small ports carrying a variety of commodities - especially clothing and furnishing textiles. This practice allowed the trader to cover part of his travel costs and increased his capital to trade in his final destination. Merchants did not refuse any opportunity for profitable exchanges even if the earnings were small. As a consequence, the documentation of these activities reveal the existence of a considerable number of village consumers in North Africa who were ready to buy and exchange textiles with the travelling merchants. As Abraham Udovitch puts it 'a partial cash economy entered deep into the countryside'. All these factors make us think that textile trade in the rural context was more complex and less isolated than it has been assumed.

Goitein paid attention to the trade with India , noticing that the Maghrebi merchants were the dominant group in this area. Many merchants were Arabic speaking Jews who sometimes settled in India but travelled back and forth passing through Egypt, (the centre of the East-West trade. A particular example is that of Abraham ben Farah ben Yijuu, who was born in Tunisia but whose family were originally from Morocco and had settled in India in 1040. He specialised in the trade of spices, brass objects, and who occasionally received shipments of Berber mats (figure 4). In turn 30 letters from the Genizah show that another trader Haflon ben Nathanel had commercial transactions only between Morocco and Egypt.

The economic value of textiles is well documented by the Genizah papers which have brought to us detailed prices, costs and expenses. Goitein reported that during the Fatimid period the average cost of living for a family in modest circumstances was of 2 dinars per month (A master weaver earned as average from 7 to 10 dirhams per day -being 40 dirhams 1 dinar), the same amount than a basic piece of cloth and the same than a pile carpet zarbiya sent from the Maghreb to Egypt, while a pair of woollen hanbels from the inventory of Wuhsha a business woman had a price of 3 dinars. But textiles could also reach 50 dirams depending of the material and the dyeing used. Numerous examples talk about the economic importance of textiles and due to their high prices the commerce and exchange of second hand textiles was a widespread activity not only for modest families but also for wealthy ones.

The information coming from the Genizah papers about the circulation of textiles from one side of the Mediterranean to the other is impressive. As it is also the number of the different types of textiles existing from many different regions. Denominations such as Baghdadi, Tabari,, Jurjani, or mandil Rumi, did not always represent textiles coming from Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, or Europe respectively, for the Genizah papers evidence that those popular styles were also copied and manufactured in al-Andalus, the Maghreb and Egypt. This is quite understandable from the abundant movements of the merchants, as Goitein estimated that in the 11th century 8.000 merchants commuted between the Maghreb and Egypt in one year. Trade with Europeans was done when those visited North Africa and although there are some references to Marseilles, Genoa and Salerno these seemed to be exceptions.

The late Yedida Stillman, a textile historian (disciple of Goitein), demonstrated that the Genizah papers supply a rich vocabulary of fibres, textile types, and patterns some of them previously unknown (16). We know now that there were at least 26 different types of flax and twelve types of silk. In the bride-wealth lists which were included together with marriage contracts (Figure 5) we find fascinating descriptions of textiles, including colours, sizes, designs, as well as their economic value. For instance, textiles with decorated bands (muzannar), seemed to have been a very popular design (Figure 6). In many bride-wealth lists the textiles for clothing and furnishing were identical such as milhafa, rida, mula'a, and izar, (Figure 7) Modest people used the same piece as a garment during the day and as a blanket during the night (Figure 8). In addition there was not a strict division between floor, bedding, and hanging textiles as they could be used indiscriminately depending on the occasion and of the economic situation of the family.

Commercial letters from the Genizah also show a high degree of detail about colours as one can read: "Send me five light covers: one of them of the colour of gazelle's blood, one in pure violet, one in musk red, one silvery colour and one in intense yellow; another two in pure clean, white without any mixing but going towards yellow"; "eight pairs of small prayer carpets: two in white, two in indigo blue, two in green, two in red". "I would like, sir, the red to be as intense as possible, likewise white and yellow must be exact because before I was not satisfied with the yellow. The fabric was beautiful, but it is not exactly what I wanted, for it is white and blue, while I wanted to have instead onion colour, an open colour" (Goitein I: 106-107).

Carpets were found in every home and public building and the were frequently mentioned in commercial letters as measure to order: "Abu'l-Hassan 's Brother showed me a pair of Azizi mats. I am asking you to be so kind as to order for me a pair [of carpets] exactly like that, eleven cubits long over a breath of six and a half cubits so that each one will be three and a quarter cubits wide. Ask his brother Abu'l-Hassan; he will show you the craftsman. Their make should be perfect. He should not leave much of a border… These measurements are provided so that the mat should not be ruffled" (sender: Abraham II b. Nathan in 1066; recipient: Yeshua b. ismail, Tunisian dealer living in Alexandria).

In few occasions, however, the Genizah documents do not give full details of the local use of some textiles and therefore these have remained unclear. An interesting example is the textile called mihbasi (pl. mahabis; from the root h-b-s 'to veil something,' 'to confine') translated by Goitein as a wrapper. The mahabis were constantly mentioned in the Genizah papers as a main export commodity from Gujerat - India - to North Africa. Goitein speculated that they could have been used as modest clothing (1/3 dinar: 14 dirhams) but also as cushion covers. While the Genizah documents does not mention the material of the mahabis, Goitein argued that this was probably cotton. Ruth Barnes' recent research of the Newberry collection, which includes 2300 medieval textile fragments (half of them are cotton) confirms Goitein's 'cotton theory' (Figure 8,9,10). This presentation could be extended but the lack of time brings me to the summary of the evidences.

Summary · The Genizah papers represent a unique record of the life of the common people of the Mediterranean communities during the classical period of Islamic history. These documents have added new and important data to the economic history of the Maghreb and this corpus remains the most significant source of knowledge about its past textile trade.

· The detailed information about prices, types of textiles, patterns and colours, is fundamental in better understanding the "textile mentality" which has been characteristic of Islamic culture.

· Textile traders were predominately active in urban centres but they were also present in rural areas and the Genizah papers show that the prevailing view of exclusive domestic production and consumption should be reconsidered.

· The production and the trade of textiles were the biggest activities during that period and the massive documentation of a highly mobile merchant class helps to explain how information, ideas, and fashions circulated, and how textiles from distant communities were in many occasions reproduced and manufactured locally.

Posted by Steve Price on 09-13-2003 08:54 AM:

Hi Muhammad,

We can debate the question of whether the USA is more or less isolationist someplace else. Suffice it to say for now that I find that notion pretty bizarre.

My reference to Berber culture as isolationist was taken directly from your account of their history and of their custom of being separate from the neighboring peoples. Although you were citing others as the source, some of your words strongly imply that you, and a substantial fraction of the world's Muslims, agree. Here's the words that you wrote that left me with this impression:
There is for the muslims and other relgious groups, a conception of history which TurkoTek readers' appreciation of textiles will possibly make them sensitive to. A conception of history which is at odds with notions of "progress" and consequently with the mission of worldwide commerce to improve and modernise.
Have I misunderstood this?


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-13-2003 08:58 AM:

Mr. Thompson -

Let me paraphrase briefly to confirm your argument here.

1. One of the errors that western students have made in their analysis of Moroccan rugs and of the people who weave them, is to impose onto them a degree of isolation that is not historically factual (this claim made despite your own seeming indications at points that there was a strong tendency in rural Moroccan society towards something that would be difficult not to describe as "isolation" e.g., resistance against influence from the urban areas.)

2. Recent research findings indicate that there was in fact a long-time vigorous trade in Moroccan textiles and these were exported in great quantities to a number of countries.

3. These records often indicate character, sizes, colors and even designs of the pieces ordered or traded. While some Moroccan textiles traded came from urban areas, traders also went into the countryside and purchased textiles for export there as well.

4. It is therefore likely that such traders would also begin to suggest non-local characteristics that rural weavers should adopt in their weavings and given the volume of such weaving, it would seem that the rural weavers would often respond.

5. This trade is one major mechanism through which Moroccan rural weaving was exposed to and began to exhibit the glories of historic Islamic art that originated far from North Africa.

6. Western analysts who have emphasized incorrectly the isolation of rural Moroccan weavers have, however inadvertently, not given sufficient credit to the influence of the broader genius of historic Islamic art which is in fact visible in these rural Moroccan weavings. Their analyses, however unintended, separate incorrectly, the weaving tendencies of rural Moroccan weavers from the influences of the broad, external, prior Islamic art tradtion, of which it in fact partook vigorously as a result of trade.

Is that an accurate statement of your position?


R. John Howe

Posted by Muhammad Thompson on 09-13-2003 06:16 PM:

Yes Steve, you have misunderstood it - there must be something wrong with our computer; the ethnocentrics must be all out of sync or something! (As for American isolationism, are you sure you find that bizarre? You may have just stubbed your toe on a piece of European ethnocentrism; the web is a poor home for scholarship but for a quick fix try

As for our "position", John, we have none: what we have, you see on the page before you; it is far too small a knowledge base from which someone would argue a "position"; that is why we labelled them our personal views. We feel very honoured that you should have expended such a weight of time trying to knock our thoughts into some sort of coherent shape; your efforts would earn you greater reward elsewhere.

Our sincere hope is that if Turkotek readers are exposed to the huge amount of material which either exists (some of which we have quoted) or awaits discovery, (eg interviews with weavers regarding anomalies), they will find it possible to revise any positions they may have already adopted. We would like this salon to be as broad a discussion of Islamic influences on Moroccan textiles as possible and not monopolised by any position.

We have not yet read Goitein's "A Mediterranean Society"; it would seem wise to read the source before being drawn into debate via the reporting of a third party, no matter how respected. Perhaps Ms De Unzaga might be willing to host a future salon? (But she may be a muslim John so you will have to promise to curb your attempts at jocularity such as, "(muslims) are prone to exaggeration", 09/07/03 @0143 hrs.)


Do you know the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant?

Six blind men each touch an elephant which they have never encountered before. The first touches its trunk and believes an elephant to be like a snake. The second touches its tusks and considers it to be like a knife. The third feels its legs and considers the animal to be like a tree. The fourth reaches for the ears and says an elephant is like a leaf. The fifth touches the elephants sides which seem like a wall and the sixth handles the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. They then argue about who is correct.

Posted by Muhammad Thompson on 09-13-2003 06:57 PM:

Dear Steve,
Sorry I forgot to try to answer your question, (or should I say, "provide another hostage to fortune"):


There is for the muslims and other relgious groups, a conception of history which TurkoTek readers' appreciation of textiles will possibly make them sensitive to. A conception of history which is at odds with notions of "progress" and consequently with the mission of worldwide commerce to improve and modernise.
Have I misunderstood this?


Steve Price [/B]

We mean, if you value a craft or art such as rug weaving you are unlikely to think that change=progress, or that, "everyday and in everyway, things are getting better". You might even entertain the notion that the very reverse might be true; you might be a true "Luddite", capable of understanding those in the other camp. (I will resist quoting Eric Hobsbawn's heroic epitaph to those "machine breakers", but they do prove that westerners have not always been cannon fodder for big business and were, once or twice, capable of quite different visions of the future than the one now upheld.)

Modern, western society does however depend upon a substantial proportion of its members subscribing to this belief system. Or rather, it requires them to be indoctrinated into this value system by a constant barrage of advertising. The new is lauded, the old is denigrated. You are asked to form an orderly queue to buy the latest model (you do not want) with a loan (you cannot afford) for a life (you have lost control of).

Health warning: That is how it looks from here, where we are - you do not need to agree or disagree, merely suspend disbelief for a moment or two, allow the possibility of difference to exist without feeling threatened.

Posted by Steve Price on 09-13-2003 08:52 PM:

Hi Muhammad

Thanks for the reference on American isolationism. When I first read that phrase in your earlier post, I thought, "As recently as 1940 it would have been true." The article to which you refer, I was pleased to see, deals specifically with the period from about 1915 to about 1930. We surely were an isolationist nation at that time.

We have our idiosyncracies and flaws today, but I don't see how isolationism can be counted among them. I'll be happy to discuss it with you further, but Turkotek isn't the place to do it. Private e-mail would be much more appropriate, and I invite anyone interested in the subject to join in through that venue.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-13-2003 10:52 PM:

Mr. Thompson -

You say that as our hosts you "have no position."

Now I am truly lost about what we are about in this salon.

You started with a complaint about western misunderstanding. A complaint, it seems to me, does entail a position.

Now it seems that your advice is to perhaps steep ourselves in (the proper kind?) of Islamic history in order to correct our tendencies to misunderstand the way in which the art of Islam is reflected in Moroccan rugs.

You seem to want generally to correct our ill-advised views, but do not want to respond to questions at a concrete level.

I do not think you will have much success with the program of recommended broader historical reading until you can show more concetely why it is needed. General ethnocentric views of Islam in the west I will give you, but I thought you were about something more palpable than general complaint and then retreat into an obscurity of recommended readings.

In the next day or two I am going to make one further attempt to get some concrete sense of your thesis in this salon. If that too produces a refusal to respond, I will assume that discussion of such things at the moment is a failed enterprise. For me, at least.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-13-2003 11:05 PM:

Hi Muhammad,

I only now noticed your message posted just above my most recent one - I don't know how I overlooked it before.

First, I don't think political rhetoric will take us very far in the direction that I'm pretty sure we both want to go. So, if you will refrain from further reference to people like me as "cannon fodder for big business" and from making any more assertions like, Modern, western society does however depend upon a substantial proportion of its members subscribing to this belief system. Or rather, it requires them to be indoctrinated into this value system (that new is always better than old) by a constant barrage of advertising, I think we'll make better progress. I'll be happy to discuss such things with you privately.

This is not Hyde Park, and we have no intention of allowing it to become a venue for political speech whether I happen to agree with it or not. Indeed, you might be surprised to know that the owner/managers of this site include an extraordinary range of political beliefs. Some of them would agree wholeheartedly with your statements quoted above. So the issue isn't whether I/we agree with your views, it has to do with using this as a political forum.

You might also bear in mind that your audience, is primarily westerners with more than passing interest in the material culture of much of the Muslim world, a group that especially values the hand crafted folk art of days gone by. Nobody here has to be convinced of that. And whatever constant barrage of advertising you think we endure, none of it appears on this website (so we have at least one safe haven).


Steve Price