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The Carpet Weaver Of Shiraz

Zarafshan, shown here with her 10-year-old son, earns money by weaving carpets. But it's not enough to support her family of five children.
Steve Inskeep

What does the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran, as part of a nuclear deal, mean for one Iranian?

We met a carpet weaver in the ancient city of Shiraz. She spends her days on the floor of a little room. Working swiftly by hand, she ties knots with little bits of wool — orange, green, white and two shades of red. Wool threads stretch across a steel frame like strings on a harp.

Her clothes — loose, and flowing, and colorful — identify her as part of a traditional nomadic family. She might be in her 40s, though she said she didn't know her age. She was born back when her family was still living in tents.

It wasn't bad in tents, she said. They used to move south toward the Persian Gulf in the winter.

The name her family gave her, Zarafshan, means "spreader of gold." And they made carpets: Her mother did, and her grandmother, and her grandmother before that. It's a family tradition that Zarafshan has also passed down, saying her oldest daughter makes better carpets than she does.

Even today, Zarafshan's loom is of a kind that's simple and easy to carry — though the family long ago settled outside Shiraz.

We'd found her by following one street to a narrower street to a still narrower dead end, and finally to a little house, where her daughter-in-law was reading a book beside the gas stove.

Zarafshan is divorced with five kids, not all of them grown. She said what she earns from making carpets isn't enough to support her family.

Zarafshan comes from a family of carpet weavers, dating back to her great-grandmother.
Steve Inskeep / NPR
Zarafshan comes from a family of carpet weavers, dating back to her great-grandmother.

Still, "What do I need a husband for?" she says with a laugh. But now that he's gone, she is forced to supplement her income with help from her son-in law.

This is true even though she employs her local craft as part of the global economy. Zarafshan works for a local businessman, who says he employs a total of 40 women to make carpets in their homes.

He told us the carpets are sold in Germany. They were sold overseas even during economic sanctions, passing through third-party sellers. Iran is said to sell about two-thirds of its carpets abroad, exports worth about $330 million in 2014 alone.

They can be sold more easily now, though it's not clear what difference that will make to Zarafshan. I asked if she'd ever seen one of her carpets in someone else's home.

This is such an outlandish idea that she doesn't understand the question at first.

She finally says no. She hasn't. She's never even kept one of her carpets for her own home. She can't afford her own handiwork. So she keeps a machine-made, red-and-yellow carpet, the kind you might see in any modest home in Iran.

"Rich people can buy the carpets," she says.

And she goes on making them, working in this room whose only window opens to another room.

She's part of a very big world, though her world remains very, very small.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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