On Thursday, Barakat’s summer group of interns walked the few blocks to Yayla Tribal Rugs, on Broadway St., in Cambridge. Yayla, started in 1980 by Chris Walter, gets its name from the Turkish word for “high summer pasture”, and describes the area where the Middle Eastern and Central Asian nomadic peoples that use natural fibers and vegetable dyes to weave the rugs Walter’s shop sells.
Walter and his business partner, Habibullah Karimi, founded Barakat in 1994 in order to assist the refugee nomadic weaving communities by improving their access to education, particularly for women and children. Barakat has since grown considerably, currently operating three schools in Pakistan, and two schools and a number of literacy programs in Afghanistan for girls and women who cannot attend formal school.
Walter and Karimi originally wanted to open Barakat’s first school in Afghanistan, but the Soviet withdrawal and subsequent Afghan Civil War made the area too unstable. So they chose Northern Pakistan’s Attock district, where a sizable population of Afghan refugees had settled, Walter told us.
“The politics we deal with are contemporary, but they haven’t affected carpets being woven,” he said. “What we do today is pretty much what we’ve been doing since the beginning.”
Yayla reflects Walter’s wish to revive traditional carpet weaving and practices from their peak in the 19th century. It’s difficult to find carpets older than that, Walter said, as they are made of organic fabrics that naturally tend to deteriorate over time. In the past, customers desired Persian rugs, meaning rugs from Iran. But Walter said that is no longer the case.
“More carpets are produced in Afghanistan than anywhere else,” he said.
And while tourists in Afghanistan can easily buy a rug in a city bazaar, it will generally not be on par with the high quality rugs that Yayla carries, as wool is expensive and weavers can’t usually afford to spend months on a single project that may or may not sell. Yayla provides the designs its United States customers are most likely to buy, as well as the wool and tools, and lets the weavers work their magic. The designs, most often chosen by Walter himself, occasionally have a special meaning.
When a carpet reaches Yayla, it receives special attention. Moths are a constant worry, as “anything organic is food for something,” Walter said. Yayla’s eight workers regularly flip the stacked carpets, both so they can check them for damage and so customers can view them. The workers themselves are accustomed to handling the 5,000 rugs filling the store, as most of them have been working with Walter in Yayla for 20 years or more. According to Walter, all speak four to five languages.
The rooms at Yayla are like a maze, with walls adorned with layers upon layers of brightly colored rugs, each one unique and intricately detailed. Rolled up and propped against walls, and layered across the floors, the rugs are rich reminders of a tradition that may have disappeared without Walter’s and Karimi’s support, while Barakat is a potent reminder of the right to education every human being deserves.
It was a treat for Barakat’s interns to see in person the rugs woven by the hands of the people we work to help. Barakat’s schools and literacy programs complete a circle by giving back to the communities whose work made Yayla successful. Many of the girls and women whom Barakat educates rise with the sun to weave rugs with their families, before walking to school, and what they learn there gives them hope and helps them make the future they dream of a reality, for themselves and their communities.