Weavers in Arsal Shine in the Spotlight: Nivine Maktabi's Project Empowers Female Artisans

When there is a will, there’s a way – the familiar saying carries special weight when one talks about weavers in Arsal. In a part of the country that has been in the middle of regional conflicts, not to mention harsh weather, Arsal is not the bucolic countryside where one might image weavers thrive, kissed by the sun while their looms spin in harmony with songbirds. Nevertheless, a new project is making it a hub of artistry and women empowerment.

Article by: Pascale Bou Rached

Nivine Mohamed Maktabi, who followed her own family’s tradition and her personal passion for traditional weaving, engaged in a social enterprise project in 2016 in Arsal, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, in the Baalbek region.

Arsal is the HOME to skilled female artisans, knowledgeable about the art of handmade kilims, two-sided, flat tapestry rugs. USAID, a lead United States government agency, whose mission is “to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential,” identified Arsal as a promising location for a project to empower women.

In an interview with HOME, Maktabi talked about taking the risk on a social adventure in this unlikely location, her own background in the craft and the project’s role in empowering the women of Arsal.

An invitation to Arsal

Maktabi was called to collaborate on a project in Arsal, knowing of her family’s deep roots in the carpet industry and her own work in designing carpets and scarves.

Maktabi answered the invitation with a resounding, Yes! Her deep enthusiasm to embark on this adventure didn’t let her hesitate for a minute, although it would be very dangerous.

Undaunted, she speaks about the joy and importance of her work there. “I was extremely happy to meet 11 ladies, and give them the push and support they needed,” she said. “Designing and weaving carpets is not easy at all; it requires patience, attention and perseverance.

Despite the volatility we hear from Arsal and the bad conditions these women are going through, they continue producing carpets no matter what,” Maktabi said.

In cooperation with the USAID, Maktabi opened a workshop in Arsal that is run by women who weave kilim rugs and shawls with designs reflecting the beauty and magic of their heritage. In her work with local artisans, Maktabi brought modern designs and marketable strategies to help them succeed.

“When meeting the ladies, I discovered their traditional style of work in carpets.

So I transformed their creations from traditional to modern carpets, as we are living in a world full of modern designs and colors. We created kilim, thin carpets that are lighter when carried, with the same back and front mirror image and geometric design. We have added modern, happy colors.”

Everyone should support these women, she added. “They are working with passion, creating pieces of art that live forever. It’s a timeless art!”

"They are working with passion, creating pieces of art that live forever."

Carrying on the family tradition

As the eldest in the family and of Lebanese and Persian origins, raised in London, Maktabi studied the history of carpets and textiles at Sotheby’s Institute.

Coming from an established family in the carpet business, Maktabi followed the path of her family, adding her own modern twist. She learned more about the value of carpets. “There’s history, art, and wide culture behind it. This pushed me to challenge myself as a young female in a man-dominated industry.”

This dive “gave me a lot of personal benefits. My character has evolved; I have become more patient. My social life has become more active, thanks to the exhibitions done outside the country as well.”

Maktabi’s boutique, Oumnia, in the Saifi Village in Beirut, is now 12 years old. On its 10th anniversary, Maktabi showcased a collection of made-in-Arsal items, noting that each one two-meter carpet takes around a month to complete. On the occasion, one woman weaver from Arsal gave a live hand loom performance.

We have a lot of skilled female weavers and artisans to be proud of,” said Maktabi. “I advise them to never give up in their path as there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. For me with all the ups and downs, wars, and protests that took place in the country, I never gave up. When one is passionate about her job you can never give up, you always want to create, keeping yourself productive.”

"We have  a lot of skilled female weavers and artisans to be proud of."

Today, most of Maktabi's designs are limited edition signed carpets, and very soft pahmina and cashmere shawls. “I have added my own touch to make it unique, adding the female element in terms of design, colors, concept and ideas. I gave them more of an identity," she said.

Her first carpet was created for Prime Minister Saad El-Din Rafik Al-Hariri on the occasion of his birthday. Another set of carpets from Arsal were presented to the French delegation as a gift from the governor of Banque du Liban, Mr. Riad Salame. And recently the prime minister presented a gift of carpets from Arsal to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

For more info:  http://www.oumniaboutique.com

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