Category Archives: Travel

Context and culture: When 8 year olds weave carpets

While browsing for carpets in Aleppo’s souk a month after our arrival in Syria, Roger and I became ensnared in the lair of  an enthusiastic carpet salesman. We had made known that we had no intention of buying, yet our protests only made the smiles, words and tea flow more readily.

“THIS carpet,” said our proud host as he threw yet another rug on top of the already foot-high pile of rejected rugs, “represents the happiness motif.”

Admittedly, this carpet was a cut above the others, and I could feel my interest rise for the first time. The design was intricate, the fabric was a shiny and luxurious blend of silk and wool, and the weave was finer than anything we’d been shown. I was ready to nibble as he delivered his spiel de resistánce.

“Madame has a good eye. This carpet was woven from the fingers of an eight-year-old girl. It took her ten months to make this to support her family, and you can have it in your living room, no?”

I felt sick and indignant. An eight year old girl! Haram (shame)!

Eight year-olds should be free of the burden of supporting families — in fact at that age, THEY should be fully supported. Eight year-olds should be going to school and learning skills to help them break out of such a poverty cycle. Eight year-olds should be playing and carefree and protected from such responsibility by the adults around them. Eight year-olds shouldn’t be exploited just to make handicrafts for tourists who want a souvenir to go with their sofa.

I didn’t closely examine all these “shoulds” at the time, and for a number of reasons we didn’t buy a carpet that day. Only later, after living in Syria for awhile, did I revisit my feelings of revulsion and judgment.

Sometime in the last century, societies in fully developed countries reached an unprecedented general level of affluence. Much of what we now call “rights” we used to call “privileges.” We demand the right to education and lose sight of the privilege it once was. We expect childhood to be a stage of life exempt from earning expectations, and we demand that children should be free from worry and from the dependence of their caretakers, survival issues never entering their protected world. This is our ideal, and even though it’s not always the reality, it is the expectation.

But people in undeveloped or developing countries (or in the margins in our own) may not yet be able to hold the same expectations. A mouth to feed must be matched by hands that contribute. Everyone who is able must pitch in at least in a general way, such as bringing home the bacon (or lamb) or frying it up in a pan. Specialization of labor occurs when a member of the group can, through talent or physical attribute, enter a more lucrative outside market, like carpet weaving.

It’s very practical. Tourists have money, tourists want fine carpets. Eight-year olds make fine carpets, the proceeds of which can provide for a family.

Was I too tough in my judgment initially? Did I go all “ugly American,” showing the superiority for how WE do things and disdain for how THEY do things?

Was I too lenient upon later reflection? The practicality defense opens up all sorts of wormy cans, such as prostitution, child and otherwise.

How do you look at another culture without allowing your own culture’s lens to distort your view? Is there a true north when it comes to a cultural moral compass?

(This post is in response my dry spell. Thanks so much, y’all, for coming up with some good suggestions.)

Answer me this #15

How do you tell the difference between acculturated and brainwashed?

Consider your answer before you read my reason for the question.



I usually don’t editorialize on AnswerMeThis posts, but I’ll explain where I’m coming from on this one.

While on a college campus the other day, I noticed a woman covered in full hijab — hair and face, with only a slit for her eyes.

My first thought was, “How sad for her, that her culture requires her to hide herself. I’m glad I’M not indoctrinated like that.”

My next thought was a conversation I had with an Muslim friend during the time I lived in Syria, where covering is not mandatory.

“Why did I choose to cover?” Mouna replied as I broached the subject. “First, you must know that it was my choice to cover my hair. Not my father’s and not my husband’s. I cover because I realize my value. My body is a treasure, given by Allah, so special that I prefer to share my full self with only women and with the men in my family.”

“YOUR ways seem strange to US. You western women have lost sight of your own value,” Mouna continued. “You devalue yourselves by overexposure. You have been brainwashed into sharing yourselves for the gratification of others — even strangers. Of course, I’m not just talking about covering one’s head, but about exposing so much of your body that nothing is special anymore. Look at what goes on in movies, on TV, on magazine covers. You think you’re more free, but you’re not.”

So I ask: how do you tell the difference between acculturated and brainwashed? Not necessarily with the hijab, but with whatever the question brings to mind for you.

Show & Tell: Senior moment

Maybe it’s the influence of my last post that triggered me to share this photo I took of a scene in Budapest many years ago.

Budapest was the consolation prize I mentioned here, which includes the bridge that first bonded me to Cassandra.

I wonder what the man is waiting for? What kind of life has he had? What has he seen? Has he loved and been loved?

The photo has been hanging on our wall for a dozen years, and the light has not been good to it. Still, I hope you can see the haunting quality in the image that I do.

See the cool stuff my classmates are showing and telling over at Mel’s Show & Tell.