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.)

9 thoughts on “Context and culture: When 8 year olds weave carpets”

  1. I think it’s very hard, if not impossible, to look at another culture without seeing it through the filter of your own life and expectations.

  2. I agree with Kristin, and there are reasons why we developed child labor laws.

    I guess my philosophy is that just because I understand the reasoning behind actions doesn’t mean I have like or accept those reasons or the actions.

  3. I think it’s tough (if not impossible) to look at anything and NOT have the influence of our own culture and upbringing.

    And sometimes I think we’ve (at least in our household) gone too far the other way with kids. Not that I think they should be financially responsible for the family, but possibly asked to contribute more to the family, which might lead to being more grateful for all of the wonderful things we have…instead of expecting or feeling entitled.

  4. This is a great post.
    My first thought was also, how sad that this 8 year old had to work and spend months making the rug. Sadder still that she was probably paid very little do it. That said you can look back at even our own culture 100 years ago and children worked. It may have been work at home, around the farm etc and was called chores. Once chores were done and homework done then maybe there was time for play. Definitely not as friendly or viewer happy than an image of all 8 year olds playing non stop and having no responsibility etc but the flip side is that those 8 year olds 100 years ago probably grew up knowing how to handle what happened in life a whole lot better than many kids today do.

  5. What a great question and compelling story. The child has great talent and is likely very proud of her ability to take care of her family. Maybe she is greatful that her job can be done indoors and does not involve sweating in the sun or picking up animal dung. Is this child given special priviledges or treated with anger? Is she thanked for her work or beaten so she will work faster?

    My father grew up in a very poor family. We heard many stories of his paper route at age 9 where all the money went to his family to buy food. My father would take us to the “old G. P. ” ( garbage pile) to find treasures to salvage. — I still have a metal desk chair.

    I think you do what you have to in order to survive.

  6. Lori you know I totally get this post. Like in I see this type of thing every day here in Cairo. The “gardeners” who clean up our yard once a week are babies. Some look to be not more than 9 years old. It was hard for Super S and I to grasp at first, and then we saw it was not changing. There would be a very young boy one week, then another the next. So we started giving them chocolate along with the expected monetary “tip”. Their eyes lit up and it was like they were a kid for just a few minutes. Sometimes I see them playing around and laughing, it breaks my heart. I know most of these kids will never see a school, they will not get an education like we think they ought to, they will not play like other kids their age… its such a hard situation to swallow. While I don’t agree with it, I know it must be neccessary for their families? I don’t know, but its still so hard to see.

  7. so interesting. the cultural lens/bias is impossible to set aside, I think. look at farming families here, if there are any left, that is. wasn’t that reward for having so many children, i.e., that they could contribute to the family business?

  8. I don’t know that it is really possible to turn off our own biases, we can just try. The more we are exposed to other people’s viewpoints (with open minds) the better we can be at it, imho.

    Sadly, I think Americans are some of the most – what is the word? “country-centric?. More people should spend some time living in foreign cultures.

    In terms of child labor – I think there should be a balance. As I was reading your post I thought that would need more details before calling it a bad thing. No time to play or go to school and long work days? I would call that a bad thing. If it is in balance with the other aspects of her life – more power to her and her family.

    Of course, school is just not an option in many poorer countries and learning a skill could be the best thing for her.

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