Leyne.co – a women-led community, revitalising the ancient Talysh tradition of reed wicker work. This community based entrepreneurship was founded by Gunay Rzazada, a specialist in the field of cultural management. She spoke to Təzə People and explained why folk crafts have to be revived in the 21st century, what responsible entrepreneurship should be like and what social and ecological issues can be solved by clutch bags made of reeds.
I was born and raised in Talish family in Lenkoran – a town on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in the south-eastern part of the country. It is located in the lowlands, that is why humidity is very strong here, especially in the summer. This geographical characteristic massively influenced the Talish’s way of living and, to a certain extent, defined our culture.
Lots of reeds grow in the swampy area around us. We call them liğ and pizə - those are two types of reeds, which efficiently absorb water. For centuries, those reeds have been used to make baskets, bags, shoes, carpet mats and household items. Even in the Soviet times people in Lenkoran were engaged in reeds-based crafts, but this industry deteriorated with the mass production of plastics and cellophane. Besides, gathering reeds is a very complicated process. One has to work in a swamp full of snakes and insects – and that is quite dangerous. After which, those reeds need to be dried under direct sunlight. And god forbid one drop of water from falling on it – this immediately spoils the reeds. Because of all these complications, paired with economic troubles of the 1990s, this craft was abandoned and almost forgotten in this part of the land.
Back in the days, everyone had a neighbor or a friend who would be engaged in this craft. Even my father helped the adults gather reeds when he was a kid and came here for the summer holidays.
I’ve always wanted to revive this tradition in Lenkoran
I studied at the faculty of tourism and cultural management, so I know well how to develop local culture based on business. I don’t want to be seen as a person who exploits the subject of ethnic minorities and sells culture as merchandise. I am not into that. But I also don’t think that art must iconized and that people should be into it simply for aesthetics and beauty. That’s why I’ve always been saying that yes – this is art and cultural heritage of the Talish people, but it must also be practical. Crafts should be sellable; otherwise, there would be no development. Many tend to separate socially-oriented entrepreneurship from general entrepreneurship, but, in my view, this is not right. People often say about us that we are engaged in “socially-oriented entrepreneurship”. But we are actually into normal entrepreneurship, personified – just like it should be.
From a business standpoint, I wanted to contribute to solving issues like cultural assimilation, women’s rights and climate change. For me this is all very important – I am a woman, I am Talish and ecological issues, in my mind, should concern everyone on planet Earth. And our Leyne.co project is seeking and finding small solutions for these huge issues.
First of all, products made of reeds decompose quickly – it is an ecologically clean product, which does not harm the environment. Secondly, our community gathers women, who need support. We teach them and provide them with employment. I hired three craftsmen who spent three months teaching 15 women the skill of reed plaiting. Since the end of November 2022 we started taking orders. Over that time we’ve managed to earn around 1000 manat – and for us this is a sizeable sum. Because we’ve only just begun – the girls are not yet as quick in their work as professional craftsmen, but they are already earning money for this and that feels very valuable to us.
It is very important that for our craftswomen this is not just a job at Leyne.co. A few days ago, I saw a message on a group chat in WhatsApp – one of the women said that her friend’s child was very sick. Despite that our members come from low-income families, they responded and donated money to her. And here is another example. We had a rather elderly woman working for us, who had problems with her hand and could no longer be engaged in reed plaiting. Our women bought a present for her on her birthday and came to congratulate her. And things like that both surprise me and make me feel happy – thanks to them I feel that we are united, that we are a community.
We are developing an ancient culture, but we are doing it in a modern way. At first, we were inspired by examples from Instagram and Pinterest, then we started creating our own designs. Eventually, we came to understand what could and what could not be made of reeds. Understood the peculiarities of this material. Now, our craftswomen not only make traditional Talish baskets of these reeds, but also fashionable clutch bags, backpacks and honches (small bowls for nuts and sweets). So, in a nutshell, this is not just a production – this is a form of art.
Women come here not just to earn money, this is also like art-therapy for them
Not too long ago, one of the divisions of the UN ordered baskets from us and paid a lot of money. This is great, but we really want our products to be accessible for everyone, not just those who are ready to spend. Crafts often turn into exploitation of the ethnic, because that has been the trend of today – to develop pretty-looking stories and marketing tricks. I don’t want this here. I want things to be honest, when the cost of the materials, the labor and the time of these women, the transportation costs – all of that is taken into account when our community decides on a fair price for every product.
I have a dream of reaching out to other ethnic groups in Azerbaijan and beyond. For example, there is a village of Hamosham in the Astara district. The Talish people also live there, but they belong to a different movement within Islam – the Sunni. Rufat Aliyev, the head of the local municipality, learnt from someone that I was engaged in revitalization and promotion of the Talysh ethnic culture. So he invited me to this wonderful village.
Women of Hamosham are keeping the Talysh carpet-weaving tradition alive. My grandmother told me that when she was small – kilim carpets were weaved in our own home. But this craft has been forgotten in Lenkoran, while in Hamosham it is still alive – even despite being in a deteriorated state. According to my friends who know what a good carpet looks like, the craftswomen of Hamosham make high-quality things. Many of those have been produced since the Soviet days, but they are also creating new forms and patterns. They turn to experience other carpet-weaving schools in Azerbaijan, as well as developing their own.
For now, we only help them with promotion and plan to put their carpets on sale – at trading vendors in Baku and Lenkoran where we sell our products. But I have a dream that in the future there will be a designated show room in Hamosham. It will have three rooms. In the first – craftswomen will be coloring the threads. In the second – they will be weaving those carpets. And in the third – they will be selling these carpets. I am sure that if we market this vivid process in the right way, this would attract buyers, tourists and the village will enjoy a totally new life.
At the end of the day – why not earning some money for the village from tourism? We don’t have to rebuild everything to suit tourists’ taste, but we can develop our cultural heritage using the tools of entrepreneurship.
Not only the cultural heritage of the Talish people interests me, but also that of other ethnic groups, even outside of Azerbaijan. For instance, in the Georgian town of Zugdidi, there is an organization called “Hands for Peace”, run by a very active girl – Maka. It is also a community of women, where they are being taught needlework. We are now actively looking for grants, which would fund their trip here, to Lenkoran. We want them to meet our women here, give them an opportunity to learn from one another and then organize a festival – so that they can leave their everyday working routine aside and have a little fun. You cannot be working all the time – it is important to have pleasant conversations and get acquainted with different cultures.
This article is dedicated to Mekhman Rzaev Talyshinsky, who will always remain in my memory as the true Lenkoranian. Dear uncle, you are the most free and the most interesting man I’ve met in my life. No one has ever supported me as much as you did. No one has ever understood and felt me as you did. My efforts to preserve our culture will forever be connected with your name.
(с) Gunay Rzazada
Photo: Aygün Rəşid, Toghrul Faraj