On Sunday, 31st May 2020, Fatima Abbadi from Capelle aan den IJssel in The Netherlands, who recently has been writing various blogs for the TRC about her teaching of Middle Eastern embroidery to immigrant women and others, wrote about a particular type of embroidery from a Christian community in northern Iraq:
In 2016 I had the privilege to view a rare festive garment, called a charuga, from the city of Qaraqosh in northern Iraq. It dated back to the mid-20th century. It was love at first sight. What attracted me most was the traditional, geometric pattern that is unique to this type of attire, contrary to the Palestinian garments which I am far more familiar with.
The complete festive outfit consisted of several garments, completed by the charuga, a sort of mantle-like, embroidered piece of attire (in this case red ), which is traditionally knotted at the shoulder. The embroidery and its patterns are unique. I had never seen it before, which makes it more fascinating and mysterious at the same time.
Eager to learn more, I started searching the internet, trying to find resources and books, but little is known about this garment. This might be due to factors such as war, displacement, etc. Time went by and I slowly began to lose hope of finding additional information. I ended up putting away this research, hoping for better times.
It was in January this year, when I started my workshop in Capelle aan den IJssel, that one of my ladies, Nourhan from Iraq, asked me to talk about Iraqi embroidery. As I wasn’t able to give her a satisfactory answer I decided the time had come for me to pick up again my research about the charuga mantle.
It took me several months before I discovered that in the city of Qaraqosh, in northern Iraq, there still is a woman who embroiders the charuga. Her name is Suzan Sukari and this is her story:
Suzan Sukari is from Qaraqosh. She learned embroidering the charuga from her grandmother who was a famous embroideress. For Suzan, the traditional Qaraqosh dress is not just a matter of pride in her heritage, it’s her bond with the past, her Christianity and her ancestral Assyrian traditions.
She has been working in this field for many years, even during the most difficult and tragic moments of her life. The charuga is her bond with Qaraqosh, a sort of identity card that every woman of that area wears with pride. Due to her long experience in embroidering this rare garment, she explains with a little sadness how old patterns have somehow been lost and have mutated into a new form of pattern language.
Fortunately, she explains, Qaraqosh women still maintain the tradition that distinguishes them from the other women by wearing the checked red and black charuga. Nowadays, on a festive occasion, you can see women from different nearby areas wear various colourful charugas, such as plain red, yellow and black, not taking into account the historical differences of every colour and use.
For instance, as Suzan explains, plain red charuga was historically used when working in the fields. In this way dust and dirt were less visible, while black, instead, was used by the widows, etc. These days they use any colour they wish. What distinguishes each area, luckily, are some specific patterns embroidered on the charuga.
Historically, colours and patterns had a specific significance and use. “Our traditions were lost with the passing of time due to many factors such as the difficulty in acquiring the authentic materials, war, displacement and the advances of modernity” .
Nowadays, girls and women who want an embroidered charuga ask for something personal and unique, not the simple and geometric embroidery forms such as triangles, flowers, stars, moon and small crosses, typical of the traditional charuga. Instead, modern charugas come with various large embroidery motifs, for example large churches, traditional scenes from everyday life, such as a man with a donkey cart, a woman milking her cow, dabka dancing (traditional hand-in-hand dance) or even much more religious motifs, such as the “Last Supper”.
The new charuga patterns are a representation of modernity, of how things mutate and change very fast, obliterating signs from the past in order to make way for the present and future. Women, through their personal charuga, want to tell more about themselves, about where they live (for example, a specific church pattern on the charuga) or what their ancestors used to do or about the things they like.
In the past, the charuga was worn strictly on festive religious occasions, for example, at Easter, Christmas and at a Christening. Nowadays, instead, every festive and joyful occasion, such as Teacher’s Day, End of the School Year, etc., is an opportunity to wear the full traditional outfit with pride.
Suzan explains that to embroider a charuga takes much time, an deep knowledge of various embroidery stitches, such as chain stitch, running stitch, satin stitch, and many others, and great skills. The size of the fabric on which the patterns are embroidered is approximately one by one metre. She embroiders directly on the fabric without using an embroidery loop.
In 2014 Suzan fled Qaraqosh due to the brutal ISIL invasion, which targeted all of the northern region of Iraq, especially those areas where the Yazidis and Christians were living. She had to leave everything behind in order to save herself and her six children. She lived in a refugee camp in Kurdistan for three years before being able to return home to Qaraqosh and yet, even in those circumstances, she never stopped embroidering charugas.
On returning home she found out that ISIL had destroyed and razed to the ground everything. The museums, the houses, the churches no longer existed... No traces remained of a former civilisation. Qaraqosh had vanished and with it all its culture. It was at that moment that Susan decided not to leave Iraq again and to continue with her mission as the guardian of the charuga and its patterns, no matter the cost.
PS: The TRC has ordered a number of items from Suzan Sukari, including a charuga and samples of various patterns. In this way we hope to support her work, and to draw wider attention to her enterprise and the material culture of the Iraqi Christians. The items will be included in a mini-exhibition to be displayed at the TRC (GV).