small family business
11 female & 2 male artisans
owner: nebije qotaj
co/rizom partner since 1/2019
It takes a lot of courage & determination
to rise as a woman in a
traditional Albanian village.
But when the fishing jobs disappeared
in neighboring Lake Shkodaer &
her family had to be taken care of,
Nebije remembered the long afternoons spent watching her grandmother magically turn row after row of thread into colorful carpets on a loom.
She turned her home into a workshop, dyeing wool & weaving & soon trained & employed eleven local women, each one– the sole breadwinner in their families..
andrei georgescu business development
nadja zerunian creative
walter aigner technical expert
marta galli text
pauline thurn und taxis photography
gjoana leka & erjon kacerja local support
Carps. Big, fat, oily fish that belong to the Cyprinidae family are like gold to the people living around Lake Shkodra in Albania, the biggest lagoon in the Balkan region. Cooked according to an ancient recipe, the carp casserole is a delicious tourist attraction. There isn’t much agriculture at the feet of Taraboshi mountain in the Albanian Alps but the rocky landscape provides the perfect terrain for olive trees. Nature thrives here too. Over 800 types of seaweed, over 250 species of birds and 50 different types of fish live within an area that overlaps into Montenegro - there’s an invisible border crossing the silver lake. Once the heart of Old Illyria, the place is filled with picturesque fishermen’s villages.
Fishing being more of a man’s thing, at the end of the night all the local men from the villages take to the lake in small boats, armed with throw nets. But this picturesque postcard image has been threatened by a sharp rise in illegal fishing. With the severe decline in the most valued species - such as carp - only meagre pickings are left for the locals. Families can no longer rely on the unstable outcome of their aquatic catches for their survival. That’s why Nebije Qotaj, a woman with silky jet-black hair, then in her late 20s & a mother of three, decided she had to do something. She started with what she knows best.
The Cold War is over. Evaporated. The future is unwritten. The communist regime is in power & Nebije works for the State producing rugs for the export market in a big factory in her village. Working on the loom, there isn’t much room for experimentation, for adding colors or patterns. Everything is pre-determined. Nebije learnt to weave at a very young age. In the Muslim community she grew up in it’s a tradition that is passed down from woman to woman.
During the 1992 elections the communist party is wiped out. The same communists who destroyed mosques & churches, persecuted imams & priests & banned private religious observance. But with them, also the factory where Nebije works is closed down. She is desolate & doesn’t want to move for work. Many members of her family have already moved to the city of Shkodra, but the little village on the lake, Zogaj, is all she has ever known & is where she grew up. She wants to stay put. Zogaj has long beaches, Zogaj has crabs. She really likes it here. For a while she stays at home, but she can not sit on her hands.
She is one of the most attractive women in the village, & one of the smartest – she argues – so she doesn’t have to look very far to get married. She shares her house with her brother-in-law’s family. Nebije & her husband have three children, and to make a living for all of them is not easy. Until she inherits a big old loom from her husband’s grandmother in 1996.
At the beginning it is just the loom, her & a friend of hers to whom she teaches everything she knows about weaving. They are packed like sardines in the house she shares with her brother-in-law. In a single room she cooks, looks after the children, dyes the threads & weaves. But as soon as she hears of a building that has been left empty in the village, she moves, despite being criticized by members of her extended family. “A family has to stay together,” they tell her. All, apart from her husband. “He has always been supportive” — she recalls – “& I am deeply grateful to him for being by my side.” When things start taking off, he comes to pick her up from work, sometimes very late at night.
Towards 2005 rugs are coming back into fashion as gifts to give to relatives in the Albanese diaspora. But the real turning point is when Nebije is invited to take part in a local crafts-fair by Zenepe Dibra, a women’s rights activist. Nebije’s business takes off. She starts to receive orders from abroad & to keep up with those she needs to hire more women. She feels that hiring more women won’t just improve her business but also the lives of the people around her. And it becomes a commitment. But first, she needs an extra loom.
She soon finds out that she can get a loan from a bank. But since Albania is still a deeply patriarchal society, women can’t ask for a loan unless a man acts as a guarantor. She believes her husband’s father can help but the bank rejects this. “Too old,” they explain. Their refusal doesn’t discourage her & she manages to convince the bank that because the old chap’s mother lived to be 100, he is not going to die any time soon. “I promise,” she says. And she gets the loan.
Today Nebje lives & works in a three-story building perched on a hilly street with a breath-taking view over lake Shkodra. In the summertime - during the school holidays - she invites young girls over & shows them how to weave. She initiates them into the profession, sends them away with some money & teaches them independence. As for her own independence, Nebije is proud of her life: carrying heavy bags up & down the hill, welcoming clients & taking good care of them, giving 11 women a place to work in a village of 500 in which she is the only employer. A handful of old men station themselves by her house & appear to have nothing better to do than gossip. “They should come in & help instead of just staring & criticizing!” she suggests defiantly. But she doesn’t really mean it, she is in charge & she will keep on her path. It’s just more difficult in a patriarchal society. Working with her are women of different religions, reflecting the multi-cultural stratification of Albania, a country where 70% of the population is Muslim, 20% is Orthodox and 10% is Catholic. Despite its diverse socio-cultural & religious make-up - or probably because of it - tolerance prevails. The nation that endured occupation by the Ottoman Turks until the 5th century has a strong sense of identity & pride that has fascinated travelers for centuries.
Hope. On the second floor of the building she runs her business out of, Nebije has created a showroom & covered it with Kilim rugs. They overlap on the floor, hang on all the walls & even cover the small trays with which she serves us glasses of juice when we meet. One large red rug depicting the image of the Albanian Eagle dominates the room and is a reminder of the lasting link between crafts & national tradition.
In Albania every woman who hoped to get married was required to learn how to weave from her mother. Yet here, like in other Balkan countries, the commerce in handmade rugs only started after WWII.
The Kilim style originated among nomadic peoples in Northern Africa, Anatolia, Persia, Caucasus, the Balkan Peninsula, Afghanistan & Central Asia. It isn’t hard to see why. These typically flat tapestry-style handwoven carpets were easy to fold & carry. They were also intended for more than just domestic use expressing - like jewelry & clothes - the identity of a group and becoming totems for culture & customs.
The practice of making Kilims pre-dates Muhammad, while findings in Egyptian sarcophagi suggests it goes back to 1000 B.C. Ancient rugs can be dated & their provenance identified by looking at motifs & color combinations. Islamic influences as well as nomadic traits are still found in these objects today, although many of the tribal differences & a lot of the iconographic complexity have disappeared over the centuries. The term kilim still conveys a quintessential Eastern flavor, depicting tales of a wandering life & imperial palaces.
Text: Marta Galli
Photos: Pauline Thurn und Taxis