Once known as the “Granary of Rome”, the Bekaa plain in Lebanon resembles a vast and colorful carpet when seen from the top of the mountains. Up close, you can see that its multicolored patterns are composed of fields of wheat, sunflowers, beets and all sorts of vegetables. The landscape unfolds into fig and apricot orchards, vineyards as far as the eye can see, and pastures for large flocks of sheep, direct descendants of a species dating back to antiquity. Here, on their way to and from the Orient, caravans passed each other as they travelled the Silk Road. Today, the richness of the land is matched only by the poverty of its inhabitants.

With its livestock and plants, the Bekaa has always been an abundant source of wool for weaving and plants for dyeing. In Ersal, a small village on the plain, under the leadership of Halime El Houjayri, women weave kilims according to a geometric pattern, one that has not changed for thousands of years. However, the region is infested with fundamentalist and other violent groups. Its economy is shrinking. A terrible acrylic yarn dipped in chemical colors replaces wool, which becomes rarer and more expensive, and natural dyes are too hard to obtain and too difficult to stabilize in comparison.

In 2014, after bloody incidents that left the village in even more misery, two patrons, writer Dominique Eddé and Isabelle Helou, went to Ersal to help, to do what they could. They discovered a chain of home workshops organized by the women of the community. They noticed the distance between the skill of the craftswomen and the ugly products they were producing. Aware of the need for added value, their idea was, at the beginning, to bring back the softness of natural pigments in pieces that were being made with low quality components. “We were struck by the scope of what had not been used: their memories, their imagination and their physical universe, the nature that surrounds them,” says Dominique Eddé.

A tribute to Etel Adnan

The two patrons try to convince the weavers to leave the classic kilim, of which there are fantastic versions made in Lebanon, and to invent their own designs. They invite them, for example, to illustrate their dreams and found for them, in 2017, a brand with a seductive name: The Thread of Time (Le Temps Brodé). In Ersal, time, a precious commodity, is the most abundant thing there is. The rhythm is slow. It extends over the seasons. In winter, the cold freezes your hands. Electricity is scarce. What power that does come is barely enough to charge the cell phones that the locals use as flashlights instead of their old lanterns to light the looms. Children are running around, domestic chores take priority. The weavers have long since given up dreaming. The natural beauty that surrounds them is evidence of something better, something that they no longer care to see.

On the advice of Eddé and Helou, who become curators, the weavers will try to let their imagination run wild. Large horizontal flat tints replace the conventional kilim patterns. The two patrons share some photos with contemporary artist Etel Adnan who expresses her admiration, comparing them to works by Paul Klee. Following this, Eddé brings the weavers a painting by Etel Adnan, owned by her family, and asks them to reproduce it. The artist herself offered The Thread of Time four drawings of windows that were distributed to four weavers, who were asked to interpret them in their own way. The success is immediate. When Etel Adnan passed, in 2021, one of the weavers paid tribute to her with a message of thanks embroidered at the foot of her tapestry.

Wheat fields, sunflowers and fading roses

The Thread of Time, which since 2017 has contributed to the development of the colors and content of Ersal’s tapestries, launches in parallel, in Bauchrié, in the suburbs of Beirut, a new workshop, this time it focuses on embroidery.

It’s the same story, or pattern if you like: At first, the embroiderers try to “make it pretty”: A rose is a rose is a rose… until they discover that a rose that fades is much more moving than the perfect flower. They too will be inspired by the work of Etel Adnan. Sometimes, under the same sensitive label, the two crafts, weaving and embroidery, cross paths on a piece. Collaborations are organized with other workshops, such as the leatherworker Lilyad. Dreams of incredible beauty spring from the fingers of the artisans. The shape of a wheat field that an embroiderer saw in her sleep, surrounding her beloved grandmother, the velvet of the figs of the Bekaa, the generous sun of the plain and its sunflowers, symbols of friendship.

The Thread of Time is, in the end, just one example of the countless success stories that result from benevolent collaborations between enlightened curators and precise and precious hands, between art and virtuosity, vision and realization.