opera mini for androidA friend (and dedicated HasNa volunteer) recently shared a Twitter message with me about the display of the “Ghazir rug” at the White House. Sad to say, I was not familiar with it; but the Tweet referenced the rug’s “symbolism of the Armenian genocide” and I decided to do some investigation. The Near East Relief organization presented the rug to President Calvin Coolidge in December 1925 as a gift, woven by Armenian orphans living in Ghazir, Syria (now Lebanon). It was inscribed as a “Golden Rule token of appreciation to President Coolidge” for U.S. humanitarian assistance to displaced Armenian orphans. Dr. John Finley, who presented the rug, noted that the President’s “words as to the observance of Golden Rule Sunday [the previous year had] gone out into all the earth..and…been especially appreciated by the orphan children…”
“Golden Rule Sunday” referred to an international campaign by the Congressionally-chartered humanitarian aid organization Near East Relief, declaring December 2, 1923 the first International Golden Rule Day. The organization asked citizens to practice “self denial” so that others would not starve, specifically that Americans forego the usual lavish Sunday dinner tradition and instead eat a meal similar to what Near East Relief orphans ate daily (recipes available upon request) and contribute the cost savings to relief work. President Coolidge was among those taking the Sunday Dinner pledge.
The Isfahan-style rug took 10 months to complete, with four girls working the loom at a time. It contained 4,404,247 knots, representing flora and fauna, including 144 animals in its design (some would say depicting the Garden of Eden of Biblical reference). Dr. Finley, describing it as a labor of love, remarked, “They have tied into it the gratitude of tens of thousands of children to you and to America. And what they have tied into it will never be untied.”
But the rug’s goodwill history belies its political symbolism today. Tension still exists between Turkey and Armenia over labeling the massacre beginning in 1915 as “genocide.” The current White House Administration came under fire in 2013 for not loaning the rug to The Smithsonian for the launch of a book on the rug’s history (Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian’s President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug). The White House stated at the time that it was inappropriate to display a rug from the White House collection at a book sale. Critics claimed the American government was afraid of inciting the ire of the Turkish government and Turkish organizations. But, as political winds shift, it was announced this month that the rug will be on display at the White House Visitors Center as part of an exhibit entitled “Thank You to the United States: Three Gifts to Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad” from November 18-23, 2014. It’s actually only the third time the rug has been displayed publically since the Coolidge family gifted it back to the White House in 1982; the rug remained in storage until now. Is all well then in U.S. foreign relations related to the Turkish-Armenian controversy?
What strikes me as tragic (though not as tragic as the millions of people who lost their lives between 1915 and the early 1920s) is the loss of the rug’s intended symbolism of “goodwill on Earth” to quote President Calvin Coolidge. Let’s not forget that the rug was a labor of love and gratitude, from children displaced by war and violence and death. As a novice weaver myself, I can’t help but think of the metaphor of weaving in our peacebuilding work. The art of weaving is in capturing the beauty through interlacing different colors and textures in the creation of patterns and shapes that have meaning to the artist and to the viewer. Throughout history, woven textile design has been steeped in cultural contexts, shaped by sociological and political influences. The product of weaving is borne out of an artist’s dream or vision, a culmination of focusing intently on the steps of warp and weft. In the end, the individual threads are interlaced, each important to the design; but it is the integration of those threads that brings the woven art to life, and gives the textile its strength.
This imagery applies to our work — integrating people with perceived differences through one lens on problem solving, weaving their perspectives into a common understanding. An understanding not only of the problem’s solution (be it farm extension or environmental conservation) but of the common humanity. Isn’t that the legacy of the Ghazir orphans through their rug? They wove into their rug their gratitude for humanitarian support of strangers helping strangers. The violence that catalyzed the conditions that led to the rug was not the ultimate source of its creation. Love and gratitude were.
 New York Times, “President Receives Rug Woven by Orphans of Near East and Praises Work of Relief” December 5, 1925.
 Urbana Daily Courier, “Golden Rule Day Gains Popularity”, 26 November 1923.
 New York Times, December 5, 1925