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Ukraine: Tatar Women Rediscover Roots

As Ukraine's Crimean Tatars rebuild their lives in their former homeland, some are turning to almost-forgotten traditions. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde traveled to the old Tatar capital of Bakhchisaray to speak to women who have revived traditional methods of gold embroidery.

Bakhchisaray, Ukraine; 23 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Since their gradual return home after mass deportation 50 years ago, the Crimean Tatars are beginning to rebuild their national culture in the Crimea.

In Bakhchisaray, Tatar women are rediscovering their national identity through an internationally funded project. They are re-learning traditional methods of gold embroidery. Until recently, the intricate work could only be found in museum cases. The art of embroidery had all but died out. But this old art form is now emerging in Crimea once again, thanks to the leader of the project, Ayshe Osmanova.

Osmanova says the traditional embroidery designs often incorporate simple objects, such as fruit, to symbolize larger concepts, like the family. She describes a typical motif:

"One common ornament is the 'nar,' which translates as the fruit 'pomegranate.' The nar has a grain inside that is sweet. This design is embroidered almost on all ornaments, whether they are for men, women or children. It's like a talisman and is closely linked to the family. The grain itself refers to the people in the family, which should be healthy and harmonious. The design is divided into squares to refer to the house where they all live."

With a grant from the Canadian Fund, Osmanova bought material, ordered gold and silver thread from Turkey, and found premises for her new business. She collected a group of 50 women to learn the technique and designs. Osmanova says the purpose of the project is not only to preserve the craft, but also to create jobs for local women:

"It's such a craft...that now won't disappear. If we didn't do [this embroidery], in two years it definitely would disappear, because already there are hardly any people left who can do it. There was someone who could teach us and so we passed it on, and now it definitely isn't going to vanish -- we stopped the process of disappearing. Another point is that we have a very hard situation, it's hard to find work. Women can do this work at home, they can sew souvenirs or our religious national items."

Like the vast majority of Crimean Tatars who have moved back to the Crimea this decade, Osmanova was not yet born when her people were deported by Stalin in 1944. Accused of collaborating with the German invaders, the Tatars were forced to leave Crimea and resettle in Central Asia and the Urals. Thousands died in the process.

The deportations almost destroyed the Tatar national identity. Many returning Tatars cannot speak their native language and have forgotten many of the traditions. Today, even some older Tatars are not sure whether some of their customs are really Tatar or whether they have been adopted from Central Asia.

The women in Osmanova's group make traditional covers for the Koran, tobacco pouches and ladies' evening bags. One member of the group, Lilia Alieva, says projects like this are helping to bring Tatars who missed out on a traditional upbringing back to their cultural roots and a better way of living.

"There are those who just live and don't bother with these details, and have never come across [our traditions] before because there was no such thing in the family."

To Osmanova, the traditional art of embroidery is closely linked to Tatar identity. She says Tatar Crimean designs are unique among Turkic cultures, as they incorporate Tatar themes of family and religion.

Many Tatars feel their world view is under threat from the influence of modern Slavic Ukrainian and Russian cultures. Osmanova's husband, Lufti, has started a foundation called the Renaissance of Crimea. Reviving the art of embroidery is just one aspect of this larger Tatar cultural revival.