Jean-Michel Testard: carpet merchant and weaver of threads, words, and ties

Jean-Michel’s story is a story of transmission and sharing. At 75, this merchant runs an oriental art gallery in the heart of Nîmes. A passion he has nurtured since he was fifteen and his extraordinary stay in Afghanistan, during which he learned the weaving techniques of nomadic peoples. But above all, he begins there a real initiation to life.

As soon as you step through the door, the Galerie Testard transports you to another world, out of time. Kilims, woven rather than knotted Oriental rugs, cover the walls. Mystical objects, Tibetan bowls, ethnic jewelry, and statuettes from Mongolia, China, or Turkey, are scattered throughout the room. The abundant colors of the carpets and the smell of incense invade the senses, while the ” Om Tibetan chants resound in a loop. Intrigued, you can’t help stopping in front of this bazaar-like store, then entering it, as though magnetized by the softness and peaceful atmosphere that emanates from it.

This haven of peace is that of Jean-Michel Testard. He welcomes us with a big smile in his den, a gallery modeled after the Nîmes carpet merchant. He has been cultivating his passion for ancient oriental art for over fifty years. But Jean-Michel, who is approaching 75, is not just a weaver. This love of yarn, he discovered it at the age of sixteen, during an initiatory journey in the Afghan countryside in 1964, where Mr. Affiz, an old Afghan Sufi master, taught him the ancestral techniques of the trade for 22 months. ” Affiz has been dead for years, but when I close my eyes I still hear his voice “, he confides sitting in the middle of his kilims.

And more than a simple apprenticeship, Jean-Michel received the most beautiful life lessons there, which still guide every second of his existence today. ” Mr. Affiz said these very fitting words to me: “You won’t get anything with this job, but you’ll be rich like no other.” And how right he was! »

Jean-Michel Testard’s gallery, in Nîmes. © Louise Huet / RFI

Departure for the East

This inner richness can be seen in every look, every word of the Nîmes. Jean-Michel retraces his unusual journey, to explain how he got to where he is today. ” When I was fifteen, I was an apprentice carpet repairer in Lyon, working for an Iranian carpet merchant. There was an employee in the shop, an Armenian, who really gave me a taste for weaving, telling me stories about his work, his departure from Armenia, the Persian tradition around carpets… “. These stories fascinate him, subjugate him a little too much, and according to his Iranian boss, prevent him from working effectively.

Very quickly, his boss advised him to go to Iran, Afghanistan or Turkey to train with repairers accustomed to passing on their knowledge to young people. His father makes the choice for him, it will be Afghanistan. ” When my departure was confirmed, I ran down the floors of my building and ran towards my friends, shouting: “I am going to take the plane !”. I did not measure at all what I was getting into. I was young, stupid and a bit unconscious, but that’s why I dared to leave. Luckily I didn’t think too much about it after all. he smiles.

He flies first to Kabul with his Iranian boss, who has to settle some business there. But their path separates once in the Afghan capital, and the young Nîmes leaves for a small village in the south-west of the country, near Zarandj on the border with Iran. The boy spends his first night out on the ground, with his pillow bag, in the middle of nowhere. The following morning, Mr. Affiz, his future spiritual master, arrives to pick him up in a cart. ” He tries to console me but I’m in a panic, I’m shaking. Affiz then puts his hands on my shoulders and asks me to look at him. I look at him and everything relaxes in me. He has so much love in his eyes that I realize nothing more can happen to me. Now for me, love has a face: it’s that of Affiz he breathes in a slow voice, taking the time to enunciate each word.

Learn life with Affiz

With Affiz, Jean-Michel learns the gestures to weave, spin and embroider fabrics. The more the months pass, the more this teaching becomes a pretext, or rather a metaphor, to teach him the fundamental knowledge of life, to this Nîmois who has not yet seen anything, known anything. ” One day, Affiz woke me up at dawn. He said to me in French: “Come on, it’s day. Stop stealing your life!” then he takes me outside to watch the rising sun. Jean-Michel thinks he is wasting his time, but the Sufi master stops him. ” Wasting time is great happiness. And Michel, if I let you sleep, then the happiness of doing nothing, you don’t know it! he exclaims.

Jean-Michel shows his different kilims, each more colorful than the other, to his customers.
Jean-Michel shows his different kilims, each more colorful than the other, to his customers. © Louise Huet / RFI

Jean-Michel is only sixteen years old, and does not understand all the images that Affiz shows him, and yet each touches his heart.

Affiz shared his openness with me. From all our exchanges, I kept in me his way of being, his ability to take a step back. But what he transmitted to me the best was the notion of acceptance

His wisdom, Affiz transmits to him orally, as the nomadic tradition requires. Before returning to France, the Sufi master asks his student for one thing, a promise that he keeps hammering home: “ You too, Michel, you will say, one day, you will say… “. It was only years later that Jean-Michel would learn that ” hafiz means ” the one who knows ” in Arabic.

In the East, there is another culture, which I have adopted. With a precept: we are only passing through, and we must accept it. Accept things, without falling into fatalism. ” At home, Jean-Michel says that he was called ” sir it doesn’t matter “, as nothing is ever a source of hassle for him. The septuagenarian takes life as it comes, guided by passion and desire. Affiz trained me to stay optimistic. He was telling me : “The mountain always becomes a hill”. “However, Jean-Michel would have reason to mope: he fought twice against cancer, he witnessed the death of one of his daughters, also suffering from cancer at the age of 35, and increased financial problems. Despite everything, the weaver keeps his soul quiet. For him, these obstacles are, as Affiz taught him, mountains to be climbed to turn them into hills.

The language of weaving, another way of communicating

Upon his return to France in 1966, Jean-Michel spoke very little about his journey. Then his grandson was born in 2000, and it clicked: by holding this baby, he realized that he wanted to pass on his story to him, on paper. He then wrote his adventure in a book ingeniously titled ” Learn-to-weave which he published in 2015.

Inside, he retraces his 22 months of learning, like the philosophical journey of the Little Prince, and he describes the new language he learned: that of woven symbols. ” If you understand the carpet, you understand the meaning of life Affiz told him. And to perpetuate the tradition, the merchant himself transmits to the customers who come to buy a carpet the meaning of each figure on their purchase. ” I’m not here to sell. What I do with clients is discuss, share my knowledge and my passion. It’s a real moment of sharing, whether they buy something or not. »

Because that’s the heart of Jean-Michel’s gallery: understanding the story and the message hidden behind each rug, each symbol. And the regulars ask for more. ” We come every week to listen to the anecdotes of Jean-Michel », assures a retired couple who came to get a new kilim. The shopkeeper explains to them, for example, the meaning of a rug hanging on the wall: the cross signifies the human being, the diamond signifies life, and the sign of the hook, protection. A cross in a diamond surrounded by brackets therefore shows the protected human beings at the heart of life.

Jean-Michel explains the meaning of the symbol on this rug: water in the middle of a diamond, the sign that water represents life.
Jean-Michel explains the meaning of the symbol on this rug: water in the middle of a diamond, the sign that water represents life. © Louise Huet / RFI

Transmitting its precepts to others

You will say, one day, you will say… Affiz had made him promise. And this promise, Jean-Michel keeps it. Since the early 2000s, he has hosted numerous conferences for young people, schools and businesses, and talked to them about his book, all his happy memories in the Afghan countryside, and the culture of the nomads. ” It’s strange, but I find it easier to talk about my experience to strangers than to my own family, because they won’t judge me. To understand what I’ve been through, I think you have to have experienced it a bit yourself. “, he asserts.

This is precisely why many Afghan refugees in Nîmes come to visit him, intrigued by this gallery which reminds them a bit of home. With his relatives, he has been helping several migrants to find housing and employment for several years. Above all, he trained for two years Ali, a young Afghan whose father was himself a carpet merchant. Ali films Jean-Michel’s gestures then reproduces them meticulously to repair the carpets.

I saw his coming as a gift from heaven. This twenty-year-old Afghan boy who comes to see me to learn his father’s trade, since he cannot learn it in his country of origin. Fate does things well…

A man out of step with his time

Jean-Michel Testard is therefore a man apart, from another time, unconstrained. Only two things could affect him: that something happens to his partner and that he loses his gallery. He knows he is marginal, different from all the others, and yet he easily admits ” be happy not to look like them “. Jean-Michel is content with simple pleasures, sees beauty everywhere. He who is just recovering from an operation against his cancer indicates that he needs very little. For him there is no doubt: The difference between me and the world we live in? It’s that me, I’m free like no one else “.

The last time Jean-Michel saw Affiz was in 1969. The Nîmes man was then 20 years old, and visited his master some time before he ” join the world of the invisible “, as described by the Afghan. The moment of this final farewell reminds him of the day of his departure, three years earlier, when Affiz accompanied him to the village bus, to return to France. That day, Jean-Michel managed to overcome his modesty, his embarrassment, which the Afghan had tried to break for months, and the teenager whispered to him by way of goodbye, ” I love you “. Affiz then begins to cry. His job has been done.

For many, Jean-Michel’s experience of life in Afghanistan may seem rare, extraordinary. But not for him. ” We meet them, Affiz. There are plenty. The problem is that we are not attentive enough “, he regrets. So the rug merchant always gives the same advice to the students he meets: be available for others, and above all take the time. Take the time to afford your dreams.

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Jean-Michel Testard: carpet merchant and weaver of threads, words, and ties

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