iraqi tailors driven out of business by extremists
In Mosul, still one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, wearing a suit makes you a target for kidnapping or murder. The unexpected result of extremist violence: the once thriving profession of tailoring is dying
“It’s as if there is some kind of a law that bans tailors from having a shop in this city,” says Dirgham, a Mosul local who is busy searching the marketplaces here for a tailor.
Dirgham’s biggest problem is his size: he weighs 130 kilos and unlike in Europe or the US, he doesn’t have the option of simply visiting a “big and tall” menswear shop selling oversized clothing. He must find a tailor if he wants to dress nicely.
As he roams Mosul’s streets, a sweaty Dirgham carries with him a large piece of black, English-made fabric, something of a luxury.
“I had been going to a tailor in the old market for ten years,” Dirgham says. “I was able to dress elegantly because of his scissors. But now,” he laments, “I have to find a new tailor because the one I used to go to has changed his profession. And it is very difficult to find anyone now.”
Before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, there were more than 300 sewing workshops in Mosul. Now it’s estimated there are only about a hundred.
One of the oldest tailors in Mosul, who doesn’t give his full name, explains that this was because, after 2003, when economic sanctions that had been imposed on Hussein’s Iraq were lifted, the clothing market was flooded with cheap garments from Syria, Turkey and China.
For the average-sized consumer it was simply cheaper and less time consuming to buy the readymade items. “And there were no taxes on imported clothes, or other commodities,” Dirgham adds.
During a tour of Halab Street, which is lined with menswear stores, NIQASH met Samir Mohammed, who manages a tailor’s workroom here.
Mohammed is in his 60s and he’s spent most of his life working as a tailor, a profession he inherited from his father as well as the business. “This is the worst period for us,” he complains. “In the past, our shops in Ninawa were full of people. Weeks before any Islamic or Christian special occasions, people would come to us to get a tailored suit. But now our shops are almost empty,” he says.
Mohammed listed other reasons for the lack of tailors in Mosul now: “The bad security conditions in Mosul, which started after 2003 and which continue up to today, are another reason why people prefer readymade clothes,” he suggests; Mosul is still one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq due to the different ethnicities and sects that call it home.
“Bombings and killings have seen concrete barriers erected around here which means that people can’t even park their cars nearby. All of these factors have meant less trade for tailors here.”
Mohammed says that his customers used to come from all walks of life, from the city’s wealthy to those on more limited incomes. “But none of my old customers come anymore,” he says. “Now most of my customers are those who need plus size clothes and who can’t find readymade clothing in their sizes. There are also some old people, as well as some businessmen, who prefer tailored clothing. But there’s very few of them.”
Right next to Mohammed’s workshop is the clothing business belonging to Mahmoud Amir. “I’ve decided to change my profession and to sell readymade clothes,” he explains as he takes measures up a customer. “This might be my very last customer,” he says, somewhat sadly.
"It’s just not worth it anymore,” Amir continues. “I need money to pay the rent and to pay my employees. I also need to pay for power, water and to cover the taxes. But the income from this shop barely covers all that,” he explains.
There’s a piece of brown cloth lying on the table in front of him and it inspires Amir to calculations. The price of a readymade suit sits between IQD75,000 and IQD100,000 (US$63 – US$84), he says, whereas a tailored one will cost around IQD240,000 (US$203).
The fabrics used for tailoring in Iraq tend to come from Pakistan, Japan or Thailand and the price per meter used runs from IQD25,000 (about US$20) to IQD50,000 (about US$40) – which isn’t cheap, even in Western terms.
“Only wealthy people can afford to pay for the kinds of fabrics available on the Iraqi market,” Mahmoud continued. “And these people don’t want anyone to know how wealthy they are – not in this city anyway. No one is going to risk their lives, or risk being kidnapped, just so they can wear a tailored suit.”
Two roads away from Halab Street, on Khalid Bin Al Waleed Street, we find another Mosul tailor, Marwan Rajab, sitting in his shop; with nothing to do, he’s playing with his scissors and singing an Iraqi pop sing.
“In the old days,” he says, “these walls were full of the suits I used to make for my customers before any religious occasion. Now they’re empty.”
True, the walls of his shop boast nothing but an old clock that seems to have stopped, a license to practice as a tailor and a picture of Rajab himself.
“This profession will soon disappear,” Rajab mourns. “Not only will the small shops cease to exist but the bigger ones will too. A decade ago, there were hundreds of tailors working here. Now there are only two or three.”
The situation is somewhat different for those who ply their tailoring trade with females. Women still go to tailors, who are almost exclusively female, because the sewers usually operate from inside their own homes – and their customers can easily go there without risking death or kidnapping. Menswear tailors are in the market place where it can be dangerous, as well as difficult to reach.
Local cloth merchant Abdullah al-Bazzaz also points out that readymade womenswear is still more expensive than tailored female clothing, which is why many Mosul women still get their clothes made to measure. Although the tailoring trade for women has also changed over the years, this side of the profession is still thriving.
“Ninawa’s society is still conservative,” al-Bazzaz notes, “and women prefer to get their clothes made in private. You’re unlikely to find a male tailor sewing womenswear.”
But what does all this mean for Dirgham, who was still desperately seeking plus size suiting. We meet him again as he passes by the entrance to the Dawasa market. There’s a store here selling readymade clothes but it also has a sign outside it that says: “Apologies. We do not stock plus sizes”.
Dirgham says he feels sad when he sees that sign because he feels its speaking directly to him.
“I have been able to find a new tailor,” he says, “but I know that under the current circumstances, he probably won’t be around for long. He too will have to close his shop. I really need to find some stores that stock plus size suits. Then again,” Dirgham smiles, and pats his stomach, “maybe, to avoid future disappointments, I should start looking for fitness experts instead of tailors.”
This story was prepared as part of the Media Academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq.The mentor for this story was journalist Nawzat Shamdeen and the Arabic editor was Mirvat Adwan.