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culture under threat
historic iraqi crafts almost extinct

Abdulhadi al-Obeidi
Faced with a tidal wave of cheap imports, traditional crafts and industries are disappearing from the ancient northern city of Mosul. Local craftspeople say culture and economics will suffer if nothing is done to…
10.05.2012  |  Mosul
Almost extinct: inside one of the last coppersmith shops in Mosul.
Almost extinct: inside one of the last coppersmith shops in Mosul.

One of the most famous markets in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul is the Safareen market. And among other things, it’s particularly well known for the noise it generates – with craftsmen going about their businesses loudly and customers bustling through. But now the market, which was established in the 18th century, is becoming more and more peaceful.

And this is a problem. It indicates what the craftspeople themselves already know: the ancient arts they practise are slowly disappearing.

Ahmed Ali, 36, is one of the few people in the market still working as a coppersmith. His work mostly involves fixing the traditional copper pots and doing repair work on things like the copper domes of mosque buildings. He is also able to sell older copper pots to antique enthusiasts or collectors – but this is all on a small scale.

In fact, most of the shops in the market now sell cheap, imported pots and only two small stores remain for the traditional, old copper pots – Ali’s is one of these.

Ali knew it would be this way. But the fact that the financial rewards for his work would be minimal didn’t stop him from taking up the job that his family has always done, he says. And he always remembers his father’s words to him about the importance of preserving his craft.

Ali, a graduate of a horticultural college, opens the coppersmithing business for only a few hours every day. The rest of the time he works in other jobs that earn him a better income. “I am proud of this profession and I try to keep the shop open,” Ali says “Unlike other graduates I didn’t abandon my craft.”

Ali has noticed the changes in the market too. “The yellow is slowly disappearing and it’s being replaced by white,” he says poetically, as he works on an old copper pot. Ali is referring to the fact that the copper of old is being replaced by silvery, aluminium imports.

Ali has two young sons but he says he’s not sure if they will follow him into coppersmithing. He points at a copper pot made by his father, inscribed with his father’s name, and concludes sadly that, “nothing is guaranteed”.

Local researcher and sculptor, Talal Safawi, is about to publish a book on the subject of Mosul’s disappearing handicrafts: he believes there are about 80 genres of handiwork that have already died out, or are just about to die out. Examples include tobacco leaf sellers and the makers of animal harnesses. The ones that still remain include copper polishing, blacksmithing, traditional syrup makers, rug makers and arts related to Turkish baths.

According to Safawi, it is the huge amount of low-cost imports that are driving traditional craftspeople out of business. Iraq’s main trading partners here are China, Syria, Turkey and Iran. “And the government hasn’t made any real effort to preserve at least some of these crafts, even just for the purposes of tourism or for the protection of our culture,” Safawi says.

Not far from the coppersmith Ali’s shop, there is another small set of stores selling iron products like nails, hammers, chains and farming tools. Here blacksmiths are struggling to survive too, unable to compete with the imported goods flooding Mosul’s market.

For example, local man Ammar Hassan, 40, inherited a small store from his father in this area; it contains some blacksmithing tools but they are old and primitive and Hassan has never used them. When his father died, Hassan decided to change the store into a kind of perfumery, selling hair and skin care products.

“Local products cannot compete with the imported ones - especially those coming from Iraqi Kurdistan,” Hassan explains why he changed the store. “Raw material prices are very high and nobody wants to buy our products.”

Another market in central Mosul is the Sarjakhaneh Market, once a textile centre employing hundreds of people in sewing, knitting, carpet making and cloth manufacture. After the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein and led to violent conflict in the city, most of the shops in this market closed and workers left for other cities or countries.

Qasim Ibrahim was one of these; he had been making rugs in the city for years but after 2003, he left Mosul and settled in Iraqi Kurdistan. There were better job opportunities there, he explains.

And now he was back, visiting old friends in the city. Looking around the market though, he noted that many of the textiles on display in Mosul were actually made in Syria. He also knew that a lot of Mosul’s textile workers were now employed in Syrian factories, he said.

The state authorities in Ninawa, of which Mosul is the capital, actually agree that more needs to be done to preserve native handcrafts and industry in the area. The head of the investment commission in Ninawa, which encourages and supervises new investments in the state, said she has received a lot of complaints and commentary from local craftspeople.

In response Thanaa al-Saudi said she was planning a project that would encourage and support the craftspeople and that she would submit it to the provincial council to vote upon soon.

“Part of the project will allow the craftspeople to get loans easily, with no interest, to help them stay in business,” she explained.

However coppersmith Ali believes that more than this is required. “The authorities should create a heritage market, similar to those in Damascus and Istanbul, where all those craftspeople who work in these endangered trades can gather and sell their goods,” Ali suggested.

According to Ali, one of the only elements currently supporting local craftspeople is the Mosul Popular Costume and Folklore Museum, established in the 1960s. Clothes and crafts dating back to the 19th century are displayed therein.

But, visiting the museum with Ali one day, the museum just seems lifeless. Unlike at the local markets, nothing moves inside; the only craftspeople there are mannequins, surrounded by their primitive tools.

And as Ali stood there, he couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of his craft and others: would they end up represented like this in a dusty gallery? he asked. Or would they find success by gathering together in a new market, like their ancestors before them?

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.

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