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Brassed Off:
A Meeting With The Last Coppersmith In Basra

Mohammed Samar
This century, Iraq’s traditional artisans must compete with imported goods. Many of them find it hard to make a living, despite their skills. Now Basra’s last brass craftsman is also thinking about giving up.
6.12.2019  |  Basra

In one of the lanes of the busy Ashar market in central Basra, a customer watches on with interest as Mustafa Sabah spins an old copper pot, between his hammer and his anvil. The sun reflects on the other brassware and copper in his stand, and the scene is charming, as the young man practises the ancient craft his family has undertaken for generations.

Sabah is the last such coppersmith left in this market in Basra. Although cheap, imported products cannot compete with the handmade goods, Sabah told NIQASH that times were hard for craftspeople like him, and getting harder.

NIQASH: You have inherited this family tradition. What memories do you have about this work?

Mustafa Sabah: When I was a child, I remember that moment that my grandfather would open his shop every morning, and there were always a lot of people, including foreigners, who would be waiting for him to open so that he could repair their copper tools or they could buy new ones. My grandfather would always joke with them.

I learned a little bit from him, but mostly from my father who took his place when he died. My brothers got jobs in public service and they didn’t want to work in the shop. So I learned how to do this, even though I also continued my university studies.

NIQASH: So how are things different today?

Sabah: We used to make all these tools and utensils from scratch . But now most of our work is about repairing or maintaining the old tools. We also sell cheaper versions of the pots, which are imported from India and China. Customers like them because of the price. There are some still customers who prefer handmade products though – they like them for their aesthetic value and their quality, and they still order from us.

NIQASH: What are your most popular products? 

Sabah: Older items, like the large bowls that the people of Basra used to use as a wash basin. Our wealthier customers like to buy these engraved with Islamic inscriptions and they usually only use them for decoration, I believe.

We also have some more traditional items: Old trumpets that used to be used during military ceremonies, a rose-water sprinkler for weddings and on some religious occasions, and we even have miniatures of one of the city’s famous mosques.

Coffee pots are still one of our most popular products though because everybody uses these, although poorer people tend to buy those made in China now. Other customers with more money like to see these decorated with words or drawings and we also make over-sized versions that are usually used as décor.

Most of my customers are Iraqis, even though sometimes they come from out of town,  specifically to buy these kinds of handmade coffee pots. Because you just can’t get them everywhere these days. I also get foreigners – they usually work at international companies and are based here - coming in here to buy souvenirs, like brass plates that have pictures of local sites and personalities on them.  

NIQASH: And how much does all this cost?  

Sabah: Prices differ. Some of the plates I sell for a lot, even up to or over US$1,000. Other things are a lot less – like the imported items don’t cost more than US$5.

NIQASH: It must be hard to compete with those kinds of imports?

Sabah: If things go on like this, I am thinking about closing my shop actually. I can’t afford to keep it open. We don’t get as many foreign tourists coming anymore and the whole market is now full of really inexpensive things. My hammer is not needed any more and I worry that very soon I am going to be joining the ranks of Iraqi craftspeople, who used to make beautiful things, but who have been losers in this battle with machinery.

NIQASH: Is there any way of saving crafts like yours, and others’?

Mustafa: I don't know. But I think there should be more control over imports. Perhaps the government should impose tariffs the same way other countries do.

I do have a workshop in my house and my nephews are learning how to do this. If I have children, I will teach them too. My grandfather used to urge us to carry on with this family tradition. He said we needed the hammer to hit the copper and to fill the market, and people’s heats, with the echoes. It’s difficult to imagine this market without such crafts.