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Gaza's dying bamboo crafts industry

Handmade bamboo furniture, which is part of the Palestinian identity, is endangered as the financial crisis is worsening in Gaza.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Amer Khalaf cuts and shapes bamboo culms into arcs to make handmade furniture. Although he was preoccupied with work, he did not look satisfied. It appears that people no longer care about this profession amid a decline in demand for bamboo products.

Those who work in the bamboo furniture industry in the Gaza Strip fear the near extinction of a craft that is one of the Palestinians' most important traditional handicrafts carrying a long historical legacy.

Khalaf, 29, was dusting off his creations that were stacked in his workshop in Omar Mukhtar neighborhood in Gaza City. “This profession has been at risk of extinction for several years now. There is little to no demand for bamboo furniture; I barely sell a single chair in a month,” he told Al-Monitor, noting that his craft is no longer enough to support his family of three.

He attributed the craft's decline to several reasons, including the deteriorating economic situation and the lack of purchasing power among citizens due to the financial crisis on the one hand, and the high price of bamboo furniture compared to products imported from abroad on the other hand.

Bamboo chairs and tables are stacked high in the workshop of Amer Khalaf, a Gazan furniture maker in the Omar Mukhtar neighborhood of Gaza City. (Photo by: Yasser Qudiah)

As Al-Monitor was interviewing Khalaf, a customer entered the shop and walked around looking at the furniture without saying a word. He then asked Khalaf about the price of a rocking chair. Khalaf told him it was for sale for 350 Israeli shekels ($90). The customer mumbled something in dissatisfaction and walked out.

Subsequently, Al-Monitor spoke to the customer, a government employee named Ahmad Abdul Salam. “This chair costs one-third of what I received from my salary last month, which did not exceed 1,000 shekels [$255] because of the financial crisis the government is currently facing,” he said sarcastically.

He said these products have become a luxury to citizens who are now unable to provide the basic needs of their families. “I did not go in the shop to buy anything, because I know how expensive bamboo furniture is and I cannot afford it. But when I was a kid, most of the furniture in my family home was made out of bamboo, so I just wanted to return to the beautiful past,” he said.

Near Khalaf’s workshop, a man named Farid al-Masri was flipping bamboo culms over a flame bending and twisting them into beautiful forms, while using palm leaves to connect the culms together. He was also working with straw and coloring them in dark shades that gave a beautiful rustic feel to his creations, which included sofas, chairs, tables and children's beds of different shapes and sizes.

Masri, 69, told Al-Monitor, “About 50 years ago, when I was young, each Palestinian home had bamboo furniture. Beds, tables and chairs were all made out of this kind of grass that Gaza imports from East Asia. However, today people no longer care about bamboo the way they used to.”

He added, “This profession is no longer profitable. Customers now prefer modern furniture and often go for the Italian- or Chinese-style imported furniture.”

Masri said that because of the Israeli blockade and the closure of crossings, the entry of bamboo culms and raw materials for the production of bamboo furniture in Gaza has significantly decreased. This has led to a rise in the cost of production. He added that he will continue to practice this craft as a hobby, to preserve the ancient heritage that he inherited from his father and his ancestors. His family has been practicing this profession for 130 years.

He also complained that the power outages last for many hours at a time, which has forced him to stop working. He said that a number of bamboo workshops in Gaza have already closed down.

One of these workshops was run by Bahauddin Rizk from the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. He decided to give in to the inevitable and close his bamboo furnishing shop about two years ago. He opened a grocery store instead.

Rizk told Al-Monitor, “I inherited the bamboo furniture profession from my father, who also left me his shop, the only source of income he had throughout his life. However, I closed the shop after I went broke and could no longer pay the rent.” He was left with a loss of $6,000, after he was forced to sell all the furniture in his shop at great discounts.

He believes that the Israeli blockade, the wars that affected the industrial sectors in Gaza, as well as the deteriorating economic conditions and financial crises suffered by all segments of society, are all reasons behind the extinction of this craft.

Three years ago, Rizk worked for Munir al-Mazloum, the owner of a bamboo furniture workshop. They were three workers and each had their own role in the production of chairs and sofas. However, today, Mazloum does all the work himself.

Mazloum told Al-Monitor, “This profession requires several workers to speed up production, because it relies on manual labor. We don’t have machines to do the work for us. However, due to the lack of public demand, I decided to lay off the workers after the workshop’s revenues were no longer enough to provide for my family’s needs.”

Regarding the stages of making bamboo furniture, he explained that bamboo culms are first chopped and cut in appropriate lengths and then soaked in boiling water until they soften. Next, they are scraped off extra fibers by heating them over the fire. The culms are then left to dry and harden in the sun. Finally, the bamboo is painted and decorated with straw.

Mazloum complained about the absence of a Palestinian group advocating to preserve this endangered heritage. He said there is a need to support the production of bamboo furniture in order to revive this ancient craft that is part of the Palestinian identity.