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How these Palestinian artisans are keeping craft industry alive

The residents of Hebron, in the southern part of the West Bank, are trying to preserve what is left of the ancient crafts industry.
A Palestinian makes ceramic lamps used as decoration during the holy month of Ramadan in the old city of the West bank city of Hebron June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma - RTX1H2S8

HEBRON, West Bank — “We export these goods to the whole world with a label that reads ‘Made in Hebron.’ Each item tells a story that dates back to hundreds of years.” With these words, Al-Hajj Abdul Jawad Abdul-Hamid al-Natsheh, 86, described the goods crafted by artisans in his factory, which was established in Hebron more than 150 years ago.

Although the West Bank city of Hebron is famous for crafts, which led it to win the World Crafts City award for the year 2016, the Natsheh factory, known as the Hebron Glass and Ceramics Factory, is one of the few factories that continue to work on ceramics and glass.

Natsheh, who started to work in the factory with his father when he was 12 years old, told Al-Monitor, “This industry defines the city, and we are keen to maintain it as a family legacy transferred from generation to generation over hundreds of years.”

The Natsheh factory is one of the factories that fortunately managed to face all of the hardships caused by the occupation of the city in 1967, and it continues to work similarly to how it once worked in the family's house.

“We initially worked from our house, but then my grandfather opened a factory near the Cave of the Patriarchs, and in 1967, we moved to the current factory premises,” Natsheh said.

The ceramics craft dates to the Ottoman era, city residents told Al-Monitor. Back then, residents said, ceramics were crafted in the Old City in the homes of families until ceramics turned into a primary source of income. City residents claim that the glass industry kicked off in Hebron when a group of travelers started a very powerful fire on the sand in the southern Hebron area and found glass shapes on the sand the following day. According to residents, this is how the glass industry was discovered in Hebron and then traveled to the rest of the world.

The Natsheh factory exports most of its products to foreign countries, mainly to Europe. The local market only gets 20% of the production of the factory due to the high cost of the manual labor of craftsmen who have inherited the industry from their parents.

Raw materials for the manufacture of ceramics or clay are imported from Europe and are shaped in the factories, while the glass is made of sand, soda and sometimes from melted broken and old glass.

Husam Fakhouri, 42, who has worked in the Hebron factory since he was 20 years old, told Al-Monitor, “We shape ceramics clay and put it in the oven at a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius [2,192 degrees Fahrenheit] then we make drawings on it, color it, paint it with glass water and put it back in the oven to prep it for marketing.”

Fakhouri said that all crafts in the industry are completely handmade, and that is what characterizes Hebron’s goods.

Fakhouri was working in a ceramics factory owned by his family in the Old City of Hebron near the Cave of the Patriarchs. But after the occupation of the city in 1967 and the concentrated settlements there, the family shut down the factory and he had to go to work in another ceramics factory.

“I worked with my father in our private factory since I was 12. But when it was closed due to security and poor economic conditions, I moved to work here at the Hebron Glass and Ceramics Factory.”

Although the industry is ancient, those in charge of this industry are opting for modern shapes, Fakhouri said, adding that customer tastes across the world are taken into consideration.

Mansour Natsheh, 25, has been working in his family's factory for five years, and is keen to meticulously learn the glass-forming profession, he told Al-Monitor.

“My father and uncles inherited this craft from my grandfather, and I learned it from them,” he added.

He pointed out the need for craftsmen to love the profession and have the patience to learn it and master it fully. After five years of learning and working in this profession, Natsheh said that he still has glass forms to master, and this requires many years of work and learning.

Bader al-Tamimi, president of the Traditional Handcrafts Center in Hebron, told Al-Monitor that those in charge of the industry are seeking to protect it from extinction. To them, not only is the profession their livelihood, but it also represents a historical record and a story that links these families to the city. To them, the industry is a historical story about the second most affected city by settlement activity after Jerusalem.

Tamimi added, “The ceramics and glass industry is one of the most important crafts that led the city to win a crafts award, as it is a legacy that dates back to hundreds of years, and it accounts for a large percentage of the annual income of families and economy of the city.”

“We are offering a historical novel through this industry. The patterns and forms that characterize these pots and shapes are all linked to the Palestinian legacy of the city, which documents the Palestinian narrative versus the Israeli narrative, which settlers are trying to promote to steal the place,” Tamimi said.

According to statistics carried out by the Traditional Handcrafts Center that Tamimi showed Al-Monitor, while there are 28 factories and workshops in Hebron employing about 96 craftsmen, there are only three ceramics factories left, employing 17 craftsmen.

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