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Power cuts, cheap imports fray Gaza's handmade carpet industry

Handwoven carpets and rugs are an ancient Palestinian tradition, but few craftsmen are still making them in Gaza, where cheaper goods are flooding the market and the power outages narrow their windows to work.
Palestinian Ibrahim al-shobaky, 50, works on weaving a carpet at an arts and crafts village in Gaza City 13 July 2003. Craftsmen at the center, established by the Gaza City municipality in the mid-1990s, use an authentic loom to produce their colorful rugs, bags, cushion covers and bedspreads. A variety of other woolen products are produced at the center from, sheep, goat and camel wool, all dyed by hand the traditional way.  AFP PHOTO/MAHMOUD HAMS  (Photo credit should read MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

A dedicated group of craftsmen in the Gaza Strip continue to spin wool into handmade carpets. They're fighting to preserve the profession of their ancestors and wider Palestinian heritage from extinction as cheaper imported carpets from Turkey, Iran and China spread.

Weaving rugs and carpets is one of the oldest professions in Palestine. Excavation missions there have shown that weaving is one of the oldest crafts in the country. Spinning wheels and looms have been discovered to be 5,000 years old.

Haj Mahmoud al-Sawaf, 70, still weaves carpets in his shop in east Gaza City's Al-Tuffah neighborhood, where he sells traditional carpets and rugs. He told Al-Monitor, “My family has been practicing this profession for more than 400 years. I inherited it from my father, who inherited it from his forefathers. I have been working in carpet weaving for 60 years.”

He pointed out that before the 1970s, carpet makers would import sheep wool from Egypt to make the yarn used in carpets and rugs. “The imported wool would pass through several stages, including cleaning, carding and combing to turn the wool into yarn. The final stage is the dyeing stage, when the yarn is colored.” He went on, “But after the 1970s, craftsmen imported ready-made yarn from Europe, in various colors.”

The craftsmen work on looms. Haj Mahmoud al-Sawaf's cousin Iyad al-Sawaf, who works with him, showed Al-Monitor how one works. “The loom is the main tool used for weaving carpets and tapestries. It is a wooden device that holds 400 parallel-wrapped lengths of yarn in place. A reed, which is a flat wire comb, is secured to the top of the loom to regulate the space between threads.”

Sawaf’s shop is filled with carpets and rugs of all shapes and colors. Few customers were in evidence, but he assured Al-Monitor that traditional handmade rugs and carpets have loyal admirers who prefer local handmade carpets over imported carpets. The local traditional rugs are highly prized and no longer used only to cover and decorate floors inside houses; they are also hung on walls as traditional and decorative statement pieces.

Customer Mounira al-Shami was busy flipping through piled-up carpets, searching for a particular color for the guest room in her home.

“My house is entirely decorated with traditional handmade carpets and rugs. I feel it is important to preserve this craft as part of the ancient Palestinian heritage. I am trying to instill a love for heritage in the hearts of my children, since our heritage is our identity,” she told Al-Monitor.

In his home in the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, Abu Hani Amer, 46, spends most of his time behind his wooden loom, weaving various kinds of rugs, carpets and tapestries. He is well known in the camp and sells his handmade pieces to Bedouin families who use them to decorate their homes and their gathering halls.

Amer told Al-Monitor that the craft requires skill, accuracy, focus and patience. He added, “A two-by-four-meter carpet takes 10 days of work, eight hours a day. The one meter of handmade carpet is sold for 40 shekels [about $11], while the price of the meter of carpet imported from abroad is 30 shekels [about $8].” He explained, “Handmade carpets are artistic, innovative pieces that cannot be manufactured by machines.”

Amer went on, “Handwoven pieces are of better quality and can last for decades. A handwoven carpet or rug is tailor-made and a customer can choose colors, shapes and patterns in advance, unlike standardized machine-made carpets.”

Palestinian writer and historian Nasser al-Yafawi told Al-Monitor that historically, the craft flourished in several Palestinian cities. “During the various eras, the coastal cities of Majdal and Ashkelon were famous for making and exporting carpets to Europe by sea. Following the Nakba in 1948, the people of these two cities were displaced to the Gaza Strip and brought the craft with them,” he said.

There are no statistics available on the number of carpet-weavers or workshops, but Mahmoud al-Sawaf believes there are only four in the Gaza Strip, employing 25 workers.

He said, “Five hundred workers worked in this field before the spread of imported rugs and carpets following the advent to power of the Palestinian Authority in the Palestinian territories in 1994.”

He pointed that the industry is threatened by the current electricity crisis, as the looms require power. He explained, “The frequent power outages of more than 16 hours a day are hampering our production, since workers are forced to leave at sunset. The various patterns of the carpets require high concentration and sufficient lighting.”

He expressed hope that the industry and trade of traditional handwoven carpets regains its past glory. He said he will keep fighting to keep its legacy alive.

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