RAMALLAH, West Bank — As the temperature drops during the cold months of December and January, Ramallah's al-Haddadin Street — Arabic for blacksmiths — teems with life. This is the selling season for blacksmiths, who own the shops lining this street, since the demand peaks for handmade metal chimneys, as well as other furnishings for homes, restaurants and hotels.
Despite the modernity of the central West Bank city of Ramallah — a political, economic and cultural center — the workers of al-Haddadin Street still adamantly preserve their craft. They manage to preserve their identity and cultural heritage and also take into consideration modern designs that keep pace with industrial progress and the needs of Palestinians.
Al-Haddadin Street extends from the Clock Tower roundabout to the city's vegetable markets, where shops line both sides of narrow streets, leaving just enough room for the passage of a single car in one direction.
Shopkeeper Mohammed Rashed told Al-Monitor, “This street got its name from the blacksmith shops that started opening there about 70 years ago. There are now more than 20 stores providing a source of livelihood for dozens of workers and shopkeepers.”
Al-Monitor met Rashed in his workshop while he was making a metal chimney. He first cut the tin sheets, then bent and rolled them to form a chimney. Later he will add a smokestack and decorations.
Rashed said that his work, just like other famous Palestinian handicrafts, is all handmade and that he does not use laser-cutting or computer design.
“My workshop is one of the first workshops that opened on this street. My father opened it in 1952,” he said. “The street initially included one or two shops, but when numerous blacksmiths came here to open their own shops it became known as al-Haddadin Street. Citizens from all the surrounding areas of Ramallah and al-Bireh come here to buy our products.”
Samir Kamal al-Salihi, 60, is known on this street as Sheikh al-Haddadin, or Master of Blacksmiths. His father was also among the first to open a blacksmith shop on this street. “This street dates back to 1950. It is one of the oldest streets in the city,” he told Al-Monitor.
Salihi graduated with a specialization in industry in 1977 from the Qalandiya Training Center, which is affiliated with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. His studies and drawing talent helped him succeed and master his craft. He said he is now one of the most skilled blacksmiths, despite his lack of modern equipment.
Blacksmith work was different when Salihi first started out in his father's workshop. Back then, workshops manufactured window frames, staircases, construction equipment and simple cooking utensils. This craft evolved and now blacksmiths can sketch designs and execute almost any design requested by a customer.
“When our shop first opened, our main product was roof water tanks," he said. "Nowadays we furnish restaurants and shops in the summer, and we manufacture chimneys in winter, in addition to the manufacturing of windows and doors."
Salihi boasted about his ability to skillfully execute any requested design. “We manufacture anything the customers may imagine," he said. "People come to us to execute their designs … that are not available in the market. Sometimes a design can be expensive, and we prepare something very similar at a cost that our customer can afford.”
Just like Rashed, Salihi never uses the computer; he does everything manually. “This makes my product neater and more durable. Manual work enhances my innovative capacity,” he said. “We developed many of our products to suit the Palestinian lifestyle, especially our chimneys. Our chimneys are now multi-purpose. In addition to heating we added a piece for baking and cooking and water heating.”
He continued, “Blacksmithing work was very simple and consisted of welding two iron rods together and then adding steel sheets and tin. New developments are being introduced every year. Now we work with thermal glass, ornaments and other additions. These developments were added to the industry as a whole, not just to the chimneys.”
“The manual manufacturing of products, specifically chimneys, is currently time-consuming, which means welders are unable to manufacture large quantities,” said Rashed, who only manufactures one chimney each day or, sometimes, every other day.
He said his customers are from all social classes, so he manufactures his products according to the customer’s request and budget. “Some chimneys are made of thin tin, which is very cheap at a price not exceeding 70 shekels [about $20] per metal chimney, while other chimneys cost up to 1,200 shekels [more than $320],” he said.
Workers on this street seek the support of authorities, such as the Ministry of Economy, to preserve their craft in light of the influx of cheap Chinese products on the Palestinian market.
Undersecretary of the Ministry of Economy Manal Farhan told Al-Monitor, “The ministry’s executive five-year plan under preparation for 2017- 2022 will take this sector into account. It will provide for its development, support and regularization.”
She said, “The government’s new strategic plan will focus on small and micro industries, including blacksmithing. The ministry intends through this plan to provide professional and training support and improve the technical qualifications of workers in this sector through the technical institutes in Palestine.”
Despite the difficulties faced by these blacksmiths in terms of high costs, increasing raw material prices and cheap competition, they insist on preserving and promoting their craft to fend off any threat of extinction.