Palestine Pulse

Jerusalem craftsman struggles to preserve Palestinian leather tradition

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Palestinian leatherworker Zuheir Abdul Rahim Daana is still making the crafts of his father and grandfather, but his business is suffering from supply challenges and cheap competition.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Zuheir Abdul Rahim Daana comes from a long line of Palestinian artisans who make leather clothes and household goods. Now in his 60s, Daana learned the trade from his father, Abdul Rahim, at the age of nine, in the same shop that carries the family name on Old Jerusalem’s Al-Wad Street.

When Daana was a child, his father used to tend the shop and his uncle Zakaria shipped the leather products — mainly shoes, bags and belts — to Jordan, Turkey and Syria. Daana’s grandfather, Wajdi Mohammad Jomaa Daana, started producing and selling leather products in the second half of the 19th century. The Palestinian artisan and tradesman used to send the products to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey and often boasted that he designed the shoes of Ottoman sultans.

Daana noted that the profession was more popular in the past, though it was much harder before the advent of machines for treating leather. In the past, the artisans would sew their products by hand — and most, such as shoes or bags, would take two to three days to make. Then came small sewing machines, followed by huge machines in factories where leather goods could be produced quickly and in great numbers. The final blow came with the production of synthetic leather.

“But some still appreciate authentic leather goods, which is our Palestinian heritage, and we cannot leave it,” said Daana. “It is in our blood. Some tourists visit the Levant countries to buy belts and bags because they have heard about their historical reputation for leather work. They also like Jerusalem for its historical touch. I carve 'Jerusalem' in Arabic on some products I make. Tourists return to their countries proud of this little souvenir from Jerusalem — a special handmade leather bag or a belt.”

Daana no longer sews his products by hand. He uses a power tool to cut the leather, a machine to thin it and a sewing machine to put the pieces together. But his love for the family tradition is as strong as ever. Daana taught his sons Ihab, 34, and Bahaa, 30, how to produce leather goods and asked them to teach their children the profession so that it does not disappear and maintain the family’s reputation for authentic products and hard work. He himself works less these days: merely 11 hours a day.

He has customers from the West Bank as well as Arab Israeli customers. “Israelis were once my clients too. Now, the number of customers has significantly dropped,” he said, complaining that synthetic leather goods are much cheaper. A leather jacket costs 500 shekels ($140). The bags are priced between 200 and 300 shekels ($55 to $82). Other leather products, such as shoes, run between 250 and 450 shekels ($70 and $125).

The leather itself used to come from the Gaza Strip, but following the closure of the trade routes, it now comes from the slaughterhouses in the West Bank and Israel.

“The available leather is only from Israel and it’s expensive” at 25 shekels ($7) a foot, lamented the artisan. The leather imported from Turkey or Cairo was half the price. He prefers cow skin over camel, goat and calf leather.

Daana hopes to get subsidies from the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce to support his busines. The economic decline in Jerusalem does not help, and he is being pursued by the Israeli Civil Administration for unpaid taxes. He cannot travel abroad until he pays them off.

Palestinian historian at the History and Politics Forum Azez Elmassri explained to Al-Monitor that the Palestinian leather industry has been famous for 2,000 years. An expert on traditional crafts, Elmassri believes that the profession dates to the time of the Canaanites in Palestine, but he says that there is very little documentation of when Palestinians started using leather goods. He pointed out that the south of Palestine was famous for raising livestock, and it was clear that both the meat and hides were used. The leather clothing industry was controlled by the tribes that inhabited the south of Palestine and became a trade in the cities of Hebron, Jerusalem and some areas of northern Palestine. The industry flourished during the Islamic rule of Palestine in 637 AD, continuing until mid-20th century. Today, however, Daana's sons may be the last generation to operate their shop.

Daana told Al-Monitor, “I still keep a bag that is 100 years old to preserve the memory and heritage of my ancestors. Many foreign visitors have offered hundreds of dollars for it, but I refused. My grandfather made it, and he wanted us to preserve the profession because it is linked to the history of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. It is true sales are low, but I want to keep this up until the last day of my life.”

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Found in: Cultural heritage

Amjad Yaghi is a Palestinian journalist residing in Gaza. He has worked as a correspondent for several Arab newspapers and magazines, including the Lebanese Al-Akhbar and Al-Araby al-Jadeed, as well as for Karbala Satellite TV, Qatar Television and Amwaj Sport. Yaghi has won four local awards for investigative reporting on corruption and violations of women and children's rights in Gaza and was nominated in 2015 for an Arab Journalism Award in the youth category.

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