Traditional Palestinian tile craft recedes as demand drops

Brightly colored Shami tiles have long defined the vibrant architecture of Palestine and beyond, but cheaper alternatives mean demand has dwindled and the last remaining factory is a much quieter place these days.

al-monitor Hani Rihani works on a tile at the Aslan Tile Factory in Nablus, West Bank, Feb. 12, 2019. Photo by Ahmad Melhem/Al-Monitor.
Ahmad Melhem

Ahmad Melhem


Topics covered

Cultural heritage

Mar 19, 2019

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Every workday morning for 71 years, 88-year-old Hani Rihani has headed for work at the Aslan Tile Factory in downtown Nablus.

The factory is one of the last bastions for the tradition of Shami tiles, which were brought into the Levant by French colonialism. In 1913, founder Hamdi Jamal Aslan built a workshop in the city of Acre and opened branches in the cities of Haifa, Jaffa and Nablus the same year. All were closed shortly after the 1948 war save the Nablus workshop.

Palestinian flagstone tiles are now seen as part of the Palestinian culture, heritage and identity. Nearly all Palestinian houses sought to line their floors with the durable and attractive tiles. Today, however, they have become a luxury item that few consumers can afford.

“For seven decades, I have been doing the same work. It is the closest to my heart. I made hundreds of pieces that decorated palaces and houses in Palestine and Jordan. I lived through major events, wars and invasions but never missed a day’s work,” Rihani told Al-Monitor.

Anan Aslan, 41, took over the management of the factory from his father and is now the fourth generation of the Aslan family to run the business. Anan wants to pass down the profession to his sons, who are studying law and accounting at the An-Najah National University in Nablus.

“This craft is a cultural legacy that one generation passes on the next. I teach my children about the Shami tiles whenever they have some time. I do not want this craft to be forgotten,” Aslan told Al-Monitor.

The tile production has not changed except for the introduction of an electric tile press to replace a hand-cranked machine, according to Aslan.

“We changed the machine because it is quicker. But we still use the white finely ground cement that we get from Jamma'in and Madama. It is the best cement in Palestine, known for its durability,” Aslan said.

“The copper base of the mold is cleaned with oil and then the tile-making process begins by pouring pigment, cement, crushed stones and water into segments of the stencil. Once the stencil is filled, it is lifted out of the mold. This is when the design pattern becomes apparent, but it is still soft and not entirely solid. The mold is then placed beneath a press and a finished tile emerges. The next day the tile is submerged for 24 to 30 hours so the cement can absorb water and then it is packaged and ready to be sold,” he added.

Although the raw materials are simple and available, production has plummeted. “I produce four to eight square meters of tiles a day” to fill orders, said Rihani. It's far below the factory’s capacity, Aslan said, explaining, “The workshop has a capacity to produce 60 square meters of colored tiles and 100 square meters of black and white tiles per day. But under the current conditions, it only produces 10 to 15 square meters in color and 30 square meters in black and in white a day.”

Commenting on the decline in demand, Aslan said, “With inexpensive mass-produced tiles in the market, the demand for local tiles dwindled. A meter of colored tiles is worth 150 shekels ($41.5), the white tile 50 shekels ($14).” He pointed out that the price is not associated with the cost of the materials, but rather the time it takes to produce the tiles.

Aslan also explained that the workshop can accommodate 17 workers, but currently it has only five, given the low demand. He noted that 70% of the tiles are sold to Palestinians [and Arabs] within the Green Line and are used in the restoration of old houses. Another 29% is sold in the West Bank, also mostly for restoration of old palaces and houses. Less than 1% is exported abroad.

Hundreds of tile molds hang from the workshop’s walls, some of them more than 100 years old. “The molds came from Damascus and are made of copper to resist the effects of water and sun,” Aslan said. “When the first workshop was built, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan were one area with no borders, known as the Levant. My father used to travel to Damascus to learn how to make and repair molds.”

Every design has a name. Aslan pointed out a mold for “Jerusalemite,” mostly used in old houses in Old Jerusalem. Another is named the “Mosque door,” and as its name indicates, the tile appears at mosque entrances. There is also the “Beiruti,” used in Beirut’s old houses, and the “Shami carpets” appear in the floors of old Damascene houses.

Aslan said that a few years back he was told he should move to Jaffa. “An Israeli journalist visited the workshop and suggested that I to move the operation to Israel, where I would be allowed to export but under the name of Israeli export companies and not Palestinian ones,” he recalled.

“I refused and still refuse to do so. I believe this is an attempt by Israel to take over this legacy,” he concluded.

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