Hama’s Artisans Stand Idly By

The most renowned artisans in Hama seek alternative job opportunities to cope with the economic crisis. 

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(Photo: An inner view of the Rustum Basha Khan - Hama - 13-10-2015 [Morees Bitar/Good Morning Syria])
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“At the entrance of his shop, the carpenter hangs a few wooden waterwheels of different sizes, hoping that someone would come in and ask him about them. His latest failed attempt was the making of a tiny waterwheel (with a diameter of 9 cm and a height of 3 cm) to enter the Guinness World Records, but none of the media showed any interest in his hard work.”

div>(Hama, Syria) Artisan markets in Hama are practically empty of shoppers nowadays, and most of the stores remain closed,  as craftsmen seek new job opportunities.
After long endeavours, the 39-year-old coppersmith Munqidh (1) found a one-year contract job at the post office in the al-Baʿth neighbourhood in order to provide for his family. “I work at the post office, thank God,” he told Good Morning Syria, revealing great pain behind his smile. The man then grabbed his chisel and hammer, and began handcrafting an unfinished piece of copper which he had been working on for months. The shelves in his shop hold up dusty copper items that no one wants to buy or even look at. “I don’t want to let go of my craft, I love it,” Munqidh said, and a tear almost fell down his cheek.
Prior to the crisis that Hama has witnessed since the start of the revolution in 2011, artisan Munqidh was doing well. He worked at the Rustum Basha Khan, which dates back to the Ottoman era and features 31 handicrafts, and his business used to provide him with sufficient income. The Department of Tourism in Hama had inaugurated the Rustum Basha Khan in 2009 as an arts and crafts market, in an attempt to encourage economic growth.
“I am the shaykh (master) of the coppersmiths, not just in Hama but in all of Syria,” Munqidh used to say while greeting the visitors in his shop. In fact, in 2009, he was chosen among five artisans to participate in the International Handicrafts Fair in Kolkata, India. Nonetheless, after 20 years in this profession, he found himself confused about an unknown future.
As the security situation in Hama deteriorated, researchers no longer showed interest in purchasing eastern antiques and the sales of copper items decreased given the hike in their prices. Moreover, such items require polishing every once in a while to remain in good condition, but no one works in copper polishing anymore.
Mohammad, a 50-year-old employee at the Tourist Information Centre in the Rustum Basha Khan, explained the significance of handicrafts on both the tangible and intangible level. “The handicrafts market in the khan was aimed at preserving tangible and intangible heritage. On the one hand, these traditional professions were reanimated, and on the other, it (the market) attracted tourists and local residents to visit the khan,” he said.
Based on his presence in the market, Mohammad noticed that the crisis did not have the same impact on all crafts. “Some professions were not affected by the flow of tourists, since the upholsterers, the  furriers, the Arabic calligraphers and the caners have nothing to do with tourists, while purchasing antiques that Munqidh and others make is considered a luxury for the local residents,” he explained.
The coppersmith Munqidh is not the only one suffering from the repercussions of the political turmoil. Yahya is a 51-year-old carpenter who makes waterwheels (norias), one of the greatest crafts and industries in the city, and he is also standing idly by across the street. The first thing he told Good Morning Syria was: “No one has been here (in the workshop) in six months. If I weren’t an employee, my life would have been ruined. Thank God I didn’t leave that job.”
Yahya seems luckier than Munqidh, since he is employed at the waterwheel carpentry department in the Hama Municipality. He has worked since 1985 in this profession, which used to be a very popular one, especially after he specialised in making decorative waterwheels. However, the circumstances changed, as electricity started being cut off in the city for long hours due to the crisis, and Yahya was no longer able to do anything in his workshop.
At the entrance of his shop, the carpenter hangs a few wooden waterwheels of different sizes, hoping that someone would come in and ask him about them. His latest failed attempt was the making of a tiny waterwheel (with a diameter of 9 cm and a height of 3 cm) to enter the Guinness World Records, but none of the media showed any interest in his hard work.
Every day after his shift at the Hama municipality, the waterwheel maker opens his workshop and spends the remaining hours of the day polishing his masterpieces. The thought of emigration has repeatedly occurred to Yahya, but he backed out every time. “I am a waterwheel carpenter. If I leave, what would I do? I won’t leave my home and workshop at this old age to chase after the unknown,” Yahya said.
This is how the artisans of Hama refuse to leave for Europe and remain in the silent Rustum Basha Khan. As for the coppersmith Munqidh, when the sunset prayer call resonates, he closes his shop, after making sure that all the copper items are in the same place where he left them.

All names used are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the sources.