In a time plagued by war and devastation, the arts have become one way for Syrians to rebuild their lives and reaffirm their identity.
For centuries, Syrians have become masters of design. Their intricately cut, delicate handicrafts have been made of various tints and cuts of woods with fragments of mother of pearl, collaged together in a geometric style that is unique to Syria. These works, traditionally made in the form of mini-treasure chests, game boards, boxes and tables, have spread the Syrian culture and provided an income for generations.
But since the fighting began in Syria, more shops and shop owners have been disappearing. The remaining artists have waged their own battle: they have tirelessly fought to keep creating their works.
Charles Jabbour, who launched www.SupportAnArtisan.com, is working to empower Syrian entrepreneurs in preserving the traditional art. Jabbour, who lives in Lebanon, and artisan Elias Asmar, based in Damascus, spoke to us about their process of creating these pieces, the increasingly disappearing workshops and their indefatigable hope for the future.
Syria Deeply: This civil war has been going on for several years, and these artisans have persevered, despite these brutal conditions. How have circumstances have forced artisans to relocate outside of Syria?
Asmar and Jabbour: People in Damascus, when the war started, thought it would not last long. There used to be over 25 workshops in Damascus, but now the number is down to six. Six months ago, the number was nine. Some artisans are adamant about not leaving [Syria], maybe because of fear or because of the lack of means, as well as the attachment to one’s home. But [they know] having an alternate workshop in a safer place will give them an opportunity to prosper.
Syria Deeply: How many people does it take to create each piece?
Asmar: To make, for an example, a backgammon board, one needs:
1- A designer of the geometric patterns used for the particular design 2- An artisan whose specific job is to cut the different woods and shapes into those geometric patterns that are then fused together by another artisan into solid cubes 3- A carpenter that cuts the cube of geometric designs into the veneer for application 4- A carpenter whose job is to cut, form and build the skeleton of the backgammon board onto which the veneer of marquetry inlay is then placed 5- An artisan whose only job is to inlay mother of pearl into the particular slots 6- Artisans whose only job is to polish and apply the particular tint finish on the product Recently, some workshops have resorted to applying [one coat of] an industrial-grade polish. The age-old process is to apply numerous coats of a polish mixture made out of natural shellac. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. Finally, one needs the maalem (the boss or the expert) who is making sure all of this is happening in a timely manner who also keeps an eye on quality. These artisans will not make just one backgammon board, but they will design, cut and fuse wood for a specific order of, for example, 80 backgammon boards or 100 small boxes. Of course, it’s more economical [that way].
Syria Deeply: How were the workshop conditions before the war and how are they today?
Asmar: Business conditions in Syria prior to the war were as normal as one could imagine for a socialist country. Power and electricity were available all the time. Tourists used to flock in to Damascus to visit all the historical places. Companies would also visit the artisans and order their products. All materials were sourced locally, except for the shellac, which they would get from the countryside at inexpensive prices. Now, of course it is different. Materials are scarce because of the lack of reliable transportation. Tourists do not visit. The companies that used to order through the artisans are hesitant to order because of the general [security] situation and lack of insurance on shipping. Water [access] is spotty. So is electricity. The neighborhood experiences sporadic shelling. Materials might get hijacked or bombed or burned on the way. Many [customers] are not with us any longer.
Syria Deeply: Describe why you suggest workers should move to Lebanon, which has its own domestic problems?
Asmar: Lebanon is the closest to the artisans both in distance and other factors like language. Some of the artisans have already moved their family members out of the danger zones in Damascus and are already in Beirut. Those that have stayed behind did so because of work. One has to keep in mind that there are over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the majority do not work. These artisans, on the other hand, have a profession that they [can] hold onto, but do not have the means to buy and furnish a whole workshop in Lebanon. Those who work will leave their work only at the last possible moment.
Syria Deeply: How old is this Syrian tradition?
Asmar: This tradition dates back to 1860 and was started by a Damascene named Girgis Bitar. He was some kind of an artisan/carpenter. He decided to experiment with several different kinds and colors of wood that were available to him in his garden and intermarry those with traditional Middle Eastern geometrical designs, as well as his carpentry. This art is indigenous to Damascus only. This profession employed over 2,000 people in an artisanal capacity with many others who benefitted.
Syria Deeply: What does this tradition mean to you personally?
Asmar: Not only is this a profession to which I have dedicated 40 years of my life, but also a passion to keep working on something that is truly local. This represents Syria and the Syrian people.
Syria Deeply: What’s next for both of you?
Jabbour: I remember contacting Elias [Asmar] a couple of months after the hostilities began with a plea to be careful and prepare for alternatives to his workshop. These pleas were brushed aside as if all was normal. Now, more than three years after the fact, he is still holding on to the hope that the bullets will just stop flying. That of course will not happen. His business is down to 30 percent of what it was and that is not sustainable. For us, the Lebanese, we know that everything changes, especially during war. Hardly anything will return back to what normal was. I have a lot of work ahead of me to convince Elias that it is in everyone’s interest to find an alternate location for a workshop. It does seem that those who work and are productive will hold on until the last possible moment. I am just hoping the transition is smooth whenever that time comes. [It] requires great motivation to carry on through the fog of war.