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French Version

Group seeks to save dying traditional arts (Daily Star)

Handicrafts and skilled tradesmen losing ground
Faced with growing competition from cheaper imports, many traditional craftsmen are being forced out

Glassblower Hussein Khalifeh is one of the last guardians of the age-old skills that produce Lebanon's rich Oriental cultural heritage, and his livelihood is threatened by cheaper foreign products and a lack of state subsidies.

He is not alone. His ordeal is shared by the last remaining local craftsmen struggling to keep their dying trades alive and pass on their skills in weaving, embroidery, copper engraving, pottery, mosaics and ceramics.

"People are closing down. Their children are either attracted by more steady jobs or they are emigrating," said Khalifeh, who runs a family business in the sleepy southern coastal town of Sarafand.

"These are skills inherited from generation to generation. We should not let them die. Look, this is one of the main tourist attractions," he said, smiling at a visiting French couple.

Sitting by a blazing brick oven, his nephew Mahmoud blows into a long, iron rod to turn red-hot orange lumps into fancy glass vases that would probably not sell in a market swimming in Syrian and Asian products.

Hussein, his two brothers and two nephews take turns sitting before the outdoor brick oven, which is kept at a constant 1,400 degrees Celsius, in the backyard of their family home, nestled amid olive and orange groves.

But in order to provide for their families, they also have to sell spare car parts, make wrought-iron products and even drive trucks.

"One ton of fuel costs $200 in Lebanon, while in neighboring Syria it is $27. We pay monthly salaries of at least $600 while in Syria they are just $200," complained Hussein.

"And in Syria, artisans enjoy state subsidies, when all we have is a state body that buys throughout the year what amounts to just one month's production," he said.

"All the products that are displayed by street vendors along the highway are made in Syria or in Asia," said Hussein.

And across the country, handicraft shops - both exclusive and commercial - display among locally produced items many products made in Syria, which has similar cultural crafts and techniques, and from Southeast Asia.

Fortunately, a movement was born last week with a workshop in Beirut for artisans, designers, university professors, handicraft shop owners and state representatives to try to save dying trades.

"We are trying to make artisans sit with students, designers, industries and officials," said Yasmina Skaff, a member of Association pour le Design et l'Architecture au Proche-Orient (Adapo), which organized the event.

"In European countries, the state subsidizes artisans and gives financial envelopes to encourage industries, mainly fashion houses and glass factories, to work with artisans," she said.

"Today's handicrafts," Skaff said, "were once necessary products, so some of them are not used anymore in modern ways of life. Our challenge is to make adjustments and get to a 'made in Lebanon' label.

"Designers and students can give new ideas for models and work materials to breathe new life into handicrafts. Innovation can save traditional crafts, which are our culture and our identity that we cannot let die," she said.

The only exception to the rule was the resurrection of the art of making baskets from palm leaves in the coastal town of Amchit a few years ago, but the miracle return of the craft may only be short-lived.

"I wanted to make gifts from palm leaves weaved products, so I went to some old people in my village who still knew how to make them, and this is how it all started four years ago," said architect Mona Yazbek.

"But competition from Asia is killing our production. We don't know what to do, we need help," she said, passing around a portfolio of palm leaves weavings to the Adapo workshop in the hope of finding a savior.

Beirut 27-12-2004
The Daily Star

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