Craftspeople of al-Khalil: An interview with Bader and Zachariah

Bader al-Tamimi’s shop stands at the entrance to the Old City of al-Khalil (Hebron). Bader is always there it seems – a warm, dignified, welcoming presence to tourists, residents of al-Khalil (Hebron), members of human rights groups, and fellow craftspeople alike. Small cups of coffee or tea are thrust into one’s hand and a ready seat is offered.

Born in al-Khalil, Bader has lived in and around the Old City all his life. He is thus a well-known figure in the area and acts as an important link between local traders and residents within the part of the Hebron Governorate that is based in the Old City. He has seen many changes, especially since 1997 when the Old City became part of H2, entirely under Israeli control. Over the years, five illegal Israeli settlements have established themselves in the heart of the Old City. One, Beit Romano, just opposite Bader’s shop, is in the building that used to house Bader’s and his brother’s school. It is now occupied by a small group of strongly ideological settlers, whose menacing presence changes the atmosphere and sense of ease and belonging that Bader used to experience before.

Bader, an artist himself, provides a supportive hub and an outlet for the work of other artists from the Old City, and it was one of these, a potter named Zachariah al-Qudsi, that we went to meet at Bader’s shop one Sunday afternoon. Zachariah trained first in fine art as a painter, but gradually changed to working with calligraphy, glass, and then with clay. A foundation of the Islamic philosophy of art is that it is better to create beautiful things that are useful than to simply create those that are artistic. For this reason he and his brothers now specialise in making pottery, and they have a factory just outside the Old City where they can often employ five or six workers.

“Anyone can be a craftsman, but not necessarily an artist,” volunteered Zachariah, a statement that may come as a surprise. But his comment underlines the meaning and importance of art within Islamic Philosophy – the craft becomes art when it is shared and offered as part of community, not merely as an individual enterprise.

The Old City has always been a city of craftspeople and artists, but the consequences of the Israeli occupation have severely reduced the number of both the artists working there and of tradespeople of all kinds. Only a small glass factory and a sand artist remain as manufacturing enterprises, but there are still many shops that exhibit and sell the traditional work of Palestinian specialists – the unique and beautiful embroidery created by Palestinian women from the South Hebron villages in Area C; the delicately made clothes, soaps and perfumes, the traditional sienna clay pots, and multi-coloured ceramic articles of all kinds. Bader explained that land cultivation had been the villagers’ main livelihood for generations, but now the Israelis do not allow them to plant or cultivate the land anymore. To help alleviate this difficulty Bader’s Association provides workshops for the women from the villages that train them in embroidery skills. He then sells their work at his shop.

Bader and Zachariah agreed that their primary purpose now was to help local artists and shopkeepers of the Old City stay put and resist the ever present threats and pressures from the Israeli government to vacate their premises for the easier conditions of H1. “To own or rent a shop here is not easy,” explains Zachariah. “There is no guarantee that your work and effort will be rewarded. I’m afraid to have a factory here in the Old City, because after I pay the rent, settlers may take it over or soldiers can easily kick me out. Your work here is not protected.”

Residents agree that the situation for them has gotten worse and worse – the settlers and army seem more aggressive, checkpoints have multiplied, and the number of raids on homes and shops have increased. Despite this, the Old City remains what it has always been, a work of art in its own right, manifested by its ancient and beautiful architecture. In 2017, the Old City received international recognition when UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Status, recognition that was bitterly opposed by Israel. In addition to declaring this ancient Palestinian city of artists and craftspeople to be of outstanding universal value, the UN cultural committee also noted that it was in imminent danger from vandalism and destruction from the settlers in its midst.  The vital financial gift that should have also accompanied the UNESCO award is desperately needed for the refurbishment and preservation of buildings and shops, but it has still not been received. The Assistant Governor, Dr. Rafiq Aljaabari, said that the financial reward has been blocked by the Israeli government.

Bader is strong in his determination that visitors and the international community need to witness not only the suffering of the Palestinian people, but also their vibrancy, solidarity and strength. The artists and craftspeople of the community deliver that message – a message of continuity and hope that, despite the oppression and pain of the present, ultimately beauty and truth here will prevail.

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© 2015 With love from Hebron.
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