In rubble of Aleppo souk, tablecloth shop makes solitary comeback

Delicately embroidered shawls and bright tarps are on display in Shawash's partly restored storefront, the only colours visible in a sea of smashed concrete and debris-laden roads. (AFP)
Updated 25 December 2017

In rubble of Aleppo souk, tablecloth shop makes solitary comeback

ALEPPO: It used to be one of the most vibrant marketplaces in the Syrian city of Aleppo, but today, the bombed-out streets of Khan Al-Harir are home to a solitary shop selling tablecloths.
Mohammad Shawash’s partly restored storefront stands amid a sea of smashed concrete and debris-laden roads.
The 62-year-old with a snow-white beard and glasses decided to return to the historic souk five months ago to reopen the shop he had managed for years.
“I cried when I first came back. I found total destruction all around me. The stores were destroyed, the streets covered in rubble and rocks, and the buildings collapsed,” he told AFP.
“So I repaired it myself, to prove to the whole world that Aleppo’s Old City still has a soul.”
Khan Al-Harir, or the Silk Market, lies in the celebrated Old City of central Aleppo, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Its historic covered market was the largest in the world, with some 4,000 shops and 40 caravanserais in a labyrinth of alleyways selling everything from home ware to artisanal products.
For four years, the Old City was on the front line of battles between government troops in the city’s west and rebels in the east.
But a blistering, Russian-backed offensive saw Syria’s army retake swathes of the country, and in December 2016 the government declared it was once more in control of the whole of Aleppo.

Shopkeepers return

Much of the Old City remains scarred by fighting, but part of the Souk Al-Jumruk marketplace reopened last month. Other shopkeepers have slowly begun returning to assess the damage.
Shawash, a native of Khan Al-Harir, was one of them.
“I was raised here and I used to open my shop from 7:00am until late at night. I knew everyone around me,” he said.
“The streets were full of passers-by, stalls, restaurants and people selling clothes, carpets and furniture. But now there is no one.”
When he returned earlier this year to check on his shop, he found a wall had collapsed, the goods were either gone or burned, and the streets were eerily empty.
“It’s not just about losing money or stock. I lost my neighbors, I lost my people, I lost myself.”
For a week, Shawash piled bricks, cement, and stone in a small wheelbarrow and navigated it through the ravaged streets to repair his shop by hand.
“I would arrive completely exhausted, because the streets are narrow and there was rubble everywhere, which meant cars couldn’t get through,” he said.
He has since resumed his daily ritual, laying out multicolored plastic tablecloths and mats for display, many of them still wrapped in protective plastic.
Shawash then sits down on a plastic chair and waits for customers, his prayer beads in hand. For hours no one stops, so he packs up his goods, locks the metal door, and heads home.
With a dearth of customers, he said he was barely making enough “to buy a falafel sandwich.”
“Before the war, I used to sell between 50,000 and 70,000 pounds ($1,000 and $1,500, depending on the exchange rate) worth of goods,” he said.
Shawash insisted Aleppo’s young people must return to rebuild their city.
“Aleppo is the symbol of civilization,” he said. “I’m proud to be the first one to reopen my shop in this souk, but I hope that life returns to the market.”

Get hooked on traditional Palestinian embroidery

Updated 20 September 2018

Get hooked on traditional Palestinian embroidery

  • Joanna Barakat gives workshops on Palestinian embroidery
  • She talks about the significance and history of the craft

DUBAI: I just finished cross-stitching my first Gaza cypress tree motif, begun around the kitchen table of the UAE-based artist Joanna Barakat, who gives workshops on Palestinian embroidery, or tatreez. Next up: Motifs from Hebron, Ramallah and Jaffa.

Until I took her class, which she’ll be teaching at Tashkeel in Dubai next weekend, I hadn’t paid much attention to the stitches that adorn the region’s fabrics. Now, I read them like signposts for clues as to where they’re from.

Barakat, who was born in Jerusalem, begins with a talk on the history of tatreez, showing us photos from different regions before 1948 and passing around examples of her grandmother’s work.

We learn how embroidery was more elaborate for weddings, how women incorporated their environment in their work — Jaffa, for instance, has an orange motif — and how it reflected their status. Bedouin women stitched a blue hem on their dresses, adding red motifs if they remarried. “Each tribe had its own style and its own way of dressing to express their identity,” Barakat says.

The Nakba in 1948 almost killed off the tradition, as women lost access to the region’s textile factories. “Everybody was traumatized,” she says. “You had a good decade there where almost nothing came out.”

But their resilience resurfaced in their craft, earning them a living in refugee camps. “It became a symbol of resistance and empowerment.”

In that way, Barakat uses embroidery in her paintings: in one self-portrait, a needle punctures her chest on the canvas, “trying to stitch my own Palestinian identity into me,” she explains.

Her workshop may have stitched some of that into me as well. After giving us our own cross-stitch kits, with Aida fabric, green threads and cypress tree patterns, she shows us how to stitch, correcting us patiently as we go. As they might say in crochet class, I’m hooked.

Joanna Barakat’s workshops on Palestinian embroidery are at Tashkeel in Dubai on Sept. 29 and Dec. 8 for $73, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. with a one-hour break, lunch included. Email [email protected] for more information.