Iraq’s ancient pottery struggles to outlive modern plastic

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Iraqis making clay pots in Najaf on November 11, 2018. Pottery has deep roots in Iraq, where ancient civilizations turned to clay to build their homes, shape their cooking utensils, and even make their ovens. (AFP)
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Iraqis making clay pots in Najaf on November 11, 2018. Pottery has deep roots in Iraq, where ancient civilizations turned to clay to build their homes, shape their cooking utensils, and even make their ovens. (AFP)
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Iraqis making clay pots in Najaf on November 11, 2018. Pottery has deep roots in Iraq, where ancient civilizations turned to clay to build their homes, shape their cooking utensils, and even make their ovens. (AFP)
Updated 03 December 2018
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Iraq’s ancient pottery struggles to outlive modern plastic

  • Pottery has deep roots in Iraq, where ancient civilizations turned to clay to build their homes, shape their cooking utensils, and even make their ovens
  • They were surprisingly handy during the era of Saddam Hussein, when many families struggled financially, as well as in the 1990s, when international sanctions hit Iraq

NAJAF, Iraq: Adel Al-Kawwaz expertly spins the potter’s wheel, shaping the wet clay into a smooth jug. His family is famous for this millennia-old Iraqi craft, but Kawwaz is struggling to keep it alive.
For thousands of years, clay utensils for storing food and cooking were found in virtually every home in Sumer, the earliest known civilization in modern-day southern Iraq.
Kawwaz’s own family drew their name from the jug, or “kawz” in Arabic, which they have produced for more than 200 years from clay found at a lake by Najaf, a holy Shiite Muslim city.
“Making clay vases is a craft that my family had become famous for,” says 45-year-old Kawwaz wistfully.
Pottery has deep roots in Iraq, where ancient civilizations turned to clay to build their homes, shape their cooking utensils, and even make their ovens.
Cuneiform, one of the earliest forms of writing invented by the Sumerians, was also carved into clay tablets.
But now, with a flood of more modern products, demand for the handmade clay items has dried up, says Kawwaz.
His family’s jugs were shaped from Najaf mud, dried in the shade, then baked at high temperatures for no less than 15 hours.
In Iraq, one of the hottest countries on earth, they were indispensable.
“These vases were used to keep water cool or preserve food. They were placed in the shade or hung in another high location,” he says.
Some Iraqis even used them to store jewelry.
“Those that practiced pottery would make a lot of money because they were common items in ancient Iraqi households,” says Kawwaz.
They were surprisingly handy during the era of Saddam Hussein, when many families struggled financially, as well as in the 1990s, when international sanctions hit Iraq.
With household appliances extremely rare or unaffordable for most of the population, Iraqis once again relied on clay.
“The income of most families did not allow them to buy a refrigerator or freezer to keep their water cold, so most used clay cauldrons,” he says.
Back then, his family sold their large jugs in bulk — sometimes thousands per week across every Iraqi province.
But times have changed.
“We sell very few now — the numbers in an entire year don’t hit 100 or 200 jugs,” says Kawwaz.
Farmers who once used the large containers are opting for cheaper goods, made either elsewhere in Iraq or imported.
“They buy plastic bags imported from China, so now we rarely sell clay pots,” says Kawwaz in his studio, itself made of mud and covered in palm leaves.
He makes the vases by special request only, but admits it’s hardly worth it.
Small jugs cost just 2,500 dinars or around $2, while the larger cauldrons that hold several dozen liters (gallons) are sold at 15,000 dinars.
Despite the prevalence of electric and gas cookers, Um Haydar prefers her trusty clay oven.
On her rooftop terrace in Old Najaf, she uses it to bake her own traditional bread every morning.
“The taste of bread made in a traditional oven is so different from bread baked in an electric or gas oven,” says Um Haydar, as the searing oven near her radiates an enticing smell.
Well into her sixties, the Iraqi woman is dressed in a traditional black robe that covers her from head to toe.
Like her mother and grandmother before her, she has stuck to tradition when it comes to the clay oven, with one exception — she didn’t build it herself.
But some Iraqis, like Haydar Al-Kaabi, insist on the full Sumerian experience.
On the edge of the Najaf Sea, Kaabi begins mixing together ingredients to make his own oven.
“To the clay, you have to add reeds, red sand, and synthetic wool fibers. You let the mixture rest for two days so the clay becomes compact,” he explains to AFP.
Despite the drop in sales, this potter is upbeat.
“Even if we sell less, even if the craftsmen are fewer and fewer, we’re fighting to keep the artisanal heritage of our fathers and grandfathers alive,” he says.
“And of course, there are still Iraqis who only eat good bread,” he says with a wink.


Women bring light to remote villages on islands of Zanzibar

In this undated photo provided by XPRIZE, a child in a village in the Tanga region of Tanzania learns to read from a tablet using open-sourced software that would easily be downloaded by illiterate children to teach themselves to read. (AP)
Updated 24 min 53 sec ago
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Women bring light to remote villages on islands of Zanzibar

  • Women are almost twice as likely as men to have no education, and are less likely to own a land or have access to a bank account, according to a Tanzania-wide government survey in 2016

KINYASINI, Tanzania: A s a single mother, Salama Husein Hajja was low in the pecking order in her village in Tanzania and struggling to eke out a living for her family as a farmer.
But now she hopes to gain status and a stable income after being trained as a community solar engineer for a project bringing light to scores of rural villages where no homes are connected to electricity on the islands of Zanzibar.
Grandmothers and single mothers — many of whom have never learned to read or write — are among those being trained under the program which they say could transform lives in their poor fishing and farming communities.
“We struggle a lot to get lighting,” said Hajja, 36, a vegetable farmer and mother of three children from a village on Unguja, the largest and most populated island in the Zanzibar archipelago.
“When you don’t have electricity, you can’t do many things like teaching children. It forces you to use a lamp. The smoke is harmful, the eyes and the chest are affected.
“When the electricity is there, it’s better.”
Life is challenging for women in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania made up of numerous islands where half the population lives below the poverty line.
Women are almost twice as likely as men to have no education, and are less likely to own a land or have access to a bank account, according to a Tanzania-wide government survey in 2016.
Many poorer and rural families also lack access to electricity, compounding the challenges they face.
The island region’s entire energy grid depends on an underground cable connecting it to the mainland which was damaged in 2009, plunging it into darkness for three months.
Furthermore, only about half of houses in Zanzibar are connected to mains power, with many of the remainder forced to rely on polluting fuel lamps for light.

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“We only use a lamp inside,” said Aisha Ali Khatib, a mother of nine, training as a solar engineer alongside Hajja at the Barefoot College in Kinyasini village on Unguja.
“The lamp uses paraffin ... Buying one spoon of paraffin is 200 shillings ($0.09) but I can go for two days without making 200 shillings.”
Solar power offers solutions to connect rural villages with little prospect of getting mains power and increase resilience and sustainability.
Millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa are getting access to electricity through off-grid renewables, the International Energy Agency said last year, which forecasted strong demand to boost growth in the sector up to 2022.
The solar training scheme offered by Barefoot College, a social enterprise that began in India and is now working in East Africa, also focuses specifically on training women.
The project was designed to address the fact that women are much less able to leave their villages due to poverty and family links while also empowering women in Tanzania’s male-dominated society by offering them decently paid work.
Communities in participating villages are asked to nominate two women aged between 35 and 55 to leave their families and travel to the college to train as engineers.
Many of those chosen lack formal education, but they are recognized as people who can command authority and who are deeply embedded in the life of their villages.
“When you educate a woman, you educate a whole community,” said Fatima Juma Hajji, a solar engineer trainer at Barefoot college in Zanzibar.
“When you educate a man, he will not stay in the village, he will go away but when you educate a woman, she goes back to her village and helps improve.”
Women on the project spend five months living and training at the college, after which they return to their villages and set up solar lighting systems for their family and neighbors.
Households pay a few dollars a month for power – a cheaper option than buying paraffin or electricity from the grid.
Some of the money is used to pay the engineers a salary in return for maintaining the village’s equipment and funds raised can also be plowed back into community projects.
Women on the scheme said they had benefitted by gaining a stable income stream, and a new sense of independence and respect within their villages.
“We have been given a better life because after we leave here, we will be engineers and will go back to teach others,” said Hajja.
“When I go back I will have status. I will be knowledgeable and I will be proud.” ($1 = 2,300.0000 Tanzanian shillings) (Writing by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change.