Glass-blowing: Lebanon’s fading craft

Sunday 29/05/2016
A worker at a glass-blowing factory in Beddawi near Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

Northern Lebanon - In a shabby old building in Bed­dawi, a suburb of the northern port city of Tripoli, Abdel Ha­mid Kobaytari runs Lebanon’s last glass-blowing business in an area long famous for the craft.

Declining sales, competition from Syria and a scarcity of tourists forced two glass-blowing shops in Beddawi to close in recent years, leaving Kob­aytari to keep the legacy alive alone.

“The problems facing industrial­ists, particularly the craftsmen, in Lebanon are enormous,” Kobaytari said. “Many industries have re­gressed dramatically while others are on the verge of total extinction, notably the glass-blowing profes­sion, which still uses traditional methods passed on through genera­tions.”

The golden age of the industry, which was concentrated in Beddawi and the southern coastal town of Sarafand, is long gone in Lebanon, according to Kobaytari, who, how­ever, still employs 80 workers in his factory.

“Beddawi was famous for its handcrafted glass-blowing prod­ucts, which were exported to Arab countries as well as Europe. That was the case before we got wiped out by a tsunami of total neglect and lack of official support for the herit­age profession. This compounded with economic slowdown and harsh competition from imported items, especially the smuggled crafts com­ing from Syria, led to the closure of most glass-blowing enterprises,” he said.

“The profession of glass-blowing is very old, dating back to the time of the Phoenicians. It has been passed to us by our forefathers from gen­eration to generation. I myself was apprenticed at a very young age by my grandfather who taught me the traditional method,” said Kobaytari, who for decades painstakingly cre­ated vases, flutes and jugs.

For two millennia, glass-blowers have been using the same basic technique.

Standing in front of a crackling brick furnace, Abou Khaled, one of the factory’s employees, twirls a metal rod inside the oven contain­ing bright orange pools of molten glass. Minutes later, he withdraws a glowing orange ball from the oven and blows into the long metal tube, swirling it to create a bubble.

The bubble grows as Abou Khaled, using tongs, gently presses down on the edges, fashioning a delicate ca­rafe.

“I have been working for the past 40 years in this profession, which I learned from my father. I hope I will be able to continue in this work as long as the factory continues oper­ating. I don’t feel that I can do some­thing else,” Abou Khaled said.

The technique of melting sand or shattered glass and shaping the material by blowing through a hol­low metal rod pushed into a stone oven heated to 150 degrees Celsius was invented by the on the coastal settlements of present-day Lebanon by the Phoenicians who ruled the eastern Mediterranean from about 1500-500BC.

According to legend, the seafaring merchants discovered a substance that could be stretched and mould­ed running out from under the pots they used to cook their meals along the sandy beach.

The blowing technique was em­braced by renowned glassmakers in Venice and was even taken up in China and Japan. In recent decades, glass-blowing has been used in modern art, with institutes through­out the world dedicated to the craft.

In the place of its birth, however, glass-blowing has been witness­ing a decline, with workshops that once dotted the eastern Mediterra­nean coast closing and fading from memory.

“Although we have introduced machinery in the glass industry, the primitive ovens are still in use by the craftsmen who apply the old technique, which is for us a heritage that we want to preserve more than anything else,” Kobaytari explained.

“Unfortunately, the business has suffered a lot because we don’t get any support from the government and Syrian products are still being smuggled and sold here without tax. I personally contacted Syrian factory owners in Homs to work out a deal under which they would stop smuggling their merchandise into Lebanon but it did not work.”

The tough competition is threat­ening the existence of the last glass-blowing factory in north Lebanon.

“In Syria, glass-blowers are sup­ported by the authorities, whereas in Lebanon we have no subsidy from the government whether in the cost of electricity or fuel, and on top of that we have no protection from imported merchandise flooding the market at very competitive prices,” he said. “The fate of the factory, the employees and the craft is at stake.”

The once-treasured handicraft is losing ground with only a few work­shops still working in Sarafand and Tripoli.

“It’s a pity,” said Abou Khaled. “It is such a beautiful and artistic pro­fession but I will not teach it to my children because it is not a job that could guarantee their future, es­pecially in a country that does not preserve its heritage and support its craftsmen.”