Palestinian tile industry a cultural treasure
Nablus - Quietly hunched over a dusty, metallic station, with his fragile fingers wrapped in shredded sky-blue gloves, Hani Rehan carefully eyes a custom-made tile he crafted in Nablus’s flagstone tile factory, where the elite and tourists flock to purchase a fragment of Palestinian heritage.
Established in 1930, Aslan Tiles’ factory is advertised as the last workshop in the West Bank in which handmade and coloured tile is produced for those with a strong cultural appetite and ample cash to purchase a product once considered an affordable necessity in many Palestinian households.
One of the factory’s clients is Jordan’s Queen Rania, the Palestinian wife of King Abdullah II. The queen once decorated her royal chamber with tiles of a design that was then named for her: Rania’s Lily.
With hundreds of possibilities and a wide array of colours and designs to choose from, Anan Aslan, manager of Aslan Tiles, explained that traditional coloured tile redefined the way people viewed heritage, prompting them to incorporate the tiles in modern lifestyles.
“Coloured traditional tile was very popular in the early ’30s until the late ’70s but people lost interest all through the ’80s and ’90s. It was no longer special or new and people found a cheaper replacement in machine-made tile,” he said.
Since 2000 however, Aslan said demand has increased for traditional coloured tile, which is believed to have originated in the Levant, thus the name Shami, Arabic for “Syrian”. But Aslan’s father, Jalal, said the craft was established in the region during French colonisation between the first and second world wars.
Tile produced in Nablus carries colours and designs that mirror local culture in a way that leaves no doubt to the authentic Palestinian flavour and identity it promotes.
“Each design has a unique name: Mosque’s Gate, Vine Leaves, Cat’s Paw, Crown, Wheel and the Shami Carpet [are] just few designs of the 750 designs that we have,” Jalal Aslan said. “We have so many copper designs that could last us another 100 years.”
Husam, who has been working with the Aslan family for 17 years, said he enjoys his craft. “What we do here is not found anywhere else,” he said. “Our craft is distinctive and only he who holds the metal tankard and pours the colours into the design can understand why this is a fascinating craft. We are artists”.
The worker begins by fitting a hollowed piece of metal called the “bracelet” over a metal plate, turning the pieces into a mould in which the colours are poured through a copper design.
After 1 centimetre of liquid colour is poured into each cell, the design is lifted and the colours are covered with a 4-centimetre layer of white, crushed stone and cement and then covered with another metal plate before being pressed in a machine.
Freshly made tile needs to sit for up to 36 hours to dry before it can be used. There are coloured tile factories elsewhere in the Middle East but they use different methods of colouring and their quality of production seems less impressive.
In the West Bank, the process of making tile and the craft is a tourist attraction. Aslan estimates that half of the factory’s customers are tourists who buy a few pieces to take home.
“We rely on word of mouth and passers-by who express interest in what we do,” he said.
He said that 30% of the customers are from the West Bank and most of the rest are from Israel, both Arabs and Israelis.
“We are forced to partner up with Israeli suppliers, who mediate between us and Israeli buyers. They send us the requested colours, designs and quantity and we make it and pack it to be sold as an Israeli product,” Aslan said.
While more than half of the factory’s production targets Israelis, Aslan and his father said they had rejected an offer by Israeli businessmen to relocate to Israel because they felt that would be an “act of betrayal” to the Palestinian cause.
The factory is widely regarded as a national treasure and a token of Palestinian heritage but it receives minimal support and facilities from the Palestinian Authority.
Aslan said the factory has no export licence because it is owned by about 100 people, most of whom are either old or live abroad. However, he said, exports to Queen Rania proceeded easily because of “her royal status”.
Other potential buyers from abroad are turned down because it is not worth the trouble, Aslan said.
A 1-square-metre slab of traditional coloured tile, which makes 25 pieces, sells for $40. Machine-made tile can be purchased for $10 or less depending on quality.