Preserving Jordanian handicraft
Amman - Umm Mohammed’s work is lauded as art. Tourists love her embroidered dresses and cushions with radiant or cosy colours. Her handmade jewellery is daring with flashy turquoise or subtle with burgundy stones.
The 72-year-old has sewn for so long that she no longer recalls exactly when she first took up a needle.
“It’s been long enough so that I can’t remember when my journey started, Mohammed said at her one-storey home in Ghor El Safi in western Jordan.
She started as a young girl, tutored by her mother. “She taught me how to design a pillow case or a bed cover,” Mohammed said.
“I liked what I was doing and I also got myself into jewellery,” said the Jordanian housewife who sells her products to top-notch designer shops in Amman.
“Everything is made by hand and tourists like that, at least this is what the shops I sell to tell me,” she said.
She said her husband’s illness forced her to continue working. “I have to buy him medicine and put food on our table,” she said. “We’ve never begged for money and I love working.”
Mohammed is among hundreds of Jordanian women who work from home, designing handmade products for European tourists who spend generously on Jordanian handicrafts.
Her work is funded by international non-governmental organisations that focus on women and handicraft, such as Empowering Rural Women in the Jordan Valley. The project, which began in 2013, is funded by Drosos Foundation, a charitable, non-profit organisation based in Switzerland.
It focuses on women living in Mohammed’s village of Ghor El Safi, a rural area south of the Dead Sea, to develop handicrafts. It assists them in promoting their products.
Embroidered works, such as intricately fashioned cushions, pillow cases, blouses and nightgowns, top the list of Jordanian products. Others include woven wool or camel hair carpets, silk rugs and handmade glass and pottery with a cultural mix of Arab and Islamic imagery and scribbling. Smaller scale crafts include artistically decorated sand bottles, finely chiselled sculptures and silver jewellery with precious stones.
Jordan’s rich legacy of handicrafts has been passed down over many generations since Jordanians, as nomadic Bedouins, met their domestic needs by weaving their own rugs and making their own tableware and utensils.
The crafts were influenced by diverse cultures, such as that of Palestinians who fled wars with Israel. Others include the Circassians and Armenians who sought refuge in Jordan in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Khalil Burgan, owner of the family-run Al Burgan Handicrafts, established in 1989, said Jordanian products, especially embroidery, pottery and ceramics, are unique and of high quality compared to tourist merchandise found elsewhere in the Middle East.
“As you run your palm at the soft surface of the traditional garments and pass your fingers through the colourful threads that form the piece of art, you can easily feel and sense the uniqueness in its dimensions and structure,” Burgan said.
“We have been in this business for such a long time and we saw the rise and fall of this profession several times.”
Accordingly, Burgan said his firm adopted strategies to withstand time and economic hardships locally, regionally and internationally. But indeed, the times are now different in this profession,” Burgan admitted.
Now, work is focused on marketing and selling locally.
Burgan says the type of tourist has changed.
“We used to have many tourists from Europe who paid well but nowadays many come from Eastern Europe and Asia and they are, as we call them, small souvenir buyers who are on limited budgets, travel light and end their journey by buying a small souvenir from the duty-free shop as they leave the country,” he said.
Al Burgan specialises in designing and producing unique top-quality artisan or handcrafted products, involving Jordanian folklore in embroidery and sewing skills.
“We have around 30 employees but we also have around 50 housewives who work from home using their skills in creating the pieces of art and this you cannot find anywhere as the market is full of cheap imitation manufactured in China,” he said.
“Traders are experts in importing such pieces from China, India and Pakistan that cost them around $1 and they sell them for more than $10. For us the cost is higher as everything is handmade and there are taxes, employees and rent in addition to other utilities that added to the costs.”
Burgan depends on local events. “We display our products in major duty-free shops and hotels around the region and some parts of the world.
This way we can maintain the quality of customers and products as some only look for quality,” he said.
Abu Khaled, 33, an employee at one of the traditional handicrafts shops in Amman said that business has been “really slow”.
“Many tourists enter the shop, look around, take pictures but buy absolutely nothing,” he said.
“Years ago, tourists used to come and spend a lot of money on traditional handicrafts, buying souvenirs but things have changed. Now, there are many who sell these items cheaper and this is affecting the business,” he explained.