Souk al-Safafeer, a fading Baghdad landmark

Friday 22/01/2016
The traditional Souk al-Safafeer in Baghdad is part of Iraq’s fading cultural heritage.

Baghdad - The noise of hammers beating against metal has almost disappeared and tables and shelves in the shops no longer overflow with shining copperware as Baghdad’s centuries-old Souk al-Safafeer — the coppersmiths’ marketplace — is feared to be fad­ing away.
The once lively street market where copper is beaten into shape using traditional methods has been losing its identity as more than a decade of turmoil has driv­en away tourists, forcing many shops to close.
Branching out of the Baghdad’s oldest street, al-Rasheed, the 500-metre-long souk rubs shoul­ders with Madrassa al-Mustansiri­ya, a school built on the banks of the Tigris river in the golden age of the Abbasid empire. It was named “al-Safafeer” after the colour of copper – “safra” in Arabic.
Twenty years ago, the market was a bustling and productive place where ornate copperware for household or decorative uses was made in the same way it was centuries ago.
But now the rhythm of the cop­persmiths’ souk is quieter and the clamour of its crowds much more subdued. Many shops have been replaced by fabric stalls.
“I learned how to beat on cop­per at the age of 6 and since then I cannot give up that profession, which I inherited from my father who used to own several shops in the souk,” said 80-year-old About Khaled Ezzawi as he sat outside his shop waiting for clients, who have become increasingly rare.
“I left school at an early age driven by my passion to learn the secrets of the profession, which had brought us a lot of income and fame at the time,” Ezzawi said, adding that the souk has been losing its allure since the country has been gripped by turmoil and economic crises. Many craftsmen have been forced to turn to other professions or leave.
“I used to enjoy the sounds coming out from every single shop where more than one worker was beating copper into pitches and pots of all sizes and shapes. The merchandise did not last long as it was very popular among tourists and locals alike,” Ezzawi said.
But matters deteriorated dra­matically after the 2003 US-led in­vasion, which toppled Iraqi presi­dent Saddam Hussein, Ezzawi said, while vowing to stay on. “I will not leave the souk and I will not be tempted by fabric traders who have taken over most of the coppersmiths’ shops. This is a fact that everybody knows, including my sons who will inherit the outlet after my death,” he said.
The grey-haired man recalls when former French president Jacques Chirac visited the souk on his last official visit to Iraq be­fore the invasion in 2003. “I was busy working on one of the pieces engraved with the famous lion of Babylon when I noticed that he was watching me. So I offered him the piece as a souvenir and appre­ciation of his visit,” Ezzawi said.
Haidar Amir, 25, is among the few younger members of his fam­ily attracted to a profession that it has been involved in for more than 200 years. “We are a big fam­ily with the majority practicing the craft inherited from our fore­fathers,” he said. “Although I have completed university education, I was keen on learning the profes­sion of my ancestors, which I mas­ter very well.”
Amir and other younger crafts­men have been striving to pre­serve the country’s coppersmith tradition.
“We have urged municipality of­ficials and Baghdad’s governor to support the souk and ensure its sustainability as a cultural land­mark,” he said.
But household copperware is facing tough competition from cheaper imported items flooding the market in the absence of any policies to protect local produc­tion.
“Cheaper Chinese merchandise is increasingly attracting Iraqis, who are buying less handmade copperware, which is more expen­sive,” noted shop owner Kamel Saad. He blamed the government for allowing the “extinction” of the souk, “which should be pre­served as a popular Iraqi heritage”.
An official in Baghdad’s governo­rate, Atawan al-Atwani, acknowl­edged that copper craftsmanship was being undermined by com­petition from imported wares. “The absence of a clear economic policy in addition to [government] failure to collect fees on imported merchandise has adversely affect­ed local production,” Atwani said.
MP Mohammad Mashi, a mem­ber of the parliament Commit­tee on Culture and Information, held the ministries of Culture and Tourism responsible for the fading away of the souk and other histor­ic sites across the country.
“Parliament committees stand helpless on many issues because of partisanship and the system of quotas affecting political prac­tice,” Mashi said. “Monitoring government performance and holding the ministers accountable for their deeds is the task of parlia­ment, but unfortunately this task has been undermined by partisan blocs which prevent the question­ing of officials they support.”