Souk al-Safafeer, a fading Baghdad landmark
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 Many shops have been replaced by fabric stalls.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.”