HEBRON, West Bank — The dusty gray single-story workshop and adjoining poorly lit sales outlet fit in well with the decrepit buildings lining the Hebron street. Under the weak yellow streetlights, it feels like a movie set.
Inside the workshop, piles of colorful ceramic construction tiles lie helter-skelter on the floor in between shelves full of coffee mugs and espresso cups painted in flowery motifs. Some are decorated with the words “Jerusalem,” “Tel Aviv,” “Holy Land,” or “Peace.”
A man and boy are seated at two tables. The boy is rapidly painting tiny red, blue and green flowers on the mugs, with a level of concentration unusual for a 12 year old. He says nothing, but takes the time to smile.
The man, perhaps 35, is carefully applying gold trim on a vase likely more beautiful than the flowers intended for it. He glances quickly at the boy’s work, then asks visitors to have a seat. No offer of coffee is forthcoming — though not for a lack of cups.
The man’s brother is pulling fired mugs and cups from a top-loading kiln and placing them carefully in a box. Out they go, replaced by the freshly painted items, and the kiln whines into action again.
These mugs, and the bowls, dishes, ashtrays and vases produced in similar workshops in the city, have been purchased by visitors to Israel for decades. The colorful, flowery motifs have made their way to hundred of thousands, perhaps millions, of households around the world.
These ceramics are ambassadors of passive culture. They belong to the world of souvenirs, things people look at in their homes and remember a one-off visit to Israel — and Palestine.
Some visitors do ask about the origins of the ceramics, but most — and most local Israelis — are unaware they are produced by seven hamulas (clans or extended families) in the West Bank city of Hebron. This, for example, is the Al-Okhowa Pottery Center, run by the Ghaithe and Zeloum families.
“We export to Jordan and even to the Gulf,” notes Khalif Ghaithe, the brother loading the oven. “But almost everything we make goes to Israel.”
“Let me tell you,” he says. “Politics can be a real problem in Israel and Palestine. We all know this.”
His brother Lao’i looks up from the gold trim and doesn’t miss a beat to the question, “So how’s business?”
‘We export to Jordan and even to the Gulf, but almost everything we make goes to Israel’
“Business is good, al hamdoolilah [thank God], but it was much better before the Second Intifada,” he says. “Politics? Don’t ask.”
Many Jewish Israelis identify Hebron with radical Islamic activity and Hamas, or radical Jewish settlers. There are few foreign visitors, except to the Cave of the Patriarchs, and a small area of conflict where nationalist religious Jews and leftist activists go — albeit for different reasons — in an area far from this workshop.
But politics aside, Hebron is still the manufacturing capital of the West Bank, with strong markets for ceramic construction tiles, certain household items and even sandals, all sold both in local Palestinian shops and in Israel.
The Second Intifada has left its mark. Before the end of September 2000, the seven potter clans in Hebron had 30 workshop-factories and more than 300 employees between them. Today, there are seven factories and perhaps 100 people working.
“Today we worry about possible violence between the Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan factions of Fatah,” Ghaithe says straightforwardly. “Before it was with Israel; today it could be here. We don’t know. But if there is trouble, it will be very bad for the business. That we know.”
The clay for all seven centers is imported from Italy and Spain through the port of Ashdod. In this workshops, one doesn’t see anyone actually making the mugs.
“You want to see the wheel in action?” Ghaithe asks. He makes a phone call. “Let’s go quickly. They are closing up shop.”
His car is dusty and worn; the translator drives in the newer rented car. At this hour, most women in Hebron are home cooking dinner. Outside, there are few streetlights and not much traffic, but drivers seem to be in a sudden race.
After five minutes of up and downhill turns, the car comes to a stop in front of a small building in Halhul, next to Hebron.
A ceramic artisan in his early 20s, Bilal Saleima, turns the electric pottery wheel back on, reaches for a handful of clay and some water, and in less than five minutes, has produced a sugar bowl and lid. Next comes an espresso mug. He says he can spin 100 coffee mugs a day on the wheel.
“Yes, I can go to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and see my work in stores,” he says with a wide smile. He has big, powerful hands that dominate the clay and the wheel. “I have the ishur, the pass, but I don’t go often.” He shrugs.
In his free time, he teaches pottery at a local arts school in Hebron. And he cares nothing for politics.
“Come back and visit when you want,” he says with a smile. He really means it.
He opens his arms towards the dimly lit, chilly, small, cement-floored room. It is obvious that visitors are rare.
Back in Hebron at ceramics headquarters, espresso mugs are for sale at NIS 5 each, or about $1.30. Khalef and Loa’i Ghaithe stand by the entrance.
“Ahalan wa salan,” they both say. “You are most welcome, any time.”
Outside waits a minivan with Hebrew and English lettering advertising guided tours. Two men load up boxes for a run to Jerusalem. Up to 200 pieces go out every night, to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere.
The drive back to Bethlehem on Route 60 is uneventful, with little traffic and no checkpoints at the Gush Etzion roundabout.
The translator is happy for the opportunity to go to Hebron, but could care less about these ceramics. Palestinians do not buy these attractive but lightweight mugs and bowls, he says, offering no explanation.
The Jaffa market
The main street in the Jaffa flea market is warming up to young bohemian Israeli shoppers, alongside domestic and foreign visitors.
At Pahcer Siuri’s City of Presents, the only Palestinian-Muslim store on the street, the full stock of ceramics from Hebron has a small but steady stream of buyers. A few also purchase from the store’s modest supply of household items.
Almost empty the other day, the espresso mug shelf space is now full. Supplier Itzik Zeloum brought them up from Hebron himself.
‘My father taught me, small profit margin and large volume’
Here, the espresso cups go for NIS 9 each, about $2.35 — up from NIS 5 in Khalil. The full size mug is NIS 12, or $3.15, up from NIS 9 at their point of origin.
“These are the cheapest prices in Israel,” says owner Pahcer (pronounced Faher). “My father taught me, small profit margin and large volume. And people like to buy small things, mugs, cups, tiles, stuff to put in their bags.”
Zeloum also supplies the two small, full-blown souvenir shops across the street, where prices are slightly higher.
Pahcer says he sees an average of 70 buying customers a day, and up to 300 on Friday afternoon and Saturday.
“The rug and antique dealers, and the souvenir shopkeepers on the street are all religious guys so they close on Shabbat,” he explains. “Of course they do. It’s normal. But I guess many foreign tourists don’t know that. So they come. And they find me.”
He says that some people ask where the ceramics are made.
“I answer, from Hebron, Khalil. But many people don’t know where that is. But I don’t get into the politics. It’s not worth it,” he says.
His grandfather, a Khalili, brought the family here from Hebron 40 years ago, apparently a prudent move. Pahcer was born here in Jaffa. His English is not great, but this reporter’s Hebrew and Arabic are worse.
Pahcer can’t imagine living anywhere else. The Israeli Arab is as at home with the hummus and salad which he and his wife share from the small restaurant next door, as he is with her black headscarf and long black robe.
A few days later at the airport, which always invites melancholy, ceramics are for sale in a Steimatzky bookstore.
When asked if they sell many of these ceramic mugs, or if she knows where they are made, the sales girl pretends not to hear.
The price tag reads “9,” but on closer inspection, there is a dollar sign in front of it, making it almost three times as expensive as in Pahcer’s shop. Nobody appears to be buying. Perhaps every good thing has a limit. Happily, the buck stops in Jaffa.
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