Interview with Maya Alkateb-Chami
“Cultural heritages need to be protected at a time when the world is getting ever smaller, the sweeping force of consumerism is changing cultural attitudes, and tourism is becoming a major industry and a vital one for many communities. Material culture, present through arts and handcrafts, is an important asset that helps define who we are, and serves as a tool for stressing human commonalities and promoting understanding, respect, and appreciation between people who belong to different cultures and generations.”Maya Alkateb-Chami in Syrian Silk: Portrait of a Living Cultural Heritage (2010)
Between 2008-2010, Maya Alkateb-Chami researched silk making in Syria, looking deeply at the country’s traditions of cocoon cultivation, reeling, and weaving, and investigating how the traditional industry could be revived. Her work resulted in a unique publication, shedding light on a facet of Syrian life that is often overlooked.
On the 10th anniversary of the publication of Syrian Silk: Portrait of a Living Cultural Heritage, Elisabeth Korinth interviewed author Alkateb-Chami for the Interactive Heritage Map of Syria.
What was your motivation behind documenting the silk industry in Syria?
In 2009, I was running the nonprofit organization Al Makan Art Association and got interested in starting a project to safeguard and promote Syria’s traditional crafts. A friend introduced me to a family in Syria’s Western Mountains, which had made beautiful silk scarves for at least four generations. Mohammad Sa’oud, the head of the family, whose day job was teaching Arabic at a local school, and his wife Amal, were so welcoming and knowledgeable. Following good project-planning principles, you always start with a problem analysis, which was my intention. If I knew the problems, I would design solutions better. The Syrian silk craft turned out to be more complicated than I had thought, and quite fascinating. What started as a short project-planning exercise in 2009, led to nine months of extensive research and learning.
What was your most interesting finding?
The long history of silk making in Syria was fascinating, especially how it intertwined with politics in ancient and modern times. I had expected this, however. The finding that was eye-opening to me, and which I later used to frame and organize my research, was that there was no single ‘Syrian silk craft.’ What existed was a multitude of crafts and traditions, interlinked and dependent on each other. You needed the cocoons to make thread. You needed thread to weave or crochet fabric. The weavers sold the fabrics directly, or sent them to be dyed. Sometimes the thread was dyed first, and it always needed to be prepared for weaving. The processes were separate, and each had its different community of craftsmen and women, although some groups overlapped. What existed was a supply-chain.
You did your research before the conflict broke out in Syria. How was the situation of the silk making tradition then and what were the processes it involved?
In 2009, there were 16 Syrian villages that reared silkworms. They produced two tons of cocoons, compared to 360 tons produced in the country in 1970. The whole family is engaged in the intense seasonal work. The worms are very delicate and react negatively to pesticides, cigarette smoke, perfume, and disease. When they are very small, the women finely chop mulberry leaves for them. When they reach their full sizes, the families sleep outside and give them the more comfortable quarters. By the time I had interviewed tens of families, the native silkworm to the area, which produced bigger yellowish cocoons, had already been extinct. No silk-reeler had seen it for seven years. Silkworm eggs were now imported and distributed by the Ministry of Agriculture at the beginning of each season.
In 2009, most of the Syrian farmers who produced cocoons reared silkworms in their private homes. This cash crop takes only about 40 days to give yield, but the delicate worms need much care and extensive labor, especially towards the end of the rearing period. (© Hany Hawasly)
‘Reeling’ or حل [hal] is the word for the process of unwinding cocoons into filaments that are 500-1500 meters long. This is compared to about six centimeters for the highest quality of cotton, and the reason behind silk’s value. The cocoons produced in Syria in 2009 were reeled in two villages. The craftsmen and women work very hard to reel the cocoons before mature silk moths tear them up and fly. They prefer not to dry them. A number of additional steps are performed by women to prepare the thread for fabric production.
Finally, the traditionally-reeled thread is woven in pit looms—built at ground-level with pits in the ground for one’s legs. Men do the labor-intensive weaving. Women crochet whole garments or the edges of shawls with intricate designs. Only some of the fabrics are dyed, and most are sold in their natural color. What’s so special is the persistence of silk making in Syria despite many setbacks. It was clear that the families involved deeply wanted to continue that work.
Reeling is a process through which filaments from different cocoons get unwound and then combined to form one continuous strand. (© Hany Hawasly)
How about the famous Syrian brocades?
In parallel to the village-based activities that I described, craftsmen in larger cities, such as Damascus, created exquisite brocade fabrics with metallic and imported silk threads, using centuries-old designs. Dyers in Aleppo made simple silk fabric squares into symmetrical abstract expressions of white, red, and black dyes. Weavers in Homs and Hama created traditional striped textiles. Craftswomen produced knot-and-dye dresses that took days to make. Skilled merchants sold fabrics and negotiated prices with their equally-savvy customers. All of these activities are part of the larger picture of silk production in Syria. However, my research largely followed the cocoons produced in the country in 2008-2010, the textiles that became of them, and the communities engaged in that transformation.
Masloubeh [مسلوبة], a traditional silk shawl, is made by crocheting two narrow pieces of hand-woven fabric together and then on the emerging edges, or is entirely crocheted. The woven parts are created using a traditional pit loom. (© Hany Hawasly)
You mentioned that you found the history of silk making in Syria fascinating, especially how it intertwined with politics. Can you tell us more about that?
We know that silk was first woven in Syria in the 1st century A.D., in Palmyra. The thread itself was likely imported, but the weaving used the local technique. In the mid-19th century, silk yarn and cocoons constituted 30% of the value of shipments out of [Great] Syria’s ports and 70% in the case of Beirut, mostly supporting a thriving textile industry in France. It is plausible that France chose Syria and Lebanon for the Mandate after WWI because they supplied it with critical raw materials for silk making. The following dramatic decline of production was due to a number of local and global forces: the opening of the Suez Canal and eased access to silks from Central and Southeast Asia; decreased demand on luxury products due to the world financial crisis before WWII, followed by the war and its aftermath; the introduction of artificial silk; and disease that impacted silkworms over multiple seasons in the Levant. However, less foreign demand meant an opportunity for local thread and textile production to grow. In 1964, there were six private semi-automatic factories producing silk thread in Syria, in addition to the traditional silk reeling I mentioned earlier.
What happened afterwards? How did production drop to two tons in 2009?
In 1963, the Syrian government established a factory to produce thread, which monopolized the market and effectively shut down all other factories in 1980. Over the years, many cocoon farmers quit, frustrated with corruption, bureaucracy, and low compensation for their work. The interesting position of the factory, in the middle of the craft’s supply chain, meant that the quality of its operation and products was also important to textile producers. At different points, importing silk thread from outside the country was made illegal, and those with economic resources and connections managed to get it on the black market. Work was made unnecessarily harder for many. A series of governmental interventions played a significant role in the shrinkage of Syria’s silk production in modern history. The story is not linear of course, and there were other factors, like the difficulty and high-risk factor of producing cocoons, changes in cultivated landscapes, and even a shift in village architecture towards using more concrete. I go into more details in the book.
How would you advise a government to intervene to safeguard a traditional industry?
One intervention that seems more immune to failure is to focus on increasing demand for final products. That said, I would advise any entity, governmental or not, to start with a problem analysis before jumping into creating solutions, and to especially look at handicrafts from a supply chain perspective.
What was the most profound memory for you while you were meeting families connected to silk production?
Oh, there were so many positive memories. People were so warm and welcoming, and wanted to share their stories. The mountainous landscapes of the many villages engaged in silk production, and the homes of people, are ingrained in my memory. I am very grateful to those who have let me into their lives, and to have learned more about my country’s history and its peoples. I feel strongly that every young person should engage in researching their cultural heritage in one way or another.
Read an article by Maya Alkateb-Chami on sericulture in Syria: