by Rania Kataf
One of the most attractive scenes described by storytellers who recollect the memories of their beloved city of Aleppo is the image of the colourful hand-printed textiles hanging from the walls of its Great Citadel. “The layout of fabrics created a rainbow, a display of over 300 different prints adopted through the trade between the east and the west,” adds Mr. Bsata, a young merchant from Aleppo, reminiscing about the good old days when he used to watch the dyers do their magical work in the old city. Sadly, this scene has disappeared and only lies in the memories of those who have worked in the craft; and the elderly who tell the stories of a once warless Aleppo through their chapped dry lips, thirsty for a past they fear has been lost forever.
For centuries, hand-printed fabric was a commodity found in every household and Souq in Aleppo, Damascus and Hama, yet it was produced and most popular in Hama. Women from Deir ez-Zour travelled to Aleppo to buy the habary, a hand-printed silk, used to cover their hair and mostly worn during festivities. Habaries came in many colours and prints, mostly influenced by nature. Women would wrap one to three different coloured silk pieces around their forehead, believing it to be a sign of luxury and immortal beauty.
Hama was famous for its white cotton fabrics printed in black floral or geometric designs used mostly as tablecloths or bed covers. The movement of Bedouins inside and outside of Syria played a major role in the spread of this fabric to Iraq. Over time, more colours substituted the plain white cotton, from green, to burgundy and even navy blue. “These darker pigments were more suitable for travel,” explains Hassan Dahabi, a merchant in the old city of Damascus, “Bedouins preferred them for their quality over other textiles, and foreigners bought them as tablecloths.” But what remained as a signature was the black ink, symbolizing the origin of the craft and the men of the city of Hama. “Everything is temporary, but black ink is permanent and a symbol of power,” and this is why printers in Hama used the black ink in their craft explains Mr Dahabi.
In Damascus hand-printed fabrics were made in two locations in the old city, in a khan in Souq Midhat Pasha named Khan al-Dikkeh and in the Jewish Quarter. The fabric made in Khan al-Dikkeh was produced by the men of a family named al-Tabbaa: meaning ‘the ink printers’. Just a couple of meters away, women and children in the Jewish quarter mastered the craft, claiming that such a delicate craft belongs to those with the most sensitive hands. One of the most famous Jewish families who worked in wood block printing was the Sassoons. Their granddaughter Dalida Barukh-Sassoon speaks of them as “the pioneers of this ancient craft”. The family owned their own trade route for shipping their fabric from India to the United Kingdom through Greece.
Although these handcrafts are on the verge of extinction as a result of the death of their masters and the introduction of new technologies to the textile industry, what remains certain is the role Syrian cities have played historically as manufacturing and trade centres in textile production – a story that craftsmen and traders printed in our ancestors’ memories for centuries, with ink that lasts forever.
Rania Kataf is a Damascus-based visual artist working on documenting the city’s memory through stories and photographs. With her Facebook community group “Humans of Damascus” she tries to engage Damascenes into this process online.