Hanging by a thread

Lebanon’s economy has gone into freefall, prompting attempts to revive rural crafts such as weaving amid predictions people will move back from the cities into villages

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The Lebanese town of Arsal lies amongst arid slopes and seemingly endless refugee settlements in the ridge of mountains that forms the frontier between Lebanon and Syria. Arsal was once home to the country’s weaving culture but recent years have been more troubled for the small and relatively remote town.

Long having had a reputation as a hub for smugglers, in 2014 it was briefly occupied by Islamist militant groups that crossed the porous frontier during the Syrian civil war, a conflict that has also caused its initial population of 35,000 to be flooded with over 50,000 refugees.

Halima collects discarded wool from around the Bekaa Valley to weave handcrafted carpets and rugs

Despite the inevitable tensions this has brought about, there is a sense of solidarity among Lebanese and Syrian residents taking breakfast and coffee on the main square. The monochrome palette in the maze of streets is interrupted by splashes of reds and blues from old motorbikes and bearded men covered in the traditional keffiyeh headscarf, a look rarely seen three hours drive away on the streets of Beirut.

On a quieter side of the town, Halima El Hojairy frantically waves from Bisat al Rih, a women’s weaving co-operative workshop she founded in 1998 that is thought to be among the last in Lebanon.

Her loosely fitted black headscarf reveals emerald-green eyes and a friendly, heart-shaped face. Growing up in Arsal in a family of artisans, El Hojairy collects discarded wool from shepherds herding around the Bekaa Valley to weave handcrafted carpets and rugs. She uses traditional techniques she learned from her grandfather to train unemployed Lebanese and Syrian women from Arsal in the hopes of reviving the long lost weaving traditions and creating a stable source of revenue.

As she opens the door to a large living room where she employs eight weavers, the air smells of a mixture of freshly cleaned fabrics and wood smoke coming from a cast-iron chimney in the centre of the room. A group of women sitting in a circle hunch over large wooden looms using a thick, dusty fleece sheared from the local Awassi sheep to weave richly textured carpets. They use reds, yellows and creams to create historical motifs that were once popular in Lebanese interiors, before foreign-made rugs became sought after and local designs fell out of fashion.

In the 1970s the Lebanese textile industry thrived, with hundreds of yarn, dye and clothing factories exporting locally-made goods across the world, but decades of economic mismanagement have led to its demise. As Lebanon goes through one of the worst economic crises in modern history and the devaluation of the Lebanese lira makes imports prohibitively expensive, necessity has forced people to revive rural traditions and create a sustainable local economy.

After the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), prime minister Rafiq Hariri implemented a financial recovery plan that included slashing customs duties from 35 per cent to 5 per cent to attract foreign investors. As a result, the textile market was flooded with cheaper goods mostly imported from China, Syria and Turkey, driving most businesses to shut down and leading to the decline of local knowledge.

One of Lebanon’s biggest textile companies, La Lainiere Nationale, was founded by the Khattar family in the 1920s and survived the civil war by producing yarn and clothing. Speaking to Big Issue North, Suleiman Khattar, the former owner of La Lainiere Nationale and now president of the Syndicate of Textile Industries in Lebanon, says: “The textile industry used to be the biggest export commodity in Lebanon. Our company would sell clothing across the Middle East, USSR and Europe, until the lowering of custom duties left us unable to compete with imported goods, and we were forced to close our doors in 2005.”

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As textile factories shuttered around the country, tonnes of locally produced wool were discarded each year, or crammed into trucks and sold to Syria where weaving traditions endured. Over the next two decades, the neoliberal policies that killed the textile industry gutted the rest of the Lebanese economy, creating an environment that heavily favoured the financial sector at the cost of productive enterprise. Debt mounted as foreign currency was attracted with wildly generous interest rates and used to pay creditors, in what was essentially comparable to a state-level Ponzi scheme.

By 2019 Lebanon’s economy was buckling under the weight of its own debt, corruption and mismanagement. Mass protests broke out at the end of the year and the country and its banks were revealed to be bankrupt. Banks imposed capital controls, knowing that they did not hold the funds that showed on their depositors’ account balances, and the lira, which had been long pegged to the dollar, began to freefall. The human cost was deep and shockingly rapid. Within a year 70 per cent of the population had fallen into poverty as savings, salaries and pensions evaporated.

Big Issue North’s visit to Arsal in early January coincided with an event that starkly illustrated the desperation of the average Lebanese citizen. Abdullah Al-Saii, a shopkeeper and father of two, took a gun and bottles of petrol and stormed into a bank in the town of Jeb Jannine. He took nine bankers hostage, threatened to set himself on fire and demanded to withdraw £38,700 of his own money. Al-Saii, who ran a small shop and had debts with suppliers, claimed that staff at the bank had refused his previous requests to withdraw his savings, blaming the financial crisis in the country. The hostage-taking was resolved peacefully after a few hours and Al-Saii now faces a possible 10 years in jail, but he has been described by many Lebanese as a “national hero” for taking direct action against the banks that have denied depositors access to their money.

Sipping a cup of tea, El Hojairy says: “In the old days, shepherds would shear the wool from the local Awassi sheep and clean it in the rivers flowing in the Bekaa Valley, before they processed it into yarn to weave much prized home furniture and clothing.”

Originating in the Syro-Arabian desert, the Awassi sheep evolved as a nomadic animal through centuries of breeding, to become the most dominant breed in Lebanon. They produce an open-weave, lustrous fleece that was used across the country for textile making, and appreciated for its strength and resilience. With the remaining textile factories now using cheaper imported yarn, El Hojairy hopes the crisis will encourage people to turn back towards the Awassi wool and revive the weaving knowledge. In early 2020, her work captured the attention of Adrian Pepe, an artist and designer based in Beirut.

Originally from Honduras, Pepe’s taste for ancient crafts and natural fibres brought him to Lebanon in 2016 to manage an embroidery workshop. In the midst of the economic crisis, he found out about the discarded Awassi wool and spent months in Arsal to learn about shepherding practices and Bisat Al Rih’s rural weaving traditions. He now collaborates with the cooperative to produce felt and weave striking and ornate tapestries. His creations use several wool materials, showcasing the evolution of textiles from raw sheepskin to the finest embroidery thread.

Sitting among piles of unprocessed wool and old sewing machines, Pepe says: “I started exploring the relationship between men and animals through textile formation, particularly through the Awassi sheep, a breed which represents a central figure in Abrahamic religions and in the history of the Middle East.”

He believes the disruption with ancient traditions started long before Lebanon’s post-war neoliberal policies were implemented. “The formation of political boundaries in the early 20th century altered nomadic pastoralism,” he says. “And the development of coastal cities disintegrated the traditional customs of rural life.”

Historically, Lebanon witnessed long waves of migration from remote villages to coastal cities after the country gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1943. As the currency devaluation reaches an all-time low, moving abroad is no longer an option for those earning a national minimum wage that is now equivalent to £23 per month. Some have returned to their villages to make use of ancestral land. With a cascading shortage of basic commodities paralysing the country, the more self-sufficient nature of rural areas can offer some protection from the worst effects of the crisis.

In a recent interview with Arab News, a businessman explained his plans to buy sheep and keep them on his farm in the mountains to avoid possible meat shortages. Others have decided to return to their villages to grow fruits and vegetables. According to Information International, between 55,000 and 77,000 individuals have migrated back to their villages since the economy collapsed, a number which could rapidly increase if the crisis worsens and unemployment rises.

Embroidered with gold and silver coloured threads, and with a quality that sometimes makes them seem to shimmer in the light, Pepe’s tapestries embody this renewed intimacy between Lebanon’s urban and rural societies. His creations have been exhibited across the Middle East and are more and more attracting Lebanese curators lost in the nostalgia of a once prosperous country. He aims to raise awareness about Lebanon’s raw materials through textile making, and hopefully revive the local artisanship that was once an essential pillar in the economy.

Perhaps more than any other craft in Lebanon, Pepe and Bisat al Rih’s collaborative weaving project tells the story of what the country once was: a community of diverse people and customs threaded together into a vibrant social fabric. And although there is little hope for local industries to recover in the foreseeable future, in the depths of the crisis there is an opportunity for long lost rural traditions to resurface.

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