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July 12, 2020

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The struggle to keep a dying Syrian craft alive

AFTER Syria’s war whisked away the silkworms from his mulberry trees, 65-year-old Mohammed Saud instead turned his idle home workshop into a silk museum to celebrate the ancient craft.

In the green hills of Deir Mama, Saud, his wife and three sons have been making silk for decades.

They would raise silkworms in the spring, watching them munch on mulberry tree leaves and slowly build their thick cocoons, before spinning the thread and weaving it into fine cloth.

But Syria’s 9-year-old war has complicated silkworm imports and stemmed production for now.

In his courtyard-turned museum, Saud held up a handful of glistening white silk cocoons the size of large grapes.

Stooping down, he manually yanked around a large wooden spinning wheel used to unfurl the tight coils into long pale thread.

“There are just three families left in Syria working this craft,” he said.

“Today I am the only one left in this town fighting for its survival.”

He recalls that a decade ago, the year before the conflict broke out, 16 villages and 48 families across Syria still worked in sericulture — the process of cultivating silkworms and extracting silk from them.

Cocoon harvests had already dropped from 60,000 tons in 1908 to just 3.1 tons in 2010. When fighting broke out in 2011, it all ground to a halt.

“I decided to transform my home into a workshop when I realized it would contain all stages of silk production,” Saud said.

‘Clinically dead’

Sitting at a large wooden loom with his feet on the pedals, he demonstrated weaving, his agile hands gliding from side to side as he weaved weft over warp.

In a corner, off-white silk shawls were displayed on the wall or draped around mannequins.

Deir Mama was famous for silk production before the war with most residents specializing in one stage or another of the process.

Not far from the large Masyaf citadel, the town’s mulberry trees stretched across wide swathes of land, drawing in silk fans from Syria and beyond.

On the museum’s wall hung old photos of Saud posing with foreign visitors and a few of their thank you notes.

“I used to rely mainly on tourists, as they were the ones able to afford the silk,” he said.

But these days, even if the museum tour is free, visitors are rare.

After nine years of war that has killed 380,000 people and devastated the economy, tourism is non-existent.

And for Syrians struggling to put food on the table due to alarming price hikes, fine cloth is the last of their worries.

“Silk has become a luxury in this crisis,” Saud said. Before the conflict the craft was like “a sick man we hoped would heal, but then the war came along and dealt it a final blow.”

“I alone am battling for the trade’s survival even if it is clinically dead.”

The art of making silk, first developed in China, has a long history in Syria.

Archeological findings show silk was woven in the ancient city of Palmyra as early as the first century AD.

During World War II, Levantine factories supplied the United Kingdom with large silk sheets to make parachutes.

The country is famous for its Damascene brocade, a material of silver and gold silk threads that many Syrians claim Queen Elizabeth II wore for her wedding.

But today, says Syrian heritage expert Murhaf Rahayyim, the industry is struggling.

“The problem is not production,” he said. “There are hundreds of pieces of material waiting to be snapped up but no buyers.”

Tourism generated 12 percent of Syria’s pre-war gross national product.

“Before the war, tourists would buy most of what was produced, and we exported lots to Lebanon and the Gulf,” Rahayyim said.

“But today that has stopped and silk clothes are no longer a priority for Syrians.”


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