SARAFAND/ZOUK MIKHAEL, Lebanon: Hussein Khalife doesn’t know how long his family has blown glass, but he does know that he will close shop by the end of the year.
“I learned from my father the beautiful art of glassblowing. I loved it when I was a kid, when there was good business,” Khalife says, as he shows off his small showroom by the same name of colorful glass artifacts and outdoor stone ovens on the seaside town of Sarafand, just south of Sidon.
But he says adamantly, “I don’t want my children to go into the business. I’m losing money every month. I’ll have to close by the end of the year.”
He fills a van with some of his handmade jars and glasses and heads north to Zouk Mikhael, where he and eight members of his family are displaying their work at a 10-day handicraft fair in the northern suburb. As he drives through the mid-day traffic of Beirut, he laments about how times have changed for craftsmen in Lebanon.
He says that until around 10 years ago he had a steady flow of customers – foreign tourists and owners of local artisan shops – who would come to Sarafand and watch him make the glass by hand. Now, he says he has to compete with similar products imported from China, and he can’t count on government support. His prices start at $5 for small decorations and run to $25 for large vases, which he believes is reasonable for hand-made items.
As he drives past a building site, he says, “This is what I’ll do. This is what makes money in Lebanon.” In recent years, he has been selling new apartment blocks to support his glassblowing business so he can pay the salaries of the eight employees of the family business.
If Khalife’s shop closes, it will end a legacy of glassblowing that began on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago.
For the past two millennia, glassblowers have been using the same basic technique of melting sand or shattered old glass, shaping the material by blowing through a long, hollow metal rod pushed into a stone oven at 150 degrees Celsius, which needs to be heated 24 hours beforehand.
In fact, it was the Phoenicians on the coastal settlements of present-day Lebanon and Syria who revolutionized glassmaking with the blowing technique, eclipsing all other methods of the day. The earliest evidence linking glassblowing to the region was found in the Old City of Jerusalem, dating back to 37 BC.
The new practice spread throughout the Roman Empire, laying the ground for Italy to later become a center for glassblowing in Renaissance Europe. The blowing technique was embraced by the renowned glassmakers of Venice, and was even taken up as far as China and Japan. In recent decades, glassblowing has also been used in modern art, with different institutes throughout the world now dedicated to the craft.
But in the place of its birth glassblowing has long been witnessing a decline, with workshops that once dotted the eastern Mediterranean coast all but a memory. Until a year ago, Syria was home to seven glassblowers, but the ongoing unrest might also run those out of business – which tends to depend on tourism and those with some amount of disposable income.
With only a handful of skilled glassblowers left in Lebanon, it is unlikely that another company can start up once Khalife and his family close shop.
He says it takes two years to learn the craft “if you love it – and if you don’t love it, you’ll never learn it in a 100 years.”
As he arrives at the craft fair in Zouk Mikhael, his siblings have already set up a stone oven, disassembled from Sarafand and then reassembled at the fair. The glassblower starts making a new jar from discarded shattered glass.
As people browse the stands under the July heat, even hotter at the glassblowing booth with the oven ablaze, they stop to watch the hot substance transform into a beautiful round glass.
With the captive audience growing, the family of glassblowers begins to relax, starting to enjoy the fruits of their labor as they explain the process of making glass by hand.
Nisrine Khalife, Hussein’s niece who colors and decorates the glass work, recalls some of their biggest projects – once making a collection of large glass balls for the engagement party in the theme of A Thousand and One Nights for the daughter of Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, and another event for the son of former President Emile Lahoud in which they made large teardrops made of glass.
A young girl asks Nisrine, “Do you make it on your own?” She responds. “Yes, we make it all from scratch.”
At the end of a long day, her uncle observes with pride one of the largest group of onlookers of his hard work he has seen in a long time.
“We’re getting some business,” he says, smiling for the first time all day.