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Sidon’s boatbuilders preserve ancient profession

SIDON, Lebanon: It has been a dream of Andre Handouqa’s since he was young to build his own boat, and soon, he hopes that dream will be realized. Handouqa, who is Greek-Lebanese, has chosen the port of Sidon in which to build his boat.

“It’s been my dream since I was young to build a boat, and today I have come to Sidon, the capital of the Phoenicians, with a photograph and plans of my boat,” he says.

Once his vessel is completed Handouqa plans to set sail for Greece aboard his 20-meter-long craft.

The southern coastal city of Sidon is still holding on to its boat-making heritage, despite a difficult economic climate – making it rare for young people to take up this not particularly lucrative profession.

The trade, which creates a link between the city and the sea, is passed down from one generation to the next, but today there are only a few professional boatbuilders remaining.

In Phoenician times, cedar and oak wood were used to create boats which were exported around the world, gaining a reputation for the city’s, and indeed the country’s, boatbuilders as masters of this ancient profession.

Today, Sidon remains the Lebanese city most closely associated with boatbuilding, whether the vessels produced are for used for fishing, transportation or excursions.

Those boatbuilders who remain are not just interested in generating income, but in preserving the city’s heritage.

Kamel Atieh, one such artisan, is busy at work near the fishermen’s port, where he creates boats of various sizes and colors.

“I mastered this trade when I was a boy, three decades ago, when my father still practiced it, after he inherited it from his grandfather,” Atieh says.

“Today it is my main source of income, even though this has deteriorated due to the difficult economic situation,” he says.

Modestly, Atieh says that boatbuilding is “not a difficult or complicated profession, but it needs experience and an eye for design.”

The work starts, he explains, with sketching out the design for each boat, and then the shell of the boat, or the ribcage, is built. The woods he most commonly uses are cypress, mulberry, pine and eucalyptus.

“After we build the shell we cover it with wooden planks, and then we fill in the gaps between the wooden planks so that water can’t rise up through them. Then the wood is sanded down and painted. Finally, we install the engine so it is ready for use.”

All the boats that Atieh builds are made on demand, whether for fishing or for touristic purposes, and range from five to nine meters long.

There are four main styles of boats which are built in Sidon: the Mbattaneh, hollow with a raised bow and used by fishermen both close to the shore and in deeper waters; the Sanbak, which is a smaller version of the Mbattaneh and used for trips that are near to shore; the Lansh, which is a big and fast boat, with cabin space, and is used for deep waters and long trips; and the Zahafeh is a medium-sized boat, also used for trips near to the shore as well as for fishing.

The price of each boat depends on the size and type, but generally, each meter costs $1,000, with the owner buying the engine on top of that, and the boatbuilders installing it.

“Boatbuilding takes a lot of effort and diligence,” Atieh says.

During the summer it takes around two months to build a boat, while in winter approximately four months are needed to complete a vessel.

“We work somewhere between six and eight hours every day, without breaks. And when we finish a boat, it has to be tested vigorously and this also takes time.”

Every year, maintenance checks are done on each boat, and broken or rotten planks are replaced.

Naji Antar, who learned the trade 20 years ago, tells The Daily Star of his special relationship with the sea.

“Boatbuilding is an art. You don’t need academic qualifications, but creative work is like volunteering with a charity, you have to give everything, but you can’t expect much in return. And you have to do it with skill.”

Antar, who doesn’t own his own boat, tests new vessels and works in both Sidon and the northern port city of Tripoli.

He is proud that hundreds of school students, and some university students of engineering or architecture, come to watch him make boats and take notes on this ancient craft.

One frustration of the trade, for Atieh, is the lack of a specific union, “to defend our rights and resolve our problems,” he says.

“There isn’t a union for boatbuilders in Sidon, or even in Lebanon, so we belong to the union of fishermen ... There are no special qualifications to practice this trade,” he says, but he points out that anyone wishing to practice the trade must first get a license from the government.

Atieh once made two boats for Egyptian seamen who came to Lebanon in 1989, and another time he built a Lansh for the captain of a Yugoslavian ship who came to the Sidon port. He recalls how his customers were impressed with the quality of the wood and his designs.

“We hope that we can preserve this trade and we would like to develop it: By preserving it we are preserving our country’s heritage for our sons.”

For Greek-Lebanese Handouqa, seeing his boat coming to life is a “dream come true.

“The shell is almost ready and when it is finished I will sail to Greece.”

While there is also a boatbuilding trade in Greece, the level of skill in Lebanon is better than anywhere else, and the cost of the labor and the wood is far cheaper.

“Here the boat will cost $200,000 to build, without the cost of the engine or the furnishings. In Greece it would have cost me $400,000,” he says.

Handouqa will name the boat “Lady Noura” after his wife.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 29, 2012, on page 2.

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