SIDON, Lebanon: Fouad Bilani’s mallet has been busy carving up wood for over four decades while the skills that he has grown to master are being chipped away by modern machines that are beginning to dominate the field.
His carpentry workshop in Sidon has become a haven for a rapidly dying art that originated thousands of years ago in the region and has seen improvement due in large part to the innovation of Egyptian craftsmen over the years.
Bilani, who is now in his 60s, was an amateur when learned his craft in 1973 from a man in Tripoli. He has since become one of the few remaining professionals of the craft.
Bilani said that in the past, especially during the 1970s and ’80s, every piece of furniture in the home was carved, including pieces for living rooms, bedrooms and dining rooms.
Fifty kinds of carving knives are used and carefully selected for each project.
“We use each one of them according to the shape we are carving, some are traditional shapes, but sometimes our customer asks for special prints and designs,” he said.
“There are Arabic prints and writings which go back to the golden age of Islam and the French Mandate,” Bilani added.
“There are many kinds of wood used in carving but beech and oak are the most beautiful,” Bilani said, adding that carving a complete set of furniture for a bedroom, dining room or living room takes between six and eight months.
Traditional wood carving has experienced a setback recently due to technology and machines that can carve any print, but Bilani insists that there are things even machines can’t do.
Bilani said that 40 years ago Lebanon hosted more than 5,000 Egyptian craftsmen who carved wood, but in Sidon there are currently only 20 Lebanese, Palestinians and Egyptians who practice the craft.
He blamed the setback in the wood carving craft on Malaysian, Egyptian and Chinese industries which export machines to carve wood for a lower cost, warning that this might prove lethal to his craft.
Bilani has asked the education and industry ministers to include carving in the curriculum of vocational schools.
“I pay the excellent craftsmen $30 an hour, and I pay the same amount for an artist who can produce a unique piece,” Bilani added.
He said that carving wood requires a sense of art and creativity: “You can’t work under pressure. It’s like drawing, photography and singing: If you are distracted, the piece will go to waste.”
He added that out of 100 dining, bedroom and living room sets sold in showrooms, 15 percent are hand carved.
“We have carved living rooms and bedrooms to export to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” he said.
Mohammad Abdelqader also works on wood carvings and shares the same concerns as Bilani.
“There are firms which import carving machines from Europe, China and Malaysia that do all the work and can produce more at a lower cost,” Abdelqader complained.
Abdelqader is proud of being able to carve little antique pieces out of bigger pieces of wood. Every piece requires hard work and thought, like a small wooden box of chocolate with a special design that takes three days.
But Abdelqader fears that in five years this craft will die because it can no longer keep up with modernization:
“Civil wars couldn’t affect this craft like modernization and globalization.”