SIDON, Lebanon: Holding an old iron, Jamal Abu al-Naja patiently smoothes out the wrinkles of a bridal dress. His space transports one back in time. Naja has refused to welcome technology into his old, small ironing shop in the Sidon neighborhood of Bab al-Serial. Cheaply bought steamers, irons and no-wrinkle fabrics have made the profession of pressing all but obsolete. But well-known and trusted, Naja continues to attract a loyal clientele of locals who prefer the way he handles their garments.
Naja, in his fifties, uses the same iron as his father, and he irons the clothes on the same table, in the same shop.
“This is my grandfather’s craft, and I inherited it from them. I still iron clothes and heat the iron on the domestic gas regardless of the new techniques and technology,” he said.
He feels sometimes that he lives in another era, he said. He is surrounded by antique equipment and the memory of his father, who passed away 20 years ago and used to iron all the uniforms of the children attending the Makassed schools in Sidon, he said.
“At that time irons were so rare in homes, and people were poor and couldn’t afford to buy the irons and even fewer used to iron their clothes,” he said.
“People used to put their clothes after washing them under the mattresses at night to remove wrinkles,” he added with a laugh. “My father used to use two kinds of irons. He would heat one of them on coal and the other on domestic gas.”
Today he heats the iron on the gas stove. He has no modern laundry machine, choosing to wash the clothes in a special tub before ironing.
Every iron weighs about 5 kilograms. The iron takes 30 minutes to heat on the gas fire to an average temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. “I replace the iron every time I use it, because when it touches the fabric it loses some of its heat,” he said.
He knows the fabrics well – heating the iron to the perfect temperature to suit the different materials.
“Many people ask me to iron their bridal dresses, and my shop is always joyful, with these dresses waiting to be ironed,” he said.
Naja works eight hours a day, his work consuming a 12-kilogram gas bottle every 10 days.
In the winter his work consists mostly of washing and ironing jackets or coats. In the summer customers drop off shirts and trousers.
He explains that the bridal dress is the hardest to iron, because its delicate folds require time and careful attention.
“There are many layers and delicate fabrics and beading and pearls,” he said. “Ironing through all this is an art in itself, and most important is to deliver the dress on time. This is the bride’s big day and I don’t want to ruin it for her.”
He charges LL50,000 for a bridal dress, a small amount of money compared to the cost of laundry and ironing at modern shops. He earns LL3,000 for shirts and LL6,000 for jackets.
Expatriates in Sidon – mainly Egyptians and Syrians – also send him their clothes to be ironed, he says. Even international labels in Sidon send him their expensive clothes to be ironed, he adds.
“You have to dedicate yourself to your work, and I have customers who have sent me their clothes since my father was still alive.”
Despite the plethora of contemporary equipment, Naja refuses to change his tools or modernize his work. “New tools don’t last,” he says. “Old ones are always better.”