ZAHRANI, Lebanon: Hussein Abu Khater, a local broom maker, spends his days arranging pieces of straw and tying them into bundles. “To make a tight broom you have to be patient and love your work and use your head and muscles,” he says.
Abu Khater inherited the craft from his father. His humble profession joins hard labor and tradition, he says, as his village – Ghassaniyeh in the southern district of Zahrani – is one of the only places in Lebanon where straw brooms are still made by hand.
Three fellow craftsmen sit in a narrow Al-Ghassaniyeh alleyway, where they’re preoccupied with assembling the brooms.
Mohammad Hodroj recalls that broom making was brought to Al-Ghassaniyeh 75 years ago by Hajj Abbas Atweh. Atweh learned the method from Armenian craftsmen in Beirut and both men passed the knowledge onto others like local man Deeb Noureddine and their families.
And thus broom making became known as a family business, to which children, mothers, grandmothers, uncles and aunts all used to contribute.
Hodroj expresses his sorrow and longing for the days when his family used to produce and sell 10,000 to 15,000 brooms each year.
Abu Khater has a local reputation for his talent and the quality of his brooms. “We get the straw from many sources,” he says. “Our craft needs soft straw grown at river banks and in swamps and marshes in Iraq, Syria and Egypt in addition to rough straws that are imported from Bulgaria and Hungary.”
Abu Khater walks The Daily Star through the age-old process.
First, he cleans the soft straws and soaks them in water. He gathers around 400 to 500 single straws until the broom takes its shape – some round brooms, others flat. Using a wire, he fastens the straw tightly together and cuts the straw to make a clean finish.
The process for rough brooms used in rinsing and cleaning carpets follows a similar process, but requires significant strength to cut through in the final step. He then pounds the rough brooms until they are flat.
The brooms are sold according to their weight, and the price of one broom ranges between LL3,000 and LL4,000, Abu Khater says. Their products are distributed to shops across the country.
Hasan Hodroj boasts that the returns of this craft have paid for the education of family members in medicine, architecture and commerce. But he fears straw brooms will soon be overwhelmed by modern plastic brooms.
Abu Khater makes about 80 brooms a day and says the price of straw has increased to $2,000 a ton. “We fear that this family craft will die out because it has been replaced by modern plastic and nylon brooms,” he says.
He defends his craft by saying that plastic brooms don’t clean as well as the straw brooms, and insists that plastic brooms leave dirt traces and plastic straws on the ground.
Synthetic materials can also damage the carpets and other home textiles, whereas the straw broom cleans the carpet gently, he says.
The village craftsmen have asked the Industry and Tourism ministries to preserve their craft, which may soon become a part of the country’s history.
Primary schools in the villages near Al-Ghassaniyeh have even organized field trips to their workshop to introduce children to the craft.
“We explain to them the way we make these brooms and give them a broom as a gift to clean their classroom,” he says.