TYRE, Lebanon: Metalsmith Akram Ftouni doesn’t need drawings or models to guide him in crafting small gas ovens, barbecue braziers and rose-water distillers because all the measurements have welded to his memory over the past 40 years.
Ftouni boasts that he can make all his products to the exact measurements with his eyes closed.
The longtime metalsmith occupies a workshop at the old gate of the southern coastal city of Tyre. There he toils away cutting and welding pieces of a rose-water distilling container, as the season for rose-water production is upon us.
Ftouni, 52, abandoned his studies in 1979 during the Civil War to learn the craft from his brother-in-law, who made braziers and ovens used in rural households for baking bread and manakeesh.
Ftouni recalls the good old days when they used lanterns and kerosene heaters to soften the metals – iron and aluminum – and bend them into functional shapes.
“They were days of poverty and hardship but we were happy and content,” he said. “This craft doesn’t make you a rich man but it secures a decent living and wards off poverty.”
Ftouni’s workshop is spacious, but the owner’s brisk work occupies almost the entire room. Everything in Ftouni’s workshop goes back to the ’60s: the iron cutter, the bending tools and machines to mold the iron.
An old man enters Ftouni’s workshop holding a teapot which had lost its handle. Ftouni gets straight to work, crafting a new handle and welding it into place.
“If this old man had enough money to buy a new tea pot he wouldn’t have brought the old one for me to mend,” he says with a laugh.
He hands the finished teapot back to his customer and declines to take any money for his work.
The prices of his products suit the poor. A brazier ranges between LL5,000 and LL30,000 whereas the price of the rose-water distillers range between LL30,000 and LL200,000. It depends whether the customer asks for stainless steel or other types of metal, he explains.
Taking an iron plate coated in mercury, Ftouni heats it until malleable and then begins to shape the metal.
“These days, we get busy designing and assembling the rose-water distillers; spring is in the air and the residents of several villages come to me to buy small and big containers,” he says. “When summer comes we get into manufacturing braziers and furnaces, which are used by the coastal restaurants for barbecue and igniting coal for nargiles.”
He adds that manufacturing small manual ovens is a nonstop business since many of the residents of the remote villages use it to bake.
“China is imitating and manufacturing everything now. They are a thousand years ahead of us in industry but they are not aware of these handcrafts,” he says.
High demand for these small, portable ovens has turned Ftouni into an expert. Many Lebanese expatriates moving to Africa have come to him asking for such products.
“They take with them everything that reminds them of their country and homes,” he says. “For that reason I have made ovens with removable legs so they can be easily shipped.”
Khalil Kresht came to Ftouni’s shop to buy one such small oven.
“My son lives in Abidjan (economic capital of Ivory Coast) now and he asked me to send him a manual oven so that his wife can bake him Lebanese bread and manakeesh,” Kresht says.
In order to sustain local craftsmen like him, Ftouni calls on state institutions to grant such artisans soft loans to support their crafts – though he says he for one is doing fine.
“I have daily expenditures of LL105,000 which cover the rent of the workshop and the wages of the workers,” says the metalsmith, who employs two others.
To make ends meet, Ftouni sells his products in wholesale and retail. The overall profits are slim, but “it is better than being without a job,” he says.
The metalsmith works 16 hours a day. The first eight hours raise enough money for his rent and salaries. “The outcome of the other eight hours goes into my pocket,” he says.
Ftouni laments that plastic products have had their impact on his craft.
“In the past we used to make irrigation sprayers and pesticide sprayers out of copper,” he says. “But today they are all made of plastic. Also in the past I used to make 20 to 30 barrels to wash clothes [per week] but today I make only one.”
Even with the changes in business, Ftouni proudly explains how he managed to cover the education fees of all of his children through high school and university.
He has refused to pass his traditional craft on to his children, pushing them to find their own passions.
“In Tyre, there are only two workshops left for this craft,” he says. “God knows if it will go on. For me, I have no time to teach it to anyone.”