TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Mohammad al-Rifai, 64, hammers a nail into a wooden plank, glancing at a painting of a bed’s wooden headboard. He has been a furniture manufacturer since he was 12 years old, a craft associated primarily with the northern city of Tripoli. Much like an artist would, he treats his work as though it were a canvas. “It is a type of craftsmanship that requires a lot of imagination and meticulousness, as one mistake can result in having to throw out the piece and start again using another one,” Rifai tells The Daily Star.
Long years in the job have taught him how to alternate his hammering between strong and light depending on the area.
From inside his workshop in the neighborhood of Zahrieh, Rifai explains that the profession was once very prosperous. Nowadays, however, it is a poor man’s job.
“This is very painful, and I have big fears that it will disappear with time for the sake of machines; I believe that automated drilling has no soul and no life,” he says.
“Manual drilling produces rare features, most notably that the value of the piece remains intact for years, and its price increases significantly.”
Furniture manufacturing is a profession that was inherited generations ago in Tripoli, one of many taken from the Ottoman Empire alongside soap manufacturing, copper, gold engraving, and jewelerymaking.
But Rifai’s craft is facing many challenges today. He is one of thousands who struggle to find a market for their products, especially now that furniture is increasingly being sold at low prices and with no regard for the importance of good craftsmanship. Demand is also slow due to the neighboring Syrian conflict that has all but closed the country’s borders for trade and the loss of the market in Iraq.
The only statistics regarding the number of small to medium enterprises that make furniture by hand in Tripoli come from the unions. The Union of Furniture Manufacturers, headed by Abdel Jawad Sharafeddine, said there were 2,200 small factories in the city, while the Union of Furniture Factories, headed by Abdallah Harb, reported the presence of 160 larger factories that produce thousands of different pieces.
The challenges facing the profession have pushed the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in the north to seek funds from international donors to help establish a permanent furniture and woodwork exhibition in Tripoli. Negotiations are also underway for financial help from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which is already implementing a community development project in the cultural and creative industry. The project is funded by the European Union and the Italian government and aims to take advantage of the considerable furniture manufacturing sector in Tripoli.
UNIDO Project Coordinator in Lebanon Soha Atallah said their project would try to reinforce the spread of information and exchange of knowledge on the craft through specialized centers and workshops.
Special attention has been given to establishing commercial links between institutions in support of conglomerates in the southern Mediterranean and the European Union with international buyers and local suppliers in order to increase sustainable resources. Ongoing talks are also being held with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, countries that are in need of such artisan work and thus could serve as customer base and help support thousands of families in the impoverished northern city.
“Through collective work, industries involved in this project will definitely benefit through the improvement of production and knowledge of the cultural and creative heritage, keeping in mind that UNIDO is interested in achieving a comprehensive and sustainable industrial development,” Atallah said.
Toufic Dabbousi, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in the north, said the craft has the ability to compete and be profitable in larger markets in terms of its aesthetic quality, but that the profession lacked care and support.
“This sector has two parts: the first is the craft and its competitive ability with other countries like Turkey and Egypt; the second part is that our institutions have modest capabilities and do not extend to outside the Middle East,” Dabbousi explained.
The initial idea was to concentrate on exporting more to foreign clients, specifically Saudi Arabia, the market with the most potential, he said.
In fact, the chamber has already contacted relevant Saudi parties through Lebanese Ambassador Abdul Sattar Issa in order to introduce Tripoli’s distinctive woodwork to the Gulf kingdom, “especially since the prevailing impression is that the Gulf’s tastes are consistent with Tripoli’s products.”
He said that studies and showcase films were currently being prepared at the request of the Lebanese ambassador in order to carry out a promotional campaign in Saudi Arabia, adding that they were receiving a positive response. “But this is based not just on Saudi Arabia’s desire, but also on [the desire to] succeed in promoting Tripoli’s different crafts across the world.”
There has also been an agreement with the Tripoli International Fair’s administration to allocate an area of approximately 20,000 square meters as a permanent furniture exhibition area for thousands of small factories across Tripoli. This would serve as a springboard to export pieces and the organization of another exhibition in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in cooperation with competent ministries and authorities.