The Iraqi entrepreneurs battling cheap replicas with traditional handicrafts

Iraq has a deep cultural heritage that goes back to ancient Mesopotamian art, but it is at risk of dying out

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From women’s accessories inspired by the beauty and elements found in timeless antiques to glazed ceramics and rugs featuring bright vibrant colours, entrepreneur Noor Hashim wants her creations to offer Iraqis a connection to the country's fading cultural heritage.

“We want to raise awareness among Iraqis about their civilisation and culture through producing products linked to the Iraqi heritage and also educate them on how to preserve this heritage,” Ms Hashim, the founder of House of Crafts in Iraq's capital Baghdad, told The National.

“Our mission is to focus on the positive side of Iraq with all details in clothing, food and traditional handicraft products that people need to understand in order to know who we are,” Ms Hashim, 32, said.

Bringing the country’s traditional handicrafts to life after decades of war, lack of government funds and economic hardships has become a focus for some young Iraqis. The current iterations of Iraqi heritage art have roots in ancient Mesopotamian art, from between the 1st century BC and 3rd century BC.

Traditional craftsmen and women still exist, but are facing a new battle; fighting mass-produced, cheap imports from Iran, Turkey, India and China which have eroded demand for their goods.

Ms Hashim is part of Iraq’s burgeoning entrepreneurial culture that has brought hope of changing the mentality of a society sees the public sector as the only guaranteed place for incentives and pensions.

Awash with petrodollars since the discovery of oil during the first quarter of last century, Iraqi governments failed to encourage private sector initiatives.

Despite young people making up about 60 per cent of Iraq’s nearly 40 million population, unemployment is still high, with the World Bank estimating it at 13.74 per cent in 2020.

Almost 17 per cent of the economically active population is underemployed, while the country has the lowest labour force participation rates in the world in the region at 48.7 per cent, World Bank data shows.

Despite little government support, the revival of craftsmanship is a gamble Ms Hashim is willing to take.

Back in 2016, the Political Science College graduate opened Hili gift shop at a Baghdad mall after failing to secure a job at the Foreign Ministry, teaming up with her sister and a friend.

“It was a simple idea on how we can do something related to the Iraqi heritage that can be offered as a souvenir. Then, most of the people encouraged us and many friends volunteered to help us,” she said.

“Most countries take care of their heritage and most people are willing to have a connection between past and present,” she said.

They started with producing women’s accessories inspired by the Sumerian jewellery and Babylonian civilisation, using semi-precious stones such as Lapis Lazuli, Coral, Agate, Amethyst, Quartz and Amber.

Most of the collection is influenced by the jewellery of Pu-abi, a Sumerian lady presumed to be a queen in Ur in southern Iraq around 2,600BC, found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in southern Iraq.

Ur royal tombs were discovered by British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley during 1920s and most of the artefacts are now displayed at the British Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Iraqi National Museum.

The shelves at Hili are stacked with traditional wares that were once in every Iraqi house and used in daily life, such as wicker products, flat-woven kilims (a type of traditional weaving often used to make rugs) and pottery as well as amber rice that is grown in southern Iraq and famous for its unique aroma and taste.

The latest addition is a collection of folklore stories for children. Five years on from opening, Hili now employs around 40 women, many of them are from lower-income families or widows.

Iraqi entrepreneur Noor Hashim sitting in her store Hili in Babylon mall in central Baghdad. Haider Husseini / The National

As the brand's presence grows in Iraq and internationally, Ms Hashim is now working on registering the trademark Hili, which means love or cordiality in Sumerian, and eying expansion abroad.

Despite success in reviving Iraq's heritage, entrepreneurs say they are facing challenges.

For Ali Al Qamousi, partner at Art & Touch, there is still long way to go before fully reviving this industry in Iraq.

“Any industry needs conditions to succeed,” Mr Al Qamousi told The National. “It needs markets, an environment that supports private sector investment, industrial cities, power, tax exemption and loans,” he added.

The flagship product of his company are modern takes on traditional Iraqi furniture like sofas and tables. He gives them Iraqi names as a way to create an emotional connection with the potential buyers.

من اهم اللمسات الديكورية لاي مكان هي اللوحات فهي تعتبر من المكملات الاساسية للديكور الانيق نعرض لكم مجموعة من اللوحات...

Posted by ‎Artouch ارت تاتش‎ on Saturday, September 4, 2021

Mr Al Qamousi says his company accepts products from local craftsmen and women that meet the standards to promote “Made in Iraq” label. In addition to furniture, a variety of products as ceramics, figures, Crochet toys and decorations are also on display.

One of the main challenges is to convince the customers of paying extra whereas the market is flooded with cheap imports or even locally made with low quality.

“We are studying how to lower the costs but at the same time we want to offer something maintaining the best quality,” he added.

Updated: September 12, 2021, 7:51 AM