BHALA, OMAN // The Omani handicrafts cottage industry is struggling to survive as competition from machine-made imports threatens to drive to extinction the ancient traditions of weaving, metal work and pottery.
In Bahla in the Dakhliya region, tourists watched a 66-year-old, Hamoud al Esry, kick his potter's wheel while his hands created a shape from the damp clay. His fingers moved deftly to form curves and then the rim of a large pot, mesmerising the small crowd around him. At the back of the 20-metre-by-15-metre workshop, his son Mohammed, 23, was firing a domed-shaped kiln after placing a stack of pots inside the two-metre-deep oven.
Mr al Esry later explained that his workshop was nearly 200 years old, though it had been repaired over time, and so was the kiln. There was no electricity inside and the oven was fuelled by wood, palm fronds and sometimes coal. Traditional pottery needed no electricity or any modern technology, Mr al Esry said. "Machine-made pots and vessels are a poor copy of what we make here in Bahla. I still have the ones my grandfather made a hundred years ago in this same workshop," Mr al Esry said.
A store next to his workshop housed different vessels, from those for cooking and water to plant vases and food storage pots. They cost from as little as one rial (Dh9.5) to 100 rials depending on the size and shape. He said orders have dwindled to 200 pots a month from 450 five years ago. A kilometre down the road, a silversmith was welding together sheets of silver threads. He was sitting on a mat woven from palm fronds that he bought from a local family. His silver threads were neatly folded inside a basket also made locally.
The silversmith, Abdalla al Rahma, 56, makes coffee pots, jewellery, incense burners and daggers, helped by his younger brother and two sons. An ancient version of a lathe machine was visible in one corner of the workshop. A collection of hammers of all sizes and shapes, needles and bottles of polish lined up the shelves on top of a work bench. Mr al Rahma said that most of his orders came from wealthy families and government offices, both locally and across the GCC. The most popular coffee pots are made of pure silver. The smaller ones cost 550 rials while the larger fetch up to 1,000 rials.
Imported machine-made coffee pots of the same size cost 80 and 120 rials, respectively, Suleiman al Toki, a general trader at the Bahla souq, said. "They come from India, Philippines and Malaysia. Basically, they are a copy of the handmade coffeepots traditionally made in Oman. You can tell the difference from the workmanship and durability," Mr al Toki said. They are meant for the tourist market, he added, because they "don't ask who made them and assume they are locally made. Even if they know that, most couldn't afford to buy the genuine Omani piece".
Mr al Rahma also makes silver daggers, the symbolic weapons Omani men wear. They cost 250 to 1,000 rials. The number of silversmith workshops dropped from 12 to five in Bahla in the last 10 years, while in Nizwa, the adjacent town, the number went from nine to four in the same period, Mr al Rahma said. At Wadi Bani Khalid, in the eastern region, women weavers and spinners use hand-operated spindles and ground looms. They work in the open under the shade of a large tent. From large rolls of threads in different colours, made from sheep wool, women of all ages weave linen, rugs, table covers, wall hangings and saddle bags as they chatter noisily.
Their works cost from 50 to 125 rials, depending on the dimension and the choice of product. Proprietors don't keep all the money, Sharifa al Mkhaini, the owner of the business said. Ten per cent of their income goes to shepherds for the purchase of the wool while distributors and city shopkeepers take a further 25 per cent between them. One of the marketing companies for the local weaving industry said cheap imitations from China, Turkey and Afghanistan that resemble the locally made products sell much more quickly in the shops.
"As a result of that, we find it difficult these days to market their product to high-street retailers. However, we still find a strong appetite from hotel gift shops ... looking for a genuine Omani Bedouin rug or wall hangings," Omar al Hosni, the marketing manager of Genuine Work Marketing Company, said. The cottage industry gets an occasional boost from government-sponsored events such as the Muscat Festival or the Salalah Khareef.
"We give them free stalls in these month-old events to help them promote their business. There is nothing we can do about imported products but these events educate everybody about genuine Omani-made handicraft against foreign ones," Khamis al Khadhary, the head of events and exhibitions at the regional municipality ministry, said. Whether the handicraft cottage industry survives another decade will depend on the young generation to keep it alive, Mr al Esry said.
"It is up to our children to continue this trading heritage. Cheap imported products will always be around. If we have survived it then they will if they have faith in it," Mr al Esry said.