Amman shoemaker stays one step ahead in mass-market era

Ahmad Sharab, who has been in the business for 50 years, is one of the last of his breed in Jordan

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A cognac-coloured pair of women's flat shoes sits in Ahmad Sharab's workshop in Amman, waiting to be collected by the customer.

The size 37 leather-soled pair were custom-made for a walk-in customer from Europe, says Mr Sharab, who has been making shoes for the past five decades.

"The lady came in asking about a men's shoe in the vetrina [display window]. So I made a women's version for her."

Mr Sharab's tightly packed shop is one of the last vestiges of an era when local craftsmen in Jordan and other countries in the Middle East thrived, before the advent of retail chains and mass imports.

The shoes for his European customer, crafted from Spanish calf leather and fixed with an Italian buckle, cost $49 — nearly five times as much as a mass-produced pair imported from China or Turkey.

"I don't think it is a lot of money for the quality," he says.

Mr Sharab has managed to stay in business despite the cheap imports that undermined domestic manufacturing in the 1980s. His regular customers come from trading and mostly middle-class families who knew him when he had a workshop in downtown Amman. Back then, the affluent bought mostly Italian or Lebanese shoes, and members of the middle class could still afford made-to-measure shoes.

In the past three decades, Mr Sharab's business has been augmented by Iraqis who moved to Jordan after the Gulf War, and after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

He says his Iraqi customers tend not to like laces, and they appreciate well-made shoes.

"Many times they bring me pictures of shoes from the internet and ask me to replicate them," he says.

His business has received a boost from tourists from Europe over the past year, after Ryanair and other low-cost airlines started flying to Amman more frequently.

Italian tourists are fond of black desert boots with thick, stitched rubber soles, he says. They sometimes order the $90 boots to be shipped to Italy, since it takes several days to make a pair.

He can line the boots with wool felt, but he advises customers against it because bare leather handles sweat better, he says.

Sometimes, he embosses his shoes using an Italian tool that cost him $350.

"Bespoke shoes are too expensive in Italy," Mr Sharab says.

I insist on taking a picture with my foreign customers, so they can show their friends a Jordanian craftsman
Ahmad Sharab, shoemaker

"I insist on taking a picture with my foreign customers, so they can show their friends a Jordanian craftsman."

Besides shoes, his shop is filled with slippers, women's purses and leather bags that he makes.

A gaunt man, now in his late 60s, Mr Sharab works on an old table that has an old Singer sewing machine on it. Next to him is a tiny Emerson black-and-white TV from the 1980s, which still works. He occasionally takes a break for a cigarette and a chat with a retired childhood friend who frequents the shop.

Mr Sharab started learning his craft as a teenager in the 1960s, when his father sent him to apprentice at a workshop owned by his uncle, Omar, in downtown Amman.

"There were hundreds of such workshops in Jordan. Many customers wanted made-to-measure shoes," he says.

His uncle Omar learnt his craft in Beirut, which was the centre for the manufacture of high-end shoes in the Arab Middle East during the 1960s and 1970s.

"Lebanese manufacturing and raw materials were as good as the Italians. Then came the civil war," Mr Sharab says.

Like many Jordanians who played a major role in the kingdom's economy after independence in 1946, Mr Sharab is of Palestinian origin. His father Khalil, a builder, fled to Jordan with his family when Israel was created in 1948. They lived in Amman's old Jabal Al Jofah district, a short walk from the famed Roman theatre downtown.

The family came from the coastal town of Yafa (Jaffa), one of the most beautiful spots in Palestine.

"Yafa was gone but I still enjoyed going as a child to Palestine, until 1967," he said, referring to the year Israel captured the whole of historic Palestine.

After working for his uncle, Mr Sharab learnt shoe design at the shop of Victor Habra, another Palestinian, and opened his own workshop downtown, on Basman Street, where most shoe shops were at the time.

He employed 20 workers and used to supply retail shops with hundreds of shoes a week, aside from his made-to-measure output.

After Basman and the rest of the downtown area became derelict as the infrastructure deteriorated, the shoe shops and other businesses moved to newer parts in west Amman.

By the end of the 1980s, the Jordanian economy had partly collapsed and the dinar lost more than half of its value, further depressing the market for bespoke shoes.

Mr Sharab moved to his current location, a small shop on Othman bin Affan street in Jabal Amman, a relatively more upmarket area adjacent to downtown, in 2000.

Many times he turns away customers because there are no workers to help him. His two sons and two daughters did not take up his craft.

"There are perhaps five people still in the profession in Jordan," he says. "I don’t think it will continue in the country after us."

Updated: February 23, 2023, 9:03 AM