Postcard from Jerusalem: The dealer who preserves fabrics of the Middle East

Bilal Abu Khalaf sells everything from elaborate religious garments for customers across the faiths to purses and scarves for tourists

Bilal Abu Khalaf provides material for Christian, Muslim and Jewish ceremonies from his shop in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City. Thomas Helm / The National
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Bilal Abu Khalaf is a host as much as he is a businessman.

His fabric shop in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem is a frequent stop on visitors’ itineraries, being close to sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall.

“It is mostly pilgrims here at the moment,” he explains, before the shop starts to get busy. “They buy small things, maybe five shekels ($1.3) or 10 shekels, mostly to give as gifts to people back home.”

Whether guests buy or not, Mr Abu Khalaf is more than happy to don his kaftan and fez for quarter of an hour to present his shop.

It is not a typical Jerusalem Old City sales pitch.

Some of the fabrics he unveils will be worth about $1,000 a square metre, far beyond the price of the purses, scarves and fabric-covered notebooks for which most customers make a beeline.

But Mr Abu Khalaf insists, nonetheless.

He is proud to show visitors the other side of his business: providing fabric for the garments of Jerusalem’s three main religious communities, examples of which take centre stage behind his main counter.

“Jews and Christians are my biggest religious customers,” he says, unfurling Damascus striped white and gold cotton and silk cloth from which ultra-Orthodox Jews cut robes for the Sabbath.

“I make a similar garment for Muslims – a kaftan – but in the case of the Jewish robe, customers mostly just buy the cloth from me which is then taken to one of about three tailors in Mea Shearim,” he explains.

The neighbourhood is the ultra-orthodox centre of Jerusalem. “Only the tailors there know the traditional specific type of sewing and diagonal strapping,” Mr Abu Khalaf says.

A cloak for a Sephardic rabbi is also hanging up, made of thick velvet-like fabric with complex gold patterns sewn over it.

“Christians tend to buy vestments that they donate to priests,” Mr Abu Khalaf says. “They come from all over the world.”

His shop has many different items for Catholics, Orthodox and protestant religious, and different colours for different liturgical seasons.

He then brings out a newspaper cutting of Pope Benedict XVI. “I supplied that fabric,” he says, bringing down yet another bolt, this time bright white stitched with 9 carat gold.

The fabric is also from Syria. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Mr Abu Khalaf’s shop is a something of a museum to the country’s textile industry, in both the visiting and preservation sense.

Mr Abu Khalaf finishes his presentation pulling out the most valuable reels in the shop. Highly ornate silk from Palmyra, in central Syria, which is also laced with gold thread, some of it 14 carats.

“This is more art, than religious,” he says.

One bolt depicts images of Saladin, the Muslim leader who took Jerusalem back from crusaders in 1187.

“Customers hang the fabric on the wall, wear it as an evening shawl and I’ve had it made into ties,” Mr Abu Khalaf says.

For now, it is uncertain if this particularly ornate and expensive Syrian fabric will be produced again.

The ancient city of Palmyra, first mentioned in documents dating back to the second millennium BC, was occupied by ISIS during the Libyan civil war. Much of its rich archaeological and cultural heritage was destroyed by the militants, before Syrian government forces drove them out in 2017.

“Palmyra is destroyed and none of this fabric is made right now,” Mr Abu Khalaf explains.

Fortunately, he heard rumours a month ago that the house factory in which it used to be produced might be coming back into operation.

And no matter the Middle East's troubles, Mr Abu Khalaf's shop and its decorative content are going nowhere.

“My eldest son is a doctor, so I’m teaching my youngest, who’s still at school, to love the shop like I do, so he can be the fourth generation of the family working with fabric,” he says.

Updated: September 24, 2023, 8:52 AM