Postcard from Amman: Threads and customers change for fabric mender

Kamal Khalaf learnt the delicate craft of darning in pre-civil war Beirut

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Kamal Khalaf's tiny shop on Omar Khayyam Street, in central Amman, is one of the few places remaining in the region where cherished clothes and carpets can be carefully mended.

For the past five decades, Mr Khalaf has been a specialist in the intricate technique of darning – using special stitching to repair damaged fabric, one thread at a time, so the repair becomes all but invisible. Mending even a small tear can take hours.

In Britain, the practitioner of this craft is sometimes called a stoppeur, a French word. In Arabic the practitioner is called ratta.

"Darning needs cold nerves and a long breath," Mr Khalaf says.

He is among the last of a generation of established craftsmen in Amman, most of whom trace trace their origins to Palestine, Syria or Lebanon.

Migrants and refugees from these Levantine trading centres played a major role in the development of Jordan since its foundation as a British protectorate in 1921.

Simple tools

Now in his 70s, Mr Khalaf still operates from the same small shop he opened five decades ago on Omar Khayyam street in downtown Amman. His main tools are a needle, a clamp to stretch fabric, and thread.

He works at an old counter, sitting down, with clothes needing his attention hanging from the edges of a closet behind him, placed in plastic bags on shelves. Despite the physical demands of the work, his posture is upright, and he looks younger than his 72 years.

This week, one customer brought in the trousers of a dark blue suit that had a hole near the back pocket.

Mr Khalaf told the customer that he would charge five dinars ($7) – a considerable sum given that the average monthly wage in Jordan is $400.

The customer, however, agreed to it.

“It is not easy because the threads are nylon,” Mr Khalaf says.

He learnt his craft in the early 1970s as an apprentice, mending expensive rugs at one of Beirut’s top carpet dealers.

Mr Khalaf’s brother Fouad was studying commerce at Beirut Arab University and knew a Palestinian actor working in the city from Jaffa, the hometown of their father.

The actor was friends with a renowned carpet dealer, Mahmoud Maktabi, who agreed to take Mr Khalaf on as an apprentice at a workshop above his shop in the Hamra district in west Beirut.

“The Jaffa connection helped," says Mr Khalaf, adding that it is similar to old Beirut.

"It makes me sad to think of Beirut. It was the city of plenty."

The Lebanese capital was known as the Paris of the Middle East before the 1975-1990 civil war that tore it asunder.

Jordan, Mr Khalaf says, was “also different” before the national currency, the dinar, collapsed in 1989.

Quality deteriorates

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the clothes brought to his shop for mending were made from British textiles, he says, as opposed to the Chinese fabrics that are the norm today. Upper class families invited him to their homes to estimate how much heirloom carpets would cost to repair.

He declines to name his clients out of respect for their privacy, but says they include members of the Hashemite monarchy and merchant families of Amman.

“These customers used to order very fine fabrics from abroad," he says.

In the past decade, Jordan's economy has been stagnant. Unemployment, according to official figures, is more than 22 per cent.

The downtown area of Amman has changed, with family companies fragmenting and businesses moving to new parts of the capital in the 1980s. Now the area is run down and littered with rubbish, full of fast-food restaurants, shisha cafes and shops selling cheap souvenirs.

The four cinemas that were landmarks of central Amman, where Mr Khalaf watched the 1964 hit Hindi film Sangam, and Doctor Zhivago a year later, have all closed.

"I used to go regularly on the weekends," he says.

His father was a Palestinian refugee who fled Jaffa at the creation of Israel in 1948, while his mother fled Jerusalem. He is married to a Lebanese woman of Palestinian origin. They have four sons and a daughter, none of whom took up darning.

“We're a product of a mixed Middle East,” he says.

He visited Jaffa once, in 1976, after obtaining a permit from Israeli authorities.

"Even the oxygen in Jaffa was different," he says. "You can feel it is more pure when breathing."

Updated: January 12, 2024, 6:02 PM