Stealing Palestine’s Oldest Tile Factory

Wednesday 27 January 202104:32 pm
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"ورثناه أباً عن جدّ"... محاولات إسرائيل سرقة أقدم مصنع بلاط فلسطيني

More than a century has passed since the Aslan Factory in Nablus began manufacturing hand colored and hand-cast antique tiles, exporting them to different parts of Palestine and the world. The tile was first introduced to the region after it came with the French colonization of the Levant. Following the end of the occupation, it remained to take on Arab forms and a new name, becoming known among the populace as “the Damascene tile”.

Architect Benji Boyadgian states, “Here, they call them ‘folk tiles’ in reference to Palestine, or ‘Damascene tiles’ in reference to Syria. Elsewhere around the world, they are considered ‘Moroccan (Moorish) tiles’ or Arabesque tiles due to their intricate Arabic designs and engravings, or even Venetian tiles in reference to Italy…etc”. These names are directly related to the tiles’ early use and presence around the coasts of the Mediterranean.

As for the Aslan Factory in Nablus, its story began in 1913. Passed on between successive generations throughout these past decades, it eventually came to portray an image of the nobility and originality that is still present as part of the history and heritage of Palestine – something that the occupation failed to wipe out despite its many attempts to appropriate them to itself.

The Aslan Factory – the only old tile factory in Palestine – is facing battles on several fronts, most notably with the occupation and its crippling policies, which have begun denying them the right to export tiles. So why are Israelis so desperate to take control of the Aslan factory? How is the factory – with its enchantingly colored tiles – facing the utter scarcity of resources, the difficulties of exporting, and the government's complete indifference?

Palestinian Home Decorations Made By Local Hands

Annan Aslan, the owner of the factory, tells Raseef 22, “We passed on this factory from one generation to the next. I count as the fourth generation of those who succeeded the factory. Young men from the fifth generation or even later work with us here.” He adds, “This factory had a branch in Acre, which was later transferred to Jaffa, then it was closed down due to the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. The tiles that we manufacture are called ‘carpet tiles’ and this type is what the old houses here are famous for. It consists of small 20 cms by 20 cms size tiles, and it has a very rich and long history. If we go back 70 years, we will find that about 90% of the old Palestinian homes are decorated with these tiles.”

Regarding the manufacturing process, Annan says, "We are still working with the same old tools that my father, my grandfather and others used in making the tiles. The cement is placed with water in a special mold consisting of three pieces: ‘al-Iswara’ (the bracelet), ‘al-Tarbouch’ (the cowl or fez), and ‘al-Tabloun’ (the table). The colored dye ranges in colors from the lightest to the darkest, then a ‘spray’ is added in to absorb the water, then the black cement is placed on top and the tiles are pressurized and compressed and left to expose to the air for a whole day until it dries. The piece turns into a masterfully crafted canvas of art. Colored tiles take many shapes, and different drawings and patterns. We can make hundreds of shapes and forms, the most recent of which date back to more than a hundred years old.”

The tiles of the old Aslan factory are unique in that they become shinier and more brilliant every time they are sprayed with water and whenever a person walks on them as well. Their shine becomes finer as the years pass and both the patterns and colors appear more beautiful, unlike other types of tiles that are very popular these days. This is what makes them such durable antique tiles that shine brighter the more years pass by and legs pass over them.

Aslan tiles are not limited to antique and old-style houses only, for currently, it is frequently requested for the restoration of old centers, in addition to institutes and facilities honoring Palestinian heritage and identity, as well as the homes of the wealthy. Annan explains, “The tiles are mainly used in the restoration of old houses, especially in the Jaffa and Acre areas, as it is forbidden to restore houses there using any other tiles. Because all the old houses in Jaffa and Acre used this type of tiles. Demand for it is increasing these days, especially in villas and palaces, as it is considered a beautiful work of art. Years ago, we even sent tiles to the royal palace in Jordan.”

Despite the decline in the use of old tiles, they have made a comeback in archaeological sites, old homes and palaces. This is something that led the occupation to pursue the factory owners in search to appropriate the business

According to Aslan, the prices of the tiles vary according to the pattern and quality. Most choose colored tiles (carpet tiles) for salons, and they are called "the middle rug". It is placed in approximately three quarters of the room and its prices range from 40 to 45 dollars per meter. Whereas a single-color tile, which usually comes in shades of white, costs 15 dollars per meter.

The prices also differ according to the pattern, its type, and its engraving. Some customers request new unique engravings that have never been previously manufactured, and this is expensive and done in exchange for large sums of money. Due to the intricate handcrafted quality of the work, they produce no more than 30 square meters of colored tiles and 50 square meters of “plain” non-colored tiles per day.

From Tile Theft To The Israeli Theft List

Despite the decline in the use of old tiles for a while, they have once again returned in recent years to be placed in archaeological sites, old houses and royal palaces. This is something that led the occupation to pursue the factory owners in search for roots to extend to and appropriate them to itself. However they only found refusal and rejection in response, as Aslan says, “The occupation rejected any attempt to get our goods out of the city’s borders, due to the permits that I had requested within the Palestinian territories and that we usually obtain from the authority and financial institutions in the West Bank. When we were unable to obtain them from the Palestinians, we resorted to the occupation which, in turn, refused to help us. Then the Israelis presented to us an offer that entails us obtaining a large sum of money, temporary residence in the Jaffa–(Tel Aviv) area, in addition to facilitating export operations and exemptions from permits and taxes. Provided that the tiles become an Israeli product, instead of a Palestinian one, and, on this basis, it will be exported to any place inside or outside Palestine.”

To bribe us, the Israelis presented us with an offer that includes a large sum of money, temporary residence in the Jaffa–(Tel Aviv) area, in addition to facilitating export operations and exemptions from permits and taxes.

Aslan says they were leaning towards agreeing when the huge sums of money were mentioned, but they backed out as soon as they thought about it from a national and moral point of view. This rejection marked a black dot in their history with the occupation, for limitations and restrictions on the crossings have become numerous. Whether they want to enter ten meters or a thousand meters of goods, the restrictions remain just as strict and obtrusive. The issue is not only limited to transactions within Palestine and its cities, but also affects neighboring countries. On the other hand, any problems or issues between factory owners and Israelis disappear if they commit themselves to transferring their factory into the occupied interior and changing its name into an Israeli one.

Annan asserts that 70% of their work is for Palestinian homes and locations inside Palestine, saying this heritage and history cannot be underestimated or thrown away in exchange for a sum of money regardless of the amount. He goes on to say it cannot be traded in return for temporary residence in a land that originally belongs to Palestinians either, and there is no room for bargaining or surrendering it, “This is considered national treason, not only for Palestine and the Palestinian people, but for the homes, institutes and all the places that have been repaired and endured in the face of the occupation. These tiles are rare these days, and they contain the soul of ancient Palestine; even in your grandfather's house, you may find Aslan tiles inside.”

Palestinian Promises Gone With The Wind

Aslan admits that exporting to the outside is very pricey despite the limited orders from outside. They suffer through many obstacles that make the money paid for exporting surpass and exceed the sums they receive from the sale itself. Despite the promises made by the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy to the factory, it did not help regarding the export restrictions imposed on them and the costly transportation process – whether on paper or in any tangible terms. Aslan has been pleading with the ministry for years without receiving a tangible answer.

In an interview with Bashar al-Saifi, the General Manager of the Directorate of National Economy in Nablus, he said, “We contacted the man and visited him personally. We also asked him to provide us with the official papers to put his name on the crossings.” The Ministry of Economy claims that it has listed the name of the son of the current owner of the factory, ‘Annan Aslan’, on the crossings, so that the factory would be allowed to import and export easily and without much issue. Al-Saifi adds, “We contacted the competent authorities in question alongside the Israeli side, even though we had encountered some issues and problems previously during the period in which security coordination was halted. The problem was completely solved, but I think that during this period, due to the presence of Corona, the factory may suffer from a lack of external orders and demand.”

Within this context, al-Saifi confirms that the government considers the factory a vital part of the country’s heritage and the tile they manufacture a rare and important commodity that the world deserves to see. He also stresses that they are concerned with the factory’s continued existence and have no interest in closing it down. Even so, they are not providing the sufficient support and continue to stall and drag their feet when it comes to providing assistance, while claiming in front of media outlets that they listed the name of the factory owner on the crossings, but the man did not attend or respond to their assistance. As for Annan, he confirms that his lengthy struggle with the ministry has been in vain, as the ministry has repeatedly warned him to reduce his tone of hostility and condemnation over its continuous neglect of his plight.

At a time when the ministry refuses to help him and continues to keep his file among those pending – as if it were one of the irreconcilable Oslo issues – the occupation is desperate to provide help and continues to offer him spatial and material temptations, in an attempt to seize his name, place, history, and identity.

It is not true that what links the Palestinian to his land is the land itself in the broad sense, but also the feelings it evokes, as well as its images, walls, floors, characters and heritage.

A Heritage That Runs Deep Into Identity

Fayez Mohammad tells Raseef 22, “This tile’s age is around 80 years or more. The moment my father returned to Palestine from abroad, he restored the house and the tiles and lived in the village until he passed away. Today the tiles are still there, unharmed and completely intact. Despite the simplicity and small size of the house, its heritage is telling, and the family home always reunites its members, and when we meet in it, we reminisce about the past. A strong emotion connects us with the floors, walls, furniture, scents, and the rooms.”

Fayez says the family is not gathering as much lately. Because those who used to reunite them have died, but the very existence of the home is enough to reclaim an entire history of memories and longing. It is not true that what links the Palestinian to his land is only the land itself in the broad sense, but also the feelings it evokes, as well as its images, walls, characters and heritage. There are many things that spin the Palestinian identity, growing and deepening his connection with it.

The presence of the ‘Damascene tiles’ was not only limited to buildings and homes, and was not prepared from memory alone, but also was carefully assembled between the covers of a book. It is ultimately given due justice by writer Muhannad al-Rabi in his book “Nablus and Its Colorful Tiles” – the first book of its kind in this field – published last year. In his book, he conducted a documented survey of the city’s buildings and homes, and studied the decorative patterns of various shapes and colors and attached them inside. His studies in the book previewed a number of vivid examples of colored tiles for buildings restricted to the city of Nablus only, such as: the Nablus Palace, the Ministry of Education building, the al-Shifa'a Public Bath House in the Old City – which is an Ottoman-style bath – and the Adel Zuaiter School.

Al-Rabi tells the story of the Aslan family in his book, specifically the first owner who came from the Levant and established the factory. He also relies on the testimony of another family in which the roots of the industry can be traced back to a period between 1860 and 1880. Thus, one of the first Jerusalem tile factories is a factory founded in 1900 by Khalil Kasisiyah in Bab Al-Jadid in the Old City of Jerusalem. The factory’s production of the patterned tiles peaked somewhere between 1935 and 1940. Colored cement was imported from Italy, while the tiles were produced in a traditional handmade method and were marketed in Jerusalem and across various parts of Palestine and Jordan. The factory continued following the occupation of the city in the year 1967, despite increasing competition with other tile factories, but it was forced to close in 1936 when the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem prohibited the presence of factories in the Old City.

Regardless of its varying names and patterns, the ‘folk’, or ‘Damascene’ tile continues its battle with a sword sharpened with the heritage, identity and history of the region. It creates a placement for itself within history with the beauty and uniqueness of its inscriptions and engravings. It teaches time a lesson in loyalty through the manufacturing that still exists within the walls of the Aslan factory, and draws a valuable reference as an ancient architectural art that benefits those in search for antiquity, authenticity, and splendor. The sum of all fears is that time will betray the only remaining factory standing here, just as it had been betrayed by the government and the occupation. But the floors of the homes of Nablus, Acre, Haifa and Gaza will remain the eternal strings tying together Palestine’s torn apart geography.

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