Iraq’s an­cient pots strug­gle to beat plas­tic

Viet Nam News - - CULTURE -

Pot­tery has deep roots in Iraq, where clay is used for a va­ri­ety of house­hold goods. How­ever, farm­ers who once used the large con­tain­ers are

opt­ing for cheaper goods. Hay­dar Ind­har re­ports.

Adel al-Kawwaz ex­pertly spins the pot­ter's wheel, shap­ing the wet clay into a smooth jug. His fam­ily is famous for this mil­len­nia-old Iraqi craft, but Kawwaz is strug­gling to keep it alive.

For thou­sands of years, clay uten­sils for stor­ing food and cook­ing were found in vir­tu­ally ev­ery home in Sumer, the ear­li­est known civil­i­sa­tion in mod­ern-day south­ern Iraq.

Kawwaz's own fam­ily drew their name from the jug, or "kawz" in Ara­bic, which they have pro­duced for more than 200 years from clay found at a lake by Na­jaf, a holy Shi­ite Mus­lim city.

"Mak­ing clay vases is a craft that my fam­ily had be­come famous for," says 45-year-old Kawwaz wist­fully.

Pot­tery has deep roots in Iraq, where an­cient civil­i­sa­tions turned to clay to build their homes, shape their cook­ing uten­sils, and even make their ovens.

Cuneiform, one of the ear­li­est forms of writ­ing in­vented by the Sume­ri­ans, was also carved into clay tablets.

But now, with a flood of more mod­ern prod­ucts, de­mand for the hand­made clay items has dried up, says Kawwaz.

Once ubiq­ui­tous

His fam­ily's jugs were shaped from Na­jaf mud, dried in the shade, then baked at high tem­per­a­tures for no less than 15 hours.

In Iraq, one of the hottest coun­tries on earth, they were in­dis­pens­able.

"These vases were used to keep wa­ter cool or pre­serve food. They were placed in the shade or hung in an­other high lo­ca­tion," he says.

Some Iraqis even used them to store jew­elry.

"Those that prac­ticed pot­tery would make a lot of money be­cause they were com­mon items in an­cient Iraqi house­holds," says Kawwaz.

They were sur­pris­ingly handy dur­ing the era of Sad­dam Hus­sein, when many fam­i­lies strug­gled fi­nan­cially, as well as in the 1990s, when in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions hit Iraq.

With house­hold ap­pli­ances ex­tremely rare or un­af­ford­able for most of the pop­u­la­tion, Iraqis once again re­lied on clay.

"The in­come of most fam­i­lies did not al­low them to buy a re­frig­er­a­tor or freezer to keep their wa­ter cold, so most used clay caul­drons," he says.

Back then, his fam­ily sold their large jugs in bulk -- some­times thou­sands per week across ev­ery Iraqi prov­ince.

But times have changed. "We sell very few now -- the num­bers in an en­tire year don't hit 100 or 200 jugs," says Kawwaz.

Farm­ers who once used the large con­tain­ers are opt­ing for cheaper goods, made ei­ther else­where in Iraq or im­ported.

"They buy plas­tic bags im­ported from China, so now we rarely sell clay pots," says Kawwaz in his stu­dio, it­self made of mud and cov­ered in palm leaves.

He makes the vases by spe­cial re­quest only, but ad­mits it's hardly worth it.

Small jugs cost just 2,500 di­nars or around US$2, while the larger caul­drons that hold sev­eral dozen litres are sold at 15,000 di­nars. De­spite the preva­lence of elec­tric and gas cook­ers, Um Hay­dar prefers her trusty clay oven.

On her rooftop ter­race in Old Na­jaf, she uses it to bake her own tra­di­tional bread ev­ery morn­ing.

"The taste of bread made in a tra­di­tional oven is so dif­fer­ent from bread baked in an elec­tric or gas oven," says Um Hay­dar, as the sear­ing oven near her ra­di­ates an en­tic­ing smell.

Well into her six­ties, the Iraqi woman is dressed in a tra­di­tional black robe that cov­ers her from head to toe.

Like her mother and grand­mother be­fore her, she has stuck to tra­di­tion when it comes to the clay oven, with one ex­cep­tion -- she didn't build it her­self.

But some Iraqis, like Hay­dar al-Kaabi, in­sist on the full Sume­rian ex­pe­ri­ence.

On the edge of the Na­jaf Sea, Kaabi be­gins mix­ing to­gether in­gre­di­ents to make his own oven.

"To the clay, you have to add reeds, red sand, and syn­thetic wool fi­bres. You let the mix­ture rest for two days so the clay be­comes com­pact," he ex­plains.

De­spite the drop in sales, this pot­ter is up­beat.

"Even if we sell less, even if the crafts­men are fewer and fewer, we're fight­ing to keep the ar­ti­sanal her­itage of our fa­thers and grand­fa­thers alive," he says.

"And of course, there are still Iraqis who only eat good bread," he says with a wink.

Pot­tery has deep roots in Iraq, where an­cient civil­i­sa­tions turned to clay to build their homes, shape their cook­ing uten­sils, and even make their ovens. AFP

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