Reviving Traditional Handcrafts To Survive The War

A childhood hobby turns into an old age profession

The Syrian war left many displaced and destitute. Many traditional handcrafts have been revived to help people provide for themselves. This is the story of one man, Hamid Toubal, whose childhood hobby helps him provide for his family today.

31 July 2019

Mais Al-Haj

A pseudonym for a Syrian journalist. Originally from Lattakia, Mais now lives in Idlib.

He sits for many hours by the fireplace with his simple toolbox next to him, along with some paper napkins which he will need to clean up any blood from his hands during work.

Hamid Toubal is 72-years-old, and after 55 years he now returns to an old occupation he learnt during his youth in his home village of Cip Toros in the Turkmen Mountain in the northern part of the Latakia countryside. Toubal now depends on making bird traps to provide for himself and his family. The occupation of making birdlime had long disappeared, but the war and the harsh living conditions paved the way to revive this ancient way of bird trapping.

Toubal carries sorrow that is easily detectable on his face. A quiet man, he switches between Turkish and Arabic when he speaks. Originally a Turkman from Bayirbucak mountains in the Latakia countryside, Toubal was wearing a pair of wide, black trousers and a winter jacket. He sat on a chair after placing a cover underneath it so none of the wood falls on the carpet as he works. A daily routine, Toubal is already busy at work when he talked to SyriaUntold. He kept his eyes on the bird trap he’s working on (inside which the birdlime is placed), as he told us his story.

“I start work right after prayers at dawn, and I keep working until sunset. I make one bird trap a day if I’m working on bird traps. But if I am working on the birdlime, then I make in large quantities in a day, it doesn’t take long. There’s a specific time to make the birdlime during the summer because it needs the sun to dry. In the winter, I make the bird traps and then I place the birdlime inside. I sell each bird trap for up to 4,000 Syrian pounds (the equivalent of four US dollars)”

Hamid Toubal working, Khirbet al-Jawz, Idlib countryside. January 2019. SyriaUntold

Toubal says that the idea of making bird traps came to him after one of his acquaintances asked him to make birdlime so he could catch birds. After all these years, he is still able to remember how to make the birdlime. “We don’t forget the things that you learn at a young age. I didn’t like the first batch of birdlime and bird traps I made after all these years, but with practice, I got better,” he said. He took in a deep breath, “but it is OK, considering it’s been 55 years of not doing this kind of work.”

“I learned this occupation by myself, thanks to my own personal efforts. When I was 15, my father asked me to watch over our farmed land in the Turkmen Mountain in the summer, to stop birds and other animals from eating our crops. I spent a lot of time there and I was bored. Our area had mountains and thick forests. I used to watch the men bringing back reeds and basil sticks from the forest, which are the basic materials for making traps and birdlime. They made the traps in front of me, and I would try to copy while I was watching over the land. I successfully learnt this occupation.

I also learnt to make baskets and trays used for serving the traditional dish of boiled wheat, as well as making rugs that are used in villages. They are all handmade from straw. Those were the good old days, even though my father got angry at me when he saw me using reeds to create things. He said that I should stop wasting my time because this kind of work would never put food on the table. But the day has come to prove otherwise,” he said as he laughed.

Toubal used to be a tailor. He was well-known in the city of Latakia and owned several shops. He left for Latakia when he was 20 and learned how to become a tailor there, and he continued working in this profession until 2012.

Toubal is displaced today. There are many reasons why he no longer works as a tailor, mainly his old age and the fact that he can’t afford to open a new shop. In addition, most people are poor and often depend on handouts for clothing.

At the onset of 2012, Toubal left for his home village, which was under the control of the opposition, and worked his land until the regime took over. He was forced to leave in 2015 for the village of Khirbet al-Jawz in the western part of the Idlib countryside. After he lost everything, he now has to pay rent and provide for his family.

The 72-year-old explains how he works, describing the job to be hard and tiring. Not anyone can succeed in it because one must be patient and surrounded by calm. He heads to the nearby mountains and collects reeds and basil before carrying them back home. Then he starts peeling the reeds to make the bird traps. He cuts them into small sticks and then places them in water for several days so they can become softer and easier to fold and not break. However, if the reed is green as it is in the spring, then it is easier to work with, and the soaking phase could be skipped altogether. With regards to the birdlime, basil sticks are needed. Toubal heads to the market in Jisr al-Shugour city to buy the birdlime seeds. When he works, he wears a pair of gloves and uses a gardening scissors.

Hamid Toubal working, Khirbet al-Jawz, Idlib countryside. January 2019. SyriaUntold

Toubal faces many hardships in his current work, mainly because “reeds are rough and they cut my hands”. Also it’s difficult to transport them from the mountains. I carry it all on my shoulders by myself and for long distances. The gloves I have wear out quickly, so I often just don’t use them. Additionally, the selling price is little if compared to the effort I put in making these traps, but the economic situation is bad for everyone. That’s why accept the low prices.”

Toubal has regular customers from the area, mainly young men. Hassan is 24- year-old and lives in the camp in the Ain al-Bayda village. He is a regular customer and often brings his friends to buy Toubal’s bird traps and birdlime, which he holds in high regard. He told SyriaUntold that “the main reason there is a market for birdlime is the staggering poverty that people suffer here, especially the internally displaced, and their inability to buy meat. This is what pushes them to hunt birds and use bird meat in their meals. Additionally, there is no legal restrictions against bird hunting.  The area we live in is mountainous and you can find various kinds of birds and in large numbers. We have got a lot of time to kill, there are no job opportunities and not much entertainment. That’s why we go for hunting, as it takes up a lot of time.”

Bird traps made by Hamid Toubal, Khirbet al-Jawz, Idlib countryside. January 2019. SyriaUntold

Hassan adds, “People’s lives changed,   the power cuts and the absence of many basic life necessities pushed people to revive the old ways of doing things. These old methods are now acceptable and unquestioned. We often haggle with Hamid over the prices of birdlime and bird traps, and we ask him for discounts, especially after I have become a regular customer. I visit him almost weekly and buy for my relatives and friends because we hunt together.”

“Often we have to go out as early at 5 a.m. There are different ways of using birdlime, one of them is known as “outmaneuvering,” which is a trap tactic similar to that used in battles. We spread the birdlime sticks, and we wait for the birds to come after we put birdfeed for them to eat. We whistle trying to imitate their chirping. The second method is applicable in the summer only. We spread the birdlime on specific trees such as figs, grapes, and plums. We return every two hours to see the birds that got caught and we take them home. The birdlime is made of adhesive seeds, and when the birds stand on it they get stuck.”

Similar to reviving bird trapping, other traditional occupations have resurfaced after they had stopped being commonplace decades ago. These include making and baking flatbread by hand, making tents, fixing vintage kerosene stove, gathering wild and herbal plants from the mountains, selling firewood, and manually making coals.

Other new occupations came into being for the first time after the Syrian revolution. As the internet and communication network is often cut, many now sell internet top-up cards from Turkish internet providers whose mobile coverage extend to the north of Syria. As electricity is cut, many make a business out of owning a generator and selling electricity subscription by ampere units. Also, many rely on selling ice during the summer to generate an income.

Civil activist Reem Abdel Karim from the Latakia countryside tells SyriaUntold that “the main reason these occupations made a comeback while they used to be considered a part of Syrian heritage, and some nearly vanished, is because there was a need to go back to the way things were done before due to the lack of electricity, fuel, and gas. The shortages forced people to find alternatives to keep going. It was necessary to revive these occupations.”

She adds that most of these occupations were practised as a hobby before the revolution. She explained that “reviving these occupations at this time and in this manner is a sad thing. Other countries are moving forward, and these were meant to be a part of our heritage. However, the regime denied the areas outside its control access to electricity to take revenge on the people by making their lives harder.   People were pushed to adopt these solutions, and revival of these occupations have been a main factor in ensuring survival and continuity."

But what sets Toubal’s occupation apart is his endeavor to teach it to the youth in his area. They sit next to him and watch him work, while he explains every detail and answers all their questions with regards to this ancient method of bird trapping.

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