Khalifeh business hit hard as new highway curbs traffic along old costal road
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, November 21, 2009
SARAFAND: During the hey-day of the Phoenician civilization, the trading post of ancient Serepta would have had a thriving artisan community with glass makers, potters and timber merchant selling their wares to sea-farers. Today Serepta is better known as Sarafand – a sleepy run-down village in southern Lebanon with pot-holed roads where no one seems to loiter too long.
The potters and glass blowers have long gone, with mechanics and kebab vendors taking their place. Lebanon’s once thriving glass trade hasn’t completely died out, however. One family is determinedly keeping the ancient tradition alive, albeit with considerable difficulty.
The Khalifeh family has been blowing glass for about 40 years, selling their goods in a local shop or to wholesalers. In happier times, says shop manager Nisrine Khalifeh, her grandfather taught apprentices the painstaking trade and employed several dozen locals.
The family had a thriving business, helped along by exposure at international craft fairs and friendly tour guides who would bring generous-spending Beirutis to the shop.
Today, Nisrine’s father Hussein runs the business but the locals aren’t interested in working with glass. “No one likes to do it because it’s so hard,” Nisrine says with a sigh. “Many people have asked to learn but then they can’t handle the heat.” She points to her father, who at 55 years old looks more like 85.
His face has been leathered and shoulders hunched by years sweating it out in front of the oven, designing and shaping glass in 140 degree heat. The future of Lebanon’s glass-blowing heritage now rests in the hands of Hussein, Nisrine and seven other family members.
The dearth of trained glass blowers has been accompanied by decreasing sales at the Khalifeh’s shop in Sarafand. Despite the undeniable appeal of the shop’s colorful interior, with its rainbow of ornate standing candle holders, hanging decorations, water jugs and vases, hardly anyone ever visits.
When the southern coastal highway opened a few years ago, business at the Khalifeh shop, which is situated on the old coastal road, was hard hit.
Now, says Nisrine, the only people that come to the shop are foreign clients who might not have visited in a few years or soldiers from UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL looking for presents to take home. “When the autostrade was closed a few months ago and people had to travel on the coastal road, a lot of people came in and bought things,” she says. With only the most motivated clients bothering to make the journey, the Khalifeh family’s glass products are one of Lebanon’s best-kept secrets.
Ever-rising fuel costs are also taking a toll. Because of the exorbitant prices, the Khalifehs only turn on the ovens for big orders to highbrow boutiques in Beirut who then sell the glass products for double or triple the original price.
The oven costs $500 each day to run and takes 24 hours to reach 1,500 degrees, the temperature where glass finally turns to liquid. “Sometimes we stop for two or three months because there’s no work,” Nisrine says. When The Daily Star visited, the ovens had been off for some time.
The ovens themselves are also expensive to keep, as they can only be used twice before the intense heat turns the bricks to sand.
Apart from the high fuel consumption, the Khalifeh’s glass production is environmentally sound, using only recycled glass. Behind the shop, rusty bath tubs and old oil vats groan under the weight of shattered beer and wine bottles, mirrors and windows.
The road ahead looks discouraging for Lebanon’s last remaining glass blowers. Assistance from the government has not been forthcoming, though the Khalifeh’s say they don’t expect help. If mounting costs and falling demand finally force the family to close shop for good, Nisrine doesn’t know what her brothers will do: they left school when they were 12 to learn the trade. “My brothers only know glass-blowing. There’s no work for them except this.”