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Bilal Abu-Khalaf: the threads of a disappearing world.

Bilal Abu-Khalaf: the threads of a disappearing world.

They   say   clothes   make   the   man.   Sadly   enough, the modern   world   is   a   world   of   synthetics   and polyesters. But in the Old city of Jerusalem a piece of good old world still exists.

Meet Bilal Abu-Khalaf  who literally lives in a  m a t e r i a l   world. 

Meet Bilal Abu-Khalaf, a third-generation Jerusalem merchant who deals all his life with rare, unique and exceptionally beautiful fabrics

He is a third-generation Jerusalem merchant who deals all his life with rare, unique and exceptionally beautiful fabrics, handmade in three traditional centers of fine textiles – Syria, Morocco and India. 

Bilal`s shop  is  located   in   the   very  heart  of  the   Christian   quarter,   five   minute’s   walk  from the Church   of   the   Holy   Sepulcher   and   is more   than   a   shop   –   it   is   an   experience.   It   spreads out like an Aladdin’s   cave from   a   narrow shop front, packed   floor-to-ceiling   with   high-quality, authentic fabrics: hand-woven silks, cotton and gold-threaded cloths (and I mean GOLD), fine Indian saris and local embroideries…The shop truly looks like a treasure chest! 

You go into Bilal`s shop as a customer you leave as a friend. I`m coming to Bilal continuously for nice conversation, a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a sense of magic that is always present at his place. Bilal takes you through the collection, piece by piece. He knows where each and every item is made and takes the time to explain and inform, with no pressure to buy.

Bilal calls himself an old fashioned sort of man and he has a mission: to tell the story of once luxurious trade and preserve the legacy: “Everything now is computers and synthetics. It is not real. But when I sell someone handmade natural fabrics, I have a pure heart and am happy. I love what I do.”

Synthetic is an abhorrence to him. “If I touch it, I feel like electricity is flowing into my hands,” he says and I agree.

Bilal`s fabrics shop in the heart of Jerusalem
photo credit Simon Beni

ProTip: be prepared to spend there much longer than you originally planned

Abu-Khalaf stresses that he dresses like Patriarch Abraham, in a striped white

Jellabiya robe, silk sash about his waist and topped off with a red fez.

He has a whole section of Syrian fabrics he considers “Abrahamic,” a high pile of richly textured white fabrics, mostly from Aleppo. Today, these white fabrics are still prized in the local Jewish communities for their purity. 

ProTip: Ask Bilal about biblical Joseph, the son of Jacob, and his “coat of many colors”.  Not only he will   tell   you   many   intriguing   details   of   this   story,   he   will   also   show   you   the   fabric   itself   with astonishing, multi-colored stripes for which it is so famous. 

Bilal can tell you, that during the Ottoman era, when Syrian textiles thrived, the area that is now Syria was one of diversity. It held a large Jewish community. It also contained a vast Christian community — with people who still spoke Syriac, a dialect of the language of Jesus. There were Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Druze who lived in the South— only to mention some of the many groups and peoples who found a home there. This once rich and diverse world is disappearing quickly in the war. 

Many of the places that were the source of Abu Khalaf’s fabrics are now names synonymous with bloodshed and devastation. Years of fighting in Syria destroyed textile factories, essential travel routes transporting threads and other materials to weavers have been cut off, and workers have been displaced. Strangely enough this world still lives on in a tiny shop in the Old city of Jerusalem.

Bilal’s fabrics are used to make robes for Christian priests, Muslim imams and ultra-orthodox Jews, and all of them can be found in his shop rubbing shoulders, while browsing through colorful merchandise, placing orders and having friendly chat.

Bilal’s fabrics are used to make robes for Christian priests
Photo Credit – Simon Beni

For me Bilal Abu Khalaf’s shop is a beautiful reminder that Jerusalem IS a shared fabric with many  threads:   threads   connecting   east   and   west;   threads   of   neighborly   relations,   threads   of respect; threads of tradition – all woven together into a unique social fabric of Jerusalem’s Old city.

Jerusalem IS a shared fabric with many  threads

ProTip: An archaeological excavation  was conducted under the store and the remains of a Crusader-era   church   were   uncovered.  Archaeologists   believe   that   this   was   the   Santa   Maria Maggiore Church, constructed in the early 12th century. Today the finds can be seen under a glass floor inside the store.

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