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.
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 â Syria, Morocco and India.
Bilal`s shop is located in the very heart of the Christian quarter, five minuteâs walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and is more than a shop â 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: âEverything 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.â
Synthetic is an abhorrence to him. âIf I touch it, I feel like electricity is flowing into my hands,â he says and I agree.
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 âAbrahamic,â 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 âcoat of many colorsâ. 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 â 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 Southâ 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 Khalafâs 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.
Bilalâs 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.
For me Bilal Abu Khalafâs 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 â all woven together into a unique social fabric of Jerusalemâs Old city.
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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