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The last of Lebanon's Arab weavers struggle to make a decent living.

Summary: The only clues to a cultural and historical rabbit hole in Antelias are a few bright blankets draped over plastic chairs.

ANTELIAS, Lebanon: The only clues to a cultural and historical rabbit hole in Antelias are a few bright blankets draped over plastic chairs.

There's no sign at the arch-shaped doorway, which sits next to an oil-change shop, because, as proprietor Antoinette Nafash puts it, "we've been here for 55 years. Customers come and see the blankets outside. For a sign we have to pay for nothing."

Inside is a low-ceilinged room, walls are stacked with blankets, rugs and cushions. There are traditional red, green, black and white geometric patterns as well as original combinations -- bright orange stripes and maroon diamonds stand out from the piles. It is here that Nafash has been working with her sister Nawal Abdul-Nour since 1956, when they moved from Homs with their parents. Nafash was 16 then.

Now, with their parents long dead and their third sister out of the country, the siblings say that as far as they know, they are the last of the traditional Arab weavers in Lebanon.

Past the small room and a hand-made curtain of small wooden rings is a cavernous space, dominated by one wooden loom and the remains of another. The sisters say their father built it upon his arrival in Lebanon. Empty baskets and others full of thread are scattered fill the dim room.

It's here that they've been making the inventive blankets that Nafash says "come from my mind. I weave them from my mind, I coordinate the colors there -- you need experience for that."

And experience she has. "We inherited this profession from our parents, and they inherited it from their parents, and they from our ancestors," she recounts. "This is a profession you can't learn when you are older. Just as you go through different levels of school, it's the same thing, it requires experience."

A full size blanket takes eight hours -- that's eight hours of pressing foot pedals and moving a wooden shuttle back and forth by hand. "I lean on the wooden frame and I work, it's very tiring," says Abdul-Nour, who points out that during those eight hours she doesn't sit. Nafash chimes in. "When we were 15 it used to take seven hours, but now our health is not like before."

After eight hours of concentration on one piece, the sisters are clearly proud of their creations. "Just like a chef has a particular style, between me and my sister [the style] is different, and the same between me and my father ... we've had customers for over 50 years ... just from touching the work, they know it's mine ... people tell me 'I have had your work in my home for over 30 or 40 years.'"

Nafash eagerly giggles as she fingers through the stacks of textiles, distinguishing between her and her sister's designs, but she and the more placid Abdul-Nour clearly have a complicated relationship with their profession, and don't romanticize it.

"My life and my profession are oppressive," explains Nafash. "We were deprived of school from 8 years old." Abdul-Nour says she had no interest in learning weave. "I've been studying this work since I was four. I used to fight with my dad because I didn't want to learn the loom. He would beat me ... I wanted to learn knitting." Nafash says she, too, was beaten.

Both say they don't make a decent living, and this is why they sell baskets and factory-made blankets alongside their work, which goes for between $25 and $50 -- they say they sell it "cheap because we need to work." There are still a few pieces in the shop made by their father, who died over 20 years ago. They say they intend to keep them, but then name a price.

There were once weavers like them in Beit Shabab and Baskinta, they say, but they've died and didn't pass the skills onto their children. There are also weavers they admire in the Zouk Mikhael area in Kesrouan, but they have a different style. They regret that the profession will soon die out, as "this is a very old heritage," says Abdul-Nour.

But she says, "this generation would never come and learn this. If you to university, what do you need with this work? It pains me a lot, this profession."

Although business is worse each year, the rising popularity of Syrian soap operas set in the past has brought a few new customers. They have come seeking to kit out their salons with traditional mattresses, as they have seen on TV.

The hefty loom -- which is showing its 50-plus years and looks delicate in parts -- has been out of order for a year. The sisters are waiting for someone to come and fix it from Syria, as they say there is no one in Lebanon who can. Nafash says they have neglected the loom because of their poor health and because of the scarcity of customers.

And even though they're both tired and occasionally frustrated, the profession still "is dear to us," says Abdel-Nour. Her sister grins, as she is apt to do, and deems weaving "the friend of a lifetime."

Copyright 2012, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Feb 21, 2012
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