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Losing the Thread of Palmyra

A cloth-seller in Jerusalem feels the effects of Syria’s war

Matti Friedman
June 02, 2015
(Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; photos: Matti Friedman)

(Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; photos: Matti Friedman)

Since the late 1950s, the Abu Khalaf family of textile merchants in Jerusalem’s Old City has been selling an exquisite kind of fabric from Palmyra, Syria. The cloth, a blend of silk and gold thread, is woven on manual looms by a family of artisans named Mattini. It comes mostly in floral patterns; one type depicts an intricate battle scene with the warrior king Saladin.

The current proprietor of the Abu Khalaf store is Bilal, who inherited the business from his father, who inherited it from his own father, who founded it in 1936. It was Bilal’s father who began importing the Mattini fabric from Palmyra nearly six decades ago. Today it is the most expensive in the store, selling for about $1,000 a yard. Too valuable to be displayed, it is concealed in a roll of nondescript cloth.

This week, when I stopped to talk to Abu Khalaf, I found that he had almost none of the fabric left. There won’t be a new shipment, he said. The Mattinis have vanished.

Here in Jerusalem we live a three-hour drive from a war that has killed a quarter of a million people in four years and displaced an estimated 9 million, a number greater than the population of Israel. Palmyra, battered for several years by government and rebel forces, fell last week to the Islamic State. Considering the scale and proximity of the cataclysm, echoes in our daily lives are rare, though residents of northern Israel may see puffs of smoke on the Syrian border or glimpse Syrian casualties in Galilee hospitals. I was surprised to encounter such an echo in a fabric store, of all places, in the form of the Mattini cloth—or rather in the form of the cloth’s absence and the tragedy it suggests.

Bilal Abu Khalaf stocks many Syrian fabrics: maroon and green swaths from Damascus used for traditional Palestinian bridal dresses, for example, and yellow and blue fabric from Aleppo used to make the distinctive striped caftans worn by the Hasidic sect Toldos Aharon. It is now impossible to buy these textiles in Syria, he said, but there is sufficient stock in places like Jordan and Turkey to ensure he won’t run out soon. Not so the Mattini cloth.

It has been more than three years since he last heard from Sherko Mattini, his contact, Abu Khalaf said. Abu Khalaf owes money for his last shipment of 100 yards in 2011, before the war began, but no one has contacted him to collect. His emails and phone calls have gone unanswered. People who might know the fate of the craftsmen have themselves been displaced, he said. There is no one left to ask.

Traditional textiles tell you something about the people who made them. Certain kinds of embroidery, for example, are associated with specific Palestinian villages, and the traditions were passed on by families even if the villages were lost in ’48. Carpets can be read for information about their weavers. The Mattini fabric comes only from a family of Kurdish craftsmen who developed the skill in a certain place, Palmyra, over generations. The cloth is not a generic product but a singular article made by people who have names and can be identified by their work.

From Abu Khalaf’s store I walked through a few Old City alleys to visit a friend, American author Stephanie Saldaña, who lived in Syria and wrote a book about her time there. Saldaña has spent the last four years watching from Jerusalem as Syrian friends have scattered across the Middle East and Europe or have disappeared altogether. The Jesuit priest who ran a Syrian monastery where she studied was kidnapped two years ago and has not been seen since. This month the priest’s replacement was kidnapped. Saldaña is reminded of Syria every time she passes Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, named for a city near here in a more fluid time. The borders have closed in. The last signs of normal movement and trade, like the golden cloth from Palmyra, are drying up.

“In other parts of the world fabric is just an object, but here it’s a link to other people, a kind of traveling story,” Saldaña said. “Losing something like this is like losing a piece of humanity.”


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Matti Friedman is the author, most recently, of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.

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