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In old Damascus, war threatens Syrian handicrafts

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Damascus: In his cramped workshop in Damascus, Mohammad Abdallah delicately etches away at wooden panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a craft he perfected over a decade before the outbreak of Syria’s war.

As he works, Abdallah says he fears his craft — the intricate process of filling carved wooden decorative pieces with shells, bone, or ivory — could be forced into “extinction” by the conflict raging across his country.

“I worry for the fate of the Damascene mother-of-pearl craft because of the lack of labour and the difficulty in acquiring and transporting raw materials,” the 43-year-old says.

Like many other craftsmen, Abdallah was forced to abandon his spacious warehouse on the outskirts of Damascus when fighting broke out.

“My heart aches because the mother-of-pearl workshops in Damascus and its outskirts have dropped from 30 to only three or four workshops,” he says.

His own workforce “has faded in recent years because the labourers have joined the fighting or have fled” Syria altogether.

And local purchasers, stung by the devaluation of the Syrian pound, can no longer afford the stunning designs, he says.

Since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, more than 260,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes.

But the war has also taken a toll on the country’s renowned traditional craft, from ornate wooden furniture to the rich, golden stitching of its famed brocade fabrics.

The artisanal designs were popular among tourists, who generated about 12 percent of Syria’s pre-war gross domestic product.

But with tourism virtually non-existent and travel across the country growing more difficult by the day, craftsmen in Damascus are in despair.

Traditional cultural products in Syria, from songs and poetry to beautiful handicrafts, “have been completely damaged by the crisis”, says Mohammad Fayyad, a researcher on cultural heritage.

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