AN HONOURABLE TRADE: Why Basra’s struggling shoemakers won’t give up on the local leatherwares.

In the middle of Basra’s old market, there is a shop so small that hardly anything fits inside: an old TV, a wall clock, some work tools and a few bags hanging on the wall. Also inside is Abdul Amir Abdul-Jalil, 61-years-old, who is busy sewing and patching shoes, bags and other leather items in need of repair.

By Nagham Makki, in Basra

“I have been doing this since I was 20,” he explains. “I learned this craft from an Indian shoemaker. I started by polishing and repairing shoes, but now I can claim that I am the oldest shoemaker in Basra.”

Abdul-Jalil wants to keep working despite his trembling hands and failing eyesight. He reckons this does not impact his skills. “I won’t stop because for me, this is an honourable trade – despite how little it pays these days,” he says.

The elderly shoemaker believes that a flood of cheap imports have stopped locals from getting their shoes repaired – instead they simply buy a new pair.

“When soldiers used to have to repair their boots in the ‘80s and ‘90s, our profession really flourished,” Abdul-Jalil explains. “I too had to do military service and I would repair shoes during my holidays.”

The shoemakers would also repair vehicle tires. The international sanctions on Iraq during those decades meant that ordinary Iraqis would have to preserve their shoes and bags. They couldn’t easily buy new items.

Further along from Abdul-Jalil’s tiny stall, is another booth. This one belongs to Walid Abu Qais, who is 55 years old. He sits in the dark shop, leaning on his sewing machine and waits for customers. Outside porters push past with wooden carts and young people chatter as they pass by.

Abu Qais says he began to learn the trade when he was only two years old; his father and grandfather both repaired leatherwares and this section of the market was once the sole preserve of shoemakers and leather repair shops.

Abu Qais remembers botching his first job – he destroyed the zip on a woman’s bag. Luckily she forgave him because he was so young. “Many have abandoned this profession,” he laments. “It requires patience, endurance and precision. So instead they turn to other jobs, such as driving or they join the army or the police,” he argues.

The shoemakers usually do the most business when schools return after holidays or during religious pilgrimages. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic has seen these events delayed or smaller than usual and trade has been negatively impacted.

Not every shoemaker in this part of the market is old though. Just a few meters away, Laith Abdullah is also fixing footwear and leather items. He is in his 20s and works in a store that is mostly filled with toys for sale. Abdullah explains that he learned the trade from his own father, first being taught how to dye leather and then  later, becoming expert with the sewing machine and leather sewing tools.

He was forced to leave school when he was 11 years old because of his family’s poverty. “I want to return and complete my studies,” he told Al Menassa. “But I won’t give up this trade either. It’s not an easy job. The work can be tough and you can hurt your hands badly if you get things wrong. At the moment we are also paying high rents while business is failing, thanks to lockdowns in the pandemic,” he explains.

One day Abdullah would love to own a larger shop and maybe some of the more sophisticated machines of the trade. He believes this would restore some of the glory to his craft. “Nobody really cares about us today,” Abdullah complains. “Even the trade unions that once used to woo us have disappeared now, leaving us to face this tough market on our own.”

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