In Basra’s old market, amid songs and the noise of passers-by in the narrow alleys, a 50-year-old man sits quietly and calmly in his shop, surrounded by piles of cotton and wool.
By Saad Nazim, in Basra
Mohammad Jabbar Nafawa is the oldest upholsterer in Basra. He inherited this profession when he was just five years old from his father, who practiced it in the 1930’s.
Nafawa’s relationship with upholstery has only grown stronger over the past forty years and now the profession itself is associated with his name in Basra.
Everyone here adds “al-Neddaf” to Nafawa’s own – it means “the upholsterer” – even though he is actually a maths teacher at a Basra elementary school. He goes there every morning to teach then spends his afternoon’s in the workshop filling customers’ orders.
“No one calls me teacher,” he says, with a laugh. “They all call me al-Neddaf.”
The upholstering trade has gone through different stages in Iraq, Nafawa explains, and at each stage the types of fabrics changed, as did the tools.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the best cottons were from Iran as well as from Iraq; the latter was Nafawa’s favorite. Years ago, the best cotton came from Iraqi factories in Kut, Diwaniyah and Mosul, he recounts.
“I never expected that the cotton industry here would fail to this extent,” Nafawa says sadly. “Or that we would resort to using recycled cotton.”
At one stage, the tradition of making mattresses was disappearing in Iraq because of the abundance of imported mattresses.
Even though local upholstery is not thriving due to imports from places like Turkey and Iran, young couples, about to be married, still come to Nafawa’s store to buy furniture for their new homes. He often offers his young customers credit on furnishings even though it’s risky and there’s no guarantee he’ll be paid.
The average price of a single mattress in his store is IQD35,000 (about US $ 24), the price of a double ranges from IQD100,000 to IQD140,000 (about US $ 68 to US $ 95) and a pillow goes from anywhere between IQD5, 000 and IQD7,000 (about US $ 3 to US $ 5).
“I understand these young people’s circumstances,” Nafawa explains why he offers credit. “This profession requires patience and cooperation.”
Some of his customers have been with Nafawa for a long time. One client brought her furnishings after her wedding from his father’s store. now she buys for her own children’s marriages.
Nafawa says his father would deal with everyone – Christians, Jews, Sabaean Mandeans and all other sectors of Iraqi society. “Their exchanges were always respectful and affectionate and I am trying to do the same as my father did, bless his soul,” Nafawa explains.
When Nafawa worked with his father at the homes of Basra’s well-off families in the 1950s and 1960s, they would soften cotton the old-fashioned way, by beating it with a piece of wood until the fibres loosened. It was traditional for upholsterers to move between different homes doing their jobs because locals that preparing cotton at home would bring happiness and blessings to the household.
It gave the upholsterers a chance to chat to their clients too. This is something that still happens. Nafawa recalls one client coming in with a mattress that needed re-upholstering. “He told me his mother had hidden valuables and money inside the mattress. But I told him that even if we found all the money in the world inside the mattress, I would still give it back,” Nafawa recalls. “In the end all we found were some prayers and some charms.”
At one stage, the tradition of making mattresses was disappearing in Iraq because of the abundance of imported mattresses made out of, for example, sponge rubber or made with springs. Many professional upholsterers left the business altogether.
In fact, Nafawa believes that now there are only several dozen left in all Iraq. It can also be a wearing trade on the body – the work is energetic and upholsterers often end up with back problems caused by all the effort beating the cotton.
Nafawa now uses a machine to do this part of the job and he is able to produce a lot more.
There is further hope for the trade on the horizon too. “Our handicraft began to recover recently because people became aware that it was problematic to sleep on synthetic sponge mattresses,” he explains. “A lot of people are now sent to us by their orthopaedic doctors and they want cotton or wool mattresses.”
“I love this profession,” Nafawa concludes. “And I want to keep it going. All I need to do is smile, be patient and master my work.”