Waheed Fakhoury, 74, sits behind a pottery wheel, eyes glued to a television above as his hands instinctively shape a silky mass of brown earth dug up from the West Bank city of Hebron. Within a few minutes he has modeled a large bowl.
Fakhoury means “potter in Arabic.” When asked how long his family has been doing this craft, Waheed chuckles, “As long as my name has been Fakhoury.”
Waheed is a pottery master who uses a technique he learned from his father at the age of seven when he began his apprenticeship. The eldest of seven siblings, Waheed and his brothers all took up the pottery trade. Today, five Fakhoury sons including Waheed remain in Hebron, continually adapting their craft to survive the ongoing trade restrictions Israel imposes on the West Bank, and cultural changes that have pulled Palestinians away from traditional crafts.
Palestinian from Hebron and friend of the family Wesam Alqaraja said the Fakhourys are the largest pottery family in the region still using these traditional methods that he knows about. “You might find one person with his brother, or one person with his sons, or just one person, but never seven.”
What’s more, the Fakhoury family lineage of potters extends at least five generations, tracing back to Waheed’s great-grandfather.
“This is the first time we find this span of a family,” Alqaraja said, “So the trace of the same techniques that were used in the Ottoman time is still here. Which means we can prove they are the old methods inherited from generation to generation.”
“To be able to trace a family so far back, with this cultural link is very important,” Alqaraja noted, “It is one of the lines that connect Palestinian history that is away from politics, away from the modern conflict.”
“It’s just a simple story of survival from one thread of the Palestinian fabric.”
A few doors down from Waheed, his younger brother, Abu Salam Fakhoury, 50, sits in one of the larger workshops. Several of his sons are working around him as he sits, cigarette to one side of his mouth, forming a zeer, a clay water cooler traditionally used across the Mediterranean to cool and store water or produce. Each of the Fakhourys make their own unique type of pottery – while Waheed makes large bowls and Abu Salam makes water coolers, another brothers specializes in small flower pots.
Abu Salam stops the pottery wheel and drinks a cup of coffee brought to him by one son while another son, Ahmad Fakhoury, 27, hand paints a similar pot. Abu Salam relights his cigarette and motions towards the pot.
“There is a lot of demand in Israel for these pots,” Abu Salam said, explaining how his customers in Israel who buy the pots believe there are health benefits to storing water in clay and use it as an alternative to plastic containers. Abu Salam also attributes their “high quality of work” to returning business from Israelis. “They appreciate that,” Abu Salam said.
“Before we were making everything for practical things, for storing food and grain. Things that were necessary for the community and everyday life.” Now, Abu Salam said, he has evolved his products to make more decorative pieces for around the home.
The studios are the south of Hebron in an industrial zone. But 50 years ago the Fakhourys worked out of Hebron’s Old City, near the Ibrahimi Mosque, or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site in Islam and Judaism and a flashpoint for violence.
“We cannot go in,” Abu Salam said of the Old City, which today is between checkpoints run by the Israeli army, “it is completely closed because of the Israelis. Especially in Hebron, the old town center is all taken.”
In 1967 Israel occupied the West Bank, including Hebron. In 1997 the city was divided in half by an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. H2, the Old City, is under Israeli civil and security control and H2, the outer neighborhoods, is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The first and second intifada, Abu Salam said, were periods of difficulty for the business. In the 1990s he exported pots to countries around the world, even making it to Australia.
“This was before the second intifada,” Abu Salam said. But afterwards, “all the entrances to Israel were closed and we [couldn’t] sell there anymore.”
“You need certain documents, you need certain papers which they [Israel] cannot provide [to Palestinians], so a lot of people just left the shops and found something else,” Abu Salam said.
Now the Fakhoury family’s biggest customers are Israelis.
In the same studio, Abu Salam and Waheed’s nephew Abdul Hakim, 33, sits behind another spinning pottery wheel, immersed in the rhythm of the turning clay. Abdul started making pottery at age 13. When asked if he enjoys working in the family pottery business he shrugs, “no,” “I cannot lie.”
“Compared to the prices and the money, [the work] is really tiring,” explained Abdul. He is recently engaged and thinking about the children he hopes to have, he does not want them to follow in his footsteps. “I prefer to send them for education, [to be a] doctor or engineer, rather than to stay here.”
Abdul’s uncle Waheed sees the Fakhoury legacy is reaching an uncertain future. “I have so many grandchildren, but none are interested in pottery,” he explained. “I don’t know if the family will always be potters.”
Alqaraja, the researcher, said more needs to be done to protect the pottery industry, not only for the Fakhoury family business but to ensure the continuation of Palestinian crafts.
“It’s part of the intangible culture that we don’t know about. It’s part of our heritage that Palestinians really need to work to conserve and appreciate,” Alqaraja added, “If you lose these experts, then we will lose our identity.”
Updated June 11, 2019, 11:45 p.m.