Thread of gold

Bilal Abu Khalaf is scion of one of the largest textile merchants in the Middle East.

textile merchant 521 (photo credit: Flash 90)
textile merchant 521
(photo credit: Flash 90)
To step into Bilal Abu Khalaf’s fabric shop in the Old City of Jerusalem is to step into a world of timeless fashions, age-old traditions and exquisitely hand-crafted luxury silk and cloth. On hand is an immense stock of multi-colored fabrics imported from Morocco, India and Syria, sold to a wide range of Jewish, Muslim and Christian customers.
Prospective customers should be prepared to pay handsomely for top quality merchandise.
The Saladin silk pattern is imported from Palmyra, Syria and depicts historical battles of the legendary Muslim warrior. It must be seen to be appreciated. The hand-loomed fabric is painstakingly produced in eight colors with 8,000 threads per square centimeter, including 14-karat gold.
Abu Khalaf is located in the Muristan, in the heart of the Aftimos market near the Sultan Abed al- Hamid II grand fountain in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The site of two huge ancient churches, the modern Lutheran Church of the Redeemer is just across the street, the Via Dolorosa is around the corner, and the Church of St. John the Baptist and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are each about two minutes away by foot.
Even the floor offers a glimpse of ancient treasures.
It is made of clear glass through which stones from the late Byzantine period are clearly visible below.
This precious archaeological find was discovered nine years ago when Abu Khalaf hired workers to renovate the shop. Digging into the floor, the workers uncovered a long-lost piece of the Crusader Church of St. Mary le Grande that stood on the site and was later destroyed in an earthquake.
Greeting visitors in a striped caftan, with a red fez adorning his head, Abu Khalaf himself might be mistaken for someone who may have stepped out of the past. Now aged 50, he is a third generation fabrics merchant who hopes his son will carry on the tradition into a fourth generation. He traces the family roots in the Holy Land all the way back to Kurdish warriors who accompanied Kurdish general Saladin as he wrested control of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.
Recounting his family’s heritage, Abu Khalaf even manages to connect Saladin to fabrics, relating that Maimonides (the Rambam), the most famous doctor in Egypt in the late 12th century, was once summoned to Saladin’s palace when the Muslim ruler was ill. To prepare the great rabbi for his audience with the leader, says Abu Khalaf, the palace staff sent him the finest of striped silk caftans, threaded with gold and silver.
Abu Khalaf knows the provenance and intended use of every fabric and pattern in his vast collection. He is clearly proudest of the cottons and silks he imports from Syria.
The multi-colored fabrics, many laced with metallic threads, are intended to create the finest evening dresses in a woman’s wardrobe.
They are especially prized for weddings and pre-wedding celebrations, when the bride, the mother of the bride and other close relatives are expected to wear the most impressive dresses they can afford. “Brides now often wear white dresses,” explains Abu Khalaf, “but the traditional bridal gown is a burgundy and green colored pattern. There is still a lot of demand for traditional bridal gowns.”
Patterns on the hand-loomed materials used for the finest evening dresses can be elaborate. Especially popular are dresses whose colors change with the weave. “These are in the tradition of the multi-colored coat that Joseph wore in the Bible,” he says.
For men, the traditional Arab dress code is a white jalabiya caftan with stripes, “in the style of Father Abraham,” says Abu Khalaf.
Village mukhtars and other notables wear a caftan with colored stripes. The jalabiya worn by prominent wedding guests and grooms often have metallic threads woven into the design.
It is not only Arabs, however, who buy caftans supplied by Abu Khalaf. Traditional members of the Samaritan community also wear them on a daily basis. Members of several ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects in Jerusalem also wear the striped caftans, known as “zebras.” Abu Khalaf says the vast majority of his jalabiya customers are Haredi Jews, who rely on him exclusively to supply them with high quality caftans – cut from fabric imported from Damascus – that in line with religious edict do not mix linen with wool and so are free of forbidden shatness.
The Jerusalem Jewish tradition of wearing Arab-styled caftans is 300 years old. Rabbi Yehuda the Pious, a charismatic Jewish leader in Poland, gathered about 1,500 adherents in 1697 to join him in a mass emigration to Israel in what they believed was an act that would hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Their arrival in Jerusalem that year immediately doubled the Jewish population of the city. The Hurva Synagogue, built on land purchased by the rabbi, is named after him.
Yehuda’s untimely death in 1700 left the community saddled with large debts owing to Muslim landowners. The enraged authorities in the city imposed a tax on every Jew entering Jerusalem. Jews began dressing in Arab-style caftans in an attempt to fool tax collectors stationed at the city gates. To this day, some Haredi sects continue to wear the caftans originally adopted as a disguise.
Christian clergy are also frequent shoppers at the Abu Khalaf store. Priests normally wear black but on feasts, holidays and other special days they are bedecked with brightly colored vestments. Abu Khalaf offers a wide range of vestments including white robes with large red crosses for Catholics and a Greek Orthodox counterpart in yellow and gold with black crosses. There are purple robes for Easter and red for Christmas.
“Bishops, cardinals, patriarchs – they all buy vestments here,” he notes.
The most exquisitely elaborate patterns sold by Abu Khalaf are made in Palmyra, Syria. In addition to the Saladin design, Abu Khalaf stocks an equally complex Palmyra pattern featuring detailed scenes from A Thousand and One Nights. An Arabesque design in a traditional geometric mosaic contains “only” five colors.
The handwoven Palmyra silks are used for a wide range of products, including evening shawls, neckties and ornamental upholstery.
They do not come cheap: 1,800 to 3,000 shekels ($475 to $790) for each meter length of fabric woven on an 80 cm loom. Hardly surprising that many customers, including embassies and tourists, prefer to take small lengths for use as cushion covers, or simply to frame and display as art.
Syria is not Abu Khalaf’s only source.
Moroccan-made fabrics are used mainly for house decorations, including tablecloths, wall decorations, runners and cushion covers.
Indian materials for traditional saris are also available, along with fine Kashmir silk and hand-embroidered decorations.
Christian Quarter
Abu Khalaf’s grandfather opened the family’s first shop in Hebron in 1936. They moved to a small shop on David Street in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1952, expanding rapidly to larger premises in the Christian Quarter in 1958. Abu Khalaf went to school in Jerusalem, then studied Political Science at Ein Shams University in Cairo, but after graduating he returned to the family business until his father’s death in 1985. He worked with his brother until 1999, when they each opened their own stores.
Through all the ups and downs of conflicts in the Middle East, the Abu Khalaf family has always managed to ensure that supplies get through. The Syrian fabrics are imported either via Jordan or through Turkey, then shipped to the port at Ashdod. Imports from Morocco and India go directly to Ashdod.
Abu Khalaf is careful to avoid making any political remarks, preferring to concentrate on the myriad aspects of the fabric business that he knows so well. He does, however, bemoan the loss of his former customer base in West Bank cities such as Bethlehem and Ramallah, which have become far less accessible since Israel constructed its separation fence in response to the terrorist attacks of the second intifada. “Jerusalem was once the center of commerce,” he complains. “I hope things in Jerusalem and near Jerusalem will be quiet and that more and more commerce can be permitted.”
Things are certainly not quiet at the moment in Syria. The troubles there have disrupted exports, and Abu Khalaf for now must rely on his extensive existing inventory of Syrian fabric. He has also been forced to cancel his twice-yearly visits to Syria to maintain contact with suppliers and exhibit his work in Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra.
Abu Khalaf’s eldest son is studying pharmacy in Jordan, and does not plan to follow in his father’s footsteps. He has three daughters, two of whom are married. He pins his hopes on his youngest son, aged only four, to carry on the family business into a fourth generation. “My son likes to come to the shop on Saturdays and help out,” he says proudly. “If he likes it at such a young age, there is a good chance he will also like it when he grows up.”