In a humble workshop in the town of Sarafand, the Khalifa family runs the last of Lebanon's glass blowing enterprises
Artisanal glass is displayed at a Lebanese glassblower workshop in the town of Sarafand in October 2011. In a humble workshop in the southern coastal town of Sarafand, the Khalifa family runs the last of Lebanon's glass blowing enterprises and is fighting to keep this millennial heritage alive. © Joseph Eid - AFP/File
In a humble workshop in the town of Sarafand, the Khalifa family runs the last of Lebanon's glass blowing enterprises
A Lebanese glassblower makes a jug at his workshop
A Lebanese glassblower makes a jug at his workshop in the town of Sarafand, south of Beirut, in October 2011. In Sarafand, the Khalifa family runs the last of Lebanon's glass blowing enterprises and is fighting to keep this millennial heritage alive. © Joseph Eid - AFP/File
A Lebanese glassblower makes a jug at his workshop
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Rana Moussaoui, AFP
Last updated: November 7, 2011

Lebanon's remaining glass blowers struggle to survive

In a humble workshop in the southern coastal town of Sarafand, the Khalifa family runs the last of Lebanon's glass blowing enterprises and is fighting to keep this millennial heritage alive.

"Our profession has been passed on from generation to generation, and six of us Khalifas today are glass-blowers," says Ali Khalifa, 48, who for decades has painstakingly created vases, flutes and jugs with his relatives.

Seated inside the small workshop, Ali's nephew Mahmud swirls a metal rod round inside a crackling brick furnace, where pools of molten glass are turning bright orange.

Minutes later, he pulls a glowing orange ball out of the oven and blows into the long steel tube, swirling it to create a bubble.

Tongs in hand, the bubble grows as he gently presses down on the edges, fashioning a delicate glass carafe in the process.

"Everyone in our family learned the art at a really young age," explains Mahmud, who like his father before him became an apprentice in the family business at the age of 12.

For the next seven years, Mahmud learned to perfect the art of breathing life into molten mounds to create pitchers, vases and ornaments, using old bottles and other glass objects discarded by factories or scavenged from garbage sites.

"We take what some people consider waste and turn it into beauty," his uncle Ali says proudly.

It was in this very port city, once known as Sarepta, between the modern day areas of Sidon and Tyr on Lebanon's southern coast, that the Phoenicians invented the art of glass-blowing more than 2,000 years ago.

According to legend, the seafaring merchants discovered a substance that could be stretched and moulded running out from under the pots they used to cook their meals along the sandy beach.

Millennia later, as sales dwindle and fuel prices rise, artisans like the Khalifas are finding it increasingly hard to keep their tradition alive and make ends meet.

"We used to work for two months straight and then take 20 days off," Ali reminisces.

"Today, we work for 15 days and then are forced to rest for three months," he says, adding that sales have dropped more than 50 percent in recent years.

The fuel-powered kiln must be turned on for 24 hours in order to reach the necessary temperature to heat the glass, racking up a hefty cost of $250 (182 euros) per day.

Yet a glass cup sells for a mere six dollars while a hand-made chandelier goes for some $600.

"Ours is certainly not a lucrative business," says Mahmud's sister Nesrine Khalifa, who manages the family's shop, decorated with vases and bowls in vibrant shades of blue, green and red.

Sadly, the Khalifa men have had to turn to alternative means to provide for the family, Khalifa explains.

"My father also works as a fisherman and my uncle Ali is a construction worker in addition to a glass blower," says the dark-eyed young woman.

"They have to provide for our family."

The Lebanese coast was once dotted with the iconic small huts of glass blowers, who could be seen seated by the sparkling Mediterranean practising their craft.

Today, this art is all but forgotten as the once-treasured handiworks are replaced with mass manufactured imports.

"So many merchants today are selling products made in China and claiming they are hand-made in Lebanon," lamented Ohannes Khoustekian, CEO of Azm 4 Crafts, a group that works to create job opportunities for local craftsmen.

For the Khalifas, a small consolation has been the schoolchildren who, fascinated with the roaring furnace and glowing molten glass, regularly visit the family's workshop to spend the day learning the basics of glass blowing.

"It really is such a pity," says Khalifa. "It's a pity we are losing such a beautiful tradition."

Khoustekian said Azm 4 Crafts recently stepped in to revive the tradition in the northern port city of Tripoli where, driven into poverty, the last glass blower gave up his craft seven years ago.

Today, he is again practising the art thanks to the funds provided through Khoustekian's project.

"This art has long been part of our culture," says Khoustekian. "We have to preserve it."

© AFP 2011

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