How historic Tripoli carpenters craft a survival plan for traditional Lebanese woodwork

The old port district of Al Mina in Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon, is the best known for its cafes and art bars. But its narrow streets with stone houses are also home to the city’s carpenters.

From his workshop, Elie Mouchaham brings the final touch to the wooden trelliseswork panels, or moucharabiya. These were reconstructed for Villa Linda Sursock, a 19th century townhouse in Beirut.

The original panels, composed of three arched windows and a large double door were destroyed by the explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4. “The biggest challenge is trying to restore all of the original details exactly as they were,” Mouchaham said.

He is one of the many Tripolitan carpenters who help rebuild Beirut’s heritage houses after the explosion.. “I do it because I love Lebanon and it makes my children proud,” he says.

Ali Boksmati from Minjara working on moucharabiya panels at the Minjara workshop. Photo: Ahmad Zaatiti

But its work is also vital for the preservation of another form of intangible cultural heritage: the historical heritage of Tripoli. wood industry. The ageless craft is an integral part of the port culture of one of the oldest permanently inhabited cities in the world.

These family workshops go back several generations. “My great-grandfather, Hanna, was a carpenter, as was his son Antoon, and my father, Kostis too,” says Mouchaham. “As a child, my father wanted me to go to school, but I preferred to be in the workshop with him.

Most of the city’s original carpenters were Greek or Armenian artisans from other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Empire, which was looking for new opportunities in this once cosmopolitan port city. Some also came as refugees at the start of the 20th century, fleeing persecution by Ottoman forces.

“They stopped at the port of Tripoli on their way to other cities, and some of them settled there,” said Vahe Okaijian, commercial director of Al Mina. the Okaijian workshop, which focuses on architectural carpentry. His great-great-grandfather came to Tripoli as a lumber merchant from what is now modern Armenia.

Carpenters in Tripoli have access to the machine, which allows them to carve digital designs.Ahmad Zaatiti

Carpenters in Tripoli have access to the CNC machine, which allows them to carve digital models. Photo: Ahmad Zaatiti

A modern furniture industry arose from the French mandate in Lebanon at the start of the 20th century. “The carpenters furnished the houses of the French officers and they learned to carve wood in the styles of the French decorative arts,” says Okaijian. “They mixed this with Ottoman and local influences.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, the town’s carpenters were known throughout the region and the Gulf for producing furniture in the French classical, neoclassical and baroque styles of the 17th and 18th centuries.

But Tripoli’s decline during the civil war in Lebanon and years of sectarian violence between two warring suburbs also hurt the carpentry industry.

Today it is running out of steam, due to the combined impact of the Lebanese economic crisis and the pandemic. Many businesses have closed, while the lucky ones are downsizing.

“Before the crisis, I employed up to 46 artisans in my workshop, but today I work with eight people,” says Mouchaham.

Designer Sara Jaafar oversees the design of the moucharabiya panels for Villa Linda Sursock.  Photo: Marwan Nassar

Designer Sara Jaafar oversees the design of the moucharabiya panels for Villa Linda Sursock. Photo: Marwan Nassar

To help save the industry from collapse, Tripoli The NGO Minjara put the town’s carpenters in touch with Lebanese designers.

“I met the Minjara team after the explosion, because they were helping in Beirut. They put me in touch with Elie, ”explains designer and architect Sara Jaafar, who commissioned Mouchaham to reconstruct the moucharabiya panels for Villa Linda Sursock.

The challenge, she explains, has been to reconstruct the original patterns of the moucharabiya using old photographs and surviving pieces.

“With handmade panels, it’s hard to tell if some of the geometric patterns were intentional or the result of human error,” she says..

Throughout the process, Mouchaham guided Jaafar on the technical aspects of traditional wood carving. “For executives, we used old Turkish cedar wood that does not stretch ”, explains Jaafar.

The new panels were originally carved on a digital cutting machine from the Minjara workshop. “But the finishing has to be done by hand,” she said..

Designer Sara Jaafar commissioned Elie Mouchaham to reconstruct the moucharabiya panels of Villa Linda Sursock.  Simon haddad

Designer Sara Jaafar commissioned Elie Mouchaham to reconstruct moucharabiya panels for Villa Linda Sursock. Photo: Simon Haddad

A modern inscription commemorating the explosion of Beirut will appear above the door, to replace an old one in Kufic script.

But it’s not only the old one on which the carpenters of Tripoli are concentrating. Today, many strive to adapt their local know-how to contemporary design trends.

“People don’t want Louis XIV and Louis XVI styles anymore, they want simpler, more minimalist furniture,” says Okaijian, who has taken active steps to evolve his company’s business model.

To help carpenters meet these changing tastes, Minjara has launched a collection of limited edition contemporary furniture.

Furniture by designer Ahmad Bazazo and carpenter Mohammed Masri designed for Minjara, exhibited at the Tripoli showroom.  Minajra

Furniture by designer Ahmad Bazazo and carpenter Mohammed Masri designed for Minjara, exhibited at the Tripoli showroom. Courtesy of Minajra

Among the participating designers was Thomas Trad, who, together with Tripolitan carpenter Jihad Toros, developed a series of tables and stools made entirely of wood using different carpentry techniques..

“The collaboration helped dispel a lot of the negative perceptions I had about Tripoli. Carpenters have amazing skills, especially when it comes to combining wood with other materials like brass, ”explains Trad.

“Some of the furniture I saw was old-fashioned, but the carpenters weren’t stuck in their ways and wanted to learn.”

Their collaboration continues to this day.

Before the crisis, I employed up to 46 artisans in my workshop, but today I work with eight people

Elijah Mouchaham, carpenter from Tripoli

“He [Toros] often comes to my workshop in Beirut to brainstorm ideas and we talk about Japanese carpentry, ”says Trad, who was trained in making traditional Japanese carpentry in Kyoto.

Minjara was initially established in 2018 with EU funding. His workspace for carpenters is located in the abandoned Tripoli Fair, which was designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the 1960s and was never completed.

Workshops are held there regularly and carpenters can use specific equipment and consult the material library.

“The platform is used to complete the workshops in Tripoli, not to replace them”, explains Joya Douaihy, Minjara project manager.

“The workspace includes a library of materials and machines that could help lower production costs. “

Moucharabiya panels carved by carpenters in Tripoli.  Ahmad Zaatiti

Moucharabiya panels carved by carpenters in Tripoli. Photo: Ahmad Zaatiti

In March of this year, the initiative was handed over to the René Moawad Foundation, a Lebanese charity. “Our goal is to make the platform autonomous by 2023,” says Douaihy.

RMF is currently developing a training program for the workshop with design teachers from the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts in Beirut. They also conduct research to identify potential markets in Europe and in the GCC.

But is it enough for this historic machine to survive in Tripoli?

Toros fears the industry is already reaching breaking point.

“The cost of wood and other materials has increased by up to 30%,” he says, as the industry depends on timber imported from Turkey, Africa and Europe, and oak and walnut from the United States. United.

In addition, sales decrease due to crisis. “We still get commissions from clients in Tripoli and Beirut, but fewer people can afford it now,” Toros tell me.

Despite these challenges, Mouchaham still hopes his family business will survive long enough for his son to take over.

But, he said, with a touch of regret, “I want my son to study engineering first, so he can do more than me.”


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