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Syria’s traditional oud-making on the decline

Antoun Tawil, one of Syria's last traditional lute makers, waits in vain in his Damascus workshop for orders of the oud, an instrument his country was once renowned for producing.

While the conflict that has ravaged Syria over the past six years has devastated many of its historic crafts, the production of the oud, the oriental lute, has been particularly hard hit.

Lute-makers have emigrated in large numbers, and the Damascene wood used to build the instruments has also become rare.

“There were around 20 workshops before the crisis, between Damascus, Aleppo and Hama… Now there are no more than six,” four of them in Damascus, said Tawil.

The slender 57-year-old is one of them.

In his tiny nine-square-metre shop in Tekkiyeh Sulamaniyeh, an Ottoman complex made up of a mosque and a crafts market, Tawil contemplates the ouds hung around him.

Some are richly decorated, delicately inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory.

Named after the Arabic word meaning a piece of wood, the oud is a key instrument in Middle Eastern music

Named after the Arabic word meaning a piece of wood, the oud is a key instrument in Middle Eastern music.

It is related to the guitar, the Russian balalika and the Greek bouzouki, and the instrument is characterised by its short neck and large, full body that gives the instrument a pear shape.

– ‘Beautiful as a Persian rug’ –

All six craftsmen that used to work in Tawil’s two workshops have fled Syria.

“Before the crisis, we opened at 5:00 in the morning and worked all day long because there was so much demand,” he said wistfully.

In a single month, Tawil used to sell a dozen ouds, many of them destined for abroad, including Europe and Canada.

“Nowadays, a month goes by without selling anything.”

With the Syrian pound’s devaluation, prices have also plummeted.

“I used to sell an oud for 5,000 Syrian pounds ($100). Today, I sell them for 35,000 ($70).”

The oud is related to the guitar, the Russian balalika and the Greek bouzouki

Still, he talks passionately about the Syrian — specifically Damascene — oud, which he describes as both the most exquisite but also the most durable of Arab lutes.

“Our ouds can last 70 years without needing maintenance,” he said with a proud smile.

“I’ve made pieces as beautiful as a Persian rug.”

The secret to its durability lies in the first steps of the craft, according to Issa Michel Awad, an expert in the oud and other stringed instruments at the Higher Institute for Music in Damascus.

“It’s the way the Damascene wood is chosen, the way it is dried and cured,” he explained.

“That is why you can still play a Damascene oud dating from 1990 today without a single false note.”

But in today’s conflict-ridden Syria, it is precisely this treasured wood that poses a problem.

“We rely on walnut wood, which is very high quality and is specifically available in Eastern Ghouta,” said Ali Khalifeh, a prominent lute-maker in Damascus.

Eastern Ghouta is a rebel bastion east of the capital, under government siege and beyond craftsmen’s reach.

“Today, this wood is being used by people in Ghouta for heat… It is becoming rare,” he said.

– ‘Profession under threat’ –

Ali Khalifeh, the owner of a workshop producing a musical instrument called the oud, the oriental lute, in Damascus

The first Damascene oud was produced in 1897 by Abdo al-Nahhat, who became one of the country’s most renowned lute-makers.

In the early 20th century, the oud was the favoured instrument among Syrians, played at marriages or during gatherings of female socialites.

Khalifeh’s atelier in the Adawi neighbourhood is now half-artisanal, half-mechanised.

Ironically, he has found demand has increased for his products because of the relatively few competitors.

While Tawil uses steam to individually shape the oud’s ribs by hand, Khalifeh’s workshop uses machines to bend 20 at a time and smooth the wood.

The neck’s pegs are screwed in by hand.

“Polishing the oud by hand takes between five and six hours. With the machine, it’s done in 15 minutes,” said Khalifeh, who exports across the Middle East, as well as to France and the United States.

“We used to make 10-15 ouds a month, now we make 20,” added Khalifeh, who learned the profession from his father at the age of 14.

Even with his own orders up, Khalifeh feel the industry is in terminal decline.

“When I look at the state of my profession, I can say it is in the process of disappearing,” he said.

Tawil agreed.

“It’s a profession under threat,” he said, lamenting that in addition to the effects of the war, “young people don’t have the time to learn”.

Like many in the field, he learned the trade from his father and is now passing it on to his daughter.

But he sees a glimmer of hope in the artisans who have emigrated, taking their expertise with them.

“In Quebec, there are now Syrians who are opening their own production workshops,” Tawil said.

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