GDN Special Report: Potters threatened by rising fuel costs (VIDEO)
Thu, 08 Mar 2018
By Reem Al Daaysi (Pictures: Sadiq Marzooq)
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BAHRAIN’s ancient pottery industry is at risk from a dramatic rise in kerosene prices, which has driven up fuel costs by as much as 540 per cent since 2015.
The trade can be traced back to the Dilmun era more than 4,000 years ago, but now only seven factories continue to produce pottery at their traditional base in A’ali.
However, the rising cost of kerosene – which is required to fire their kilns – has prompted an appeal for the government to step in to save the profession.
Potters say the higher fuel costs have compounded other problems, including a clay shortage in Bahrain that has forced them to rely on Egyptian and Saudi imports.
They follow traditional practices that include using an old-fashioned wheel manually operated by foot to shape their goods, which are then baked in adjacent kilns to harden the clay.
Abdullah Al Shughul, 50, comes from a long line of potters and started learning the trade from his father when he was just five years old, but he said current operating costs were taking their toll.
“We used to pay BD5 per kerosene barrel, but the prices have exponentially risen over the years and the recent surge has lifted the price to around BD32 per barrel,” he said.
Kerosene prices first rose on January 1, 2015 from 25 fils per litre to 120 fils – followed by annual increases of 20 fils each year until January 1, 2019 when it will reach 180 fils per litre.
Mr Al Shughul explained that two to three barrels of kerosene were required to fire up his kiln to necessary temperatures twice a week, meaning he now spent approximately BD150 a week on fuel alone.
“We require government support, especially with the inflation of prices, to preserve our profession,” added Mr Al Shughul.
“It has been our livelihood for decades.”
Delmon Pottery is owned by Bahraini craftsman Abdulnabi Abdulraheem, 54, who has spent 40 years in the industry after learning the trade from his father amid the 4,000-year-old burial mounds.
“I would like to keep our trade alive and I hope to pass this down to our children one day, but given the changing circumstances it seems like this will be difficult,” he said.
The reason for that is concern about the long-term economic viability of pottery making.
However, even before the fuel price increase he said there were concerns about the quality of clay available.
The GDN reported in November 2014 that pottery factories were on the verge of closure due to clay shortages, as they were unable to dig in the Hunainiyah Valley – the source of the material.
An agreement with the Works, Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning Ministry was then reached last July, which allowed each pottery factory to remove two truckloads of clay twice a year.
“We developed our techniques on our own to ensure the survival of our craft and even when we had problems with clay availability, we still continued mixing clays and importing from Saudi Arabia,” said Mr Abdulraheem.
He added potters had to combine different clay types, which can be difficult to shape and result in cracks appearing in pottery products.
Yet, he continues to strive to find new markets for his work, incorporating pottery creations into interior design concepts and lighting fixtures in an attempt to ensure survival.
“We try to create different designs monthly to make sure our products remain fresh and up to date,” he said.
“We have worked with interior designers on pottery concepts for light fittings in order to modernise our craft and include it in the modern designs of houses.”
A’ali municipal councillor Abdullah Ashoor agreed that more clay was needed.
“Some factories have a higher demand than others, which means two loads (from Hunainiyah Valley) every six months may not be enough to cover their requirements,” he said.
Two years ago the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities (Baca) announced plans to preserve A’ali’s heritage by converting it into a tourist destination, as well as developing the pottery factories.
A blueprint has reportedly been drawn up, but a Baca official said the lack of a budget had hindered its progress.
There is a feeling now among A’ali potters that their profession has fallen between the cracks of government bureaucracy, with the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA) also making pledges to preserve the trade.
However, president of the BTEA’s Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre, Yasser Al Sayed, said efforts were being made – particularly in addressing clay shortage and reaching a compromise on fuel and power costs.
“We are currently working on executing previous plans to import large clay quantities from Morocco and Tunisia to provide to the potters at cost price,” he said.
“We are also working on getting the fuel, specifically kerosene, and electricity subsidised by the government for the potters.”
He revealed one option was importing electrical kilns for the potters, which would also be a more environmentally friendly alternative to kerosene.
Meanwhile, 35-year-old pottery factory owner Haider Habeeb, who also inherited the trade from his father, said he hoped it would remain around long enough so he could pass it on to his own son.
“My seven-year-old son, Habeeb, comes to the factory during his holiday and he loves watching me work so he can emulate my technique and is proud of what he produces,” he said.
Read the GDN next Sunday for the second instalment of this six-part series.