In an antiquated traditional tile factory seven kilometres north of Jerusalem in al-Ram, ‘Ali Wazwaz spends long hours making the most beautifully coloured cement tiles - one by one, manually - for building-restoration projects.
The factory was established in 1952 by his father, the old tile master ‘Abdelkarim Wazwaz. ‘Ali, now 47 years old, was born in Jerusalem to a family that had relocated from the city of Hebron; he currently resides in Ras al-Amoud and commutes daily to Al-Ram to run his factory. ‘Ali registered to study biochemistry at Birzeit University in 1985, but in 1988 he was forced to quit due to the outbreak of the first Intifada. He joined his father at the factory as a mechanic repairing tile machinery and passionately boasts: “I can bring any scrap machine to life and make it run.”
In 1993, ‘Ali was introduced to Riwaq, which was documenting these tiles at the time, and was encouraged by the renewed interest in his product to re-start the factory and to re-introduce these tiles into the market. From that moment forward, ‘Ali Wazwaz fell in love with the craft once more and is still practicing it.
‘Ali’s clients now range from building-conservation agencies that are implementing public projects to private individuals looking to decorate their homes with the numerous colours and patterns he produces.
The core element in the production process is the cliché or forma: a lightweight copper or tin design mould. The main sources for the clichés were Italy and France, and they were then copied in Syria and Lebanon. These decorative sijjadeh, (carpets) can be found in traditional buildings in almost all Mediterranean countries. Some of the clichés ‘Ali uses now were originally purchased by his father from Al-Tams factory in Bab al-Khalil in the Old City of Jerusalem, which closed at the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1948; the rest of the clichés were made by ‘Ali and based on traditional designs as well as on some of his own original designs.
‘Ali pours the mixture of fine white limestone aggregate, white cement, coloured Bayer dyes, water, and sand into these clichés and presses them manually using the same machine his father used before him. One can ask for an infinite number of colour combinations and designs to suit all tastes, making ‘Ali’s work original in every sijjadeh produced.
These marvellous tiles and ‘Ali’s passion, however, cannot sustain him and his family all year round. During some months there are large orders of tiles, and ‘Ali works extensive hours to produce them; whereas during other months there are no orders at all.
“My dream is to have a large tile factory that is able to produce high quality tiles and employ tens of crafts people. I wish all people knew about the beauty of these tiles and loved them as much as I do. These tiles are not tiles, they are eyes; and these colours are not colours, they are paintings, they bring rooms to life and light up any space,” concludes Ali.Ruba Salim is an architect-restorer and interior designer who works at Riwaq. She is a constant client of Ali’s, ordering sijjadeh patterns for her projects all over the West Bank.