Libya sees rebirth of traditional jewelry craft once taught by Jewish artisans – The Times of Israel

Posted By on July 10, 2022

TRIPOLI, Libya (AFP) In Tripolis Old City, young Libyans weave delicate patterns with threads of silver and gold to create traditional filigree jewelry reviving an art almost lost through decades of dictatorship and war.

Abdelmajid Zeglam is just 12 years old, but his minutely detailed creations are already selling fast in the streets around a Roman-era archway dedicated to emperor Marcus Aurelius.

I hesitated at first for fear of failing because Im young, but my mum encouraged me, Zeglam said.

He is the youngest of 20 or so students, around half of them female, studying at the Libyan Academy for Traditional Gold and Silver Crafts, in a building that once served as a French consulate to the Ottoman Empire.

Trainees learn about precious metal alloys before studying the art of filigree, in which beads and threads of the precious materials are woven into intricate designs and then soldered together to create jewellery.

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I love it, Zeglam said. I want to become a petroleum engineer in the mornings and a jeweler in the afternoons.

A Libyan man displays a piece of traditional hand-crafted filigree jewelry at a workshop in the capital Tripoli, June 8, 2022. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP)

Mohamed al-Miloudi, a 22-year-old civil engineering student in a baseball cap, said he had not missed a class since signing up in September.

Its a hobby, but Id like to make it into my trade, he said.

The institutes founder, Abdelnasser Aboughress, said filigree jewelry was an ancient tradition in the North African country.

Craftsmen in the medina of Tripoli were trained by Jewish masters and later by Arabs, at the prestigious School of Arts and Trades founded in the late 19th century, he said.

But generations of tradition were abruptly halted after Muammar Gaddafi took power in a 1969 coup.

The capricious ruler scrapped the constitution and established his jamahiriya a medley of socialism, Arab nationalism and tribal patronage.

Illustrative: An undated photo taken in the Jewish quarter of a Libyan city. (Courtesy of JIMENA)

He also scrapped the private sector, seizing companies and confiscating their assets.

Overnight, self-employed artisans lost everything: their workshops, their livelihoods and their students.

The state reduced Libyan crafts to nothing and forced a generation of young apprentices, who should have taken up the baton, to instead leave the traditional crafts and join the army or become civil servants, said Aboughress.

The 55-year-old was born just a few streets away in the medina, and despite Gaddafis ban, he took up the craft at the age of 15.

Along with his father, for decades he worked in secret on jewelry for trusted clients.

Now, he hopes to pass the craft on to younger generations, as well as fight back against a tide of lower-quality jewelry imported from Egypt and China [which] has flooded the market.

Aboughress is working on a project to document and preserve as much of this cultural heritage as possible.

Student Fatima Boussoua hit out at the practice of selling old Libyan silver jewelry at cheap prices to be exported and then melted down.

Its part of Libyas artisanal heritage thats disappearing! she said.

A dentist in her 40s who also teaches at the University of Tripoli, Boussoua has been training at the center for the past year, hoping to master the craft.

We should be training artists to preserve our heritage, she said. All it needs is people with passion.

While becoming a true expert takes years of training, Aboughresss students are already producing works for sale online or at the center itself.

A Libyan woman crafts traditional filigree jewelry at a workshop in the capital Tripoli, March 29, 2022. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

That said, he admits the project needs financial help to buy the expensive raw materials as well as moral support.

He hopes that with enough resources, he will one day be able to set up a string of other workshops across Libya.

Its time to bring this craft back to life, he said.

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Libya sees rebirth of traditional jewelry craft once taught by Jewish artisans - The Times of Israel

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