Battling tide of modernization

Preserving Mosul’s leatherworking heritage

MOSUL — In the bustling Bab Al-Saray market of Mosul, the age-old art of leatherworking, locally known as Al-Sarajiya, perseveres amidst the pressures of modernization and the influx of imported goods. Where once numerous workshops thrived, now only a handful remain, committed to preserving the craft and the unique beauty of handmade leather items.

Diaa Muzaffar, the city’s most seasoned craftsman in this domain, shares his profound bond with this trade. “From a young age, I’ve been immersed in this profession alongside my forebears. My grandfather, Hussein Mardini, an Arab Iraqi who lived in Turkey during the Ottoman period, was a member of the Ottoman Leatherworking Association over a hundred years ago, bringing the skill to Mosul,” he says.

Muzaffar recounts the trade’s evolution, “Originally, the craft was associated with making horse saddles but gradually encompassed belts, bags, and other leather products. We crafted ‘Shahatat’ (flip-flops) from the durable buffalo leather and produced belts in the once teeming leather shops of Bab Al-Saray market, often working late to complete orders, many of which were dispatched to Baghdad.”

The expansion of this craft to Baghdad in the 1970s was led by Mosul natives Sabih Al-Saraj and Hashim Al-Saraj. “Though Baghdad has its leather craftsmen, their work doesn’t hold a candle to that of Mosul,” Muzaffar asserts, mourning the decline of the industry in the early 1980s and his own withdrawal in the 1990s as imports began to dominate.

“Imported goods may be visually appealing, but their quality falls short of our local craftsmanship, which stands the test of time,” Muzaffar notes, highlighting the superiority of locally made products.

Nishwan Dhunun, another artisan, reflects on his unwavering dedication, “I have been working with my father since 1976, crafting belts for pilgrims among other items, using cow and buffalo leather. We still fulfill orders for ‘medical sarajiya,’ such as belts for congenital hip dislocation or for individuals with disabilities.”

Despite the departure of many from the trade, Dhunun remains committed, “Though many craftsmen have left, I will ensure this art survives as long as I am here.”

While the financial rewards for leatherworking are modest nowadays, Dhunun finds contentment in his labor, “The earnings are quite low at present, but they suffice for living expenses. I ceased working after the conflict in 2017 and returned two years later, starting anew after my workshop was reconstructed.”