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Iraq being drained of gold artisans

Violence has driven many away. Those who remain face fuel and power shortages and a flood of imports.

June 15, 2008|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer
  • Muhammad Kamel, 28, weighs pieces of jewelry in his father's shop to calculate the price for customers, while window shoppers gazes at the showcase of jewelery outside.
Muhammad Kamel, 28, weighs pieces of jewelry in his father's shop… (Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles…)

BAGHDAD — In a narrow store wedged between vendors hawking vegetables and cheap clothing, Adnan Walid lovingly shapes sheets of gold into delicate leaves and flowers to make a necklace.

Walid has lost count of the number of friends who have fled the violence of recent years. His own shop was reduced to a charred shell two years ago when a car bomb exploded across the street. He keeps two pistols under his counter, just in case.

Still, Walid, a round-faced man with a cheery smile, welcomes each customer who arrives searching for the right piece of gold jewelry.

"Iraqis have loved gold since ancient history," he said. "Even when there are explosions, people buy gold."

Although sales of gold jewelry remain strong, goldsmithing is a disappearing art in Iraq, a land where it has been practiced for nearly 5,000 years. Many of the most celebrated goldsmiths have joined the exodus of doctors, teachers and other professionals who are leaving the country, draining it of valuable knowledge.

The remaining jewelers are struggling to compete against a flood of imports while contending with daily power outages, gas shortages and antiquated equipment, all of which slow production. Most of the glittering trinkets in shop windows are from the United Arab Emirates, where they are produced at large factories.

Walid himself imports jewelry by the kilogram (about 2.2 pounds). It's easier and cheaper than trying to fill the shop with his own handiwork, he says. Besides, customers like the delicate filigree work typical of the many Indian artisans who work in the Emirates.

The love affair with gold is as old as civilization itself in the fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Although gold is not mined here, the ancient Sumerians traded wheat and barley for the shiny metal, which they hammered into necklaces, cups and helmets of exquisite workmanship.

Today, even the poorest Iraqis usually own a few pieces of gold jewelry. Amulets and rings are a means to display a family's wealth in good times and to protect them against the bad, when the pieces can be sold to pay a debt or finance the purchase of a home.

No Iraqi wedding, no matter how frugal, is complete without the groom presenting his bride with a set of gold jewelry -- hers to keep in the event of a divorce. And many businessmen would rather sink their profits into delicate bracelets and chains than open a bank account.

Walid's wife, who did not want her name published for safety reasons, is a bank branch manager. But when she had a bit of extra cash to set aside, she bought a gold bracelet for the equivalent of about $420. When she needed the money two months later, she sold the bracelet for $590, a far greater gain than the interest the money would have earned at the bank.

The price of gold jewelry, which is sold by weight, has nearly doubled in the last two years, from about $14 per gram to just over $27, including workmanship.

For Walid, goldsmithing is more than a business, it is a family tradition too important to abandon.

His grandfather worked on the golden-domed Kadhimiya shrine, where Imam Musa al Kadhim and his grandson, Muhammad Taqi, revered by Shiite Muslims, are said to be buried.

His father made jewelry for the Iraqi royal family.

A faded photograph hanging above Walid's counter shows his father with the portable wooden box he used to display his wares before he opened a store in 1934 in Baghdad's most famous gold bazaar, which fills the winding alleys leading to the shrine.

"He used to sleep with that box propped behind his head," he said.

Walid, who works with the lead and steel molds that his father fashioned by hand, moved his business to Baghdad's upscale Karada district in the 1950s. His son still runs a shop near the shrine, where women in enveloping black robes jostle past vendors selling cellphones and skimpy lingerie to gaze at the dazzling displays of bracelets, necklaces and rings.

The jewelry sold in the Kadhimiya district is especially prized by Iraq's majority Shiites, who consider it to be a blessing from the imams buried there.

Before U.S.-led forces invaded the country in 2003, the shopkeepers say, as many as 3,000 Iranians also visited the shrine every day. After offering a prayer to the imams, the pilgrims would join the bustling throngs to shop for gold.

Today, many Iranians confine their pilgrimages to the country's more peaceful south for safety reasons. Even some Iraqis have been buying their gold elsewhere since late March, when U.S. and Iraqi forces began clashing with Shiite militiamen in Kadhimiya. Fowzi Taihi, who has had a shop near the front of the shrine for 30 years, said he used to make as much as $4,000 a day.

"Now, I barely earn enough to keep myself alive," he said.

Taihi worries constantly about safety. Kidnappers target goldsmiths for ransom. When his nephew was seized recently, the teenager's captors demanded $300,000 for his release.

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