Syria's last traditional boat-makers keep ancient craft afloat
The Bahlawan family members continue to hand-build wooden boats that they consider a tradition, despite the hard labor the building involves in a country that suffered from war and under long power cuts.
Khaled Bahlawan and his family try to preserve an ancient skill that is disappearing in Syria; he hammers nails into a traditional wooden boat he hand-built, working hard under the harsh sun on the Mediterranean coast.
"We are the last family that makes wooden ships and boats in Syria," said the 39-year-old on the shores of Arwad island, near the city of Tartus, noting that "This is the legacy of our ancestors... We are fighting to preserve it every day".
The Bahlawan family's eight members work together to make boats for fishermen, resorts, and passenger transport. Building and repairing wooden boats has been a tradition in their family for hundreds of years.
Arwad is located about three kilometers (less than two miles) off the coast and is Syria's only inhabited island, a haven of peace in the war-torn country.
Hundreds of workers, visitors, and residents go from and to the island on a daily basis in wooden boats, most of which are built by the Bahlawan family; however, the demand for such a craft dating back to ancient Phoenician times has dropped to all but a trickle.
Due to years of conflict, long power cuts have resulted in the Bahlawan family working by using the grandfather's manual tools, smoothing the wood by hand rather than with the electrical equipment needed for the job.
"It's a hard task," Khaled said, standing on the inside of the boat and carefully tapping each nail, adding, "We are doing our best to overcome difficulties," his face covered in sweat and sporadic wood shavings.
Noureddine Suleiman, the Arwad municipality head, said that boat-building has been a village tradition since Phoenician times, noting that the majority of Arwad's residents were boat-makers in the past.
"Today, only the Bahlawan family remains," he said, adding that traditional boat-making risks disappearing today, as young people leave the country or look for easier, more profitable work.
Farouk Bahlawan, Khaled's uncle, said his family preserved the original structure and shape of ancient Phoenician boats and only made a few modifications.
"We mainly make ships from eucalyptus and mulberry wood from the Tartus forests," said the 54-year-old, a skilled carpenter.
Close by, more than 40 wooden boats were moored at the port.
"We used to manufacture four big ships and several boats every year that we would export to Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon," Farouk Bahlawan said, sadly revealing that they only worked on one ship this year.
His voice welling up with emotion, he insisted they "must continue this journey," adding that "We bear a historic responsibility on our shoulders."