In June 2020 the town of Beit Sahour was recognized by the World Craft Council as the World Craft City for the year 2020 based on its long tradition of olive wood carving. The World Craft Council is a UNESCO-affiliated organization that was founded in New York in 1964 to promote and support craft work.
Palestinian olive wood carving probably dates back to the Crusader time and is artisan work that was taught from father to son.
Most of the olive wood industry is at least partially mechanized now but there are still olive wood artists who spend weeks working on one piece, by hand, with lots of characteristics and details that could never be done by a so-called copy machine.
Elias Abu Zuluf from Beit Sahour has his own olive wood workshop and souvenir shop. In this podcast interview he talks about the characteristics of olive wood, how this local tradition came about, what kind of olive wood is used, what type of carvings you can find in Palestine and how Covid19 affected the wood workers in Palestine.
If you are interested to visit his website and see the olive carving go to www.zuluf.com and order online with the "15 off" promo code.
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Olive wood carving
Kristel: It is nice to mention that in June 2020, about a year ago, the town of Beit Sahour was recognized by the World Craft Council as world craft city for the year 2020.
[00:02:47] The World Craft Council is a UNESCO affiliated organization. It was founded in New York in 1964, and it promotes and supports craft work. Why is it so important to have this recognition? Well, it will allow a special sticker that is provided by UNESCO to be affixed to the objects that are made in Beit Sahour and this will contribute to the promotion of the local craftsmanship. And obviously it will be an important way to put Palestine in general and Beit Sahour in particular on the tourism map. Beit Sahour is promoting itself now as the place where the angel appeared to the shepherds in the Shepherd's field to announce the birth of Jesus. But now it can also promote itself for being recognized as world craft city.
[00:03:43] I'm sitting here in a beautiful souvenir shop. This is the shop of Elias Abu Zuluf. He's also a student at the Bethlehem Bible college, and we are in the same class. I am both your fellow student and your teacher, which is always a little bit awkward. I've been here before a couple of times. And your shop is quite big.
[00:04:03] This is your family shop, and I'm really happy that you have time to talk a little bit about the olive wood but before we start talking about that. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself before we start?
Elias: My name is Elias. I am a local Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem. I have been working in olive wood industry and the handicrafts since I was 17 years old. So it's like 13 years now. I'm 30 years old. I have been studying in the Bethlehem Bible college with you. It's have been a pleasure and honor studying with you. It's great. It helping us a lot.
I'm a Christian. So this industry of the olive wood handicraft is very important for us as locals here. People prefer to buy olive wood from the holy land and they come from all over the place to visit the birthplace of Jesus Christ and get some souvenirs from here or from Jerusalem or from Nazareth. So this is basically my life.
Kristel: And Elias are you married or are you single?
Elias: This is a very interesting story. I got engaged during the COVID 19 times. So I found my future wife during the COVID 19. So it was good and bad at the same time. You know how bad it is because it's affected our tourism. Like we didn't work for the past year and half nearly.
[00:05:15] But it was good on the, let's say personal side. I found my future wife and we're getting married in two months in July. So it is interesting. And it's yeah, it's having a good experience during this Covid.
Kristel: Yeah. We should talk a little bit more about that as well about how COVID-19 affected the tourism industry here.
[00:05:34] But before we do that, about the shop where we are here. It is a big shop. I can see a lot of olive wood products, but I also see a lot of other products that are not necessarily made of olive wood. There are baskets. There are little boxes. There are hangers for in the Christmas tree. There are sculptures, but I also see hats with Jerusalem on it or wallets.
[00:05:58] It's a real souvenir shop. How did you start this business? How do you invest in something like this? How did you come to saying, well, you know what? I will, my life will be in a souvenir shop.
Elias: This one is really interesting story. I'm like, my main focus was having an olive wood factory. And then let's say having a small shop to wholesale to sell to other souvenir shops in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
[00:06:22] Or outside the United States to Europe, but at one time it was by mistake, some group from Germany came to our store and it was really, we didn't have any of those shelves that you're going to see all over the place. It was just, let's say carton boxes with some products on them. And they came and they bought it was really good at that time.
[00:06:41] So it got me the idea, why not open a souvenir shop, I'm going to open the shop anyway and let's try and bring some tourists. So it got started. Now as a souvenir shop, you have to have everything that tourists might love to take back to their family or loved ones. So we have a Christmas ornaments for the trees as hangers on the trees.
[00:07:00] Those are Syriac boxes. This is let's say made in Syria and some in Egypt. And they have the mother of Pearl inlaid on them, just like let's say, in Europe or US where they inlay the guitars with mother of Pearl. So nearly the same thing. Some chessboards also some rosaries, nativities. Where do you put the scene with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus and the wise men or the Kings or the maggis, whatever you would like to call them.
[00:07:24] Some statues of saints, some have the lion and the lamb, which is very symbolic, very interesting. Some have Jesus Christ and it's really a mix. Like you can nearly find everything related to Christianity. Many also related to Judaism and many related to Islam. So everything have their own section, but the biggest market we have are the Christians. So we have many things for the Catholics, many things for the Protestants. And even we have dead sea products. We see the mud, you see the creams. So you have like a mix of nearly everything.
Kristel: And I know that in Bethlehem souvenir shops play a very important role also in tourism, when it comes to receiving groups and doing tour guiding, can you explain how that works here?
Elias: [00:08:12] Now when let's say, for example, if a tour company wants to send us a group here, we have to provide the guides and we pay the expense of the guide. And, you know, it's like in all tourism business all over the place, you have to pay a small commission to the tour company or the drivers and the guides.
[00:08:28] But that's why I'm studying tour guiding because instead of paying the guide, I can do it for free, only spending my time and I can get the buses to my community shop or my family shops. So it's going to be very interesting. So this is one of the main focuses why I'm studying the tour guiding. Also, I love the guiding.
[00:08:47] It's really interesting and it has been a pleasure studying with you and with Haitham. Lots of information.
Kristel: Yeah, we're in the final week. So we are still studying a lot. Yeah. Do you also ship abroad? Do you export products?
Elias: Yes. The exports in the past was really good, but these days it's not now, especially during COVID 19, because most places that we sell in the United States in Canada and Europe are closed. So even the churches, you know, many of our, let's say family members, they go outside and they place a small table outside the church and they sell some handicrafts. Most of them don't anymore because it's not allowed in the church.
[00:09:28] Even people like really limited or not many people go to the churches because of the restrictions of the COVID 19. So they don't, and it's having really bad but we hope things are going to be open up again soon. So we have exports, we also sell to some companies, we sell to some let's say Christmas markets in Germany.
[00:09:48] It's interesting. But these days it's not it can hardly pay the exports. All the total we paying is hardly pay the salaries of the staff hardly. And it doesn't really.
Kristel: Wow. Yeah, the Bethlehem is completely depending on tourism. A lot of people it's the guides, it's the hotels, it's the tour organizations, the restaurants and the souvenir shops.
[00:10:08] So you have been hit very hard by the COVID. What is the future perspective of what's going to happen? When do you expect that tourism will return to Bethlehem?
Elias: Now to Bethlehem, because Bethlehem is in Palestinian areas, under Palestinian authority control. And it's not going to be back anytime soon.
[00:10:28] So it needs at least three to six months and then it is going to start very, very slowly. And it could be even more time. Now there is many restrictions from Israel that we can't bring at the moment, it's to all tool companies, they can't bring any tourists to Palestinian areas. So any tourist who is going to visit Israel these days they are not allowed to enter Bethlehem or Jericho. So it's going to take us very long time, maybe at least six months. At the moment we're getting some tourism from, let's say from local people living inside Israel, and they're coming to visit us these days, which is good, but very few.
[00:11:06] And it's not like it's less than 1% of what you used to have.
Kristel: Yeah, I was thinking about that, people in tourism now should probably focus more on domestic tourism and on people who are from the country, which actually I did a podcast episode last week about hiking and climbing. And that is something that really took a quick move because a lot of people here,Palestinians wanted to go and explore their own country and yeah, they started to go on hiking and climbing activities.
[00:11:36] How did COVID-19 hit you as a family or as a woodworker now?
Elias: Kristel, the biggest people or the most people who get damaged really bad from COVID-19 are, okay the hotels, like no work souvenir shops no work tour guides no work, but the biggest people who affect them the most are the olive wood workshops and the mother of Pearl workshops, the handicrafts people, because, you know, they have really low income, like compared to other salaries let's say inside Israel or other places. So these people depend on getting salary week by week. So if they don't get paid by, let's say Saturday, they're going to have big problem. Let's say buying stuff for their family or the household items for their family, you know, food and stuff. And most people are this handicraft industry.
[00:12:25] Also like anytime you can open a hotel for example, or a souvenir shop, but the handicrafts, this is a tradition that has been past on for generations like since the 13th century or even since the Crusader times. So this one was affected the most. Now this tradition of carving these pieces of olive wood, some pieces, some specialties, not anybody can do them.
[00:12:46] It's really hard. Many people went to go work in construction. Many people went to go work in other things to feed their families, to pay their debts. So this industry lost many olive wood workshops and many closed of course, and many not sure if they're going to open back again. So the most people that were damaged is this old Palestinian tradition, the handicrafts.
[00:13:09] Can you tell me something about that? About the woods work in Palestine about the history of that. How did Bethlehem become so known for the olive wood industry?
Elias: People, Kristel, in Bethlehem have been carving olive wood for a very long time. Now, the other day I went to Wikipedia and was like 'olive wood carvings in Palestine.'
[00:13:29] And it mentioned that in the fourth century, we have been passed the tradition of carving olive wood by the Greek Orthodox monks. Which is absolutely not correct because the Greek Orthodox church, they don't appreciate carving of the statues or olive woods. Their specialty is icons or the painting, or let's say writing of the icons.
[00:13:53] And if you go to an Orthodox church, you don't see statues. So this tradition is actually passed to us like, we can start from the Crusader times till maximum 13, 14th century. This is when the time started this carving in Palestine, in Bethlehem area. Now, when the people come here in Jerusalem to Bethlehem area, let's say 500, 600 years ago, they wanted to buy some souvenirs to take back home. It was completely by hand and you know, people in Italy, the Italians, they have some specialty in the carvings, which is very interesting. We have some people from Beit Sahour 500 years ago, carvings of mother of pearl. Very close to my family, let's say some from the Salsa family, they have some really good artists.
This is some mother of pearl, let's say statutes of the holy sepulcher church of the nativity church until now I think some of them in the Vatican, which is very interesting.
Now this tradition before, let's say before 1950s, it was completely by hand by very small, basic tools.
[00:14:56] I'm not sure what you call them in English , but they're very, very basic. In 1950s, there was introducing to electric saws, not the ones we see today, bit different, but things started changing a lot. And then we have the real change in the olive wood industry in 1950s, when we had the copy machines. Now the copy machine, when you put a mold, let's say, or let's say you put one statue and then you put the cutting pieces of olive wood and they start making similar ones.
And then it goes through many phases while you cut them, let's say with a dremel tool and you carve more and more. But things started changing fast. Instead of having, let's say the olive wood workshop finishing 10 pieces per week, it started finishing fifty or a hundred pieces per week.
[00:15:42] And this has changed many things, but the effect, the workers, because they needed more people in the production lines in other phases. So even if we use machines these days, this is a very interesting subject, we use let's say, scroll saws, laser machines, CNC machines. It doesn't go through one phase. It goes through many, many phases.
[00:16:01] So the least products, let's say the simplest ones, let's say a pendant or charms, it goes through six or seven or eight phases to finish. And for complicated things like a big statue or artistic ones, it goes through 25 or 30 phases. For example, the small pendant you have to cut it on a big machine.
[00:16:21] First, you bring the log, you have to dry it for six months and then you have to cut it. And while it's cutting, you have to put slabs of wood, one on top of the other and make the air, it depends on the drying process, some use air drying some use, let's say ovens to dry them, and then you have to take them out.
[00:16:37] You have to stamp, that's another phase, stamp the product, and then you have to drill it with a drill and then you have to cut it with a scroll saw machine, and then you sand it with a hard grit and then you sand it with a smoother grid. And then you have to paint it and then you put the charms and then you have to package it.
[00:16:55] So it goes through, this is the simplest one, by the way, so it goes through many, many phases. And by the way, the olive wood process is a bit dangerous on the laser machines. It's okay. But on many before on the saw machines, it's very dangerous. You can easily lose your fingers. My neighbor, George, maybe one day you'll meet him, he lost two fingers. And it's really bad. By the way, the safety tools that we use in Bethlehem area is bad. It's really, really bad.
And the olive wood in Bethlehem and Jerusalem areas are special. So the olive wood let's say in Italy, in Spain, in Tunisia and other places even the Mediterranean coast it doesn't affect us, because people want the holy land olive wood.
And this is a blessing for the people, especially religious people. As olive wood is mentioned in the Bible. It's mentioned in the old Testament. It's mentioned even in the Koran, the olive oil and the olive tree is very symbolic. And for us, let's say as a Christian, the most important one is our Lord Jesus Christ praying under the olive tree in the garden of Gethsemany.
[00:17:58] And they were the silent witnesses to Jesus Christ's suffering and agony at that time. And also we have in the old Testament, for example, we have Noah and Noah got a branch of olive tree as a sign that the flood is over. And I think the front part of the arch was from the olive tree. So it's very symbolic.
Kristel: [00:18:17] Yeah, that is indeed very symbolic. I've always seen Palestinians also as being symbolized by that olive tree because the olive tree doesn't need a lot. It's not a tree that is needy. You don't need to prune it a lot. It doesn't need a lot of water. It grows in very dry areas, but it has very deep roots. And so I always feel that the Palestinians, they are rooted in their land, just like the olive trees are rooted in the land.
So the olive trees that you use to make your olive work. Where do they come from? What kind of do you use only olive wood or do you also use other word? Can we talk about the wood?
Elias: [00:18:53] The wood that we use, the most important one is olive wood. Now some let's say works, in scroll saw work and laser work, we use other woods to give it a contrast. You know, if you look at this Christmas ornament, for example, you see the front is olive wood. But the back have different kinds of woods, sometimes mahogany, sometimes other woods, to make it look, let's say new design and new model to make it look better.
But the main thing, 99% is olive wood. Now, where do we get the olive wood from? Very few are from Bethlehem. Very, very, very few from Jerusalem. Mostly we get it from the north. The wood in the north, in north west bank, north of Palestine is much better.
[00:19:33] It's larger and it's taller. So it's really better to get the wood from there. Now, the wood in the south in Bethlehem areas. If you look at the olive trees, it's very short and it's not really good for the woodcarving. So that's why we prefer from let's say areas close to Nazareth, for example, close to Tubas and those areas that we prefer to give the olive wood from.
Kristel: [00:19:55] And how does that work? Like, do you have connection to farmers there? Do they just cut up any kind of tree? Do they grow the trees, especially for the wood? What are the prices of the wood?
Elias: The prices of the wood before COVID 19, it was approximately two thousand to three thousand shekels. In the 1980s it was like 70 Jordanian dinars per one ton, that's like three four hundred shekels. It was way cheaper, but today is way more expensive.
Now we get the woods from wholesalers who buy the wood from farmers. They gather it and they separate it. Some of the olive wood they use it for, let's say burning for the stoves, for the ovens of the bakeries, And the good ones, that's bigger and nicer ones, we buy it and they sell it to us for olive wood and we call it 'Sana', which means, let's say 'Sana', our 'khashab sana' [sana wood] you know, that's like the wood for the industry or the wood for the olive wood carving.
[00:20:57] And it's more pricey. During COVID 19 the price of the olive wood went down because nobody is buying, nobody's working in this industry and now it is 1000 shekels to 1200 / 1500 approximately per one ton of olive wood. Yeah. But before, before COVID-19 2018, 2019, it went really a lot up.
Kristel: And can you tell us a bit, you said already a little bit, but can you tell us a little bit more about the carving process? Because when I look around myself here, I see some of the statues have such details. For example, there is a man, is this a prophet? Or?
Elias: This one is Saint Francis because, how you know he's St. Francis; he has animals with him. He used to love the animals. So this is a very famous one of St. Francis from Assissi.
[00:21:47] Now this one goes through many phases. If you can see this one, his face is different than the ornaments. So every, oh, by the way, every workshop specializes in their own production line. So for example, sometimes workshops specialize in more than one production line, but usually it's just one, for example, the workshop that makes statues, they don't make crosses for example.
[00:22:11] So the statues like this one or the figurines, it goes different phases than the crosses. It is different machinery and it needs different expertise. So it's much different. Now this one, it goes through sanding, but different sanding than the table sanding machine, for example, this one, you have to put it on the dremel tool, the small bits and change it to sand.
[00:22:33] And also this one, it takes between 10 to 15 different pieces of a dremel tool of cutting pieces because everyone has its own carving. For example, you see the lines here is different than this one is different than one that cut this and this is the base. The base also needs different process. So this one, it easily takes more than 20 phases of carving.
[00:22:58] At least twenty and it has to be dried very, very, very well. If it's not dried well, it's going to split and crack. So you see this one has been here for over a year and you don't see any splits or cracks because it's very good right now. Maybe you look around, you're going to find a piece with a split and crack like that one it's have a splitting because it wasn't dried very well.
[00:23:22] And this one, people obviously see it and they don't buy it. So we either have to fix it with a wood filler or we have to throw it away or just give it to the church or somebody.
Kristel: I wonder like this statue, I think it's about 30, 40 centimeters in height and it has so many small details. There are so many different lines, different dots. How much time would it take to make one item like this?
Elias: If you want to finish the item from start to finish. But you don't just work on one. They usually work on a batch of six pieces together, of 12 pieces together. So approximately it needs, let's say a couple of weeks to finish them, because they don't follow it together.
[00:24:01] They have to finish one phase and then leave it and finish another phase and leave it. For example, the wood filler, you have to leave it for one or two days after you finish it for the sanding, the same for the, by the way, this one; first, they give it the first, let's say like a lacquer, the spray, the painting first they spray it.
[00:24:21] This is the base the first time. And then they sand it and then they spray it again and sand it with more smoother grid. And then it comes to the final, let's say spraying phase. So till the smoothest part. Look how smooth it is. So it takes very long time to finish. But even imagine before these days it is affordable and it's used missionary and it's finished faster than before, before they used to finish one piece.
[00:24:47] Every piece is artistic piece. It take them, let's say very long time. Listen before 1970s, let's say, take them, let's say a month just to finish maybe one or two pieces. So it was really difficult and more expensive and more labor expensive to finish any work at that time.
Kristel: So how much money would this one cost, for example?
Elias: Now this one, for example, if you look at the price here, it is 200 US dollars.
[00:25:16] Yeah. So it, it depends. Which item, how much details it has. By the way, we have some carvers in Bethlehem who are very famous. You see the face, the details of the faces. They make it very, very detailed, which obviously makes the price more expensive. So maybe you have two pieces. Both are, let's say 30 centimeters.
[00:25:36] That's like maybe seven, eight inches. So both are eight inches, let's say in the height, but one is more detailed and one is less detailed. Now the more detailed one is obviously more expensive. Also people prefer to have nice grain of the olive, oh, this is something I forgot this. This is very interesting. The grains of the olive tree, which is make it very unique.
[00:25:58] You can't find two pieces alike. Each piece is unique in its own way. Just like us humans. Every one of us is unique. So this is what makes the olive wood very nice. You know, sometimes when we used to have tourists it's like, look, this one have a crack or a split. Like it's okay. It's just like us humans, everyone have a defect.
Kristel: [00:26:21] do you know how many olive wood factories are there still in the Bethlehem area? And are there still those who do not use any machinery?
Elias: The problem is with counting the olive wood workshops, it is a bit problematic. Why? Because most people who work in this industry, they work in their homes. They have like a small basement or small garage next to their house where they make these carvings.
[00:26:46] So they're not registered in the municipality, not registered in Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, they are not registered anywhere. So it's hard to count them, you understand me and many people work in the olive wood as a part-time. It depends like about the person, but the registered ones, we have approximately more than 200 olive wood registered workshops and some vary, some have one, two or five people.
[00:27:09] Some have even more. And this is only for olive wood workshops. Well, actually way more than two hundred, maybe three hundred in Bethlehem governorate. We have more than three hundred. And some employ more than 10 or 20 people working in that olive wood workshop. So it is very important for Bethlehem governorate, the handicrafts business and the tourism in general, but let's say in Bethlehem area, we have more than, including their families, like two, three, four thousand people depend on this olive wood industry for living and imagine how it affected them during COVID-19. They had to go to other works to support their families.
Kristel: And how do people learn this profession? Is there a school for woodwork or is that something you learned in the family from your dad or your granddad?
Elias: [00:27:55] More than 20 years ago, it was only learning from your grandfather or father who making this profession. Later on when machinery started, they had to employ people and their families didn't work in this olive wood industry or olive woodcarving or the handicrafts industry. So they started working there with a small salaries, low salaries and started learning slowly.
[00:28:16] After one, two or three years, five years, they became a masters of their craft and they started opening their own workshops. But for, let's say in Europe or the States, if you have profession, you have to get a certificate and regulations. We don't have such thing here, but there is a school we once had the school, the Salesian school, they used to teach people how to make the olive wood carvings, but not anymore.
So the only way to learn it, if you want to go and let's say work or help somebody and people of Bethlehem are very hospitable, they will be glad to let you help them or pay you for working with them. Yeah, but not these days.
[00:28:52] These days there is no work. So by the way, these days, 90% of the olive wood workshops are closed. So only 10% is working. Some are preparing some they won't let their staff leave , to help them. And some are selling outside, but very, very few.
Kristel: Did you see any woodworkers changing now, because there is no much sales of souvenirs, to change to other items that are maybe more salable in this time?
Elias: Changing to other items? No. As far as I know, or maybe people do it in a very, very low level, but most people who work in this industry, they went to work in construction. And especially in Israeli areas, because the salary there is way better.
[00:29:37] For example, you can get paid 400, 500 shekels per day. Here in Bethlehem it's a hundred, hundred fifty shekels, two hundred maybe, but the average is one hundred twenty shekels. This is the average.
Kristel: And if you say that they go and work on the Israeli side, does that mean that they can actually work this profession there or they have to do something completely different?
Elias: [00:29:59] No, they don't, by the way, in all Israel, the Israeli areas, there is no olive wood workshops because the salary there is very expensive. The labor cost is very expensive and nobody want to do it. People work here because it's very low and we sell to Israeli markets, for example, Nazareth, Jerusalem areas. And our local Palestinian market Bethlehem.
Elias: Well, especially for my friend who asked me to do this podcast, who is a woodworker he's from Wales. And he was here, he walked around Beit Sahour and he was, he didn't know, like he came to Palestine actually after he saw an exhibition about wood and he learned something about olive wood.
[00:30:37] And then he learned something about Palestine and he just registered for the olive harvest program. He didn't know much about the political situation. I think he was pretty shocked when he came here and realized that Palestinians are a people under military occupation. And then one day he was walking around Beit Sahour and when he saw all these olive wood workshops and because he's a wood worker himself, he didn't know that about Beit Sahour. So then when he came here and he saw that, and he's a woodworker himself, he was so interested and he asked me if I can do a podcast about it. And I said, yes, I should. Because it's so important for Palestine, especially for Bethlehem.
[00:31:13] So especially for him, maybe a more detailed question about the wood, because you say you are using the olive wood. What are typical aspects of the olive wood? If you want to work with olive wood, is there something specific that, compared to other wood, that makes it so perfect for carving. Is there something you have to treat it in a special way?
[00:31:33] You said something about needs to be very dry, so you can't cut the tree and immediately start carving.
Elias: The olive wood is known is to be a very hard wood. So it's type of the hard wood. After we cut it, we have to dry it very, very well. And well actually the most interesting thing about olive wood is the religious part.
[00:31:52] And it's also the most tree that we have here. So if you go all around Palestinian areas in Palestine. The only thing that you're going to see is mostly olive trees. We have some other trees, but they are foreign as you know. So olive tree is, let's say a native tree here for a very, very long time, maybe 3000 years, or maybe more. Now with the olive tree, this interesting thing, we use it for everything.
[00:32:15] We use it for the olive oil. We use it for the anointing service for the blessings. We use it for everything, the wood for the stoves, for the cooking for nearly everything. So it's part of our daily lives. And as you said, it's the rooted for us here as a Palestinians if somebody cut you, we're going to just grow up again.
[00:32:33] And the interesting thing about olive trees, you can plant it everywhere. It needs few work, you basically just plant it and go. So you basically don't do anything and you just go into harvest times and it depends on the rainwater. So that is what makes olive tree is a very favorite tree. But the question is that due to this olive wood carvings, are there still going to be olive trees?
[00:32:55] Well people plant them and some specific areas plant them. We don't, for the people that we work with us, we don't kill the olive trees. We only cut the branches during pruning times in October after the harvest season. So we cut the small branches and we make all those olive wood carvings. Sometimes when there is construction or settlements, they kill all the olive trees.
[00:33:19] And so people bring them and for fire or for the woodcarvings, which is really sad. As you can see with the news, many of the olive trees are being removed and to change the identity of the land, which is really sad.
Kristel: Yeah. I used to work for a campaign called the olive tree campaign. And in the time that I worked with them, which is until 2018, the numbers were already reaching up to about a million olive trees that had been cut down since the occupation started by Israel, for the building of the wall for the building of settlements, for the building of bypass roads and the olive trees were just cut down so that they could do these constructions. And thanks God there are organizations that are replanting trees and that's always such a beautiful saying that “a wise man is the one who plants a tree under which shade he himself will never sit.”
[00:34:12] Planting trees is always for the next generation.
So Elias we spoke about the souvenir shop and about the work of olive wood, but you yourself, how did you learn this skill?
Elias: My father wasn't working olive wood at all. He was working as an IT computer. He studied at Birzeit university. So he was in the computers industry.
[00:34:34] But my grandfather from my father's side, he was a stone carver, and it was passed to him from his father to his father, you know, the stone carvers as we said about them in the 20th century. And they built Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And so it was really interesting,similar. But my grandfather from my mother's side, he used to be a principal of the Lutheran school in Bethlehem, and he used to sell exports in 1950s to Germany, and he used to speak German fluently.
[00:35:04] So I got it from the both sides, I guess, but I learned olive wood at very young age, working for others. And I learned slowly and I decided I didn't want to work for others all my life, I want to open my own olive wood workshop. And I want to make my own crafts. I did, but I did many mistakes. I learned from those mistakes, especially in the olive wood process, you can't make everything.
[00:35:27] You have to specialize. You can't work for many things. You have to start from one phase and finish it to be a ready product. But when you're working on many things at the same time is going to get confusing. It's going to be bad. So to our friend, if you want to open an olive wood workshop in Wales, specialize in one craft, don't do many things, my friend.
Kristel: Yeah. His name is Dylan. And I think that Dylan would really love to come back to Palestine one day. And I think he would love to spend some time with you in the workshop. If he came, how would you teach him, like, if I look at these objects and the let's say, forget about the steps with the rough cutting.
[00:36:06] When you want to learn those little details, how to make his mustache, how to make his beard, how to make the lines in his hairs. Do you just start doing that or is there a technique that you have to learn?
Elias: We will start with easy stuff, but working on the statues and the carving is like being an artist.
[00:36:26] You have to have an artistic background. These statues, it's like a painting. You have to paint those. You imagine it in your mind, is going to be, let's say rough details. And then you start carving one by one because the copy machine, it doesn't finish it as a whole. It just gives you let's say an bigger part, a rough shape, and then you start carving it and giving more details, but much other things, for example, let's say the crosses, this is the hand cross or the comfort cross. You only need to learn on the scroll saw machine and the learning process is easier than carving the statues. Some people spend two, three, five or ten years and they can't reach this level. They only make the statues like this one, as you can see, this is we call it faceless and abstract design.
So it doesn't have any details, but people love this type. So some people to reach this level, some people take five years, some take ten, some even twenty years and they still can't make this kind of carving. But for example, the scroll saw machine, you can learn in a few days, let's say how to make a hand cross, which is pretty easy.
[00:37:34] Maybe you're going to cut your finger once or twice, but you can manage. And yeah, this is the problem. By the way, my friend Alfred every week he's cutting one of his fingers. Yeah, just this, by the way, this is sometimes not by his control. Alfred is an expert. He had been doing this for more than 20 years, but sometimes the blade it breaks and it gets in your finger, not in your control is going to get there anyway.
[00:38:01] So if you look at Alfred's fingers, they're all damaged.
Kristel: Next time I see him, I'm going to take a look at his hands more. Yeah. The signs of your profession.
My last question Elias, how do you see your future? After the COVID pandemic is over and people are starting to come back. How do you see things?
Elias: [00:38:28] We always hope for the best. We, you know, we are very strong people here in Bethlehem. We are always looking for the good things, even though we are under occupation, we are all having bad times here. Anytime Jerusalem could, if there's going to become tourism soon, it's maybe be delayed because of any political in the area.
[00:38:45] In the middle east in general, anything happens it affects us directly. So we're not sure, but we're always hoping for the best, We're gonna make some olive wood carvings. This is a tradition. This is. But not by me, but passed to us as the local Palestinians in Bethlehem for generations. And we have to continue this tradition.
[00:39:05] If this tradition is going to be gone, it's going to be very sad thing in heritage. Our heritage is going to be missing a huge part of it. So we hope we're going to continue this. We will survive.
Kristel: If people wanted to see some of the work and if they wanted, maybe even to order some olive wood, you never know, listeners of the podcast. Do you have a website or a web shop or a place where people can go?
Elias: Yes. Sure. They can visit one of our websites, it's www.zuluf.com And they look at the prices and buy online and we ship to them direct and we will give them if they enter the promotion code “15 off”, they will get 15 of the price there.
[00:39:47] So yeah, if you like something or you can message Kristel and we can take care of it.
Kristel: I will post a link in my show notes and the promo code. So definitely go there and you can order something for yourself, but you can also order something to give as a nice present to other people with a beautiful story and the link to this podcast that they have a present and a story.
[00:40:12] Thank you very much for your time. Thank you. It was great, Kristel. Thank you so much.
[00:40:22] That's it for this week. If you want to visit the website of alias to see the olive wood work. And if you want to order something online with the 15% of promo code, then go to the show notes of this podcast episode and click on the link. And of course you can also find the links to the Facebook and Instagram and the website of Stories from Palestine and how to register for the mailing list right there in the show notes.
[00:40:51] If you want to support the podcast with a donation, it is highly appreciated because I have no other income currently. And then you can do that on the Ko-fi platform, all the links in the show notes. I'm planning to release one last episode next week before I take a podcast break and hopefully I will fly to Holland to finally see my family again.
[00:41:17] So just follow or subscribe on your podcast player so you get notified when a new episode is online or even better sign up for the mailing list.
I hope you will tune in again, next time.