Feats of clay

By Archie D'Cruz » Deep in the heart of Bahrain, amidst 4,000-year-old burial mounds, seven family units in the village of A'ali practice a craft that is just as ancient. Bahrain's potters believe that the craft originated in the country, during the time it was known as Dilmun. True or not, what is certainly beyond question is that people from the Dilmun era - which dates back to 2300 BC - loved beautiful pottery.

In 1996, archaeologists recovered from a necropolis at Riffa a jar with rounded shoulders topped by a broad neck, whose shape places it among the masterpieces of early Middle Eastern pottery.

A couple of years earlier, an archaeological dig recovered a gorgeous ovoid jar in red clay painted with black bands to simulate horizontal grooves. And a tall ribbed jar from around 2000 BC reveals a sense for style with speckled shell fragments shooting through the brownish red clay.

Many more impressive pieces have been recovered from the thousands of Dilmun era burial mounds, revealing the love residents of the time had for pottery.

Amazingly enough, this craft is today still being practiced in almost exactly the same way it used to be, with little or no resort to modern devices. The skills have been passed down, generation by generation, and although the number of craftsmen has declined, the potters still in the trade have remained true to their tradition.

The potters still use the old fashioned wheel, operated by foot, and the finished pieces are often baked in kilns built into nearby burial mounds.

The learning begins at a very early age. The 'elder' amongst Bahrain's current generation of potters, 67-year-old Jaffer Mohammed Al Shughul recalls he got started when he was just five.

Jaffer never went to school, at the time it was unthinkable that male children born into the tradition would contemplate any other career. He first learned his craft from his father, but when he passed away shortly thereafter ("I was six or seven"), his uncle and cousins took over the training.

"It was difficult in the beginning," recalls Jaffer. "I was so small then, my feet wouldn't reach the wheel, so I had to stand to operate it."

By the time he turned 15, he was a master who could create anything from the shisha (Arabic water pipe) to the jahla (huge pots for boiling water that were used in the days before electricity). They would bring the clay from the Umm Al Guwaifa and Um Al Samim wadis (valleys) in Riffa. At the time, there were only seven houses in Riffa, a far cry from the prized, golf-course adorned area it is today.

The actual process of preparing the clay has barely changed. The clay must first be carefully chosen and mixed. Bahrain's potters use a mixture of one part yellow clay, or asfar, and three parts red clay (ahmar).

"Using only yellow clay will result in pots of poor quality, while using only red clay will make the pots too heavy," says Jaffer.

Back in the old days, they would use a donkey cart to transport the clay from the wadis to the factory - a journey that would take up to an hour-and-a-half. Today, the family uses a six-wheel truck that takes them just 10 minutes.

The clay is left immersed in a large outdoor trough for two days, to sift out small stones or other objects, then it would be filtered. After that, it is left to dry completely - three to four days in the summer, a week or more in the winter.

The clay is then moulded, first by stomping all over it with bare feet, then by hand, thus eliminating all the air bubbles in the mixture.

Finally, the clay is ready for the wheel.

The potter's wheel is as rudimentary a device as you can imagine - little having changed over the past hundreds of years. It consists of two horizontal circular plates, spaced apart and held together by a vertical stake driven through their centres and into the ground.

The potter uses his feet to spin the bottom, large wheel, which generates enough torque for him to be able to mould the clay on the upper wheel. It is fascinating to watch a master potter at work, as he shapes the clay with his hands.

With the wheel spinning furiously, he repeatedly moistens his hands as he encourages the lumpen clay with softly contoured palms, gently pushing up, goading, until there appears almost magically before your eyes an object of pure beauty.

On average it takes about five minutes to make a medium size piece, larger pieces can take several hours and may even need two people, one to turn the wheel, the other to shape the pot.

The freshly-made pots are left to dry in the shade for two days. Drying in the sun is avoided as the pots could develop cracks.

Next, the pots are placed in the kiln, usually built into one of the nearby burial mounds, though of late, gas kilns are becoming more widely used. The pots are baked for 10-12 hours, after which they are placed in a pool of water to cool off.

The potters of A'ali create pots of virtually every size, and in a wide variety of styles. Until the early Seventies, says Jaffer, they would not use any paints; now with decorative pots becoming increasingly popular, colourful pots are evident everywhere.

Tourists usually buy the smaller pieces, which is natural considering size and weight are issues when travelling. The most popular items with visitors are money boxes and flower vases.

Bahrainis and foreigners resident in Bahrain prefer to buy the bigger decorative pots, as do many Saudis who usually drive across the border and can transport these items easily by car.

Despite the resurgence in interest for pots as decorative items, there are very few families still left in the trade in A'ali. When Jaffer was a youngster, two-thirds of A'ali's residents were involved in the pottery industry. Over time, as cheaper alternatives came to market, many families in the business were forced to take up other professions, and by the Seventies there were only 15 family units left in the business.

Today there are just seven, of which Jaffer's A'ali Pottery is the biggest and best-known.

Jaffer himself has four sons, Mohammed, Majid, Abdulla and Zakariah; and all except Mohammed have followed him into the business. The grandchildren are also happy to help out. The evening that I visited, Abdulla's children Jameel, 15, Jaffer, 14, and Ali, 8, were moulding clay, having returned from school in the afternoon.

Young Jaffer enjoys the work. "I like this more than football," he confided. He started working at the wheel at the age of seven, and proudly recalls that the grandfather after who he was named sold his first piece, a small shisha, for 100 fils (about 40 cents).

While happy that his family maintains an involvement in this traditional craft, the elder Jaffer is saddened by the general decline in interest in A'ali.

"Pottery originated in Bahrain," says Jaffer. "Poverty drove our potters to seek their fortunes across Bahrain's shores, to Iraq, Turkey and other countries."

Potters from these countries even now trace their roots to Bahrain, says Jaffer, who himself has relatives in Iraq.

While he has a lot of family help in the trade, Jaffer even now often sits at the wheel and creates beautiful pots.

Does he still enjoy what he doing? "Absolutely," says Jaffer. "If people who steal and thieve get pleasure from what they do, how much better is it for people like me who are creating art!"