The Jerusalem Fabric Merchant Who Lives in a Material World

Bilal Abu Khalaf’s store sells imported Syrian fabrics to Hasidic Jews, Christian clergymen and Muslim imams.

Emil Salman

A Christian, a Muslim and a Jew enter a fabric store. They run their hands over the goods, chat cordially with the salesman and among themselves. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s actually the reality that has characterized the Abu Khalaf family shop, in Jerusalem’s Old City, for the past 18 years. The proprietor is Bilal Abu Khalaf, 53, a third-generation fabric merchant.

Attired in a white caftan made of striped Damascene silk, and with a red tarboosh on his head, Abu Khalaf is sitting in what initially looks like a magic cave – containing vivid, handmade fabrics and an array of spectacular patterns, made of cotton or cashmere, and in some cases pure silk inlaid with 14-carat gold threads. However, after a closer look, the store gives the impression of being a world unto itself. It’s one that brings the three monotheistic religions together to clothe their representatives – Pope Benedict XVI, a chief rabbi and imams – at a notably conflicted and violent geographical nexus, but which pushes politics out the door with all its might. (The store is situated close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

Indeed, Abu Khalaf insists on painting a peaceful picture of brotherly love in a business that overcomes local tensions, even if he cannot avoid the political influences.

His store may be filled with a vast range of colorful fabrics, but there’s no doubt this bounty and diverse selection was once even greater. In the past, he used to bring customers up to the attic and show them particularly expensive fabrics – such as an impressive roll of silk embroidered with gold threads in the manner of the fabric of Saladin. Once the most expensive fabric in the entire store, all that remains is a small square patch.

Abu Khalaf explains that these fabrics are very expensive, woven on a hand loom and found only in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which was captured by Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) last May and has been threatened with destruction ever since.

“It takes 40 days’ work to create 10 meters of such a fabric: there are 8,000 threads in these fabrics,” he says, adding that it costs between 3,500 shekels to 6,000 shekels (about $900-$1,550) a meter. “The fabrics from Palmyra can be found only in five stores in the world. Three are in Syria – one in Aleppo and two in Damascus – one in Dubai and the last here in Jerusalem,” says Abu Khalaf, who is concerned about the potential damage ISIS will wreak in the fabled city.

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He used to visit Syria twice a year to source fabrics before the civil war erupted, but says that since 2011 he has been dealing with Jordanian traders. “The war affected business – what can you do?” he shrugs. “I hope I can return to Syria soon.”

In fact, despite the difficulties, Syria remains the source for many of the fabrics in Abu Khalaf’s store, whether their buyers are Christians, Muslims or Jews. For decades, Syria has also been the source of the caftans seen in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox areas.

Kosher fabric

Abu Khalaf has plenty to say about the common history of traditional Arab and Jewish attire, and shows me a black-and-white drawing of Hasidim in a traditional caftan. “Around 200 years ago, Hasidim in the Old City started to dress like this in order to blend in with the Arab and Turkish communities, and since then it’s become a tradition,” he explains. “If you visit the Jewish Quarter on Friday evening or Saturday morning, you’ll meet a large number of religious Jews who are wearing a striped caftan, along with others who wear the smooth black caftan and a shtreimel [a tarboosh-like fur hat].” He points to a stack of rolls of striped fabric, which lie next to others like it. “This fabric is not like the other fabrics. They are all made in Syria, yes, but this fabric is kosher, like food. The religious Jews wear only these colors – blue, white and gold, or black and white – and only 100-percent cotton. A fabric pattern from Mea She’arim is sent to be rewoven in Syria. A sample of the new fabric is sent to a rabbi in Mea She’arim, and it is certified kosher only after he checks it.”

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Zvi Meshi Zahav, from the anti-Zionist Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty, was one of the first to order fabrics from Syria, back in the period when Abu Khalaf’s father ran the shop. “Forty years ago, I was the one who asked Abu Khalaf’s father to start importing these fabrics, after I’d scoured the country looking for them,” Meshi Zahav relates, adding that demand for them has declined in recent years. “People prefer cheaper, synthetic substitutes,” he says, “and today, because of the situation in Syria, many of the factories there have been destroyed. Naturally, there are some who still prefer the original, but they are mostly conservatives of all kinds. This preference has nothing to do with economic status or how strictly one observes the religious laws.”

Meshi Zahav adds a detail to Abu Khalaf’s story about the origins of the Jewish caftan. The Hasidim “changed the cut of the caftan a little, to set themselves apart” from the Arabs and Turks. “The person responsible for the new cut was the first leader of the sect to go up to the Land of Israel, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Mendel Biderman. He created it from 26 pieces of fabric and added quite a few distinctive traits.”

Abu Khalaf’s family came to Palestine in 1936 from Zakho, Kurdistan. Bilal joined the business officially when he was 23, after graduating from the department of political science at Ain Shams University, Cairo. “I couldn’t find a job in my field, so I told myself I would work with my father. When I was a boy, he sent me to all kinds of places to bring new fabrics. That’s how I learned the business. I liked the shop and became part of it,” he recalls.

You don’t need a degree in political science to be aware of the volatile mix of religions in Jerusalem, but Abu Khalaf isn’t interested in discussing that. “I engage in good politics here, of the kind that loves people and brings everyone together,” he says.

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Instead, he’d rather name-check famous clients, among them foreign diplomats, senior executives and public officials, including ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert.

The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder and spiritual mentor of the Shas party, was also one of his customers. “He wore this caftan,” Abu Khalaf says, indicating a black caftan embroidered with tiny gold leaves. “He ordered the special embroideries from me to be done by hand – some are done in Syria and some in Morocco. Every such embroidery is very expensive.”

Imams and mukhtars usually order Syrian fabrics resembling those of the rabbis, but in different shades – for example, black weaves imprinted with a pattern of dark stripes.

Did anyone say that if you sold to Jews or Arabs, he wouldn’t buy from you?

“Who would say something like that? Let him figure it out himself. I don’t get involved in things like that.”

A client who overhears our conversation observes that business considerations tend to trump political tension. “Everyone wants to live and get along, so no one will say no to income. In principle, Arabs will not take part in events that are connected to the Jerusalem municipality or the Jewish establishment,” the customer says.

Abu Khalaf has no problem with that kind of cooperation, though. Four years ago, he took part in a city festival in which he and the artist Ido Michaeli created a video about the attire of Maimonides, the 12th-century physician and Torah scholar. And this week he is taking part in the public art festival “Under the Mountain,” presenting clothes by Israeli designer Hed Mayner that were inspired by the Temple Mount.

Tourists who visit Abu Khalaf’s store have another attraction awaiting them beside the fabrics. A few years ago, he decided to expand his store; ancient artifacts were discovered during the renovations work.

An archaeological excavation was subsequently conducted under the store and the remains of a Crusader-era church were uncovered. Archaeologists believe that this was the Santa Maria Maggiore Church, constructed in the early 12th century. Today, in a joint decision by Abu Khalaf and the Israel Antiquities Authority, the finds can be seen under a glass floor inside the store.