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'We are people of the sea': Syria's last wooden-boat builders

On Arwad, Syria's only inhabited island and a centre of boat building since Phoenician times, one family still makes wooden boats by hand
A worker taps string between wooden planks, a traditional method of ensuring the vessel is watertight (MEE/Tom Westcott)

ARWAD, Syria - Outside a battered workshop calf-deep in wood-shavings, Farouk Bahlowan shapes a brass ship propeller, leaning close into the angle grinder to make the smallest adjustments.

Every few minutes, he pauses to spin the metal, squinting to see where the propeller will eventually stop. When the blade scrawled with the number three stops exactly where it started, the propeller is perfectly balanced and ready to be fitted to one of his boats.

"All my life, since I was a boy, I've been building boats here," he says. Poking a tanned face through the ribbed skeleton of a nearby boat, his nephew Mohammed Bahlowan laughingly says Farouk came out of the womb making boats, gesturing up towards a line of simple white-painted homes where both men live. 

A half-completed wooden boat stands on the shoreline of Arwad (MEE/Tom Westcott)
This short stretch of Arwad's shoreline, Syria's only inhabited island, is a makeshift shipyard where wooden boats stand in various stages of construction. Every day, the tapping of cotton rope being hammered between keel planking echoes out across this tiny island, while sea-loving children shout and play, throwing themselves off the remains of a Phoenician sea wall that locals say once surrounded the island.

All my life, since I was a boy, I've been building boats here

- Farouk Bahlowan 

Less than one square mile in size, with no cars and only a handful of motorbikes, Arwad is a popular day trip for mainly Syrian tourists visiting the mainland port city of Tartous.

Although at first glance the pristine white tourist fleet bobbing in Tartous harbour - each flying the Syrian flag -  look like modern boats, all are made on Arwad from wood using largely traditional methods. 

Boat builder and marine engineer Mohammed Bahlowan working inside the skeleton of a large vessel (MEE/Tom Westcott)
Boat builders for over a century, the extended Bahlowan family is now the only Arwad family still making wooden boats. Seventy years ago, most of the island's families were boat builders, but the demise of the wooden boat within the shipping industry saw fewer men pass their traditional skills onto their children. 

We were always famous for building the best and strongest boats

- Mohammed Bahlowan

"Before 1950, we were making huge boats here entirely by hand, without electricity, but when steel boats became popular, there was little demand for wooden boats and everything changed," explains Mohammed. "Other boat-building families stopped teaching their children the traditional skills and boat building started to die out here. But the Bahlowan family has continued, partly because we were always famous for building the best and strongest boats." 

A member of the Balhowan family works on the skeleton structure of the hull of a new boat (MEE/Tom Westcott)
For many years, boat building has not provided a sustainable income for most, so many members of the Bahlowan family hold regular careers at sea, mostly on container ships or in Syria's navy. They now only work on the wooden boats during their shore leave.

The demand for Arwad's wooden boats remains modest, but the Bahlowan family still has between 18 and 20 boats under construction at any one time. A recent drop in business is less connected to Syria's ongoing civil war but rather is due to pollution causing a big fall in stocks of fish in local waters. 

Before 1950, we were making huge boats here entirely by hand, without electricity

- Mohammed Bahlowan

"We don't have the same amount of work as 10-15 years ago. People along this stretch of coast love to go fishing, and every young person wanted a boat for fishing, but this has changed because there are so few fish here now, not like before, and fishing has greatly diminished," Mohamed says.

He cites pollution, sewage, chemicals used in water treatment, chemical waste from factories on the mainland and the increased use of explosives for the drop in fish stocks. The destructive method of flinging hand-made grenades into the sea, killing everything within reach to increase fishing yields, has become popular in several countries in Africa and the Middle East.

A boy looks out over the harbour at Arwad, full of wooden boats made on the island (MEE/Tom Westcott)
The main market for Arwad's boats remains Syria's coast, where the smaller vessels retail at around $5,000, but many go to Lebanon and a handful to Europe. International prices are more than double, including export tax and a percentage of the sale price which goes to the Syrian government.

"We sell a boat in Lebanon for $9,000, and they'll sell it on for around $15,000, and we also regularly sell boats to Cyprus, for around $10,000, which is still very cheap for them," says Mohammed. The most expensive boat the Bahlowan family recently made was a 14-metre vessel which, complete with wood-lined cabin, kitchen and toilet, sold for $50,000. 

Traditional methods endure

Climbing agilely over 1970s' wood-cutting machines, Mohammed pulls down a single piece of wood, shaped like a giant boomerang. It is the only template the Arwad boat builders use, upon which the main rib of the keel is based. 

"This is our only template, which can be used for any sized vessel, and from this we gauge distances, positioning and numbers of nails," he says, demonstrating with swift pencil markings.

Inside the frame of one of the larger wooden vessels Mohammed Bahlowan is making (MEE/Tom Westcott)
The rest of each boat is made by eye and the skills and knowledge passed down through generations of Arwad boat builders, Mohammed says, tapping the side of his head to show where all the plans are stored. No single boat Arwad produces is identical to another.

We sell a boat in Lebanon for $9,000 and they’ll sell it on for around $15,000 and we also regularly sell boats to Cyprus, for around $10,000 which is still very cheap for them 

- Mohammed Bahlowan

"We are amongst the only boat builders in the world working like this now," he says. Comparable wooden boats are still made in Lebanon, but, Mohamed says, they have templates for every single part of the vessel and, without these templates, are unable to build a boat. 

Arwad's location, three kilometres from the mainland across an often choppy stretch of the Mediterranean, has kept modernity at bay. Although generators arrived on the island in 1964, until 1970 everything was done by hand, and cable electricity from the mainland only reached the island in 2000.

Bypassing sanctions

"If I am working alone, and with absolutely no distractions, I can build a boat from start to finish in four months," says Farouk. "British Lister engines are the best, but, for Syria, there are now very few British engines, so we mainly use Swedish Volvo or Japanese Yamaha engines. It was better before, when we could get more British engines."

Boat builder Farouk Bahlowan working on a ship propeller outside his workshop (MEE/Tom Westcott)
Western sanctions, which have crippled the lives of ordinary Syrian civilians for seven years, prevent imports from Europe. But Syrians, a naturally resourceful and hard-working people, have workarounds for everything, from imitation chocolate bars to hacking codes for telephone apps, most of which don't work in Syria. And the shipbuilding industry is no exception. 

"Europe has refused to ship anything to Syria since the war, so we get the boat parts and other stuff we need labelled as destined for Beirut. When the cargo reaches Lebanese waters, it gets sent straight to us," explains another Bahlowan family member, who didn't want to give his name or reveal further details. Arwad, he says, is a place of the sea, where normal "mainland" rules do not apply.  

Building a Phoenician vessel

Although less than two square kilometres in size, Arwad has a rich history. Once a powerful Phoenician naval epicentre, its seamen were mentioned in the Bible, and it has controlled by numerous regional powers throughout history, including the Crusaders, for whom Arwad was one of their last bastions in the Middle East. The Phoenicians lived in the coastal areas of modern-day Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the Mediterranean from about 1500 BC to 300 BC.

A part of the ruins of old Arwad (MEE/Tom Westcott)
Between 2007 and 2008, Arwad’s boat builders were employed to make a replica of a Phoenician vessel for a project lead by a British former City fund manager, Philip Beale, who sailed the Phoenician ship 20,000 miles around Africa. The 20-metre, 50-tonne, single-sailed vessel "Phoenicia" was built on designs of Phoenician shipwrecks and archaeological artefacts. 

Far from the front lines 

Distant as Syria's civil war seems here, this part of Syria has never been out of the control of the Syrian government, and its reality remains a backdrop to daily life. 

I'm like a fish. If I'm not surrounded by the sea, I feel as though I am suffocating

- Mohammed Bahlowan

Cafe owner Walid, 42, poses proudly for a photo in front of a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gracing the peeling yellow walls of the cafe he has owned for seven years. "Bashar is excellent," he says, kissing his fingertips. "The situation in Syria has been very difficult these past seven years, but it's getting better all the time now and, inshallah, the war will be over after two months."

But some Arwad residents feel a sense of disconnect from the mainland, saying they are different from other Syrians, even speaking a different dialect that is closer to the Lebanese. 

One man gestures to the huge quantities of litter that line the shores of the island, saying this is the result of an ongoing dispute with the Tartous local council, which apparently is refusing to accept refuse at the present time.

"We have no problem with the Syrian government, and we do our national service, but we have to be free," says Mohammed. "We are hard-working people, but we are people of the sea, and we can't live or work long-term on the mainland. I'm like a fish. If I'm not surrounded by the sea, I feel as though I am suffocating." 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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