Never one to say no to supporting local industry, ahem, my quest for Palestinian artisans has lead me to many an out of the way destination. This time, however, I was headed to the heart of Ramallah: to Rahala, where Imad the shoe artist cobbles out some real shoe magic.
Palestinian ladies shoes are particularly bright and colourful, so there is a rainbow to choose from. The big thing is to match the hijab with the shoes, or the belt and purse with the shoes, or even the jacket with the shoes, all in on-trend colours that change every year.
At 120-200 shekels a pop, Imad’s shoes are pretty darn affordable, and the quality is lightyears ahead of a lot of the made in china stuff we have in the markets.
This is all in the loft portion of the workshop, a place the size of my living room. The leather, soles, and heel selection are all up here. Things are a bit helter skelter because he just moved in. I think mine were the second pair of shoes that got completed in it. Quelle honour.
Imad said this was the third time he had tried to make a go of shoe making. The last time he opened in the late 1990s, and had hardly gotten off the ground when the second intifadah started. I guess curfew isn’t great for shoe sales.
But these days the shop is bumpin. Imad’s wife Imm Ayad embroiders appliques for the shoes while her husband talks colour options, smiles when he gets excited, and generally seems to keep the place grounded, directing traffic and sending their son Ayad back and forth across town when he’s done school for the day. There is always a fresh pot of cardamon coffee, always a chaos of boxes, and you have to be dedicated to pull out the pair that catches your eye.
But my oh my is it worth it.
On my third visit I came across this oxford-style gem. About to move to colder climates, I decided I absolutely needed to add to my shoe collection something with laces.
And just to mix things up a bit, these were the colour choices:
I may or may not have been hopping from one foot to the other with excitement at this point. It doesn’t take much really. There’s just something about seeing things made that really does it for me. But seriously, isn’t it kinda fun to imagine your shoes come to life?
And in Ramallah, about half a kilometer from the presidential compound where in 2004 Israeli tanks surrounded then president Yasser Arafat in his offices. Even in 2006 when I first visited the city the walls of the compound were pockmarked with bullets. By 2008 there were new shiny glass doors on all the shops and apartment complexes breaking ground all round the outskirts. But its still a city with a bit of grit.
The organizer of this great ArtScape/Rwiaq urban planning tour of Ramallah I went on a while back commented on the lopsided development of the city, how 1,000 square meters of land in the city center was going for a million US dollars, house prices are like New York, and you can’t build out in a lot of areas because they are considered Israeli military zones, are too close to the separation wall or are near a settlement. So even if you’ve got the cash you can’t always build.
There could be a whole post about uneven development in Palestine’s de facto capital, but I’ll save it for another time when the rant is under “politics” instead of “sparklyshoes.”
Anyway, all that said, it makes me happy when I can see an idea grow, most especially when that idea is in the form of a shoe that will be on my feet in the near future.
So, back to shoes.
While Imad worked his leather magic, I wandered around the workshop. Lasts in boxes, stencils organized by style in shoe cartons.
Rahala, the name of the business, means journeyer. I like that for a whole ton of reasons.
I left the workshop excited, having drunk a lot of tea, and looking forward to seeing how Imad’s project would turn out. Wondering if the next time I returned to Ramallah whether there would be men and women lounging in his workshop loft drinking cardamon coffee and debating the merits of giraffe print on pumps versus oxfords, and coming up with the latest in Ramallah shoe fashion.
When I came back in the next morning, he’d gotten most of the work done on the oxfords, and came up with some sunshiney brilliance for the baby flats.
We were both pretty jazzed about the addition of the embroidery on the arch. She won’t be able to wear them for a few years, but maybe then she’ll be able to appreciate them as much as I do.
And tells me if this whole PhD thing doesn’t work out, I can come and apprentice with him and make shoes.
Sounds good to me.