The Shoemaker of Ramallah

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.

But which shoes to pick? Anthropologie-esque pumps in every shade imaginable? Hiking shoes with a sweet sweet nod to Palestinian heritage that incorporate the traditional dress embroidery, or bowling shoes.
Nothing you see quite fit? Even more exciting, is you can pick a shoe style, and get it made in any colour you like, or add a heel, or take away a heel…. it’s really quite overwhelming.
The shoe shop is a tiny space crammed to the rafters with samples, one-offs that Imad the shoe maker had dreamed up. Over the past two weeks, he had moved his workshop from the burbs into the Ramallah city center, and says he wants customers to come and see their shoes being made, to see the leather, hang out, drink coffee and just get all creative-like with their footwear.
I was so so down for a visit.

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:

Commenting to a friend I’d brought to share in the shoe-magic, Imad noted my excitement:”Oh she’s crazy, everybody in my shop is crazy, you have to have soul to appreciate things that are beautiful.”
Not to put words in mouths, but, its something I’ve noticed a lot between the glass factories in Hebron designing new bobble-lamps, the currieries coming out with enticing leather bag options, traditional embroidery popping up on modern-style wedding dresses, actually nice hand bags, belts and earrings, silversmiths and the olive-leaf options, glass artists incorporating leaves and flowers into designs, olive wood carvers gluing slabs of the separation wall into nativity creches… artisans are getting more creative. And I like it.
When folks are excited about what they do, when there are enough customers to keep them in business, when something is made that everyone is proud of.
I was so taken with the concept and so infected with Imad’s enthusiasm, that I ordered a second pair of flats for my new housemate-to-be. Well, the daughter of my housemates to be. I figure I’ll start her on the shoe thing young. When she’s in for shoe therapy I’ll confess that it was I that brought home her first pair of custom leather shoes.
So, enough musings, lets get down to business with the shoes right? We got out the shoe pattern and started cutting.

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.

And then when I turned around…… it was ready!!!! Well, almost

Ready to get rolled up for when his workers arrived in the evening to put it on the last.

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.

Imad, after what he says was an all-nighter of shoe making and workshop organizing, puts the sole on the shoes.

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.

Thanks Imad!!!


3 thoughts on “The Shoemaker of Ramallah

  1. jess says:

    This is an amazing post! I desperately want to fly to Ramallah and get a pair of shoes custom made and see how it happens. He can make the decisions for me though because I am terrible at deciding on shoes. I wish you good luck on starting the PhD thing and hope the colder climate isn't too much of a shock after your years abroad. Keep writing – and if you want to send a pair of custom shoes to your old roomie ,let me know!


  2. yoga mama says:

    I love Rahalah, too. I was so relieved to move to Ramallah and find a place with great shoes! The 3 pairs I have are probably my favorite pairs right now. I confess a certain shoe addiction…


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