Tiles of the 20s make Palestinian comeback

Jalal Aslan Tiles is the only place in Palestine that these beauties are crafted, by hand!!

Popular for the fancy classes from the turn of the century right up into the 40s and 50s, the cement tiles had a good long time to develop a whole Palestine-wide fashion landscape, with different styles becoming popular in different cities, with everything from colour preference to motif becoming characteristic of a region, a family, or a home. This one, with its yellow, red, and green, round formations and flower edges, is typical of the Nablus area.

Version 2

And yes, full disclosure, it was before the 20s that the tiles were being used, but, I was going for a rhyme. So.

But its not just the brightly coloured and tantalizingly specified regional preferences for types and colours of tile that make the history of the art so interesting, but even the story of the tile factory itself.   So, meet Jalal Aslan, whose grandson Abu Anan today runs the workshop.

Tiles of the 20s make Palestinian comeback

The back office looks like it hasn’t been touched since Jalal put down his orders booklet when he retired along with his son in the early 60s. The workshop had moved from Haifa to Akka to Nablus (the latter after 1948), and business never quite picked up again after the Nakba (shocker), which along with the advent of other cheaper tile options meant slim years for the workshop until the recent revival in the art.

Abu Anan took us back to his grandfather’s office to talk specs on the tiles, to show us the vast range of options, and to entertain a rather long (and nowhere near comprehensive) list of questions about the past, present, and future of the industry.


Making the Magic
I won’t go on too long about how these tiles are made, since Riwaq has a pretty comprehensive outline in their faaaabulous book about the way the tiles are made and the history of the industry etc etc. Plus this video shows the step-by-step process of how the tiles come together.

So when it comes to how things are made, I’ll leave things at this rather mesmerising photo blast and move on to the amazing variety of tiles!!!

Right, now for the amazing bit. The Aslan tile factory has 750 (!!!) different cliches/molds/qalib (lets do the arabic, because cliche gets confusing and mould sounds like mold… its qalib singular, qawalib plural).

Asked if each of the qawalib has a name and if he knows them all, Abu Anan raises an eyebrow, and says ‘obvs’ (I paraphrase), and explains that he used to come to the workshop after school to help out (or just to get out of homework… ha). Then Abu Anan rattles off names like “the nablus star,” “the nour,” and my faveourite title so far, “the watermelon.” Most of the names are short-forms of longer explanations, others are named after the family that had the tile designed in the first place, or the town they became popular in (more on this soon).

Abu Anan can make you an amazing array of flooring design options, since a large proportion of the qawalib are, if turned on their axes, the base for the mirror image floor patterns.

This one, for example, just gets used and re-used to make a 4-square repeating pattern that ends up looking like flower-filled clover-shaped round-ish bits of sunshine on your floor.

Then things get even more fancy because you can choose any edge pattern (zunar) your heart desires. This zunar is the same as the one pictured at the top, so you see its a crazy game of mix-and-match to give you just exactly the combination that suits a space.

For every zunar pattern there are two qawalib, one for the strait bits and one for the edges. Here is the edge qalib for the zunar pictured at left, found hanging on the wall of Abu Anar’s grandfather’s office in Nablus:

While the two tiles pictured from the same zunar qalib chose the same colours for the flowers and the edges (yellow and red flowers, red edging)–get ready– you can choose any colour you want!!

Mind-meltingly, there are also qawalib whose patterns can be inverted, so you can have the pattern ‘facing in’ or ‘facing out’ on the repeated four-block that is repeated across the floor. I know, hard to imagine (or is it just me?). Picture this one with the diamond at right clustered in the center of a four-tile swirl, with the leaf sticking out in a sort of wreath, or, picture the leaf’s noses pointing inward into a middle of the four-swirl of tiles (sorry, these are not the right technical words, mea culpa).

While most of the qawalib are designed so that they are repeated in the 4-swirl across the floor, or as the zunar, there are others that are a bit more involved, sketching stars, flowers, and watermellons across a larger scale. For these, there are anywhere from 4-16 qawalib for each section of the pattern, which is either repeated twice as if a mirror image, or four times to make a larger-scale version of the 4-swirl idea.

You can also choose to not have an edge at all, and have the pattern cover the floors wall to wall.

With all this choice, from colour to inversion to pattern to edges, how does one decide?! Abu Anar said that often new tiles are ordered to repair old floors, and when it comes to new projects he advises what will fit and compliment a space, but explained that clients very often go with what was traditional to their area… which brings me to the next topic…

Palestine’s Tile Geography

One of the most interesting things about the tiles is the regional variation; each area, Abu Anar explained, had its own typical colours and patterns, so much so that it was the names of the region that became attached to many of the qawalib.

There seem to be (at least) four distinct groups of tile types by region, Yaffa, Nablus, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. There are likely more. Each region has a pattern and set of colours that were typical.

The Yaffa Carpet (Courtesy Jalal Aslan Tiles)

This type is called the Yaffa Carpet, its not the name of the tile pattern per se, but the general characteristics. The long diamond and contrasting neutral colours (others were yellow and brown, also some light blue, but apparently this was a newly available colour so wouldn’t have been ‘original’).

The Nablus Carpet (Courtesy Jalal Aslan Tiles)

The brighter colours and bigger, rounder patterns seem to be special to the Nablus area tiles. This one is called a Nablus Carpet, with the ‘traditional’ greens, reds, yellow’s and oranges all mixed into one pattern. Leaf and flower motifs also seem popular.

The Bethlehem Carpet (Courtesy Jalal Aslan Tiles)

The Bethlthem carpet seemed initially the least interesting, appearing next to the other options plain in both colour and pattern. I’ve seen a lot of it –now very unsurprisingly, in Bethlehem– and it felt a little kitsch, mostly because it was in a 90s era pink or aqamarine and black or grey. When Abu Anar pulled up some pictures of how the tiles looked within the houses they were installed within, however, I changed my tune, since they really did look quite sophisticated, a little understated, and had a bit of a 3-D effect that was mesmerizing.

Abu Anar explained a little about the why’s and wherefores of regional preference, with some having to do with available colours (only the newer models of tile include blue, since it wasn’t available in the early period, and the earthy tones meant that it was all natural colouring), but there seems to be rather a lot more investigation needed to source out just why the preferences developed the way they did.

The nitty gritty

So, you’re convinced you obviously need to make a trip to Nablus to find the perfect qalib and discuss with Abu Anar if you want a carpet-style with a zunar or if you want to go wall-to-wall with a pattern (the hard decisions in life, I know).

Before jumping in, here are some basic stats about the tiles:

Tiles with a pattern will run you 140 nis ($36 usd) per square meter

Tiles of a single colour are 50nis ($12 usd) per square meter

The tiles are shipped in boxes of 11 tiles each (weighing 20kgs), and its about three boxes of tiles for a meter squared of floor (so, 33 tiles for a meter square of floor).

Each tile is 20cm x 20cm

There is also an option to go in for a mixed bag of tiles, either with tiny imperfections, or where the customer decided a bit late in the game to switch colour choices, or if the factory made a bit too much for any given job. These make great mosaic-type patterns and Abu Anar said was a popular choice in restaurants, or in kitchens, because with the mix of colours things looked quite jolly.

Mixed tiles go for 50nis ($12 usd) per square meter.

And when its all over

Go to the sweets shop and mull your flooring decisions over a plate or two of Nablus deliciousness.



2 thoughts on “Tiles of the 20s make Palestinian comeback

  1. Kristine A Rumman says:

    Thank you for this article. I am an artist that has been working with tiles and I wondered how I might credit a photo from this article for a talk I’m giving.


    • noraehp says:

      Hi Kristine, thanks for asking! Most were taking by me, except for those labeled ‘courtesy of Jalal Aslan Tiles’ which were from the family’s website. What info do you need?


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