COVID-19 shuts down century-old Kaka’i pottery factory

Safin Jamal, a 65-year-old potter, has shut down his business due to the effects of the coronavirus. Photo: KirkukNow

Mohammed Almas

COVID-19 has forced a skilled and experienced Kaka’i potter to shut down his business. In addition to the human cost, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a significant number of small businesses in Iraq to close, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

“God, I beg you to provide an income for my children…the coronavirus cost me my job… I will have to work as laborer at this age,” said Safin Jamal, a 65-year-old-potter.

I will have to work as laborer at this age

Safin wept as he closed the door of his factory, the first time anyone had done so in over a century. He is one of the victims of the economic collapse brought by COVID-19; forced to leave behind not only his job, but a trade he inherited from his ancestors.

Safin is the son of the well-known artisan, Jamal (“The Potter”) Zain al-Abadin Kaka’i. and belongs to a prominent Kaka’i family that resides in Daquq district, southern Kirkuk province. Jamal opened the pottery factory a century ago but Safin reluctantly closed his business in early June.

“The curfew forced me to close my factory for a month. My children and I resumed work in late May, but we lost all the customers,” he said, “our customers were mostly from central and southern Iraq.”

My children and I resumed work in late May, but we lost all the customers

The Iraqi government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March to contain the spread of COVID-19.

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Markana, made at Safin’s factory, is used to store drinkable water. Photo: KirkukNow 

Safin’s factory is located on the Baghdad-Kirkuk road. Many of his customers would purchase his wares as they traveled between the northern, southern, and central Iraqi cities.

Safin, whose family has passed the profession down from one generation to the next over a century, is one of the few craftsmen left in the country. Now Safin fears that his family might permanently give up its trade because of the lockdown.

Safin has a family of six, all of whom worked at the factory. His father fell inside the factory and died in 2018.

“This craft was my father’s, grandfather’s, and my ancestors’ livelihood. We consider the profession holy and important because our grandfather willed us to continue this work, and he had said that this factory should never close.”

We consider the profession holy and important because our grandfather willed us to continue this work

Last week, the first coronavirus case was recorded in Daquq. In response, security forces have taken stricter measures including closing local shops, banning travel outside of the district, and liming traffic inside its borders.

 “We were the first to be affected by the measures, and to such an extent that I had to close my factory because I was just sitting around, staring at my pottery,” Safin said, describing how sales of pottery immediately dissipated with the announcement of travel restrictions.

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Safin has created a plan statue in front of his factory. Photo: KirkukNow 

The day he shut down his business, Safin started working as a day laborer to make ends meet. Being a laborer is quite challenging for him due to his old age but he said he is still grateful to find work.

“I cried a lot and begged god to have mercy on me and my children on the day I closed my factory.”

I cried a lot and begged god to have mercy on me and my children

The history of Kaka’i minority in Daquq can be traced back to antiquity, with its people spread out among 15 villages and cities in the district. The community has suffered greatly during the pandemic as insurgent attacks increased throughout the district and professionals like Safin are forced out of business.

Safin explained that he had participated in pottery exhibitions both inside and outside Iraq, but he was forced to become a laborer.

“The last time my father and I participated in a pottery exhibition was in 2013 in Turkey, where we won the first place.”

Safin and his father sculped an 18-meter-long statue of an airplane and placed it in front of the factory, attracting many passers-by and drawing more customers into the factory, Safin said.

Hussein Darwish, a close friend of Safin’s father, Jamal, explained that Jamal did not regard the pottery craft as an ordinary one. He was passionate about it and admired it, he said, adding that Jamal worked as a sculptor and “constantly talked about how he would serve his society through his work.”

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Peacock statues created by Safin. Photo: KirkukNow 

The major problem families like Safin’s face is that the government has imposed a lockdown without providing financial relief to business owners. Therefore, they must shoulder two burdens: make a living and protect themselves from infection.

The re-imposition of the lockdown came after a resurgence in coronavirus infections, reaching 17,770 recorded cases with 496 deaths throughout the country.

Safin has not removed his equipment from the factory and claims that he watches the news with his children each day, wondering when the pandemic will pass and he can go back to work.

“The end of the coronavirus means restoring our source of income and obeying the will of my grandfather to sustain the profession.”

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