Former prison inmate becomes Sidon’s seashell craftsman
SIDON, Lebanon: Badawi al-Gherbali never expected to make a living off of arts and crafts, but after two years behind bars in a Syrian prison he mastered through patience and skill every aspect of handicraft that he set his hand to.
Gherbali, 48, who was arrested in late 1989 in Syria, now lives in Sidon when he has put his talents to work, crafting and selling seashell art to foreigners and Lebanese, alike.
While he had no idea his political affiliation would land him in prison, Gherbali made the best of the two years he spent in jail, by learning all the arts and crafts skills he was allowed to master as an inmate.
Twenty-two years later, Gherbali worked his way up from a waiter in one of Sidon’s popular cafes to the owner of a stall near Sidon port, where he makes artistic shell creations and sells them to tourists and passersby.
Gherbali says that natural and artificial shells are brought in locally or from China. He then transforms the shells into artistic ornaments through a painstaking effort requiring patience and a calm mind/disposition.
“I’m the only one in Lebanon who works in this field,” Gherbali said while showing off his unique work such as a tissue boxes embellished with decorated shells. He also uses seashells to create elaborate shapes such as ships and intricate models of mosques.
“We have several prints which we paint onto shells such as the slogan of the army as well as slogans for other parties, and we also carve names onto the shells,” said Gherbali.
“I’m not ashamed when I tell my customers that I used to work as a waiter and am now an artist.”
According to Gherbali, Japanese tourists prefer buying models of birds, such as owls, which Gherbali creates using a variety of seashells while the Italian tourists enjoy his artificial coral works. “I have tourists who come from Latin America saying that they saw my work on Facebook … it’s another world,” he said.
As for locals, Gherbali says that they buy everything – especially necklaces and other shell jewelry. Many Lebanese buy gifts and trinkets for their wives and girlfriends in addition to the intricate ship models, which take three long hours for Gherbali to make.
Models that Gherbali makes of the Al-Aqsa Mosque are a favorite among Palestinian customers, who carry the sentimental shell structures back to their countries of residence.
By Mohammed Zaatari