Abu Khalaf Bilal

PHOTOGRAPHY: Afif Amireh

Third-generation cloth merchant

He is dressed in a white kaftan of striped Damascene silk and adorned with a red kaboosh. Yes, Abu Khalaf Bilal – also known as ‘the man with the most beautiful smile in Jerusalem’ – ís his trade. His fabric store is perhaps the most famous in Jerusalem. Pope Benedict XVI ordered a vestment here when he visited the city, and he is just one of the many celebrities who appreciate the quality of Bilal’s products. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also managed to find his way to Aftimus Street, where the shop is located. ‘Damascene silk is only available in five stores in the world. Apart from three stores in Syria and one in Dubai, I am the only one. Those fabrics were traditionally woven in Palmyra, in Syria. Some contain nine-carat and even fourteen-carat gold threads. It takes 40 days to weave ten meters of fabric. There are as many as 8,000 threads in the fabric. That is why it is not cheap, count on 3500 to 6000 shekels per meter (1100-1800 dollars, 1000-1700 euros).’ Bilal smiles: ‘But don’t worry, we accept credit cards.’

“We are all human beings, brothers. I like to have an atmosphere of peace in my store”

Bilal pours tea and continues his story. Ninety percent of his clientele are Jewish. ‘They like clothes made of natural silk, natural cotton and natural wool. I have that. And they like traditional clothing. If you walk through the Jewish Quarter on Friday night or Saturday morning, you’ll see many religious Jews in striped kaftans and wearing a shtreimel, those traditional fur hats. The fabric is kosher, which means it must not contain a combination of linen and wool (or otherwise two types of fabric). Indeed, that is forbidden in the Torah.’
Although Bilal has mostly Jewish customers, he himself is Muslim. ‘My family came here with Salah al-Din Ayyub in 1187. I’m not particularly devout, but I pray, I fast and I did the hajj when I was younger.’ He himself never experiences friction with Jews. ‘We are all human beings, brothers. I would like to have an atmosphere of peace in my store. We can live side by side.’

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