Keeping alive Hazaras’ craft of chawat: will it last another lifetime?

Updated September 28, 2018

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Shoemaking requires working for 15-16 hours straight, a craft that the Hazara community has perfected over the years.—BBC
Shoemaking requires working for 15-16 hours straight, a craft that the Hazara community has perfected over the years.—BBC

FOR the past 20 years now, Abdullah has been making sandals for men in a small shop on the main Manghopir road in Karachi’s West district. As I make my way towards the shop, I can see that it’s just big enough to fit not more than two people at a time. But despite that, customers — mostly men — keep flocking in to either find out about the latest price of a pair of sandals or to get a quote in case they want to order one.

The sandals in question are traditional leather footwear largely worn by the Baloch tribes in Balochistan. Named chawat and worn with traditional attire, the sandals have always been in demand. But chawat has made a comeback as many youngsters and men relate to what it represents: their identity and where they come from.

Chawat are made by craftsmen from four provinces of Pakistan. The ones originating from Sindh, for example, with their red, green, yellow and blue embroidery, are more colourful than the ones from Balochistan. So the chawat also take their name after the craftsmen who made them, for instance, Sindhi chawat. But when it comes to fixing the top on the sole, the work is traditionally done by the Hazaras who have perfected this craft. Sold for about Rs2,000-5,000 they — according to Abdullah — last a lifetime, “until the owner decides to throw them away”.

A persecuted Shia community from the highland region of Hazarajat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hazaras are identified by their facial features. In 2013, hundreds of them were killed in attacks by the militant Lashkar-i-Jhangvi group. They were targeted on the roads of Quetta, at places of worship, in shops, while working or during the mourning month of Muharram. In the wake of that sustained violence, many Hazaras sought asylum in Australia and elsewhere around the world. Those who stayed back in Pakistan have kept a low profile.

The traditional leather sandals, which have made a comeback, are largely worn by Baloch tribesmen

Fleeing the violence in Quetta, Balochistan, and Afghanistan, an estimated 5,000 Hazaras have settled in Karachi’s Mughal Hazara Goth where they live alongside Baloch, Sindhis and Pakhtuns. There are Hazaras in other Karachi neighbourhoods, such as Hussein Hazara Goth in Safari Park and central Karachi, where they mostly work as tailors or as juice-shop owners in the city’s downtown, the Old City.

Many came to Karachi’s southern area, Lyari. Known in the past for political activism, study groups, diversity and music, over the past three decades Lyari has been more noted for rampant crime, violence and gang wars. But the area’s diversity has remained its distinctive feature, and many non-Muslims, too, have found this neighbourhood safe enough to settle in, even if it lacks necessities such as water and electricity.

It was in Lyari that ustaad craftsmen taught Abdullah and other Hazara migrants to make chawat. As I sit opposite him, interviewing him for a report, Abdullah is open and chatty, telling me how, during the 1980s, he learned shoemaking in a small town of Machh in Balochistan, some 50 kilometres southeast of Quetta. He was just eight then. “My father was a coal miner. Every morning on his way to work, he would leave me at the Balochi shoemaker’s shop so that I could learn a skill and not get involved in drugs or crime.”

Cautious in his early years in Karachi, he soon decided to settle down here, finding the city far more accepting than he had expected. “We have a temple, a mosque, a church and an Imambargah, and that’s what I like about this city.”

The conversation moves back to Balochi shoemaking. “Once we learned the skill, we made sure to teach it to someone else. As a result we ended up having a lot of students inside and outside of our community. But if you want a good quality Balochi chawat, you’d find that the Hazara community makes the best of them,” he adds with pride.

But there is a hitch. And it comes from Abdullah’s family. “I have three teenage sons, and none of them is interested in shoemaking. I told them recently that I’m getting old so please take care of my shop. But they refused.” It is a back-breaking work, he admits, which requires you to sit in a place for 16 hours straight. So no wonder they have chosen to make a living by stitching burqas and abayas and selling them in the market.

Apart from the lack of enthusiasm for Abdullah’s craft among younger Hazaras, there is also a matter of changing perceptions about the skill of shoemaking. “When I was growing up, the best girl from the community — one who was smart and educated — would be married off to a shoemaker. But over the past decades, the perception has changed to ‘Why would we give him our daughter? He is a shoemaker!’ So, people within our community look down on it, too.”

Abdullah and many of the older generation Hazara shoemakers fear that their craft will end with them. “I can teach shoemaking to anyone who wants to learn it. Probably this skill of mine will transfer to the next generation and they might take interest in it. But my own children don’t want to learn it.”—BBC News Urdu

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2018