Iraq's ancient pottery struggles to outlive modern plastic
Born into the craft
Kawwaz's own family drew their name from the jug, or "kawz" in Arabic, which they have produced for more than 200 years from clay found at a lake by Najaf, a holy Shiite Muslim city.
"Making clay vases is a craft that my family had become famous for," says 45-year-old Kawwaz wistfully.
Pottery has deep roots in Iraq
Cuneiform, one of the earliest forms of writing invented by the Sumerians, was also carved into clay tablets.
But now, with a flood of more modern products, demand for the handmade clay items has dried up, says Kawwaz.
His family's jugs were shaped from Najaf mud, dried in the shade, then baked at high temperatures for no less than 15 hours.
"These vases were used to keep water cool or preserve food. They were placed in the shade or hung in another high location," he says.
Some Iraqis even used them to store jewelry.
"Those that practiced pottery would make a lot of money because they were common items in ancient Iraqi households," says Kawwaz.
They were surprisingly handy during the era of Saddam Hussein, when many families struggled financially, as well as in the 1990s, when international sanctions hit Iraq.
Relying on clay
"The income of most families did not allow them to buy a refrigerator or freezer to keep their water cold, so most used clay cauldrons," he says.
Back then, his family sold their large jugs in bulk — sometimes thousands per week across every Iraqi province.
But times have changed
Farmers who once used the large containers are opting for cheaper goods, made either elsewhere in Iraq or imported.
"They buy plastic bags imported from China, so now we rarely sell clay pots," says Kawwaz in his studio, itself made of mud and covered in palm leaves.
He makes the vases by special request only, but admits it's hardly worth it.
Small jugs cost just 2,500 dinars or around $2, while the larger cauldrons that hold several dozen litres (gallons) are sold at 15,000 dinars.
Keeping the faith
"To the clay, you have to add reeds, red sand, and synthetic wool fibres. You let the mixture rest for two days so the clay becomes compact," he explained.
Despite the drop in sales, this potter is upbeat.
"Even if we sell less, even if the craftsmen are fewer and fewer, we're fighting to keep the artisanal heritage of our fathers and grandfathers alive," he says.
"And of course, there are still Iraqis who only eat good bread," he says with a wink.