Imports put Jordanian makers of artisanal shoes at risk

He was once nicknamed the ‘king of shoes’, but after decades of fashioning shoes for kings, queens and presidents, 90-year-old Jamil Kopti is concerned that cheap imports are killing his craft.

“We started losing customers one after another, and we continued to lose stores until we closed three stores,” said Kopti, considered Jordan’s oldest artisan shoe maker.

“Over the past five years, our profession has started to decline dramatically in the face of imported foreign footwear that has flooded the market,” he sighed as he inspected his once thriving workshop.

Today, he has only five employees, far from the 42 employees he previously employed.

And around the workshop in the working-class neighborhood of Al-Jofeh in Amman, hundreds of molds are lying and gathering dust.

After entering the trade in 1949 at only 18 years old, Kopti participated every year in shoe fairs in Bologna and Paris.

In 1961, at a trade fair at the University of Jordan, he met the late King Hussein and gave him four pairs of handmade shoes. Hussein became an instant fan, especially of black formal shoes, and “after that, and for 35 years I made the king’s shoes.”

“He loved classic shoes,” Kopti said, proudly showing off two old photos on his phone of himself and the late monarch.

He was awarded the Jordanian Independence Medal and was a frequent guest of the palace on special occasions.

And Kopti’s fame spread. In 1964, the monarch went to France where he then met President Charles de Gaulle.

“The whole time during the meeting (…) he had his eyes on my shoes and when he asked me where I got them from, I told him ‘They were made in Amman’,” said the king in Kopti.

“King Hussein asked me to make two pairs of shoes for de Gaulle,” Kopti said, adding that “his size was very large”. According to the country’s Shoe Manufacturers Association, there were more than 250 shoe workshops and factories in Jordan, employing around 5,000 people.

Today “we have a hundred workshops and less than 500 workers,” said Naser Theyabat, head of the association.

During his long career, Kopti made shoes for the new King Abdullah II and most of the princes and princesses of Jordan, as well as high level politicians and military officers.

Using leather imported from France, Italy and Germany, his workshop once made 200 pairs of shoes a day.

Today it is more of 10 pairs, forcing him to turn to medical shoes and children’s shoes.

But Kopti believes his loyal customers will help him survive, pointing the finger at a customer he has served for 50 years.

Handmade leather shoemakers experienced a “golden age” in the 1980s and 1990s, Theyabat recalls.

However, over time, imports increased.

The head of the textile, ready-to-wear and footwear union, Sultan Allan, said that before the Covid-19 pandemic, Jordan imported around 44 million dinars ($ 62 million) of shoes annually.

These numbers are likely to decline due to the impact of the epidemic.

“This craft is on the verge of extinction,” Theyabat said, lamenting that Jordanian shoemakers have received little support.

“On the contrary, there was a policy to flood the market with shoes made in China.”

In the Marina workshop of an old building in the Achrafiyeh district, three shoemakers sewed soles, added heels and cut leather, under the supervision of owner Zouhair Shiah.

“The terrible decline began in 2015 when the market was flooded with Chinese, Vietnamese, Syrian and Egyptian-made shoes,” the 71-year-old told AFP.

“I had 20 workers and I have three left. Before, we made 60 to 70 pairs of shoes per day compared to less than 12 today.

Holding a shoe, he said it was “strong and durable” and said the pair cost 20 dinars ($ 28). “Our profit is very low.”

The Shiites are hoping for government support to “cut taxes… because we have debts that we cannot pay”.

Leaning over a leather-cutting machine, white-haired Youssef Abu Sarita remembers: “I started doing this 50 years ago. I love this job and I know nothing else about it.

“What is happening to us is sad. Most of the workshops have closed and their workers have left,” he said.

“I’m sure we’ll meet the same fate, but I don’t know when.”


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