Alchemy and the Deaf Blacksmith of Amman

15 November, 2021
Abdul­lah in his Amman work­shop (pho­to cour­tesy Munir Atalla).

Munir Atal­la recent­ly direct­ed the short doc­u­men­tary you are about to see. Wolf’s Milk has enjoyed an appre­cia­tive audi­ence on the world fes­ti­val cir­cuit, and was award­ed “Best Direct­ing” at a fes­ti­val focused on dis­abil­i­ty. It fol­lows Abdul­lah, a deaf black­smith in Amman, Jor­dan, as he nav­i­gates the care and stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with dis­abil­i­ty in his community. 

 

Munir Atalla

 

Wolf’s Milk fol­lows Abdul­lah, a deaf black­smith who works in a grit­ty, indus­tri­al area of Amman called Wah­dat, for­mer­ly a Pales­tin­ian refugee camp. I met him through two local artists, Lamia Fakhoury and my moth­er, Reem Mouash­er, who came to know Abdul­lah as they sought to cast some of the first hol­low bronze sculp­tures in the country. 

 

The foundry where Abdul­lah works is sur­round­ed by noisy work­shops and junk­yards, “the bow­els of indus­try,” I thought to myself, walk­ing through there for the first time. Abdul­lah’s craft is cast­ing met­al into makeshift parts for cars and indus­tri­al machines using a tra­di­tion­al Syr­i­an method called sand cast­ing. At first, it struck me as a ter­ri­bly dan­ger­ous and messy process. Abdul­lah is per­pet­u­al­ly cov­ered in soot, he works in a small room with black walls hous­ing a home-made fur­nace — essen­tial­ly a steel bar­rel fueled by a steady drip of burnt car oil. He pours molten met­al into casts made of com­pact­ed sand, some­times coax­ing it from the edges with his bare fin­gers. After my first vis­it, I blew my nose and found that what came out was the col­or of char­coal. Still, I was drawn to the ten­der­ness of Abdul­lah’s spir­it, his toothy grin, and his remark­able story. 

 

As a boy, he would sell chew­ing gum on the streets — often­times, folks with dis­abil­i­ties are rel­e­gat­ed to this infor­mal labor to make ends meet in Amman. He was tak­en in by a black­smith who ran a foundry with his sons, and Abdul­lah quick­ly became one of their most skilled and hard­est work­ers. The patri­arch of this fam­i­ly stepped in as a father fig­ure in Abdul­lah’s life and helped arrange his mar­riage to his wife, Um Ahmad.

 

Now, the black­smith’s son, Moham­mad, runs the foundry. Moham­mad por­trayed him­self as Abdul­lah’s keep­er. “Only I under­stand him,” he told us, proud­ly. “When he gets into fights with his wife, I go over and arbi­trate.” At face val­ue, it seemed true. Despite Moham­mad not speak­ing any form of Jor­dan­ian Sign Lan­guage (its own dis­tinct lan­guage with signs for “mansaf” and “shaw­er­ma”), he and Abdul­lah would com­mu­ni­cate about sen­si­tive issues such as the exact tem­per­a­ture of the fur­nace, the per­cent­age mix­es of alloys, and large orders that came in for cus­tom indus­tri­al parts. The two men would joke around with each oth­er, and Moham­mad told us Abdul­lah was like a broth­er to him. If Abdul­lah was expe­ri­enc­ing any dif­fi­cul­ty, it was con­cealed behind an indomitable cheer and rest­less work ethic.

 

My per­spec­tive shift­ed when I brought my part­ner, Shez­za, to the foundry. A New York pub­lic defend­er with a sharp eye for rela­tion­ships, she ques­tioned what the spe­cif­ic arrange­ment was between Abdul­lah and his employ­er. She point­ed out that while Abdul­lah did the gru­el­ing, dirty, man­u­al labor, Moham­mad was always squeaky clean. Moham­mad spoke of Abdul­lah fond­ly, but also almost as if he had inher­it­ed him along with the foundry. While Abdul­lah’s sta­tion was indeed prefer­able to a life on the streets, was there a mea­sure of exploita­tion cohab­i­tat­ing along­side the care in their rela­tion­ship? Shez­za encour­aged me to get anoth­er per­spec­tive on Abdul­lah’s life by meet­ing with his wife, Um Ahmad.

 

One day, after Abdul­lah closed up shop at the foundry, Lamia and I went home with him. I filmed Wolf’s Milk entire­ly on a hand­held DSLR cam­era, which allowed us to be min­i­mal­ly intru­sive. Abdul­lah knocked on the door of his own house, alert­ing Um Ahmad to the pres­ence of a male vis­i­tor. She threw on a styl­ish leop­ard-print cov­er­all and greet­ed us warm­ly. Imme­di­ate­ly, we could see that Abdul­lah’s rap­port with her was much more nur­tur­ing and sophis­ti­cat­ed than how Moham­mad had por­trayed it to us. She signed with him in a mix of home-sign (invent­ed, spon­ta­neous sign lan­guage) and JSL, which she picked up from her days as a seam­stress work­ing with deaf col­leagues. Um Abdul­lah inter­pret­ed Abdul­lah’s phras­es for us in an entire­ly new way, giv­ing us a new per­spec­tive on his work. She con­fid­ed in us that she had called the Depart­ment of Labor sev­er­al times to file an anony­mous com­plaint about Moham­mad’s prac­tices. Abdul­lah’s griev­ances, relayed through his wife, were akin to those of many work­ers — hours that were too long for not enough mon­ey. From Abdul­lah’s per­spec­tive, he toiled away in the foundry each day while Moham­mad tend­ed to his oth­er projects — he works on a cit­i­zen-led vol­un­teer res­cue team called “Decent Folks”. To be fair, in response to a vis­it from the Depart­ment of Labor, Moham­mad raised Abdul­lah’s wage. Lat­er, unprompt­ed, Moham­mad told us that he had always known that the com­plaint was filed by Abdul­lah’s wife (oth­er­wise I would not be shar­ing this infor­ma­tion publicly). 

 

A seem­ing­ly sim­ple sto­ry yield­ed a com­plex web of rela­tion­ships. We puz­zled for months about how to cap­ture these in the film, and end­ed up with the prod­uct you see here. Our pri­or­i­ty was to pre­serve the del­i­cate bal­ance we had found: Abdul­lah’s job, his mar­riage, and his rela­tion­ship with his employ­er. Ulti­mate­ly, I was so grate­ful to Abdul­lah, Um Ahmad, and also Moham­mad for let­ting me into their beau­ti­ful community. 

 

Wit­ness­ing the entire cycle of their work, I real­ized that what they do extends far beyond mak­ing car parts using spent engine oil. Abdul­lah takes the scrap met­al of the city and breathes new life into it using the waste of indus­try. This seem­ing­ly “dirty” prac­tice actu­al­ly has a huge­ly green impact on the city — instead of ship­ping car parts from Ger­many, Japan, or Korea, Abdul­lah casts them local­ly, allow­ing the lit­er­al engines of soci­ety to keep mov­ing. No object is beyond repair, no com­bustible mate­r­i­al too haz­ardous to make use of. Abdullah’s work is resource­ful, mod­est, and pro­found. When I came to this obser­va­tion, I was floored and deeply moved. These men toil in a cor­ner of the world rarely con­sid­ered or seen on cam­era. At first glance, it might seem like a junk­yard, “the bow­els of indus­try.” But in real­i­ty, it is not the bow­els; it is the womb. One could say that Abdullah’s craft is an extreme form of recy­cling, but to me, it is more than that; it is alchemy.

 

 

AmmanblacksmithdisabilityfirefoundryJordan

Munir Atalla (he/him) is a writer, director and producer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently completing an MFA in Creative Producing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. His work focuses on insider/outsiders, imperfect people often living on the fringes of society. He was most recently employed by PBS’s premier documentary series, FRONTLINE, where his work was nominated for a Dupont Award. Munir has credits on Emmy-nominated segments of NBC’s Dateline, where he worked as an Associate Producer on long-form, investigative video reports. His work has been nominated for a NAAMIC Vision Award, and he has been a Finalist for the New York Society for Professional Journalists “Deadline Award”. He is the recipient of the 2020 Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarship. Munir serves on the advisory board of the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project, an NGO dedicated to interrupting the cycles of poverty and criminalization that cause homeless.

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