Between pots of glue and scraps of cotton, Bahjat Majeed sits cross-legged in his tiny workshop, putting the final touches on a pair of handmade shoes traditionally crafted in his hometown of Halabja.
The meticulously-crafted “klash”, which trace their roots back several hundred years, remain a key feature of Kurdish culture even as the three-province autonomous region in north Iraq has seen breakneck economic development.
The shoes feature soles made of cotton fabrics and cow hide, and upper vamps that are made with knitted wool thread, and are usually worn by men on special occasions such as the Kurdish new year celebrations of Nowruz.
“I have been doing this for 15 years,” Majeed, 34, says proudly.
“I cannot think of a better job. I make a traditional symbol of Kurdish culture. This is wonderful.”
Klash are made in one of three colours — white, red or blue — or some combination of the three, and do not differentiate between the left and right foot. The shoes are known in particular for their sturdiness.
They are produced by artisans in the town of Halabja, which lies in a mountainous region near the Iranian border and some 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Baghdad.
The town, however, is sadly more famous as the site of what is thought to have been the worst ever gas attack targeting civilians.
In March 1988, as Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran was coming to an end, Kurdish peshmerga rebels, with Tehran’s backing, took over the farming community of Halabja near the border with the Islamic republic.
Now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces bombed the area, forcing the rebels to retreat into the surrounding hills, leaving their families behind. Iraqi jets then swooped over the small town and for five hours sprayed it with nerve agents.
An estimated 5,000 people were killed, mostly women and children.
But historically Halabja and the surrounding area have been known for the klash.
And Majeed is an expert in making these handmade shoes.
He deftly passes cotton threads between his toes before connecting them to small machines that wrap them together, helping form, in this case, what will become the sole of the shoe.
A few metres from Majeed’s studio, Akram Mustafa tries to convince passing customers to pick up a new pair of klash, showcasing various varieties that sell for between 40,000 and 75,000 Iraqi dinars (between $33 and $62).
It was by chance that Mustafa became fascinated with the traditional Kurdish footwear, when he began selling them on the side of the road while unemployed 16 years ago. Since then, his “love” for the shoes has constantly grown.
“I love these shoes even though they do not bring in much money,” he says.
The klash originates from the Hawraman region of Kurdistan, a mountainous area that straddles western and northeast Iraq.
Residents of the area speak Hawrami, one of five Kurdish dialects. Agriculture forms the lion’s share of the local economy, and provides the raw materials for the klash.
The footwear is believed — according to legend — to have first been worn by Zoroaster, the founder of the eponymous religion.
And while modern-day Kurds typically reserve the klash for ceremonial occasions, shoemakers in Halabja say they also receive strong business from overseas, year-round.
“Throughout the year, we receive orders from abroad, or from Kurds who want to gift these shoes to their friends who live overseas,” says Abu Baqr, who runs a store selling klash in the town.
And, he adds, the footwear also inspires feelings of Kurdish nationalism.
“Some people here are proud that their shoes are made from imported material, but the klash is Kurdish and nothing else,” Abu Baqr says.
“It is not an imitation.”