Photos by Sami Al Hinai
In Nizwa Heritage Market, an old man sitting on a red carpet by the side of the alley caught my eye. He was busy repairing slippers that had worn out and in front of him, the tools of his trade were neatly arranged. They were a curious bunch — awl, scissors, knife, match or lighter, special threads of various colours, Omani leather, artificial leather, scrub, hammer and nails of various sizes.
The 55-year-old Muhammad al-Gharibi has been doing this trade since he was young — 25 years by the time we met to be exact. His shoe repair profession is something that has grown with time born out of the necessity when buying a new shoe in the past wasn't always an affordable option.
"This profession landed on my lap by chance," he said.
"One day, my slipper was damaged and I tried to repair it using a thread and needle. After a few tries, I finally succeeded. Since then, I found joy in the profession and I taught my family about it making it a family profession," he shared.
"Sometimes, my kids come and help," he shared.
Having practised the profession for years, Muhammad already has an educated insight once a pair of shoes or slippers are handed to him for repairs.
"I have become familiar with all kinds of shoes and which one is best suited to fix them either with thread or nails. The shoes vary in terms of hardness. Some of them are soft and usually, they need sewing. Others are hard, and with those I use nails," he said.
Modernisation has caused Muhammad to worry about the future of manual shoe repairs. These days, people have become accustomed to fast fashion and disposable garments.
"This profession is greatly threatened by modern comfort. People no longer tend to repair and patch their shoes. Instead, they tend to buy new shoes once their old ones have minor damage," he said.
He also lamented the high fees for renting stores or shops. He said, with the cost and income of his profession, renting a decent space is not feasible.
"It is unreliable to make this profession the main source of income. In fact, I'm only doing it now as a hobby — something that helps me raise a little bit of money that I add on our finances to support myself and my family comprised of eight members," he said.
"What makes me keep practising it is because I still see the demand and need for it. There are still people who prefer to repair their shoes once they're damage especially those who cannot afford to buy new insoles due to financial reasons," he shared.
Working in the shoe repair profession has always been manual and primitive for Muhammad.
"I still use the same repair materials since I started comprised of thread, needle and wax," he said.
But there are days he hopes he will be able to afford newer machines to make it easier.
"With the advent of modern machines, working as a cobbler has become easier. Most modern cobblers with the aid of modern equipment also ventured into repairing handbags and travel bags," he said.
"The method I use to repair shoes is still primitive and I wish I had a shoe stitching machine instead of stitching by my hand. The awl, sometimes, pierces my finger. I don't own the machine and I don't know from where to get it, but I wish I could own it," he said.
For Muhammad, one of the greatest lessons he learned as a cobbler is to have patience, to persevere and to know how to endure. It's not a profession for the lazy and while the income is not as modest as other professions, it is a job still worth doing and one that to Muhammad, doesn't deserve to be abandoned.