Working his magic in Bahla’s pottery scene

Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory is relegated back to fantasia when you visit the Training and Production Center for Pottery and Ceramics, in Bahla. Meet Nasser bin Humaid bin Nasser Yahyai, Director of the centre, in the Dakhiliyah township in the shadow of its giant fort. A town where he has lived all his life.

Typical of his generation, Nasser has abiding memories of being roused from bed at 4 am most mornings to work on the family farm, before going to school, and returning to his farm chores after school. “It’s just the way life was in those days,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “and it did me no harm I think.”
Ten minutes after meeting Nasser, I am impressed by his polite and jovial nature, his complete lack of reserve, his impeccable manners, and his absolute commitment to, and enthusiasm for, the training center where he started out all those years ago, sweeping the floors.
He insists he is something too, of a custodian, because, as he put it, “All that this centre has become is due to the vision of the Public Authority for Craft Industries. It is they who have put in place the funding for the centre, and ensured that the handcrafts, knowledge and skills of the Omani potters will be retained forever.” He points too, to the influence of Sheikha Ayesha bint Khalfan al Siyabiyah, Chairperson of PACI, as being pivotal, not only to the continued development of the Bahla centre, but the retention of all artisan craft throughout the Sultanate.
He took me back to the beginnings of the Bahla factory to what it is today, harking back to a period when it functioned originally only as a pottery workshop/factory, since 1989, in a joint venture with Chinese interests. However, since 1996, complete Omani ownership, and in recent years, with the PACI involvement, has seen the profile of the business alter, in a quite inspirational manner.
Nasser explained that every year, seventy or eighty candidates apply for positions within their two-year training programme in pottery and ceramics craftsmanship and production. “Maybe we will interview thirty of those, and each year around twenty young Omanis, both men and women, begin their course, which is planned for two years, but can be extended if required. Our standards, and our level of quality, are both extremely high, so the trainees must achieve high performance at every step, before moving on to the next part of their programme.”
These trainees will progress, not only through the skills evident to the onlooker, or tourists, of crafting pottery on the potter’s wheel, and using tools such as paddles, bats, cutters, pins, brushes and pens. They will also learn how to mould, glaze, dry, fire, and decorate these intricate pieces, while learning that quality is not negotiable.
“Yes,” said Nasser, thinking ahead of the obvious question, “they, and we, break a lot of pottery along the way, but it is a learning thing, and we all have to start somewhere. In fact, I tell the young people, the trainees who join us that they will lack no knowledge, that I will teach them all I know, and that they will learn all that their trainers and co-workers know, under only one condition. You must love your work!”
I admit to some ignorance of the production process, and Nasser explains that, “We start with the four basic clays we use, which are the Madr, from here in Bahla, Sarbook, from Al Hamra, Muscat Rmady, a grey clay from the capital, and the A’sharqiat Al’abyad, white clay from the Sharqiyah coastal Governorate. They all are of different colours, have different handling, glazing, and firing characteristics, and are used for different items.” He continued with his explanation that the local mud clays used for the ubiquitous Omani pottery seen in every household, are much coarser, and thicker, than those stamped out, and different again from those poured into moulds.
“Just now,” he said, “we have seven different production lines, with each having its own function. In one the clay is prepared for use, we have a line of potter’s wheels producing mainly the Jihal, or water pot, and the bram, a cooking utensil. A third line focuses on moulding clay, while a fourth is for pressing, or stamping smaller items. Our next line produces unique, one-off pottery, such as a two-metre-tall Khuroos, while the next two lines are for the glazing process, and the firing, in the Faran, or kiln.”
He offers as an example, that all pottery must be formed, either through the wheel, moulds, or pressing, and then may have essential modifications or designs worked into them by hand. He remarks that, “The designs are very much of our Omani heritage, and are very much those also used in locally produced jewellery. We currently have a mould room which contains over 400 different traditional moulds, we have outstanding traditional artists and designers, and we are also embracing technology, with some computer drawn designs.”
Most items will then be given an undercoat and design added before a preliminary baking at around 9000 centigrade, for maybe 15 hours, further design may be added before the items will be glazed, and then fired again, this time at a scorching 1,1350. Originally of course, the kilns were wood-fired, and later they were supplemented by diesel-fired plants, however the latest innovation at the centre is their electric kiln, which may be seen by some older craftsmen as a bit of a shame, but Nasser laughs that he loves it. “It’s progress, and we must move with the times.”
“Our tradesmen and women, and our trainees, must be so accurate,” he said seriously. “As we have so many different products, and so many different processes, with each clay requiring different kiln times and temperatures, different cooling times prior to the next production phase and so on.”
Nasser is incredibly grateful for the support the PACI has offered his industry, especially in recent years as finances have become tighter, saying, “They provide a training opportunity for young people, who get a training allowance, are always ready with advice and counselling, offer a professional development pathway for Omani youth, and support the rural community. They ensure that our crafts, our skills, and our knowledge will never be lost.”
He is both grateful, and proud too, that their products will grace many mantlepieces, dining rooms, and sideboards around the world, as the government supports local craftsmen in using locally produced object’d’art for diplomatic and governmental presentations. Pushed to choose his favourite piece in their factory shop, Nasser chose white ceramic crockery, as “Omani clay, design, craftsmanship, and decoration, enhanced by authentic Italian Lemon Gold. It is so, so, beautiful.”
Nasser appears to be a well-respected man by his workforce, trainees, and the town, as he works his own brand of ‘magic’ in Bahla, and the Sultanate. However, his family is never far from his thoughts, and one suspects that though he is assured of prominence in local business, and the craft industries, it would appear he treasures his family, and their love and support, beyond any personal visions of grandeur.

Ray petersen