Recently I filmed an intro for a tv series that will run later this year on inspiring New Zealanders. Today a package arrived for me from the producers. In it was a leather wallet, wrapped delicately in tissue paper, with an immaculately designed card attached to it. On the inside right I found my initials, ’SR’, etched in gold leaf. Shiny gold zips and eyelets on a matte black finish. On the card I was told this was a ‘designer, luxury good’. They continued by saying that they hoped that each day as I broke in the leather it would add to the story and uniqueness of the product. In a sense, they hoped that I and the product would become one.
It was a lovely gesture no doubt... but I think they sent this to the wrong guy.
A leather satchel sat beside my bed. It’s made of camel leather and bought from a man named Jamal in the back streets of Hebron, a Palestinian city colonised by illegal Israeli occupation. I had Jamal sign it on the inside so I didn’t forget the man who made it and his story. Jamal’s shop is one of only a few left in the stretch of narrow old city street heading towards the checkpoint and the Ibrahimi Mosque where countless Muslims were massacred during prayer a few years ago by an Israeli settler. No one wants to go to this part of town anymore, it’s unsafe. His store stands alone between dozens of shut doors.
Above Jamal’s shop is some wire netting and a canopy. This was put up to stop Israeli settlers who live in the apartments above from throwing bleach, shit and urine down onto the Palestinian shop owners and patrons. Jamal told me this leather shop had been in his family for over a hundred years and that it would soon have to close too. His grandfather made these same leather goods and the skill had been passed down again and again through generations. Jamal begged that I buy something to help him last a little longer. I buckled and bought this camel leather satchel which I love. It’s a little too 'flarey’ for my tastes with it’s persian curves and flicks, but I love it for the person who made it and the courage they showed to vulnerably share their story with a stranger one afternoon in West Bank Palestine.
I reached deep into Jamal's satchel and pulled out a wallet. It’s scuffed and a tiny bit askew where the leather comes together, but if I lick my thumb and rub the scratches they buff out easy. It doesn’t quite fit what I need it to; I always have too many cards, receipts and coins so it bulges open and overflows like a sleeping bag spilling from it’s sleeve. I bought this from a little company in Kolkata, India called ‘The Loyal Workshop’.
Finding Loyal is a nightmare. There’s a safe way to get there, but then there’s the way we accidentally went which was through the heart of the red light district. Loyal have placed themselves here because they want to offer skills and employment to women who want to leave the sex trade. They don’t go hunting for people, they live their lives in the neighbourhood and through their presence people come to them. They now employ 10 women full-time who make wallets, bags and bracelets. Each product has the name of the manufacturer etched into the leather, not in gold, but in a rustic depression that fades a little over time.
Sarah and Paul are a couple from Auckland who set up Loyal. When Sarah sat with us for a cup of tea and talked about the work they do she wept. She loves this community and she loves the women who work there. She talks about how she hopes they can employ enough nationals that it won’t need westerners like them anymore. She’s about empowerment, not dependency. Sarah talks like the rhythm of one of those breathing machines in a hospital, drawing in stories of hope with each breath and deflating as she exhales the tragedy that still surrounds them. When I use my Loyal Wallet I feel a deep sense of connection to Sarah and Paul, and to their community. (www.theloyalworkshop.com)
I looked up the company who made this fancy black and gold luxury good still in front of me on the table. It retails for $130. I’m not trying to be ungrateful, I just think they missed the point that if they wanted to thank me they could have just as easily sent a card and saved themselves the money. That’s why I setup an espresso bar named Stories (www.storiesespresso.co.nz), because I’m less interested in what the product says about me and more interested in who it connects me with. That’s why when we opened our second social enterprise we didn’t brand it Stories again like a Starbucks franchise, we named it after one of our young people who had become our promising young barista, Georgia.
I don’t like the idea of a product defining me. I’m not interested in the pervading western view that I am just the sum of the brands that adorn me. I want meaning, I want connectedness, I want the product to enable someone else’s life rather than defining mine. A friend of mine often asks the question ‘how are you going to spend your privilege?’ That’s something that as a white, hetero, male, westerner I ask myself everyday. If I have to choose between spending my privilege on luxury for myself, or on the basic necessities of life for others, then that seems like a no brainer, right?
So, who wants a $130 wallet? I’ve got one spare!