Saad of Egypt: Crafting authenticity
The greatest capital is good will
Profile by Aziza Sami
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" The president came in. I stood up and introduced myself as Saad of Egypt. I was short and he was tall. He looked down at me and said, 'and if you are Egypt's Saad, whose El-Sadat am I?"
On the second floor, above his small shop in Khan Al-Khalili, Ibrahim Abbas Ibrahim -- better known as Saad of Egypt, one of the country's biggest silversmiths -- sat to his table in a small vestibule-like room. In the larger room an array of glass-encased silverware (Turkish cups, mirrors, ornaments), displayed all around the walls, contrasted with the décor of the shop. There was more space here, and the style was modern, distinct from the deep-brown wood and Arabic calligraphy of the shop, which overlooks one of the narrower alleyways of the Khan. The space above, it would seem, reflects the mood of Saad of Egypt's son Ezzeddin, a graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC) who has recently imbued his father's 40-year-old business with the implements of the electronic age, introducing a website and garnering a clientele in Europe and North America.
The shops of Saad of Egypt, as the elegant, understated billboards proclaim, extend to Cairo's affluent neighbourhoods: Mohandessin, Heliopolis, Maadi and the more equitable downtown. Yet of all of them, only this small shop -- housed in a century-old sabil (hostel) built by a member of the pre-1952 aristocracy, Princess Shwikar, that exudes authenticity; it is the dearest to Saad's heart. "Ezzeddin wanted to have a uniform look for all of our shops, like all modern companies, but I told him, 'When it comes to Khan Al-Khalili, you cannot change how things are. This shop remains as is, with its 'dust' and age, so to speak." He smiles, "we're partners, you know, Ezzeddin and I, so we discuss things..."
In the span of 40 years, Saad of Egypt has turned from a small artisan -- an apprentice with the jeweller Helmi Boutros who happened to trade silver in Khan Al-Khalili -- to one of Egypt's most prominent businesses in the silver trade, on a par with older names like Hussein El- Agati, Edward Zorayan and Awlad Awad, whose businesses are now resumed by their children. The distinction here is that Saad is totally "self- made", a man whose keen business sense, combined with a knack for the right connections -- in a remarkably personalised manner, let it be said -- has resulted in a broad spectrum of ties which ultimately came to encompass the presidency, the diplomatic corps and several major companies as well as tourists -- a litany of clients who could be said to constitute an interesting aspect of the social map of Egypt.
Ibrahim Khalil Ibrahim, as his name is officially registered, was born right next to Khan Al- Khalili in 1939, in the popular district of Al- Hussein, at the heart of Fatimid Cairo. "To be exact, in 122 Jawhar Al-Qaaid Street (named after Jawhar the Sicilian, the Fatimid military commander who founded Cairo)". He was born Ibrahim, but everyone called him Saad "because it was the name my mother had wanted, despite my being named, in the end, after my paternal grandfather". The name Saad was to stick, however. His father was a teacher at Al-Azhar, but until Saad came to work in the Khan, while still in his teens, he really "knew nothing about it, even though only one street lay between it and our house". His parents died a few months apart when he was 10 years old. And he obtained his thanawiya aama (secondary school degree) in 1958, but could not attend university -- his life's dream -- "because I was working then", already apprenticed to Helmi Boutros, through the council of a friend already employed there. Boutros's shop still stands at the end of the same street, though it is now run by his sons.
"Boutros was very well versed in jewels, old ones, especially, because he worked in the era of the monarchy." In Boutros's workshop, Saad learned how to craft silver, absorbing both technical and business aspects of the age-old trade. Today he considers Boutros his greatest mentor, the man "who taught me to sell -- to understand the principles of the business". Despite his admiration for Boutros, before too long Saad was to feel that he "wanted to be independent. And I said to Boutros, 'what if for one reason or another you stopped paying me a salary, where would I be?'". With his mentor's encouragement and minimal savings, he thus entered into partnership with another trader.
"We borrowed copper and silver items to sell. At the time, we didn't have any concept of loans -- we didn't even deal with banks. I would just need to know a person, the owner of a workshop for instance, who trusted me enough to lend me wares: 12 spoons and two mirrors, for instance. That done, I would sell them, take what profit I manage to make and give him back what was due to him at once." Saad sold at competitive prices, often undercutting others to gain clients. "Though today, well, we're not cheap," he smiles. He moved from one shop to another at the Khan -- three in all -- all of them rented. Starting out near the famous Al- Fishawi Café, he has settled, since 1971, in the shop where we met.
The story of the trademark name Saad of Egypt reveals the role played in Saad's life by the woman he calls "my second mentor, the Begum Aga Khan". The French-born 'Om Habiba' as she was known, was the wife of the Pakistani Ismaili spiritual leader Aga Khan III, Mohamed Shah. The Begum used to spend all of her winters in Egypt up until her death. She was subsequently buried alongside her husband in Aswan. "One day, when the Begum came to my shop in the Khan, in 1971, she saw my business card, which said 'Saad, Oriental Curiosities'. She looked at me very disapprovingly and said, 'what's this word "curiosities"? You're an artisan who measures up to craftsmen in countries like Switzerland. You should be proud of what you are: 'Saad of Egypt'." At the Begum's insistence -- "she said she would not come to my shop unless I did so" -- the name was registered with the concerned commercial department. "When God gives you of his bounty, it turns into a shower -- it's like a hose," he laughs.
Saad has never lost his capacity for warmth: he always gets up to meet a client who comes into his shop, ordering "green tea with or without mint" from the coffee shop nearby, and serving it on his own special silver tray. Human contacts have been of prime importance in his business, and, with them, he readily admits, the "high- placed connections" that helped move him into a more prestigious -- and lucrative -- market. In the late 1960s, a major step occurred when Jihan El-Sadat, wife of the then vice-president Anwar El-Sadat, commissioned Saad to provide the presidency with "state gifts" for different occasions. "El-Agati at the time was likewise working with the Foreign Ministry..." Already Saad's clients included members of the diplomatic corps; dealing with the presidency opened "yet more doors". Through the ministry of petroleum, he began to provide for foreign and local oil companies.
With humour, he recalls the first time he met the late president El-Sadat. "I was sitting in the living room with Mrs El-Sadat, at the presidential residence, showing her some of my wares, when the president came in. I stood up and introduced myself as Saad of Egypt. I was short and he was tall. He looked down at me and said, 'and if you are Egypt's Saad, whose El- Sadat am I?" Carrying the tradition of the craftsman, which propelled him to where he is today, Saad still forges his own silver "in the tradition of Zorayan the Armenian, which his children, unfortunately, discontinued". He takes precautions against losing his skilled craftsmen, a rare commodity today, "concealed", as he explains " away in our workshop away from the Khan, in the (Cairene) district of Ghamra. After all, a competitor could come in and lure them away".
Most of the designs are copied from foreign models, but there is scope for innovation. "We go back to the old models, like the Turkish cups with a cover on them, which are very popular." Proportions are of paramount importance, and Saad oversees the pieces in person, testing them one by one before they are offered for sale. "You measure, but it is the eye that tells you if something looks right." There are items that he designs himself, inspired by models seen abroad but executed in a way "more suited to Egyptian taste" -- a pen and ink set, for example, complete with letter-opener, vase and two silver horses "to put on your desk". He keeps cherished items -- not for sale -- like an American-made Alvin sterling silver table set, with the initials of Egyptian diplomats who were based in Washington in the 1940s engraved on it. Another piece: a multi-tiered bonboniere wrought in the Prussian Empire. "Some parts are missing -- I'd really have to travel to Hungary to complete it." And he will tell you that the best way to polish silver is the combination of "soap, warm water and a toothbrush -- forget all the polishes promoted on the market; they just aim at making money..."
Saad's wife has been actively involved in his work, "a most open-minded person. She's my teacher in many things", as he describes her, who oversaw the compilation of the Saad of Egypt glossy catalogue, with high-quality colour photographs of all the items on offer. Saad did not marry until 1974, when he was 34, "after I became Saad of Egypt", he indicates. "I could never think of marrying while I was still building the business, before I could become totally, materially independent." He sees his little family (his daughter Sara is still eight years old) as "a partnership" of sorts, "though I've given my son the independence to run his own affiliated company -- so long as he goes by the book, especially when it comes to finances". Since 1996, when a car accident robbed them of their elder son Saadeddin, a mass communications sophomore at AUC, Saad's wife has not taken much interest in the business. Devastating as it was for him too, however, the experience left Saad with the certainty that one should "regret nothing -- after having lost what is most precious than all". The pain changed his outlook on Ezzeddin: "Now I know how important it is to befriend your son, rather than being a figure of authority, lecturing him all of the time ..."
On a lighter note, he speaks of the market, always changing, following the rhythm of weddings, of feasts. "It goes up and down in waves, but there is always demand; and one can only say, 'Thank God'." He reviews the history of silver in Egypt, how the Armenians were in charge of the trade, how treasures were lost (due to both redistribution of wealth and the disappearance of foreign communities) in the post-1952 era and how, in the mid-1950s, production started to pick up again, giving way to a domestic market. According to his assessment, the prospects are good for the future of the trade, "custom tariffs need to go down drastically though, because now, what is taken in customs is equivalent to the price we ask for the product. If customs go down, the price will go down, and everyone will work in silver and try to improve the craft. There will be competition, and poor quality will disappear".
A chest of silver-encased mahogany stands on the floor, near the shelves; such items are produced and crafted on demand. "This is the present that bridegrooms in the Gulf offer their brides." Customers from this region form a sizeable portion of Saad's clientele; naturally, especially in Khan Al-Khalili, so do tourists, with whom he converses fluently in both English and French.
Saad is interested in social commentary, and he read Alaa El-Aswani's novel Emaret Yaaqoubian, a literary phenomenon, with avid interest. Based on real-life figures, many of its characters -- inhabitants of an old building in downtown Cairo -- "seemed like people I actually know". For he was close to circles of political power, yet would never think of involving himself with them, except in his capacity as "a trader". "Two things I've never liked: politicians and men of religion. They both manipulate you then throw you away -- once you're no longer of use to them." He pauses. "You cannot be a trader and a politician at the same time." Has he ever felt under pressure to compromise, though, while dealing with people of influence? "I never liked extortion of any sort." The tone is vehement. "I might sell something at a reduced price as a compliment. But to give something away to someone at no cost because they're important or politically influential? Never." Another pause here. "When you've gone through hard times to make money, every pound becomes a fortune to you."
After his business took on the proportions of a major company, clients who had known Saad for years are often surprised to find him present at every one of his shops, routinely visiting each daily for an hour. His presence, he feels, will always be important: "One doesn't chase after clients. You must have dignity and respect for yourself and others. But still, you have to be there. It's something else I learned from Helmi Boutros." He is happiest when his is in the Khan, "though the people in it have changed, like everywhere else. It was very different before. Better, of course". Sunrays are doing creative things with the roofs of buildings and everywhere we pass, in the narrow alleyways of the Khan, shop-keepers offer generous discounts because we are the guests of "Am Saad". Much might have changed over the years in the Khan and in Saad's own life , but within him, he feels he has remained the same. "I cannot change what I learned when I was young: that you must work hard to be something, to build yourself." What motivates him to go on? "It is something that has grown with me over the years. You can call it the goodwill of the people around you. It's what's fuelled the business for me and made it grow. For me that's always been the motivation, this goodwill. It's a fortune that never ends."