Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Enduring love

Otherwise known as "the furniture fort" of Egypt, Sherine Abdel-Razek contends, the city of Damietta offers a rare export success story

Sweets, dairy products and even liquefied natural gas are among the commodities now produced in Damietta governorate. Still, it is the beautifully carved wood furniture for which the city is famous that first comes to mind when Damietta is mentioned. Daily dozens of brides accompany their bridegrooms from all over Egypt making their way there with a view to furnishing their homes-to- be. Iman Thabet, 23, is one particularly hurried bride, her wedding being in August: "In choosing a dining room and a bedroom for our new house, we didn't even bother to look at furniture shops in Cairo. We headed straight to Damietta. Because we realised that it offers both quality and value -- as well as fashionable designs." Iman's mother, her companion on this errand of a lifetime, agreed: she too had made the same journey 25 years before.

Lying at the point of intersection of the Mediterranean and the Nile, Damietta is, first and foremost, a vital port and shipbuilding centre with a history of trade relations with the Levant and Mediterranean Europe. Furniture making had always existed as a subsidiary of shipbuilding, but it was during the 18th and 19th centuries that French, and then British colonisers began putting the local craftsmen in their employ, and thus teaching them the art of furniture making as it was practised in Europe -- something that explains why the style of furniture produced in Damietta tends to be of colonial French and English origin. Furniture making exists in Alexandria and Cairo, but the governorate of Damietta remains the Egyptian industry's principal centre, whether in terms of skill or volume of production. The craftsmanship is passed from one generation to the next, with family names like Al- Iraqi, Al-Gallad, Asal, Sheta and Hesn having contributed four or more generations of furniture shop owners. For Mustafa Atroush, a craftsman with a BA in literature who operates a small wood carving shop in the district of Al- Zarqa, "furniture is an obsession and lifelong love story". This sentiment, he insists, is shared by craftsmen throughout the governorate: "I just love watching a solid lump of wood turn into a well-carved piece -- it's like watching your baby girl grow up to become a gorgeous young lady. Even while the wood is white, as yet unvarnished, you can feel the wholeness and dignity of each piece. It speaks so articulately of itself..."

From the economic point of view, furniture making in Damietta is not only a love story but a success story as well. The governorate's furniture production -- 75 per cent of total furniture production in Egypt -- accounts for a surprisingly high portion of the country's GNP; according to the governor of Damietta Mohamed Fathi El- Baradei, furniture exports from Damietta amount to a staggering $100 million annually. The industry has changed over time. Initially composed of small, specialised workshops, each of which complemented the next, it now comprises medium-sized, often export-oriented factories employing 100-150 workers each. Abdel-Razak Hesn, owner of Abdel-Razak Company, elaborates, "the industry was partially automated but never at the expense of craftsmanship -- no machine can replace the skill that goes into the intricate woodwork of our craftsmen, nor their attention to detail. It is this skill that comprises our competitive edge, both locally and internationally." But already the complete room set is increasingly supplemented with side tables and other small items formerly seen only in Cairo and Alexandria. Simple, modern designs are displayed side by side with the more ornate traditional material, and several workshops are supplying the tourist industry, too.

Representing this brave new Damietta is Ahmed Oransa, who, together with his brother, owns a company named Pinocchio, which specialises in hotel furnishings: "We decided to be different not only in our product but in our production target and marketing methods. We have little interest in the regular Damietta shoppers -- that is why we've opened a show room in Cairo too. Plus, rather than waiting for customers to find us, we depend on advertising." In fact the Egyptian market is less of a concern to most of Damietta's furniture-makers. With exportation witnessing a boom in the last decade, and peaking in the last two years, many of Damietta's furniture-makers have a beady eye on the international market. "We started to showcase at foreign markets and exhibitions," Hesn says. "But we need more help from commercial attachés in our principal markets. In the US, for example, we could double or even triple our exports if we were marketed properly." Certainly, such help should be urgently provided.

But these are not the only changes with which the industry has been beset. Skilled craftsmen, too, have become rarer and rarer. Many emigrated to Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia through the 1970s and 1980s; and there they established sound furniture industries. Those who are still in Damietta are rather spoiled, according to Mohamed Sheta, whose family has worked in the industry for over 40 years now: "In the past a worker would arrive before the owner and work the whole day, till dusk. Now that they spend the nights watching satellite TV, workers never arrive before noon." Established two years ago specifically to address this issue, indeed, the Mubarak-Kohl Crafts School will next year yield its first class of graduates, most of whom will find employment in one of 250 workshops supporting the project. A secondary school, it offers vocational education in the furniture industry. "Students spend five days a week in practical training at various factories and workshops," Sheta explains. "The rest of the course is theoretical -- design, history. It combines craftsmanship with academic training."

In recognition of the industry's importance, the Industrial Modernisation Programme (IMP), too, supervises 700 factories whose workers are, among other benefits, sent on training courses in France and Spain. The institution also organises exhibitions in foreign fairs like the Index in Dubai and Salon de Meubles in France; and it extends soft loans to help upgrade small workshops. "Before this there was no craftsman training whatsoever," Hesn reports. "Although most of the present generation are university educated, we don't tend to study furniture design or anything related to it at school. It's something that's passed from father to son."

As Abdel-Salam El-Iraqi points out, however, without official support and incentives, Damietta's success story may not have a happy ending, after all: "The case of Damietta is unique because while we are importers of wood we are exporters of furniture; thus we earn much needed hard currency. And we should have as much support from the state as we can get, especially since we face competition from both China and Turkey, whose furniture industries are heavily supported by their governments."

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