Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Disappearing crafts

Mai Samih looks at the traditional crafts of pottery, copper and glassmaking that are fading away in Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

Crafts have existed since the dawn of humanity to serve certain needs. The ancient Egyptians used parts of date palms, including the leaves and fibres, to make chairs and other types of furniture. This method was still used until comparatively recently, but today it is in danger of disappearing owing to the reduced demand and shortages of material.

This is a story repeated with other types of craft. Workshops making the traditional tarboush, a red hat worn during the Ottoman, French and British occupations of Egypt, have almost disappeared, aside from some tourist ones in Khan Al-Khalili, the traditional bazaar in Islamic Cairo.

Alabaster statue making, a craft inherited from the pharaohs and once widely practised in Luxor, is becoming very rare. Can these crafts be saved from extinction?

Said Ibrahim, 45, is a pottery workshop and shop owner in the Fustat district of Cairo and the father of four children. He gives an account of the qula pottery, bottle-like containers used to cool drinking water in Egypt.

“Their use started in the time of the ancient Egyptians, but today they are becoming rarer and rarer. We continue to make qula in our workshop in Menoufia, but people rarely buy them,” he says.

Ibrahim makes and sells other pottery products. He describes his working day. “Our working hours could be from the early hours of the morning until sunset. But the work is becoming more difficult.”

“The old fawakheers (ovens) have been banned by the Ministry of the Environment on the grounds they are a source of pollution, and the clay we need is becoming harder to get too,” he says.

His family has been working in the field of pottery for generations. “I’ve been working for about 25 years in this craft,” Ibrahim says.

According to the Dictionary of Old and New Jobs, a guide to traditional occupations written by Tarek Kakhia, a person who makes pottery is traditionally called a fawakhery (maker of earthenware), and the district he works in is called Al-Fawakharaniya.

Making a qula depends on traditional know-how, Ibrahim explains. “We use various types of clay, such as agricultural tamy [clay] and white tebani tamy, blending them together to make the qula. Some people use Aswanli clay, though this should not be used as it won’t make good-quality qula,” Ibrahim explains.

There are many types of qula, including beyda (white), masry, qenawi, samanoudi, and greiss. Each governorate is distinguished by its variety of qula and by the material used to make them. “For example, the beyda qula is made of a blend of white clay that comes from Tebeen and black clay. Ordinary qula are made from ordinary black clay,” Ibrahim adds.

In the past, more of the drinking bottles used to be sold. “Today, a qula is sold for LE3, but in the past it used to cost just one piastre. But few people buy them today, mainly members of the older generation who may want to set up a sabeel [free water offered to passers-by], but cannot afford to buy a water cooler.

“In the past we sold between 300 and 400 qula per month, but now100 can remain here for more than 20 days without finding customers. In the winter, no one buys them at all, though the trade picks up in summer. In the past, they were bought all year round when people did not have refrigerators.”

Amm Shaaban, as people in the Al-Gamaleya district in Cairo call him, is a tinsmith and the grandfather of six and father of four. He learnt his craft as a boy. “I’ve been working in this field all my life. My father was a tinsmith, and he started teaching me his job when I was six years old and I worked as an apprentice,” he says.

According to Tarek Kakhia’s Dictionary, a tinsmith is a mobayed nahas, someone who typically works in materials such as copper, polishing it with a layer of tin to give it a silver colour.

Shaaban expresses his dismay at the disappearance of a craft he inherited from his forefathers. “The craft is very rare now as no one is learning it, and everyone is after higher profits than can be made through the traditional crafts,” he says.

“My sons don’t want to learn it, although it is not a bad job. My father and grandfather worked in this job, but my sons don’t want to.”

“Sometimes I am even worried that people from the Ministry of Antiquities will come by and ask me to stop on the grounds that I am spoiling the touristic sites. But I am not spoiling them at all. I am helping them. If I wasn’t working here, there would be rubbish all around.”

He explains how he polishes the copper. “I use qasdeer [tin powder], ammonia, and sulphuric acid to put a layer of tin on the copperware, such as plates and pans. First, I put a bit of burnt sulphuric acid and ammonia on the copper plate that is to be polished, and I use a metal pincer to put it on a burner for a few minutes.”

“Then, I use a large piece of cotton full of tin powder to shine the plate with and paint it with a layer of tin. After that, I put it in a steel container full of water until it cools and is ready to be used. I always buy the materials I work with from local merchants. In the past they were cheap, but now they are expensive,” he says.

He polishes pans for cooking and qedras (containers to prepare fava beans or ful) of every size. “I have customers who polish their copperware every one or two years. Copper is a healthier metal to use in the kitchen than aluminium and stainless steel,” he comments.

“There are some periods in which I could stay for two days or more without work and others in which I have a lot of work. One woman from Qena who read in the papers that I worked as a tinsmith came specially to ask me to polish her copperware.”

“I don’t want a proper shop to work in. I am very happy working where I am. I would be more than willing to teach anyone who wants to learn this craft that I learned from my father,” Shaaban says.

Said Abdel-Raouf, 46, a glassware workshop and shop owner in Khan Al-Khalili, talks about how he came to work in his field. “My father used to work in this field as well, and the family began in the Levant in Syria. Our ancestors came and settled in Egypt generations ago and started working here,” he says.

According to the Dictionary, a zagag is a person who makes glassware such as lamps, plates, bottles, jars and jugs. Abdel-Raouf specialises in zogag nafkh, or glassblowing. He starts work at 6am and finishes at 4pm.

Today, much of his glass is made for tourists. “We buy broken glassware, which we then recycle by melting it over heat. If we want the glass to turn blue, we add a substance called keshr al-nahas [copper peel] which we get from the tinsmith.”

“We wash it, add salt to it, and bake it till it changes colour, and then we add two teaspoons of it to the glass to give it a purple colour. Green colours and asali [light brown] colours are natural,” he says.

“In the past, materials were cheaper, and there were many more glass workshops. People think they have to work long hours with minimum pay, which is why only families take up this business from their forefathers,” he adds.

“The main problem we faced in the past was the availability of colours, but now we have more problems finding gas cylinders, which are rarely available in winter,” Abdel-Raouf explains when asked about the problems he faces.

“A gas cylinder costs LE10 to 12 in summer, but LE60 to 70 in winter, and this has a direct effect on our work. Sometimes we have to stop working for about a month and a half each winter,” he adds.

“When my father was in charge, the governor built him a factory in the Souq Al-Laymoun district to teach people the craft, but no one came to learn and after a while it became an inhabited area and people started to complain of the smoke from the factory so it was closed down by the Ministry of Environment. It is still closed up till now.”

According to Abdel-Raouf, today it is mostly foreigners who buy handmade glassware, but more and more Egyptian customers are beginning to come to buy cups and vases. Foreigners like undecorated objects that can then be decorated with Arabic letters, he says. Prices may also not be as high as people think.

“A large ornamented vase like the lamps found in mosques is LE40, while a plain one is just LE15. A small purple jug is LE10. Customers can also indicate the design they want, and we will make it on the spot for them,” he explains.

Asked what he would most like to see in order to support his craft, Abdel-Raouf is typically forthright. “There are some places in the Al-Qalaa district where the government has given people, mostly inhabitants of the area, spaces for workshops. We would like to see similar spaces given to manufacture glass,” he says.

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