Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A traditional renaissance

Stefan Sigaard Weichert pays a visit to Cairo’s Nadim factory, where traditional crafts are being produced for a growing market

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Sawdust fills the air around the Nadim factory in Cairo. This is the result of all the carving, turning and cutting required to make traditional crafts. In other areas, the smell of paint makes the head spin.

Hundreds of people make their way around the Nadim factory in the Abu Rawash Industrial Zone in Cairo, with some operating the machinery, others packing the trucks, and some discussing new projects and designs.

The factory produces traditional crafts for retail and larger outlets, with Nadim’s repertoire spanning all the way from carpets, decoration and sofas to restoration projects and large hotel assignments.

Among its larger projects, the company has completed work at the Four Seasons Hotel (Oberoi), the Holiday Inn (Six Continents), the Hyatt (Sheraton), the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo and the American University in Cairo’s new campus.

Hend Nadim, the company’s deputy chairman and managing director, shows visitors around the factory site. She recently visited the American University in Cairo (AUC) to talk about new trends in the crafts sector, which is why Al-Ahram Weekly was paying her a visit.

The company began in 1978 as a training workshop, but the family business soon expanded into production. A factory was opened in Abu Rawash in 2001, and Nadim now has showrooms and stores around Cairo.

Before the financial crisis in 2008, the company focused on exports and had 915 employees. In the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution, the number of employees fell to just 300. Nadim now has some 400 employees.

Nadim does not try to hide the fact that the sector has been hit hard economically, as she shows the Weekly around the factory where it is hard to imagine another 500 people being able to fit. However, she says that it is already something that Nadim has managed to survive, “when a lot of people have not,” as she puts it.

“We had no business for four years,” she says. “There were no projects happening. We used to export a high percentage of our production, but nobody wanted to come to buy material in Egypt anymore because of the instability over the last few years.

“It puts you in a tight spot. You need to see how you can make ends meet. Many of our problems also come because of subsidies and support to factories in China given by the Chinese government. At the moment, the government in Egypt is busy with more pressing matters. The revolution was a disaster for our sector economically,” she says.

It seems like the beginning of a sad story, but Nadim points out that she expects it to turn around. The revolution did not only lead to negative changes, she says. As she walks around where the turning and cutting takes place, she talks about the nationalistic movement among Egyptians that was catalysed by the revolution. When she talks about this subject, she lights up and seems proud.

“People have a new national identity because of all that has been happening in Egypt during the past few years. Traditional crafts fit in well with that. The national feeling has of course always been there, but it was limited to people with a culturally sophisticated background. Now you find that it has spread, and that is very positive,” she says, adding that in the 1970s people were more interested in Western styles of decoration.

People today are looking for traditional crafts that “are useful and have modern designs,” she says, giving them modern functions and modern looks but still having “the identity that people are looking for.” This has also created retail demand, a new area for the company.

“People are looking for expressions of identity right now, trying to find their ties to Egypt. That is the place where I see the revolution as having had the largest impact,” she says.

She illustrates this by showing chairs with Islamic patterns and sofas covered in different motifs. These may not have been considered popular products before the revolution, but today they have become mainstream as more and more people are requesting traditional designs to furnish their houses.



THE ANSWER IS QUALITY: At a long wooden bench, two women sit weaving carpets by hand. It can take a day to make a few centimetres, Nadim explains, while a middle-aged man walks behind the women to check the quality as the work proceeds.

It is not hard to imagine that it can take many months to finish a single carpet, and because of all the labour and time that goes into making the carpets the prices can be high. However, this does not concern Nadim. Quality is part of the company’s strategy and should be the same throughout the sector.

“With Chinese products, for example, you can find poor-quality products and good-quality products,” she says. “We do not compare ourselves with the poor-quality Chinese products. We are not competing with them. When you compare our products to the quality products with great designs produced in China, I think we compete well with those.”

The atmosphere is there, she says, and as a result people can make a living out of designing and producing good-quality heritage products in Egypt.

“In today’s market, there are a lot of Turkish, Chinese, Far Eastern and European products, but to enter a shop and find everything is Egyptian is a change and it makes people proud. We make products that are Egyptian, tasteful, modern and traditional at the same time. Egyptian crafts have everything, and they impress people. That is their selling point,” she says.

Nadim’s mobile phone keeps ringing as we walk around the factory, and it continues when we sit in her office for last questions. She is a busy woman, and she interrupts the interview a number of times when a call is too important to postpone.

But when she returns she always apologises, giving her full attention to the interview. During the tour around the factory, Nadim also interrupts a couple of times to ask the workers to change something or to ask how things are going. Like a juggler, she keeps many balls in the air at the same time.

When we walk around the cutting stations, she talks about the Mamluke period being her favourite for all the traditional crafts, since it was a richer and more innovative period than the Ottoman one, she says. In her talk at the AUC, she was asked about the balance between restoring or producing traditional crafts and the need to retain heritage qualities intact.

She is aware of the need for balance, and it is obvious that the question at the talk was not the first one of its kind she had heard in her long career. “Some people say, ‘Well it doesn’t look antique anymore if you restore it.’ But do antiques need to look dirty and have a lot of dust on them? Do they need to be broken? The answer is that they really don’t, and the same thing is true of restoration work on heritage buildings.

“When you are doing restoration, you are restoring — either fixing something that is broken, or replacing something that is not there, like a door. It could also be something like a door missing a piece, and then you are restoring that.

“In both cases, you have to use documents showing how the piece used to look, how it was done, and what patterns were originally used.

“But this doesn’t mean having to use old tools. You can use machine saws, for example. I do not feel it is a problem to do that. I will of course need to have the original designs, and that may mean using certain techniques, but using modern ways of doing things, why not? Had the original craftsmen known of modern ways of doing things, I am sure they would have used them. As long as you label a piece as a restoration, I do not see any problem with that,” she says.

What would a man in the crafts sector who had lived hundreds of year ago think about how things are done in a large factory today? When machinery is doing a large part of the work, and when the drawings are made largely on computers?

Nadim smiles. She has a journalist walking around her factory, but how would a craftsman from the period from which she and her company find inspiration react? “I think he would say ‘wow’ looking at all the changes,” she responds, raising her hands in the air.

“This sector has never been under one umbrella before. It used to be one man doing the turning, another doing the carving and a third doing something else with no organisation putting these operations together. A traditional craftsman would use hand-powered tools to turn a piece of wood while working on it.

“Today, we have machines to do that, so the worker can use both his hands. Back then a craftsman would have to use one hand to power the machine and the other to create his pieces. Back then, the finest piece of work was also not that fine.”
 

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