Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Genius in glass

Cairo glassmaker Hassan Hodhod comes from a family that has been making glass for generations, keeping alive an ancient craft that is today threatened with extinction, writes Mai Samih

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Glass beads have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 3500 BCE. The ancient Egyptians knew techniques to colour glass and to produce transparent glass as early as the 18th Dynasty. During the New Kingdom, the techniques needed to develop glassblowing were developed, including the use of furnaces and ceramic tubes. This form of craft was developed under Roman rule, and is still practiced today.

Hassan Ahmed Ali, nicknamed “Hassan Hodhod”, is one of the living masters of the art of glassblowing. Born sixty years ago in the Gamaleya district of Cairo, he has a workshop in Darassa, near the City of the Dead.

“This place was named by the Europeans as the City of the Dead because it has tombs and is inhabited by people at the same time. Glassblowing was discovered by our ancestors, the ancient Egyptians, in the era of Akhenaten at Tel Al-Amarna. They built kilns at the foot of the mountains and used wood as the fuel to melt the glass,” Hodhod explains.

He adds that the craft is not so very different in its essentials today, although over time it was affected by other civilisations. “We took the habit of using meshkat [glass lamps that hang from the ceilings of mosques] from the Arabs in the Byzantine, Fatimid and Mamluke periods,” he says.

What distinguishes glassblowing is its use of a furnace and the special care that must be taken to avoid injury because of the high temperatures involved. “The kiln we use is handmade to special measurements. It has the advantage that we can use it for coloured glass and even put different colours in each section of the kiln, meaning that several craftsmen can use it at the same time,” he says.

“To make the glass, we do not use sand, but instead take broken glass fragments, wash them, and then melt them down to re-use them. We use oxides to strengthen the glass as it is much safer than adding lead,” he says, adding that in his opinion the Pyrex plates sometimes used for cooking food are not healthy because of the amount of lead in them. The more the glass is shatter-resistant, the more lead it contains.

“This kind of glass is full of lead to strengthen it, which could be a health hazard if it were used for eating and drinking. There is no such thing as unbreakable glass, as this is only glass with a high percentage of lead. On the other hand, the glass we make is always lead-free,” he says.

It took Hodhod many years to become a glassblower. “Like anyone else, I used to believe my father was a star and wanted to learn the craft from him. But he did not want me to learn it because he believed that one should not stay for 12 to 15 hours a day in front of an extremely hot kiln. He said it was no job for a boy. He even told me that glassblowing was associated with the jinn [genies], and that it could be dangerous. So when I was growing up I thought perhaps I would go into sports instead, and I started to learn boxing and football, even placing bets on matches because my father would not teach me his job.”

He continues, “The turning point came after a boxing match when I was told that my father was tired. So I started helping him in his workshop. I stored all the details in my memory, and when he saw that I could make things out of glass he relented and started to teach me properly. I learned all the secrets of the profession and became one of the most experienced glassmakers in the area.”

Hodhod’s life was so interesting that filmmakers were inspired by it, and the story of the film Kaborya, starring actor Ahmed Zaki, was taken from his life story.

“My role model was Mohamed Ali, the famous boxer. I used to bet on boxing matches in public clubs. The late novelist Khairy Shalabi used to live in the neighbourhood with us for more than 25 years and he would stay all day in the café nearby writing. One day he came with film scenario writer Mohamed Al-Adl to meet my father who told him about me and how I was driving him crazy with my boxing. Al-Adl liked the story and started writing the scenario after chatting with me for a day.”

The film includes details from Hodhod’s life, but it also has a dramatic twist in that the family that acted with Zaki in the film were his real family, including his father, mother, wife and children. When Shalabi later wrote the TV series Al-Wattad, starring actress Hoda Sultan, he was also inspired by a man living in the same neighbourhood, Ahmed Al-Samak.

According to Hodhod, other films starring actors Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, Mahmoud Hemeida and Mahmoud Al-Gendi were also filmed in the neighbourhood.

The tools used in glassblowing are very simple, according to Hodhod. “We use blowing pipes that are 1.2 metres in length. We call them pipes because they are open on both ends. There is also the kiln we use that is very special as it allows us to use oxides to colour the glass. We use clippers to shape the glass and make products in equal sizes, which is important because all our glass is hand-made.”

Other tools he uses include a poleen (glass-breaker) to break the glass into pieces, a morabaa (used by the glassmaker to put on his knees so the hot glass does not burn him while he shapes it), a masha (a huge clipper) to shape the glass, a molkat (a sort of clip) and scissors.

“The tools are the same as the ones used by our ancestors the ancient Egyptians, but with slight changes in their shape. For example, the clippers they used were in the shape of the letter ‘s’, while the clippers we use now take the shape of the letter ‘v’. The current forms of the tools we use have been around for more than 100 years, and they are still hand-made by our local blacksmith,” Hodhod says.

However, he laments the fact that not all raw materials are used by craftsmen in Egypt. “The Swiss buy our sand and make crystal glass out of it.

We even hand-manufacture crystal glass here that is exported to Belgium and then re-imported to us. This happened at one of the hotels in Cairo that brought crystal lamps via the Internet only to discover that what it thought were foreign-made chandeliers had actually been originally made in Egypt.”

In addition, some of the necessary materials are becoming too expensive. “In the past, there were places from which broken glass could be bought for glassmaking. Now, we have to buy broken glass from factories by the ton. We buy oxides from Sinai, or we make them from manganese or copper, or sometimes have to buy them.

“There are some types of colours that I make myself, like for the red glass which contains gold dust. This is obviously the most expensive colour. As for copper, I prepare it just like my father taught me, which is how the ancient Egyptians used to prepare it as well.”

Hodhod does not depend on the local market to sell his products but exports them because of weak local demand. “We work according to orders that are sent to us by foreigners living in Egypt or embassies whose representatives come and take a look at the work first before they commission us,” he says.

Contemporary challenges: Despite the great antiquity of the craft, today it faces various problems, Hodhod says.

“The prices of raw materials are increasing. For example, if you buy an oxide today, the next week you might not find it sold for the same price, and it could have increased by 10 per cent. In the past, things were cheaper than they are nowadays.”

The changing nature of Cairo has also had effects on the craft. “I had a factory in Darassa that belonged to my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather. Then we had to move to Salah Salem because of the growing urban density, and now we have to pay a high rent and have workers who require good salaries each month. The government should think about giving us a place to teach the craft, which would be a good investment for the future,” Hodhod says.

“We need bigger factories like the old ones in Gamaleya,” he adds, explaining that in the Oum Al-Oyoun area of Fustat there is a mall for craftsmen to sell their products, but it takes a lot of red tape to get a place there.

“Drafting laws to ban imports will not help to support the Egyptian industry because in my case, for example, I work on exporting my glass products as well, even if I do not profit as much as other exporters do. However, if I had greater financial resources, I would go to other countries and sell my products myself rather than rely on middlemen,” he says.

Not only has the place Hodhod works in changed, but also the fuel he uses. “The kilns were fuelled by wood in the past, but now we use gas because wood causes a lot of smoke when it is burnt. However, the techniques we use to make the glass by hand have not changed,” he explains.

He provides details about how the work is done. “I start by putting the molten glass in what is called a kawara or makhmar, which is a hot place where glass products are left overnight to ensure they do not shatter easily. The next day, after we have cleaned and turned on the kiln and it has reached a certain heat, we start to throw the glass in. Then we reduce the heat and add the oxides to it and start mixing it until we get the colour we want. Then I start to blow the glass.”

Hodhod is eager to teach his craft, conscious that it is threatened by industrial glassmaking. “I participate in fairs abroad, and I teach foreigners as well as students from the German University in Cairo, which has a practical glassmaking course. Such courses could last for two to six months according to the eagerness of the students. I even taught two girls, one from France and one from Switzerland. When former minister of antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty was in office, I organised a festival called the Emperor Festival and invited European Union representatives,” he says.

He dreams of building a school to ensure that the art of glassmaking does not die out. “I have been teaching my own daughters, who are eager to learn. Lots of people have learned pottery and lots have learned copper-making, but not so many people have learned glassblowing, and this is a shame,” he says. The job is easy to learn, despite the stories told about it.

“One of my daughters is a university graduate from the Faculty of Arts, but she has learnt how to draw on glass. Another specialises in glass covers for electric lamps. My son Kamal is a Faculty of Commerce graduate who also learned the craft, and my other son Mohamed, who is in the army now, also learned the craft. I am teaching them glassmaking so that this historic craft does not die out,” he says.

“I would like to build a school so that young people who learn the craft can continue to teach it. I’ve been working in the craft for 50 years, and I taught it to my children. I don’t know what their plans will be in the future if nothing is done to support the craft by the government, however,” he says.

According to Hodhod, glassblowing is an Egyptian craft that should stay in Egypt and be maintained by Egyptians. “We taught the Syrians how to make blown glassware, although they do not use the same kilns that we use. The most famous products we make here in Egypt include the qendeel or meshkat, and no one can make ones quite like them in factories. Another is the copper ebreeq [jug] with a plate and lid. The most popular pieces today are used for drinking, like agami and maghrabi glasses used for serving tea and water. The vases we produce and the house ornaments we make are also much in demand.”

Hodhod also restores the glassware found in mosques. “After I am assigned to restore a mosque, I start by taking a sample of the glass and start to recreate the materials it was originally made from.” He has restored the glass in three mosques in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar in Cairo, including Kheirat Bey and Al-Gameh Al-Azraq, and others in the Al-Qalaa district. His father restored the glass in the Salah Al-Din Citadel, and Hodhod himself restored the lamps in the famous Mohamed Ali Mosque.

“The authorities should organise workshops abroad, like the ones I attended in Tunisia and France. When Abdel-Hamid Radwan and Farouk Hosni were ministers of culture, they knew that without craftsmen the country’s antiquities could not be maintained, so they took care of us by organising training sessions and missions abroad,” he says.

“This is also something that is often practiced in other countries. In Tunisia, for example, a workshop and exhibition space were built in Carthage under the auspices of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abideen Ben Ali in 2005. We should do something like this in Cairo,” he comments.

“The ministries of culture, industry, social solidarity, trade, and tourism should pay more attention to glassblowing, as if this does not happen it is in danger of dying out,” he says.

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