Monday,18 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1341, (20 - 26 April 2017)
Monday,18 June, 2018
Issue 1341, (20 - 26 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Reviving Egypt’s handicrafts

Mai Samih discovers two organisations with different approaches to the revival of traditional handicrafts

Traditional rug weaving from North Sinai and Nubian women making their famous colourful baskets

“We must always remember that handicrafts developed in response to lifestyle needs. They must continue to evolve with the environment. It is one thing for craft traditions to vanish because they become irrelevant; it is quite another for them to vanish because of neglect or a lack of stimulus,” says an inscription at the entrance of Markaz, a foundation in Zamalek in Cairo that helps craftsmen and women from different governorates not only to make a living through their work, but also helps their handicrafts to evolve and to live on.

“We have been watching handicrafts dying out for 20 years now, like the wool-weaving industry in Northern Sinai and the Western Desert, for example. We tried to make efforts to develop it, but this has been difficult because there is little demand for the work or appreciation of it. This was how the idea of the Markaz Foundation started,” comments Mohamed Amin, founder of the organisation in 1995.

Traditional rug weaving from North Sinai and Nubian women making their famous colourful baskets

“I had the opportunity to travel until the age of 30, and since I came back to Egypt I have been working in this field. I worked as a consultant for a company and received grants to travel all around Egypt helping craftsmen to lead better lives through their work and to access healthcare and education. I learned through my community-based work to live with these people. I had to be a direct partner with them so that we had common interests. I was able to find out more about the needs of handicraft workers through the “masters of the crafts”, or mashayekh al-herfa, the people whose job is to protect the crafts they are working in,” Amin says.

Dawar is a cultural centre in Downtown Cairo that shares the goals of Markaz. It uses participatory theatre, therapeutic drama and other arts-based practices for healing, dialogue and societal transformation from the grassroots up. With practitioners including artists, educators, psychotherapists and health workers from Egypt and abroad, Dawar offers a range of initiatives that promote creativity, critical thinking, civic engagement and community cohesion. It provides regular cultural events such as film screenings, art exhibitions, improvised and conceptualised theatre, live music and poetry nights, all with the aim of making people understand and appreciate other people’s experiences.

“At Dawar we use the arts for healing and maintaining psychological health. We officially started last year, and we are now on our second exhibition. The first was on the theme of recycling, making artworks using recycled objects,” says Khaled Saleh, the manager of Dawar. He adds that the organisation does not just work on the arts for the arts’ sake, but instead targets a social dimension in its exhibitions, like helping marginalised members of society.

“We target crafts that are dying but that express our culture. We also encourage arts that help send out messages to marginalised segments of society. An exhibition is part of a larger system helping us to reach our goals. We target all segments of society that want to express their social or artistic ideas,” Saleh says, adding that Dawar is working with Care Egypt, an international NGO, and with Syrian refugees, especially women, and plans in future to spread to other governorates in Egypt.

Amira Nabil, marketing manager at Fair Trade Egypt, an NGO working with Dawar, says it put on an exhibition at the organisation’s premises to display different crafts from the various governorates in Egypt. “The exhibition started with an idea from Dawar, as it had a space for displaying art pieces and had the idea of highlighting traditional embroidery. We displayed five different types of embroidery, including work from Upper Egypt, from Al-Moatamadeya, and from Siwa and Northern Sinai. Most of the embroidery is done by women and is an important source of livelihoods,” she says.

“We displayed a number of pieces from Al-Moatamadeya and other pieces from Geziret Shandaweel near Sohag. Still other pieces were produced in villages in Northern Sinai and Siwa,” she adds.

“We also market and develop the products of 34 groups of craftsmen in 13 governorates. The number of individuals involved is about 2,000, working in different crafts. When we started our partnership with Dawar, we aimed to market their products for them. We also have six groups in Cairo,” Nabil says, adding that Fair Trade Egypt has also sought out other traditional crafts, including in Halayeb, Shalateen and the Red Sea area.

Traditional rug weaving from North Sinai and Nubian women making their famous colourful baskets

STARTING OUT: “We started out when an Irish lady, the wife of an ambassador, brought some material and asked us to show her how we did our work. She then helped us to develop it, teaching many of us new stitches and helping us to develop new sources of income. She would take the pieces we made, sell them, and pass on the money to us,” says Afaf Atteya, a craftswoman from the Al-Moatamadeya Women’s Foundation that works with Dawar.

“We mainly use chain stitch in our work. We work at home, where we give the products finishing touches. I have been working at the foundation since 1992. It has made a huge difference in my life, as this work has increased my income and helped me to provide for my family,” Atteya says, adding that for all the women working with the foundation it has helped them to find financial independence.

“I have been working at the foundation for about six years now. I used to work in embroidery, but now I work on a sewing machine stitching pieces together. I also cut the cloth for cushions and collect finished pieces from women working at home,” says Mervat Eissa, a production manager at the Al-Moatamadeya Women’s Foundation and the mother of several children.

“I have benefited from the job as now I have a source of income. Before I didn’t leave home that often, but now everything is different: I communicate with other people and learn skills, and these things help me to develop. The job is also practical since I cannot leave my children alone during the day,” Eissa comments. She adds that the foundation has also taught the women working with it to make bracelets, earrings, and make-up bags. Main products include woollen shawls and cotton ones with golden embroidery.

At Markaz, the women use various kinds of material, including wool, cotton and linen, and beads for decorating the ends of scarves. In some cases they even make their own materials and produce different designs using embroidery. They also use palm wood as well as recycled rice straw to make paper in collaboration with a local NGO. “But the rice straw paper is unfortunately too expensive for many, and people no longer need paper to write on. Electronic devices have made people stop using paper,” laments Mohamed Amin.

“The idea of decorating the ends of a dress or a scarf with beads is well known in the Mediterranean area as well as in some African countries and Turkey, either using plain thread or beads,” he says. In order to gather designs, the women work with craftsmen in Northern and Southern Sinai, among other places. “We go to Sinai twice a year, and we still continue to visit the north of the peninsula despite the difficult conditions there. We have had relations with craftsmen there for over 30 years,” Amin adds, saying that the local Bedouins benefit from working with Markaz, not least in financial terms.

Amin mentions some of the problems the organisation faces as it tries to bring about a revival of traditional handicrafts. “The production cycle can be expensive. The price of renting a showroom is high, and taxes are high compared to total income,” he says, adding that a constant problem facing women working in the field is the expensive material as well as being aware of new trends when they live far from Cairo. In the past a craftsman would sell his products to those in his immediate vicinity. This is not the case today, and Markaz steps in to help craftsmen and women to find markets for their work.

“Some of the women working with us live in difficult conditions and may have neither education nor work opportunities in their villages, so being able to work at home on embroidery and make a living from it is very welcome to them,” he adds.

Traditional rug weaving from North Sinai and Nubian women making their famous colourful baskets

SUPPLY CHAIN: Amin gives details about how the work engages workers from different governorates, in some cases on one piece.

“Scarves are woven in Qena and embroidered in the St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, for example. We choose the material and colour and then distribute it to the people working on the embroidery.” He points to woven scarves from Akhmeem and Mahalla with decorations made in Sinai. There are make-up bags and purses made of natural leather and wooden baskets made in Halayeb and Shalateen, among other products.  

Markaz not only helps craftsmen and women to make a living, but also trains them to help them to get the best out of their work. “We guide them to the type of work we want them to do. For example, we tell them the quantity of embroidery we need on each scarf. We leave a margin for mistakes, and this may be why the workers like the work and are sure that we will return for more. We also have five people monitoring the quality of the products at our Maadi branch, and they also monitor the training process,” Amin says.

Both showrooms use Facebook to market and display their products. According to a January 2017 UN Conference on Trade and Development report on how small businesses in Egypt can benefit from e-commerce, one in 10 micro and small handicraft enterprises now use the Internet for marketing and other purposes in Egypt. Like in many other developing countries, micro and small enterprises account for some 80 per cent of livelihoods, and they are important contributors to growth.

Traditional rug weaving from North Sinai and Nubian women making their famous colourful baskets

“There are crafts like glass-making that directly show off the talents of the craftsman, but to be able to reach a market he must be trained on how to make a product with the exact characteristics, specifications, appearance and quality a consumer wants. The same drill needs to be done whenever there is a new product,” comments Nabil.  

Salah says they plan to send study groups out to other governorates in order to bring back new ideas and to develop these in collaboration with governmental and other organisations.

Keeping handicrafts alive is crucial for society, according to Amin. “I dream of one day seeing a museum for Egyptian handicrafts. In India, there are museums of local handicrafts in every town and village. I dream of an educational system that teaches children about these crafts, something that is sorely lacking at present. At the moment, people are writing PhDs about traditional handicrafts, but they are not being taught in schools.”

“Appreciation is the first step. Then we can start exporting these products,” he concludes.

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