Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Celebrating Egyptian handicrafts

The Old Cairo Festival for Arts and Handicrafts took place at the Souq Al-Fustat in Old Cairo last month, writes Ghada Abdel-Kader


Souq Al-Fustat in Old Cairo

The Masr Atiqah Festival (the Old Cairo Festival) for Arts and Handicrafts was held at the Souq Al-Fustat (the Al-Fustat Market) in the heart of Old Cairo from 5 to 8 December 2018, once again allowing producers and buyers to celebrate the range and quality of the country’s traditional handicrafts.

Old Cairo is one of the oldest districts in the capital that dates back to before the Fatimid city, founded in 969 CE. It encloses the remnants of cities that were the capitals of Egypt before much of the later city was built, including Al-Fustat, Al-Askar and Al-Qattai. It encloses significant historical attractions like the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque and Coptic Cairo with its old churches, the ruins of Roman fortifications and Ben Ezra Synagogue, one of the oldest in the Middle East.

Manager of the Souq Al-Fustat Hossam Hilal told Al-Ahram Weekly that the festival was inaugurated in 2000 to help revive and preserve traditional Egyptian crafts from the danger of extinction. Thanks to architect and restoration expert Mona Zakaria and former tourism minister Mamdouh Al-Beltagi, minister from 1993 to 2004, it was part of a larger rehabilitation project for the Old Cairo district.

The Souq Al-Fustat at that time was used for pottery, and this had led to environmental problems. “Some craftsmen used garbage as fuel for pottery kilns that were a big source of pollution. A special village for pottery was built, and the craftsmen were given electric kilns,” Hilal said.

The market was built on a design from the Fatimid era and is now a major tourist attraction a few steps from Egypt’s first and oldest mosque, the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, and the ancient monuments of Coptic Cairo, including St Barbara’s Church, the St Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga), the Coptic Museum, the Hanging Church and the Babylon Fortress.

It comprises 42 sandstone shops with arched wooden doors and ornate glass windows gathering different handicrafts from all over Egypt under one roof and artists, craftsmen, products and manufacturers in one place. Ihab Ahmed, the market’s marketing manager, said that the “festival features 40 exhibitors, besides 42 shops covering 127 traditional Egyptian arts and handicrafts.”

Among the most popular are crocheting, cushions, linen curtains and cloths, embroidered cotton, bed sheets, tablecloths, tableware, Bedouin rugs, brass products, home accessories, decorative glass vases, lighting fixtures, furniture, wooden sculptures, paintings, antiques, pottery, jewellery, accessories, puppets, dolls, toys, leather bags, natural cosmetics and other products. The market also has a small open-air theatre where musical performances are given.  

Shaimaa Abdel-Razek and Israa Gamal had come to the market for the first time for the festival. “My friend Israa encouraged me to go with her,” Abdel-Razek said.

Gamal, a graduate in heritage conservation, is a big lover of handicrafts. “We did a full-day visit to the Islamic and Coptic monuments in Old Cairo and then came to the Souq Al-Fustat,” she said. The festival has integrated arts and crafts with musical concerts held on a daily basis.

It also featured poetry readings followed by discussions with poet Marwan Sobhi. Another highlight was the Spiritual Project Ensemble that blended Islamic Sufi chanting with Coptic hymns led by artist Mohamed Bakr and Sheikh Mohamed Zahgloul in a modern style and adding new elements on the second day of the festival.

On the third day, a concert by the band Dorrgy took place. The underground Charisma Band performed a live concert on the last day of the festival.

artist Jrab working on his designs

EXHIBITORS AT THE FESTIVAL: Among the handicrafts exhibited at this year’s festival were those by prominent Egyptian craftsman Thaer Jrab who specialises in metalwork.

Jrab, of Syrian origin, has lived in Egypt since 1972. He began working in metal in 1989 and has exhibited in Egypt and abroad and has had his own gallery in the Souq Al-Fustat since 2001. He makes stunning hand-crafted metal sculpture, bookmarks, art, jewellery, furniture, lighting fixtures and interior designs. “I use all kinds of metals, starting from aluminium to precious gold, together with materials like papyrus, oil paint, and leather,” Jrab said.

His work is a development of traditional crafts. “It is like collage — piling up and accumulating different materials in one work to serve a certain vision,” he added. His inspiration comes from the synchronicity of nature, blending natural materials and moulding them into decorative art pieces.

Jrab is a lover of history, and he reflects his Egyptian-Syrian heritage and culture in his works of art.

The Herfa (Craft) Association for Heritage and Handicrafts was founded by artists Mohamed Hassan, Shady Hassan and Nayera Hassan a year ago. Nameer Essam, responsible for the Herfa shop at the Souq Al-Fustat, said that “the association specialises in handmade home decoration and wooden furniture like mirrored doors, chairs, console tables, shelves and side tables and other crafts.”

“Its designs reflect and preserve the spirit of Egyptian heritage with a modern touch, and it encourages artists to come and exhibit their work. We cooperate with a large number of artists and craftsmen, and our philosophy as a whole is to blend the old and the new. The outcome is a distinctive, modern style,” Essam added.

One visitor, Utah Al-Husseini, said, “I have come here many times, and I am here today looking for Christmas presents. Though not myself Egyptian, I love the handicrafts of the Egyptian culture very much.”

Another visitor, Mounir Al-Husseini, had come with his wife. “I am going to buy some Christmas decorations and natural cosmetics products for the hair and skin. The Azza Crochet shop run by Azza Ali exhibits a collection of handmade crochet products such as cushions, blankets, curtains, bed sheets, table cloths, bags, baskets, shawls, knitted scarves, hats, caps, keffiyeh, gloves and ponchos. There is a lot to choose from,” he said.

Ali works with workers from 50 families working from their homes in the nearby district of Helwan and has been doing so for 22 years. “The prices are reasonable in the Souq Al-Fustat, Exhibitors and shop owners add a small profit, but in general we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes,” she said. “I innovate all the time in my work. All the products are handmade, modern designs.”

Mona Fawzi and Rahman Khaled were presenting a new brand called “Homeative” that features homemade products in matching colours like decorative embroidered table covers, runners and cushions. “All the products are Egyptian high-quality materials, and the embroidery reflects the Egyptian heritage,” Fawzi said.

“We added new designs and colours for the embroidery work that are different from the traditional ones,” she added.

The Noon Art Shop in the Souq Al-Fustat showcases home accessories and wooden furniture. Manager Hossam Abdel-Zaher said it was designed to show the true spirit of Egypt in a modern way. His products use Arabic calligraphy in writing Sufi poetry on different materials like wood, copper and others and uses an Arabic font used in architectural decoration and on the gates of mosques.

All the products are handmade, including trays, candleholders, vases, bowls, coffee cups, glass sets, plates, wooden tables and chairs, and coloured and alabaster glass.  

a collection of Jrab’s handmade accessories

MORE CRAFTS: Egyptian artist and leather designer Monica Adel has been in this field for eight years after graduating from the Fine Arts Faculty in Zamalek.

She did her Masters degree in leather handicrafts, and now that she is a practitioner she wants to make sure that her customers are fully satisfied and happy with her designs’ high quality and finish. “I do a bag entirely from A to Z, starting from the sketch,” Adel says, commenting that to her the bags are “works of art. Customers are carrying a piece of Egyptian heritage with them that is 100 per cent handmade.” She is also always looking for new and stylish designs, one of the latest being leather patchwork techniques.

Accessory designer Aliaa Helmi is presenting her new collection of women’s accessories. She started it as a hobby and then turned it into a business and has been professional for the last three years. “All my accessories are made of red and yellow copper with semi-precious stones,” she says. “It is a traditional material in Egyptian designs and gives a rich look. It also does not rust, and copper accessories last a long time,” she says.

Another accessory designer, Rasha Suleiman, makes her pieces from fimo paste, a kind of polymer clay. “After I finish sculpting the design in fimo, I bake it in a kiln to harden it permanently,” she explains.

Elsewhere, the Sanduq Al-Aagaeb (Box of Wonders) wooden toys shop is run by craftsmen Elhami Naguib and Emad Adel Tawfik, who is the only person in Egypt to make handmade wooden mechanical toys like his unicyclists and donkey and wooden marionettes. He has been working on them for 10 years, and they are all automata, meaning that they have a control mechanism that follows a predetermined sequence of operations.

“This kind of thing did not exist in Egypt in the past, but it is common in the US and Europe. Each mechanical toy has a controller that controls all the toy’s movements. It can make eight or so motions at the same time. These toys have their own kind of magic, and they are loved by children from the age of three upwards.”  

Sculptor and painter Bahaa Helmi is interested in collecting old art pieces and antiques from homes to sell in his shop. “Antiques are unique, long-lasting, and of high quality, and they are increasing in value. Today, we don’t have the patience or the highly skilled craftsmen to make the same fine quality of antiques,” he says.

“I collect them from old houses. They are valuable items and at the same time their prices are often very reasonable.”

Artist Samia Raslan was also exhibiting a collection of decoupage products in two and three dimensions, including tableau, beautiful painted floral designs, jewellery boxes, tea boxes, decorative plates, mirrors, trays, child bed tables, and handmade paintings. All her products are handmade and of Egyptian materials.

“Decoupage can add liveliness and beauty to any house. It is becoming more and more popular in Egypt,” she says.

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