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Traditional art and craft decline worries Egypt

A craftsman at Salem Art Islamic Furniture chisels a piece of wood with an intricate design. (dpa)

Source : Arab news / 7 Dec 2013

The centuries-old Khan El-Khalili market is one of the few places in modernizing Cairo that retains the atmosphere of a by-gone era, but its artisans warn their crafts are slowly dying.
They blame slumping tourism and a lack of interest among young people in learning traditional trades.

Dating back to 1382, the souk in the Old Cairo neighborhood is a dizzying maze of coffee houses and tiny shops selling anything from perfume oils, spices, jewellery and colorful scarves to souvenirs in the shape of the pyramids.

The narrow stone-paved streets are noisy and lively with rushing merchants and customers haggling over prices.

There are plenty of Chinese-made trinkets with an Egyptian theme on sale, such as key chains stamped with hieroglyphics.

But if you look hard enough, there are also merchants offering genuinely hand-made wares created by an ever-dwindling corps of local craftsmen. The skills to make these little treasures take years to master.

In Egypt’s unstable economy, the craftsmen grumble that young people are more interested in secure careers on regular wages than in years of learning as apprentices on low pay.

A decline in tourism has also hit the merchants, who now spend much of their days drinking tea or reading newspapers.

Industry insiders say it could take years before tourist arrivals in Egypt make a full recovery.
Young Egyptians are put off craft work by the low incomes. There just isn’t much money to be made in the field. “People want desk jobs and an easy life,” sighed Adel Muawad Muhammed, 53, who began his working life at six years old at a workshop making traditional Egyptian boxes decorated with oystershell. He later saved up enough money to buy the workshop.

“This work is very difficult, so there’s a high risk it will die out. Only those who work in the field bring in their kids to train, but sometimes even those kids don’t care and say it’s too hard.”

At Muhammed’s workshop, which now employs 65 people and also makes furniture, shells are cut into small pieces, then sanded and flattened to become part of intricate designs that are secured with animal-bone glue onto wooden boxes of mahogany or oak.

Oystershell surfacing is a craft he says goes back to the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire ruled Egypt.

At the tent-makers’ bazaar, a 10-minute walk from the main Khan El-Khalili market, Salah Karim, 28, sits watching television inside one of the stalls that sells decorated pillows, wall hangings and bed spreads appliqued in bright colors. This type of needlework also dates back to the Ottomans.

The first and only sale of the day, Karim admits, was two pillow cases purchased after the sunset prayer.

“Beginners make about 50 Egyptian pounds a day and more experienced workers make up to 150, but these days nobody works,” says the craftsman who entered the trade at six and now works as a salesman because of a hand injury.

Experts say young Egyptians want something that doesn’t require much effort.
Many Europeans canceled their summer vacations in Egypt after the mass anti-Mursi protests of June 30.

“The tourism drop has decreased our sales, there are more goods coming in from China, and no schools teach children these crafts,” said bookshop founder Mohamed Abd El-Zaher, 72.

Most craftsmen blame government apathy, asking why Egyptian traditions are not being more actively promoted by the tourism or culture ministries, or why so little has been done to get young people interested.

“It’s harder these days to find kids whose parents are willing to send their children to train,” said El-Zaher.

They want their kids to be white-collar workers. They all want to become doctors,” said Said Salem, 43, manager and designer of Salem Art Islamic Furniture.

“We tried to establish a school to train workers and wanted the government to just give us a piece of land."

Nobody is willing to learn the craft and in a few generations it will disappear.

"Yet we have something that’s so genuine and so Egyptian, and we could compete in the world with that, but the government doesn’t care at all. We export to Germany and Japan. Imagine if we were government-sponsored. We could really do something,” he said.


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