Traditional Egyptian crafts are in danger of becoming extinct, though with support they could be a major source of revenue and pride for Egypt’s population. This is a look at how the industry operates, and what it needs.
Only Amr works with me here at the shop. Why would my other son stay? With cheap Chinese imitations and low demand from Egyptian customers, business has been terrible. He drives a taxi now.’ Seventy-five-year-old coppersmith Hajj Salah has been considered a master craftsman for the past fifty years. He is the third generation to inherit the craft, and his workshop is on Rab’ al-Selehdar in Khan al-Khalili, where most coppersmiths are. It saddens him that only one son can continue the family’s legacy; there isn’t enough demand to keep both of his sons working.
‘Master artisans usually taught the secret of copper craft to twenty apprentices, but since the 1980s, I stopped training any apprentices at the workshop because there is simply no work.’ Similarly, he explained, coppersmiths are about to disappear, as specialized skills are becoming hard to find among the younger generations.
Traditional crafts are part of Egypt’s intangible heritage, history, legacy and identity. Yet, Egypt does not do enough to realize the potential of its craft sector as a significant contributor to the country’s socio-economic development. Countries like Morocco were successful in creating the enabling environment for traditional crafts to thrive, to the extent that such crafts became a significant sector in creating employment opportunities, while also being a significant contributor to GDP, and a significant source of foreign-currency through exports. A comprehensive development of its traditional crafts sector coupled with a well-structured cluster development of its artisanal enterprises contributed to Morocco’s success story.
The Egyptian economy, as well as traditional artisans, can benefit significantly from a well-developed traditional crafts sector. Nevertheless, one cannot recommend remedies without first analyzing the maladies. This article examines the traditional craft sector’s potential for promoting Egypt’s development and cultural heritage preservation, as well as the rationale for craft development. First is employment creation, as the country targets the creation of 750,000 job opportunities per year. In its Six-Year Plan, Egypt is also targeting Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) as a significant tool for poverty alleviation and job creation. Second, the traditional crafts sector is very closely connected with the tourism industry. Egypt receives around twelve million tourists per year; if each tourist bought ‘Egyptian-made’ quality crafts to a value of USD 50, undoubtedly the crafts sector would increase in significance. Third, the culturally rich area of Historic Cairo and its artisans could benefit enormously from the presence of the artisanal workshop clusters in this region of historic Cairo, which has been included on the World Heritage List for more than thirty years.
While opportunities have emerged in Egypt, as well as worldwide generally, with the increased local and global demand for traditional and ethnic products, traditional artisans are faced with numerous complex challenges that threaten their already marginal survival. Such challenges include: the flooding of cheap and low-quality products into the markets (mainly from China); the inability of artisans to access direct marketing channels, especially high-end channels; disintegrated value chains; the absence of institutional capacity building; the absence of a governmental agency/entity that is entrusted with the development of the crafts sector; the absence of a national strategy for craft development; the absence of artisans cooperatives/associations; and the vulnerability of micro and small artisan enterprises in the informal economy.
The Artisans of the Victorious City
Within the labyrinthine alleys and khans of historic Cairo, traditional artisanal workshops are still found, where the skills and know-how of artisans have been inherited from one generation to the next. Historic Cairo still retains the memory of the Victorious City (al-Qahira), evident in its historic living buildings, which exhibit the marvellous architectural arts of different dynasties – the Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamelukes, and Ottomans – through their mosques, madrasas, khans and sabils. The Description de l’Égypte, as commissioned in 1798 by Napoleon, documents the glory days of the guilds, skilful artisans, and unrivalled crafts. Today, this part of Cairo continues to narrate the city’s legacies and memories through the living work of its artisans and their different crafts.
It is important to note that the majority of Cairo’s artisanal MSEs actually cluster in historic Cairo; however, the potential of the artisanal cluster’s presence in such a historic location – a worldwide heritage site – is not realized. The basic principles of Local Economic Development (LED) stress on the importance of soft infrastructure (skills) of such communities, and this aspect remains under-utilized in historic Cairo.
The cluster of artisanal workshops is indeed one of historic Cairo’s major strengths and advantages. If properly developed, it will benefit both the local community and the entire country. While historic Cairo possesses remarkable cultural heritage assets, it also faces complex challenges that would undoubtedly require cautious interventions.
Today, it is impressive to see some artisans still practicing their ancient techniques, for instance the Mameluke tradition of inlaying brass with silver or gold (known as takfeet). Such skilled techniques are neither documented in books nor encyclopaedias; rather, they are handed down from one generation down to the next.
During my fieldwork with the artisans, I was sad to hear that their crafts are deteriorating to the point of near extinction. Many traditional artisans think that ‘no one cares about us’, and tell stories of fellow artisans who gave up their skills in return for a permanent and secure job.
From the Workshop to the Market
To reach customers, a piece of traditional craft must pass through three core processes: first, the supply of input/raw materials; second, the production process which is the most labour-intensive; third, the marketing process.
Traditional artisanal workshops, or the producers, are at the centre stage of the three processes. They are actually responsible for the design, production and also the marketing. Ahead of the production process, artisanal enterprises purchase the raw materials and then transform them using the craftsmen’s inherited knowledge, skill and know-how in producing an authentic piece of Egyptian craft. Unlike in the old days, some raw materials, such as ebony and ivory are no longer used. These raw materials can be still seen in the old minbars and doors in Cairo’s historic mosques. Some artisans have complained that the government imposes two hundred per cent import duties on wood, which in turn increases the price of wood products.
During the production process, artisanal workshops do not perform all production tasks; rather, there is specialization within the one-craft cluster. Adding value to the product takes place during the production process, where a complete cluster of not less than five workshops contribute to the value-added process for one product. For instance, Egypt is well known for its mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden boxes (different, for example, from Damascene wood products). The following craftsmen, specialising in wood, would work on a twenty- to thirty-pound box: a carpenter; an inlay worker (sadafgy); a wood stainer (ostorgy) and an upholsterer (menaged).
The actors at the marketing process are the strongest, most dominant link and the winners across the value chain. It is the responsibility of the artisanal enterprise to look for buyers for their products (mostly in the Khan) and to negotiate extensively in a bid to get a good price from the merchant, who then sells the same product at four-times its cost price. The only advantage of a merchant with a gallery in other well-off neighbourhoods is the access to rich markets and customers. Therefore, the traditional artisanal workshops who are involved in the labour-intensive process are the most disadvantaged actor with the least share of the profits. Owners of artisanal workshops in historic Cairo have been extremely critical of the Khan merchants, as one artisan explained, ‘The Khan merchants are millionaires; however, they keep bargaining forever when paying for my products. Furthermore, they do not pay us in cash since they claim they are short in cash. I get money one week and the following week “no money habiby”.’ As for the master coppersmith Hajj Salah, he feels sorry for the younger generation of artisans who did not see the glorious old days when every Egyptian household possessed a piece of copper art. ‘Instead, the young generation has to face the competition of imported Chinese products by mass-producing their own cheap and low-quality ones. The tourist will buy the cheaper one, whether it is Chinese or Egyptian’, he explained.
Many copper-related craftsmen have disappeared, such as the mebyad al-nahas (copper oxidiser) and those who inlay copper with silver or gold – takfeet artisans – who can only be found with extreme difficulty. Furthermore, the deterioration was not only limited to the skills but also to the crafts’ code of ethics. ‘In the old days, it was about masters of crafts, but now it is all about kids. I recall in the old days as an apprentice, I used to stand up when I saw my master. Now, the kids around the bazaar know who I am but they display no respect’, Salah complained.
I listened to Hajj Salah recalling the glory of the old days: his big workshop; the numerous workers; the twenty apprentices he taught; the thriving market demand; and the brass products inlaid with silver and gold. After a sad silence from both sides, a tourist enters the workshop and asks, ‘How much is this?’ He answers, ‘Eighty pounds’. The tourist says, ‘Too much, I will pay only twenty pounds!’
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Eman Wahby holds an MA in political science from the American University in Cairo. Her thesis, titled Culture and Development: Assessing the Potential Contribution of Traditional Crafts to Egypt's Development Agenda, discussed the main challenges and problems facing traditional artisans in Historic Cairo. Her professional career focuses on community and socio-economic development in Historic Cairo.