Cairo Magazine
Thursday July 28, 2005

Market in the park

By Eman Shaban Morsi

Crocodile, snake, lizard, cow and sheep hides have been used since prehistory for creating durable leather goods, but at the Darb Al Ahmar craft exhibition at Al Azhar Park you can see something new in the ancient art—fish-scale leather. This original local craft is just one of many small businesses that have received a boost from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). After building the park itself, the Aga Khan Foundation is now focusing on the economic development of the adjacent neighborhood.

Under the title “Tracing the Past, Building Anew,” the exhibition of area handcrafts opened this month. Documentaries and educational material about the history of the crafts have been set up in the park’s main building, while a table near the entrance allows visitors to purchase high-quality examples and converse with the artisans themselves, who drop by from time to time. Many of these crafts are sold in Khan Al Khalili souq, but the Azhar Park display allows for a more relaxed shopping experience.

So what’s the story of the fish-skin leather? Khaled Ibrahim created the unique material in a process funded by the AKTC and recorded in a documentary now on display at the craft show. His workshop in Darb Al Ahmar has passed from father to son for years.

“My field of specialty is making leather out of snake, crocodile and lizard skin—all very sensitive materials that need an expert to work on them, unlike cow and sheep hide,” Ibrahim explains. “Around 1995 Spain and Italy produced fish-skin leather and started selling it in Saudi Arabia, which is how I came to know about it.” Although he started off by imitating, his final product was even better than the originals. “Our leather is handmade while theirs is produced by machines. In addition to that, we were able to produce it with colors, which is something they didn’t do.”

Another craft on display is lantern-making. Mohammed Amin, like Ibrahim, inherited his shop from his father. His intricate and elaborate creations are not for plebian tastes, but neither are they just for tourists, he insists. “They can be used in palaces, villas, five star hotels and terraces,” he says. “We are trying to resurrect and make use of our Islamic heritage. We are not selling for the common public. For them, no matter what the price is, they just pass by, have a look and leave. We are aiming at the cultured elite who can see the importance of art.”

Other crafts on display include a number of quilted textiles hung on a far wall. These elaborately made textiles, known as khayameya, or “tents,” are a traditional gift for social occasions like weddings.

On the right side of the showroom, a number of tiles, both patterned and plain, are laid on the floor alongside the tools used to make them. Patterned tiles died out in the 1960s under Nasser’s emphasis on simple and plain socialist-style architecture. The AKTC’s renovation of the historic Ezz Eddin Aibak School in Darb Al Ahmar, which required large numbers of patterned tiles, has actually jumpstarted the industry, and craftsmen hope to once again make the beautiful pieces part of Egyptian homes.

The show also includes samples of inlayed wood trinkets, an art that reached its height under the Mamluks, and a variety of metalwork, including staircase railings, funnels, sieves, jelly moulds and heaps of small flower ornaments. There is also a significant silverwork display, showcasing both jewelry and dishes. The silver work of the neighborhood, like much of the work on display, is mainly sold at Khan Al Khalili. One of the rarer exhibits on display is book-binding, which has all but disappeared from the streets of Darb Al Ahmar.

Copyright © 2005 Cairo Magazine