Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
4 - 10 August 2005
Issue No. 754

Crafting the past

A vocational training programme will revive and preserve mediaeval handicrafts in Islamic Cairo. Nevine El-Aref reports on the first phase of the project

The majesty of Cairo's Islamic architecture has always attracted travellers, from historians to merchants who filled the souqs with all manner of products originating anywhere from China to Spain. A peculiarly cosmopolitan atmosphere, it also attracted the most skillful craftsmen from all over the Islamic world; both cultural sophistication and political identity were expressed through art, the latter by virtue of caliphs patronising architecture and craftsmanship.

Located in the vicinity of the Citadel -- for many years the seat of Islamic Egypt's monarchy and the residence of its elite class -- the neighbourhood of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar experienced a construction boom in the 12th century; it continued to flourish until the 19th century. Currently the target of a Ministry of Culture crafts revival programme, that part of the ministry's bid to develop historic Cairo in which it has collaborated with the Agha Khan foundation, Al-Darb Al-Ahmar may now regain some of its former glory. A fashionable district, it was dotted with exquisite mosques, attracted stonemasons, carpenters, ironmongers, coppersmiths and lamp-makers, and boasted some of the Islamic world's most impressive examples of the wikala (trade house), the traditional beit (house) and the sabil-kuttab (a Quranic school with a water fountain for the benefit of passers-by). Kuttabs had libraries full of hand-copied, beautifully bound books. Saddle-makers, blacksmiths and sword-makers catered to the military establishment, while tentmakers, tailors, weavers and embroiderers produced a wide range of quality textiles, the finest of which were used for various court functions.

More recently, with urban development, large-scale industries replaced workshops; many crafts were deemed unnecessary and much production was machanised. Craftsmen survived in a variety of way: by producing souvenirs rather than utilitarian objects. Traditional fez, for example, continued producing the tarboosh, but only as a quaint reminder of the past. Disconnected from Khan Al-Khalili, which monopolises tourism in the area, Al-Darb Al-Ahmar fell into disrepair; it came to resemble a slum, with ramshackle living quarters strewn with rubbish, its inhabitants suffering low income level, its craftsmanship more or less extinct. But thanks largely to the Aga Khan Foundation's multi-faceted project to improve the quality of life in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar -- a project that has yielded, among other accomplishments, the widely celebrated Al-Azhar Park -- the neighbourhood has been undergoing a facelift not only in the sense of a new coat of paint but in terms of economic, physical and social development. According to the Agha Khan General-Manager Mohamed El-Mikawi, this holistic process "forces us to consider how best to connect heritage with the opportunities and demands of modern life".

It was in this context that the importance of crafts emerged, in both economic and cultural terms and in relation to environmental preservation. Thousands of residents are involved in the neighbourhood's extensive network of interdependent crafts, serving a wide client base. According to a survey undertaken last January there are 298 active workshops in the area between the Al-Azhar Park and Bab Zuweila. Most belong in one of five trades: leather work, shoe-making, woodwork, inlay work and metalwork. Studies have shown that the number of local workshops has gone down in the last few decades: craftsmen have lost touch with their markets, product development has stagnated and quality has dropped considerably. "A detrimental combination for the area's economy and architecture," El-Mikawi pointed out. As crafts become less viable, he added, income levels drop.

The Agha Khan programme provides on-the-job training courses and offers vocational training. Programme administrator Seif El-Rashidi insists that all 250,000 of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar's inhabitants are fully involved in "the reconstruction", supplying doors, windows, furniture, tiling and accessories required by the new community centre, schools and hotels. Trained by Agha Khan specialists, the workmen now have their own tiny shops with modern equipment. The programme, El-Rashidi explained, started with 12 workshops, two in each craft; a new batch is introduced every month. With support from the US State Department's Ambassador's Fund, to help draw people into the area, the Agha Khan holds a quarterly, month- long exhibition of the products in question.

The first such exhibition opened last week in the Al-Azhar Park where: stepping in, one felt as if one was roaming through Al-Darb Al-Ahmar's alleyways, with all manner of enticing craftsmanship on display for sale. Filled with oud music, the pavilions had almost every craft represented, with many of them -- the khayameya (tentmakers), for example -- working right before the audience as they roamed through. Ali Mohamed, one participating craftsman (he learned to restore wood carving), was delighted with "the improvements that have taken place in our neighbourhood". Before the project, Mohamed testified, he was unemployed and helpless: "Now I can earn my bread." El-Mikawi is eager to stress that the project not only helped preserve the urban fabric of this historical neighbourhood but created job opportunities and an economic boom. One ivory inlay craftsman known as El-Qott sees the exhibition as an opportunity to establish links with interior designers who will expand his market share. Sami Hanafi, a silver inlay craftsman, is pleased with the fact that Khan Al-Khalili will now be facing competition: "We are the craftsmen who do the work, yet no one knows about us. We sell our work for peanuts to Khan Al-Khalili traders, who make huge profits. It's about time we learned to be self-reliant." Hanafi's colleague Samir Abdel-Raouf concurs: "Khan Al-Khalili used to be our only outlet. Now, with the exhibition providing a direct link with clients, we have our own."

Caption: TRADITIONAL CRAFTS OF AL-DARB AL-AHMAR (from left): the khayameya (tent-makers); arabesque woodwork; at Al-Azhar Park, the Agha Khan Foundation's craft display now competes with the products of Khan Al-Khalili and Al-Gamaliya

C a p t i o n 2: TRADITIONAL CRAFTS OF AL-DARB AL-AHMAR (from left): the khayameya (tent-makers); arabesque woodwork; at Al-Azhar Park, the Agha Khan Foundation's craft display now competes with the products of Khan Al-Khalili and Al-Gamaliya

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