Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 20th May 2018

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Cairo’s traditional crafts showcased in London

The photo exhibition of the artisans of Cairo’s historic district of al-Darb al-Ahmar introduced Londoners to an array of traditional crafts.

Creative output. Khaled Khalida at his pearl and furniture workshop. (Karen Dabrowska)

Creative output. Khaled Khalida at his pearl and furniture workshop. (Karen Dabrowska)

LONDON - An amazing, colour photo exhibition of the artisans of Cairo’s historic district of al-Darb al-Ahmar introduced Londoners to an array of traditional crafts, including brass lanterns, textiles, glassware, silk carpets and furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Al-Darb al-Ahmar is home to 1,000 artisan workshops. Forty monuments of Islamic architecture are in the district dating to the Fatimid dynasty, which founded Cairo in the tenth century. The artisans restored some of the monuments under a project sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which sponsored the exhibition at the National Geographical Society in London.

The photographs were taken by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a London-based travel, street and portrait photographer. He first visited al-Darb al-Ahmar in January 2016 as part of a delegation that was being shown some of the mosques and monuments that had been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

“On this first walk, I couldn’t help notice workshop after workshop producing a huge array of interesting and beautiful things. I was staggered at the creative output and energy and wanted to know more about this district,” Wilton-Steer said.

“I learnt that many of these businesses have been passed down several generations and that many of the techniques employed to produce these products are the same that were used hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years ago. These crafts allow us to see back in time, back in history. That is a very precious and rare thing and I wanted to document it and share with others.”

The photos are accompanied by write-ups and a video that tells fascinating stories of the artisans, one of whom described al-Darb al-Ahmar as “the soul of Egypt.”

Wilton-Steer introduces Salama, who has been working in his dye workshop near the 14th-century Aslam al-Silahdar Mosque for 73 years. He arrives in the workshop at 6am and stays until as late as he has to. He employs 12 people. They dye cotton and silk for use in clothes, upholstery and curtains.

“Integrity is important,” Salama says. “With integrity I can produce what people want and develop my business. Without integrity, there is no business. The neighbourhood has not changed. What changes is when the craftsman dies, the craft dies too. The majority of parents here tell their kids to work in offices.”

Despite this, Salama’s sons and girls are learning in the tannery. “For us, nothing has changed [because of the revolution]. The only thing that has changed is the president. Our lives, the food we eat, the money we earn – it is the same,” he says.

Another craftsman, Hasan Adri, started tent-making at 17 while in college and has been working at al-Khayamiya textiles for 27 years. “I had to fight with my father to do this. He wanted me to get a job but I could tell that something very good would come out of this,” he told Wilton-Steer.

“It started because as a boy I would walk along al-Khayamiya Street and I was so intrigued by people working with this tiny thread. They would be creating beautiful things. I wanted to learn how it was done.”

Wilton-Steer also describes the work of Khaled Khalida whose company produces about 150 wooden objects, many of which are stacked around in his storeroom: boxes, backgammon sets and ornamental chairs. Many share intricate black and white Islamic geometric motifs, embossed with mother-of-pearl.

The exhibition also featured the crafts of women at Mezala, a social development organisation supported by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. It works with marginalised women to provide them with skills such as jewellery making and woodwork.

“I hope that the exhibition and media coverage it has received will inspire interest in al-Darb al-Ahmar and its artisans and encourage people to visit this wonderful place. That is the main objective of this project,” Wilston-Steer said.

“With recent political instability, security concerns, a faltering economy and a significant decline in tourist numbers, the future of many of these crafts is under threat and they may not last another generation.”

“It’s very sad to think Egypt and the world might lose this rich cultural heritage but if the situation improves, the tourists return and the organisations which support the artisans in Cairo can better link those businesses to international markets, then things could get a lot better and this wonderful heritage could endure,” he added.