The profiles of the craftsmen who participated in theKEEPitREAL!projects are based on interviews carried out by Taher ‘Abd al-Ghani of ARCHiNOS Architecture.
Hussayn’s workshop is located in a huge wikala (urban caravanserai) built in the late 18th century in the place of a much older one, where his trade has been practiced for a long time: it was known as the Wikala of the Candles. The location is in the heart of Historic Cairo, literally in the shadow of the formidable Bab Zuwayla city gate of 1090 and the two exquisite minarets built on top of it towers in the early 15th century. Hussayn’s products are sold underneath a great stone dome in the gateway of the Bab Zuwayla itself. Some intrusive shops were removed during the conservation of the gate in the early 2000s, but the stands in the passageway, which have been there since at least the 15th century, were renewed and retained. Along with other shops in the vicinity, Hussayn’s stand sells primarily huge, elaborately decorated candles that are traditionally used in Egypt in festive family celebrations.
In the KEEPitREAL! project, Hussayn Gaber collaborated with ‘Amr ‘Amer.
Khaled Ali, glassblower
Khaled first came to the area of Qaitbey at the Eastern Cemetery within the “City of the Dead” in 1970, when his father taught him the glass-blowing profession. He has been teaching his two sons for the past 15 years to preserve the trade from extinction. His workshop, entered from an attractive small courtyard, is tucked away in a quiet side alley that branches off the street opposite the masterfully carved dome of al-Gulshayni, part of Sultan Qaitbey’s complex. There is a retail shop attached to the workshop, but the majority of its products are distributed to the market by an intermediary agent.
Until recently, they used wood as fuel in the kiln, but now it is gas-fuelled. The oxide compounds used to colour the glass are produced locally in the workshop. The products are a mixture of every day-use objects such as glasses, plates and vases, and decorative pieces. The prices differ according to size and design. For example, hand-crafted, free-blown drinking glasses can be bought for L.E. 8 apiece, while lamps of elaborate designs that are labour-intensive in production range in price from L.E. 300 to L.E. 450. A few years ago, a governmental agency dealing with family and children development assigned a group of students to Khaled for a training course that lasted two months. After the turbulent events following January 2011 however, the project was terminated. He believes that the area does not receive sufficient attention from the government.
Khaled collaborated with three different artists in the KEEPitREAL! project: Bettina Ammann, David Murphy, and Vincent Voillat. He initially found working with them challenging because they required approaches which were quite unconventional in his profession. Some suggestions would have been too costly, e.g. building a completely new furnace. They were able to reach compromises and eventually producing the work was very gratifying.
Khaled Abdel-Hamid, carpenter
Osta (‘craft-master’) Khaled was 10 years old when he started learning carpentry in his uncle’s big workshop in the Citadel area. Later he opened one of his own in Manshiyet Nasir. Due to the recent events in the country, and the increase in rents, he moved his work to the Qaitbey area at the Eastern Cemetery within the “City of the Dead”, where he also lives. He mostly produces furniture, working in different styles inspired by historical European furniture, and also in traditional Islamic forms, which he personally prefers. He has little regard for pieces looking like mass-produced goods, in which he sees an American influence, and he considers them dull and tasteless. While mindful of not losing the artistic touch in his products, he also strives to make them compatible with today’s standards.
To make his furniture practical, he often produces folding pieces, or items made from detachable elements. His commissions have included a conference hall for the Governor of Luxor and a speaking podium in the Cabinet Office. However, he values the ethics and craftsmanship of his profession over material gain. He shares the widespread opinion that the young generation, used to the Internet and other conveniences of a modern lifestyle, lacks the patience and perseverance necessary for proficiency in traditional handcrafts. He is determined, however, not to pull out of his profession, which he considers an art form.
In the KEEPitREAL! project, Khaled Abdel-Hamid collaborated with ‘Amr Fekry.
Sayed Hussayn, alabaster worker
Known as “Sayed al-Mokh” (Brainy Sayed), he has been working in the profession since he was 15 years old. He never went to school, but learnt to read and write through contacts with people. He did not inherit a family business, and he apprenticed with several professional craftsmen as a young child. He holds one of them, Muhammad Hussayn, in particular esteem for his mastery of the Pharaonic style. He stayed with Mohamed for almost 30 years, and when he passed away, Sayed took on several specialisations, including carving, turnery and different architectural ornaments.
He has enjoyed his craft ever since he was a child. He would go to his mother and tell her, I want to be an artist. Later, he realised that rather than considering himself an artist, he sees doing this particular profession as his destiny decided by God. His son works with him as well, mostly in architectural decorations. In his workshop at the top of the Darb al-Ahmar Street, at the foot of the Citadel, Sayid makes mainly alabaster statues, but now he also produces a rather unusual commodity: kerosene lamps crafted in alabaster, which nobody else supplies to the market. In past years, he also worked with companies in the building industry, for which he produced detailed scale models, and did wall finishes, flooring, staircases and kitchens details.
He recalls his time in Saudi Arabia, where he spent 25 years working alongside other nationals such as Filipinos, Sri-Lankans and Indians. He worked in the royal palace throughout the reigns of Kings Faisal, King Khaled and King Fahd. There, he developed his skills in carving and turnery, but mostly he worked on architectural finishes.
In the KEEPitREAL! project, Sayed Hussayn collaborated with Vincent Voillat.
Sayed Magdi, stucco artisan
Sayed Magdi learned his trade in his father’s workshop. In the days of King Farouq, they used to make statues, but after spending some time in Saudi Arabia Sayid’s father decided that this was not correct according to his religion, and the workshop switched to producing solely non-figurative pieces of architectural decoration. He did not object, however, to making models of human organs in carved gypsum, which he sold to medical students and doctors.
The products now made in Sayed’s workshop are mostly architectural decorations imitating Baroque and Neo-classical ornaments, but also include pieces inspired by traditional Islamic motifs, like window grilles in geometric patterns. Sayed has owned the workshop since 1990, having moved to the Qaitbey area from Sayida Zeinab district. He did not encourage his son to carry on with the profession; he has a salaried job instead. Sayed believes that freelance professions are not what they used to be due to the difficulties the country has been going through recently.
He remembers the times of President Anwar El-Sadat in the 1970s as his best days, when he had plenty of commissions and made a good income. Sayed attributes the subsequent downturn in his trade to the Chinese domination of the market and later the political disturbances in the country after 2011. He believes, however, that his craft can adapt creatively to changing circumstances and is not afraid that it will share the fate of traditional lantern-makers, who have been largely pushed out of the market by the competitive influx of Chinese products.
In the KEEPitREAL! project, Sayed Magdi collaborated with Salma Badawy.
‘Atef ‘Abd al-A‘al, blacksmith
A quite well-known craftsman in his neighbourhood in the Darb al-Ahmar, ‘Atef ‘Abd al-A‘al used to work in various trades alongside his father and brothers, all related to metalwork. These included making brass posts for bed frames, metal parts for shisha (water-pipes), chandeliers, and household articles like cups and plates. Changes in demand have forced on him changes in specialisations: a fashion for wooden beds made brass bed-posts obsolete, Chinese products have flooded the water-pipes market, competition in the production of household articles grew too fierce. Finally, after his father passed away, ‘Atef settled on producing wrought iron items, which he has been doing for 12 years. This is his main specialisation, but he also has a long and wide experience in welding and polishing, and works in different sorts of metal, for example, copper, stainless steel and aluminium.
He experimented with different alloys, using gold and silver to modify the colour of nickel and copper objects, used galvanization, and ventured into gold- and silversmithing by making silver and gold medals.
He received commissions from the military, which he supplied not only with metal serving plates, but also uniform insignia.
He never thought that the profession is in danger of extinction, as he thinks nothing can replace it in fulfilling the market’s demands.
In the KEEPitREAL! project, ‘Atef ‘Abd al-A‘al collaborated with Dani Ploeger.
Al-Sheikh Karam al-Sunny, potter
After having worked as a potter for more than 50 years, Karam’s life is inextricably connected to ceramics. He did not inherit a family business, but learned the trade from another potter. He had spent about 15 years with his master before opening his own workshop. He produces vessels in more than 60 different shapes, and it is not infrequent for foreigners to come to watch and admire his skills. After some of his products were exported to the USA through a foreign trader, he travelled there in the early 1980s. He remembers the fascination of the Americans with his skills as a craftsman working by hand with simple natural materials, something not commonly encountered there.
Karam believes that the profession is not easy to learn. One can master driving a car, he says, or flying a plane, or making tanks, by just taking courses, but in order to understand pottery fully, a person must really love and admire it. There is never an end to learning if one wants to get to the core of it. Pottery evolved through thousands of years, and in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs. Karam thinks that the profession needs an awakening, not just from the government but also from the people. In past years, there were over 200 craftsmen in the area, but now there are no more than 20, so the ceramics heritage is going steeply downhill. If a potter dies, he can only be replaced with someone with a lifelong commitment and experience.
He is not particularly worried by the government removing traditional kilns in the area where they have a thousand years-old presence and relocating the potters to new facilities. He points out that the new buildings with their utilities can provide better working conditions, and believes that gas-fuelled or electric kilns can still produce the old-fashioned style pottery.
Located near Muqattam hills and Maadi, Shiq al-Ta‘ban is a place where inmates from the nearby Tura Prison used to quarry limestone. The stone quarried in this area, around Tura on the eastern bank of the Nile at the southern end of the Cairo Governorate, is a fine white limestone that was valued in Egypt as high-quality building material and sculptor’s medium since the Old Kingdom more than four thousand five hundred years ago.
Probably its most famous use was for the casing stones of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). Small businesses started to appear in Shiq al-Ta‘ban area in the 1970s, and one of them belonged to Kamal Barra's father. Gradually, more workshops appeared in the vicinity and Shiq al-Ta‘ban became what it is today, a huge area where stone imported from throughout the world is processed with industrial machinery capable of lifting massive blocks of marble and cutting them precisely into 2 centimetre-thick slabs. There are also smaller workshops that work mostly in local stone. Kamal Barra’s workshop, unlike most other businesses in the area, produces mostly hand-finished basalt paving stones or decorative limestone finishes for walls.
Muhammad Yunis is a man of few words who prefers to express himself in deeds. He inherited the profession and the workshop from his father. He received his education from a technical school in Matariya, where he learnt wood-turning. Due to a shortage of workers in the workshop, he used to work with his father while continuing his studies. He spent 30 years in the profession, and has never worked anywhere else other than in al-Darb al-Ahmar. His workshop is located in front of the early 16th century takiyya (Sufi convent) of al-Gulshayni, just outside the mediaeval Bab Zuwayla city gate. It primarily produces huge wooden chopping blocks used by butchers and rustic garden furniture. According to Muhammad, the workshop is in good shape and the market for his products is satisfactory.
In the KEEPitREAL! project, Muhammad Yunis collaborated with Bassem Yousri.