Is Egypt's handmade carpet industry on brink of extinction?

As handmade carpet factories continue to disappear in Egypt, a dedicated weaver toils on as one of three remaining workers in a surviving enterprise, doing the only job he can imagine.

al-monitor Saeed Hegazy weaving a rug on the loom at El Kattan Carpets, Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 15, 2018. Photo by Salwa Samir.

Nov 28, 2018

Sitting on a low wooden chair, Saeed Hegazy warps and wefts on a loom, duplicating a complicated motif from the drawing in front of him. This is what Hegazy has been doing for 43 years, since the age of 10, when he became a young apprentice in Egypt’s then-thriving handwoven carpets industry.

Hegazy prefers the good old days, when work was hard but the cost of living was more affordable and more people bought handwoven carpets.

“Everything is getting expensive compared to my income,” he complained to Al-Monitor. “Nor do I see any hope in the future regarding this craft.”

Hegazy earns around 1,600 Egyptian pounds (approximately $90) a month, which is not enough, he said, to meet the needs of his five children. Despite the financial shortfall, Hegazy cannot imagine doing anything else.

“I like weaving carpets,” he stated. “It's been my craft since childhood. Besides, who would give me another job after 50? I will work here until my death.”

“Here” is El Kattan Carpets, where Hegazy has been employed for the last 25 years. He had previously worked for other establishments in different governorates, but today, Hegazy said, “Most of [them] are closed for a lack of workers.”

El Kattan, founded in 1930 in Cairo, continues to hold on, despite the decreased demand for carpets and the new generation’s lack of interest in weaving.

“This is a profession that is inherited, not taught, and the worker must acquire it at a young age because it requires a lot of skill and coordination,” said Mohamed El Kattan, representing the third generation to run the factory founded by his grandfather Ahmed Fahmy El Kattan Bey, who is also considered the founder of technical training in Egypt. “There are no books, no classes for carpet weaving. It is taught through an apprenticeship system, right on the job.”

The craft of weaving is no longer the first choice of younger generations, mainly because they do not see a future for it. Many craftsmen have left the factory and weaving to work as tuk tuk drivers or for jobs in construction, El Kattan told Al-Monitor.

The El Kattan factory, located in Hadayek el-Kobba, in Greater Cairo, now has only three looms and three full-time craftsmen to work them. By comparison, 12 years ago, there were 40 looms in operation. The company's production has fallen from 2,000 square meters of carpet a year in its heyday, in the 1960s and 1970s, to 120 square meters today.

The number of customers interested in purchasing the type of carpets made by El Kattan has also declined, a trend in the entire sector, according to a 2017 report by the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce. Handmade carpets are today considered a luxury item, not an essential. The carpets have also become more expensive because the price of the materials used — local wool and cotton, silk from China and dyes from Europe — have increased in price. 

To Atef Zarif, a part-time drawer for El Kattan, there is no comparison between the handwoven carpets the factory makes and machine-made version, no matter the price. “[The machine-woven carpets] lack the soul of the craftsman’s artwork,” he told Al-Monitor. “They do not last long either.”

Zarif makes the designs the craftsmen weave into the carpets. Although he once worked full time at El Kattan, he now only works when summoned, when there is work for him to do.

“The factory produces carpets using old Persian styles, such as Tabriz, Kashan and Isfahan as well as Mamluk, which are characterized by their specific weaving techniques and use of high-quality materials, colors and patterns,” Zarif told Al-Monitor. “I take a photo of each design from catalogs, then I draw the design on paper and give it to craftsmen to copy.”

In an effort to reach out to young people and teach them to weave, El Kattan cooperates with charities, among them the Stable Antar Dreams Foundation, to conduct workshops taught by the factory’s craftsmen. El Kattan also provides the materials and looms, hoping it will stir the interest among younger generations.

Shaimaa Gamal, a teenager, has participated in the courses, practicing weaving at the foundation for seven years. “It is an easy task,” she confidently told Al-Monitor. “I didn't have any difficulties doing it.”

Sadly for El Kattan, Gamal has concluded that her future is not in carpets, but in wax. “When I need a break from time to time, I usually join other workshops offered by the foundation, such as making accessories, pottery and creating wax statuettes,” she said.

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