Deep in the heart of Masr Al-Qadima an old tradition survives
CAIRO: While most professionals make a point of seeking out modern technology to allow them to finish their work in the fastest and easiest ways possible, a few holdouts refuse to bend to modernity and resist the impulse to upgrade.
One of these is Hanafi Mohammed Khedr, a ‘makwagi regl’ or a foot-launderer, who remains keen on earning his living by pressing clothes using a foot-iron. Hanafi can be found in a small workshop tucked away in one of old Cairo’s alleys tirelessly ironing all types of garments.
Piece after piece, small, baggy, cotton, silk, all are getting a freshly pressed look from his magic wand – the foot-iron. He raises the sizeable, old-fashioned, flat metal device, placing his left foot on a piece of wood fixed on the tool to iron out creases at amazing speed. In a mechanical-meets-human symbiosis, his leg moves as he splashes water on the clothes from above a transparent cotton spread.
While many launderers have finally given way to hand irons and the lucrative dry-cleaning machine-based business, Hanafi cherishes a rare attachment to his two-century-old flat irons.
The expression ‘makwit regl’ has entered the colloquial vocabulary as a derisive term to make fun of a lousy hairstyle, saying that a person’s hair was styled with a ‘makwit regl.’ But not many of those who use the expression are aware that the foot-iron still exists in some of Cairo’s old districts.
I went to Masr Al-Qadima in search of Ezzat, another foot-launderer, but was told that his business had closed down.
“A few years ago seven of us were operating in this neighborhood, says Hanafi. “But only me and another guy are using that kind of iron despite the big effort and the small gain involved, he adds.
His workshop is located a street away from the ancient Amr Mosque, the first such structure to be raised in Egypt following the Islamic conquest.
Hanafi takes pride in the fact that he has raised his three kids using tools that once belonged to Amin, the first foot-launderer in Masr Al-Qadima (Old Cairo).
“My uncle was the owner of this laundry. After he died it was sold to a man who refused to do without my skill, he related.
Not many people are finicky about the way their clothes are pressed, so some apprentices, assist using electric irons in a corner of the shop. But Hanafi’s clientele is a far cry from his counterparts.
“They come from all parts of Cairo, from as far as Giza, Maadi, Dar Al-Salam just to iron their clothes. They know what true laundering is about, says Hanafi wistfully. But what makes your tool different, Hanafi?
“It’s big, heavy and flat, he explains. “It’s enough to press one side of the garment to get it smoothed; you don’t have to turn the piece several times on each and every side. It’s also worth its value, for when you do it with a foot-iron, the garment can remain in good shape for two months, informs Hanafi, as he mocks his children for the laundry that gets sent back to them.
“They send it to a workshop adjacent to our house in Maadi. I look at it and laugh. Today’s workers have no idea about laundering. The foot-iron belongs to the age of royals, pashas and palaces. It is the original, he enthused.
But he refuses to charge extra despite the extra effort involved and the lack of availability. “If I charge more, the clients will definitely move away to look for cheaper service.
Hanafi has tried to shift gears and use more modern techniques, such as the metal hand iron and electrical appliances. But he hasn’t managed to continue for more than a few months because he found the results lacking. “You can’t feel it unless you’re a true worker. These gadgets are too small.
Like the modern tools, the foot-iron is used to press all types of garments from wools and jeans to cottons and silks. But in practice it is not easy to use effectively. It has to be heated on a gas stove for half an hour and then maintains its heat for an additional 30 minutes. Choosing the appropriate moment to iron various fabrics relies on the operator’s finely honed sense of timing. “Only when it is very hot do I use it to smooth heavy stuff like wool and jeans. The next 10 minutes are ideal for cottons. And only before it cools down can it be used to press silks.
Despite moving the 18 kg of iron for 12 hours every day, Hanafi has rarely complained of any muscular problems. “Sometimes I feel tired. Muscular pains occur from time to time but generally doing this job is like doing some type of weightlifting, of course, the easy way.
In spite of the hardships, he is always genuinely smiling and refuses to grumble at the energy-sapping task. But will he remain devoted to his grandfathers’ profession? Or like the others will he finally succumb to the temptation of easy gain and help write a final obituary for the foot-iron?