CAIRO: Although the implementation of environment friendly laws have brought a sense of relief to the residents of polluted cities, it has also caused once thriving industries to fade and the workers to suffer.
The story of Seliman Ahmed, also known as Abu Abdou the Potter, is exemplifies the irony. But the simple man perceives it only as the will of God.
At one time in his life, Abu Abdou ran a successful pottery business: he owned a modest workshop and received thousands of pounds worth of orders from pottery and plant lovers.
But his fortunes suddenly subsided. Following many years of ups and downs, Abu Abdou finally settled in a corner of Maadi next to a flower shop. Since then, his trade has become entirely associated with flower dealers and their clients.
“For many decades, me as well as scores of other potters had been established on a huge site behind Amr Ibn El Ass Mosque, recalled Abu Abdou. “We produced our work using the traditional furnaces that burnt wood. But one day in the late 1990s, a high-ranking environmental official was passing by and asked about the source of a big cloud of smoke that filled the air.
“When told that it [the cloud of smoke] was caused by the potteries, he ordered the evacuation of the entire site. Overnight, I lost a big chunk of money that was in the form of pots, he added.
“I am not against environmental conservation, but what is the use of taking care of the environment when that creates new problems? asked Abu Abdou.
A ministerial decree was issued in the late 1990s to remove the pottery factories located in the area of Misr Al-Qadima (Al-Fustat) to a remote area called Shaq Al-Thu ban. The decree threatened to destroy the traditional art of pottery and ceramics as well as raise unemployment. It would also mean the end of a heritage.
International humanitarian societies presented officials in the Cairo governorate with an upgraded environment-friendly kiln. The order to evacuate could be modified to one allocating 3.5 feddans to build a model pottery and ceramics village on a closer area with funding from the Cairo Governorate and the Ministry of Tourism.
The village, however, could not accommodate all the potters, and some had to look elsewhere to earn their living. One of them was Abu Abdou.
“We failed to prove our ownership of the land, said Abu Abdou, “We have owned the land for generations and all relevant documents were lost. We had taken for granted that this was our place, the cradle of our craft and the future of our children.
He added, “But leaving aside the subject of land, a big industry like pottery has been contained. Under current laws, all new workshops are small and produce limited quantities at a time. Plastic pots are more popular [now]. Forget about me and my losses; the art is dying. We have been scattered here and there after our site was invaded.
Abu Abdou takes pride in the fact that the work of his ancestors (the ancient Egyptians) can be found in museums the world over. “Who knows? Perhaps in a thousand years, one of my pots could end up in a museum. But simple people like me will always remain the unknown artists. What can we do? God willed that we live and die in obscurity. Have you ever seen the name of a potter written on his work?
According to the potter, this is the profession of Imams and Saints. “Yes, Sidi Abdel Rehim El Desoki, Sidi Abel Rehim El Enawy and Sidi Abu El Saud were all potters. It is quite a testing job that requires stamina and patience. It’s mentally and physically draining, he says, “You are exposed to smoke and fire. This is the honor of a potter.
According to Abu Abdou, the new potters are hardly professional. They can’t work the same way he and his grandfather’s generation.
A beautiful, colorful, well-designed and glazed pot or vase is the result of team work. Although he recognizes the effort of the designer who provides the piece with different patterns and shapes, the furnace operators who shine it and the glazers, Abu Abdou thinks that the potter is the core of the art.
“If his work isn’t genuine, the whole thing would collapse if left for a few days in the sun. The potter is the one who tests the mud quality, the one who forms the shape that inspires the rest of the artists.
For Abu Abdou, the biggest blow is that the pottery industry is fading and only a few people seem to recognize its true value. “This is like writing the obituary of art and home plants, he comments. “So many people don’t know that the original pots are the right milieu for the roots. They are part and parcel of earth. Plastic is artificial.
In Abu Abdou’s words, there is the feeling that the future remains bound with the primitive artist’s outlook. As he laments his fortunes, he is also regretting the current state of pottery. But his misfortunes started earlier than the date of the site’s evacuation.
“I used to exhibit my select products on a stall which I set up in Matba at one point on the Corniche Road. My wife, Om Abdou, used to be in charge of the stall as I was busy running my own business.
“One day a drugged truck driver lost control of his vehicle and crashed into the stall, killing my wife and destroying everything. There is a case pending since the 1990s, but no sooner did I manage to overcome my bereavement that I came to hear about the evacuation decreed by the environmental officials.
“And to cap it all, the area where my stall was pitched had to be immediately taken away from me because it was part of the site on which the Supreme Constitutional Court was built.
The face of the pottery business has undergone drastic change and Abu Abdou was reduced from a successful craftsman to an ordinary seller. But the man continues to thank God that he has been able to earn a living.
“I feel sorry when I see the work of the younger generation. Not everyone who has dabbled in mud is a potter. We are short of potters, short of people who are keen on appreciating pottery. Should I say it’s the end?
He is bitter that pottery is now restricted to art schools and small factories – theirs was a much bigger world.