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Honing Egypt's heritage

Iwas once sitting at a travel agents trying to get travelers’ cheques for Syria. “Where are you going? the bleached damsel behind the desk said, “Sierra Leone? Egypt, despite owing affiliation to the same cultural and regional bloc as the aforementioned country, is a household name. If biblical pre-school Pharaoh stories haven’t etched the country …


Iwas once sitting at a travel agents trying to get travelers’ cheques for Syria. “Where are you going? the bleached damsel behind the desk said, “Sierra Leone?

Egypt, despite owing affiliation to the same cultural and regional bloc as the aforementioned country, is a household name. If biblical pre-school Pharaoh stories haven’t etched the country into a child’s memory by the age of five, geography lessons of the “great rivers and their crocodiles will. Then of course there’s the Shakespearean tales of Anthony and Cleopatra and Alexander the Great’s exploits.

Yes, unlike its sister Syria, Egypt is a Mecca for tourist hoards, independent backpackers and expat archeologists. When they return to their countries, they invariably take home more than a few trinkets, whether that means a lamp, a piece of jewelry, a Bedouin rug, or a galabiyaa. Whatever it may be, it will be quintessentially Egyptian.

But how much of these ‘pieces of Egypt’ can actually be found without venturing to Egypt’s shores? The answer is, unfortunately, very few.

Despite being rich in cultural heritage, with a well of traditional handicraft and skilled labor, Egypt’s handicraft exports are at a low.

“Egypt used to be an exporting nation, especially its jewelry. Now, however, it is a net importer, Hany Barakat said.

Dr Hany Barakat, the first undersecretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, played an integral role in establishing the Egypt Technology Transfer and Innovation centers. The centers, which cover a range of areas including fashion and jewelry, were set up five years ago in a noble move to hone Egypt’s handicraft sector, with a view to becoming, once more, an exporting nation.

“There has been a tremendous deterioration in Egypt in the past decades,

Barakat continues, “especially in the fields of handicrafts, pottery, jewelry, embroidery and hard textiles. It has seen no growth, no new interest, no new employment and no experts taking an interest.

This change in Egypt’s position on its handicrafts reflects a wider global trend. As Barakat tells me, in the not too distant past, handicrafts were perceived as low technology. An outcome of the blasts of consumerism and industrialization, they were not even rated as an industrial sector.

Now, however, things are starting to change. China and India have harnessed the taste for indigenous, handicrafts, with Chinese handicrafts exports reaping an impressive revenue of $14 million in 2007. In Morocco, another North Africa jewel, handicrafts, and in particular pottery, make up 15 percent of the exports.

Following in their footsteps, Egypt aims to reposition Egyptian traditional handicrafts, creating a competitive, ever-growing export industry, attracting new investments and creating new jobs.

In the past four years, the technology center has launched a number of programs, perhaps the most daring being the sector of cultural heritage dresses. With three projects running in St. Catherine, Al-Arish and the remote oasis of Siwa, the technology center sent a group of Italian and Egyptian fashion designers to train and support Bedouin women in making these dresses.

With that, the fashion designers formed a number of NGOs, and set about working with the women, aiming not only to create a line of quality, handmade pieces, but also with a mission to impart their knowledge to these women, giving them the skills to continue once the NGO had left.

“Part of our vision is to bring women into the industrial sector, and empower them economically, while respecting the fields in which they can work. Of course this is especially relevant to Bedouin women, who have very strict cultural boundaries.

In St. Catherine, the NGO started to train 50 Bedouin girls and women on three main topics relating to the fashion trade; fashion design, pattern making and production, and quality control.

However, the real challenge lay in how to take women from a semi-isolated Egyptian village, and render them able to produce not only modern designs, but ones that would be sellable on the international market without losing the local flavor.

And looking at the pictures of the finished products, it was clear that this St.

Catherine’s collection was a huge achievement. Styles are simple and tasteful, with more attention being paid to the cut rather than over-investment in complicated pattern.

“Gallabiyas are usually heavily embroidered, Barakat points out, “but despite the labor that goes into them – some taking up to six months to make – they only sell for around $100.

At the end of the six months, the girls organized a fashion show in Sharm El-Sheikh, a result of their training in marketing activities. When the show came to Cairo, international buyers expressed an interest.

“Our target is to create a business out of the NGOs, not a company,

Barakat explains. “We only supervise what they do, but they have complete control over their decisions. They work from home, so it’s very compatible with their lifestyle.

With an outlook now set up in Sharm El-Sheikh, and each dress selling from $400 – $500, the women are becoming the breadwinners in their households, which is no doubt causing some jealously from their male guardians, and an imbalance in traditional gender roles.

“These women are now making more than the men, Barakat says jovially, “but the funny thing is, when we had the Cairo fashion show, the men refused to allow their womenfolk to come on their own. Their husbands and fathers came with them on a coach from St. Catherine’s.

The image of a Bedouin troupe taking the long trip to Cairo for a fashion show seems more than slightly incongruous, but it proves what these women are capable of, and of course, what the future could hold for Bedouin fashion.

One of the heads of the NGO is Stefania Gulina. Educated in a Milan style school and with a second degree in advertising and public relations, Stefania came over to Egypt from Italy six years ago to manage the fashion technology center.

“The girls were very competent and there are some natural leaders among them. They are now equipped with laptops and have their own training center.

In Cairo itself, the fashion design school has seen a great many changes since Stefania took over six years back.

“When I first became manager, many of the men who had been working here left. They couldn’t handle being told what to do by a young woman. But many of them left because they couldn’t deal with the changes that I implemented.

Stefania’s experience highlights the problems that have to be solved before Egypt can enter a competitive global market. In other parts of the world, where employees are constantly being stretched and tested, here in Egypt the older generations perceive challenges as direct threats.

“When I made working hours longer, in return, of course, for pay, many employees left. They were happy with a very easy lifestyle, and didn’t want to take on the challenges. In a way it’s a good thing; now there is new blood.

Stefania’s arrival in the fashion design center marked the beginning of a new era for the production of Egyptian fashions.

After Sept. 11, Stefania says, America reduced its imports from Arab countries, which meant Egypt lost out on most of its fashion exports. It had to find new markets in Europe.

However, Europe’s specifications are much higher than its American counterparts. “It didn’t matter so much before if cuts weren’t perfect and finishes were not exactly straight, or batches weren’t finished on time, said Stefania.

“But Europe has very high specifications.

It was for this reason that when delegates from the Ministry of Trade and Industry toured Europe with a view to establishing relations with fashion centers, it chose Milan as its point of call.

“The Italian school was selected for the main reason that it has its own books and curriculum. The system was previously American, but the books were not systematized, there was no specific school which designers followed. The Italian system, however, is much more vigorous.

Students at the fashion and
design center have immediately noticed the difference from what they were used to. Nagla Yahya worked for a Lebanese Fashion designer for five years before enrolling in the school. “The teaching methods are much more precise and specialized than what I have experienced before.

A fellow student, Isma Ramadan, added, “I worked in Delta Textiles for three years in quality control. But we worked without any real training, just a quick and general course. Here they go into detail, such as dimensions of the body.

Both girls have a vision for the future of Egyptian fashion. “I’d like to design clothes for veiled girls, clothes that are modest but still attractive, said Nagla.

Despite huge leaps in the field of design, whether it may be in fashion, ceramics, woodwork or jewelry, it’s clear that there is still a long way to go.

And part of it, is convincing people that design as a concept is integral to a piece.

Jewelry Guru

My next interviewee is a woman whose eye for detail has changed the face of one field of Egyptian handicrafts. Azza Fahmy is petite, stylish and inspirational. Her jewelry ranges from simplicity to extravagance, but whatever she designs, it is still very much rooted in Arabic tradition. It is this fact, her unmatched knowledge in the heritage of Egyptian jewelry, that renders her the perfect candidate to sit on the board of the technology center for Jewelry.

The jewelry technology center began four years ago as a pioneer project, with the steering committee graced by names including Fahmy. It’s still in its early stages, but under the guidance of experienced merchants and jewelry makers, and with clear goals, has an auspicious future.

Fahmy explains that Egyptian jewelry exports slowed to the point of stagnation around 40 years ago, and since then nobody has really had the vision – up until now, that is – to harness Egypt’s potential and thrust it forward to the international market.

“Egyptian jewelry, says Fahmy, “needs to be pulled up by its boot straps.

It is like a sick person, and needs people with real vision to make fresh designs and new methods of crafting.

As much, if not more than, her counterparts in the industry, Fahmy has a burning desire to see Egypt’s jewelry famous, like that of Turkey’s and India’s, on the international market.

“The problem is that the craftsmen and the designers are generally one and the same. They have learnt the techniques of their fathers, and copy the designs off one another. Where is the innovation?

Innovation, as Fahmy’s experience dictates, is not a case of creating from nowhere. “Design can be drawn from all around us, from anything we see in our everyday lives.

But it also lies within tradition, history and at the very essence of indigenous culture, waiting to be teased out by someone ready to do the research.

Having traveled across the whole of Egypt exploring the culture, styles and techniques of jewelry, its production and usage, Azza Fahmy has something of a guru status. “They call me doctor, she says, a twinkle in her eye.

“Everything I design is influenced by things I have seen, and I have data for everything.

Jewelry in Egypt, has more meaning than brightening up one’s appearance.

The dangles one sees on a Bedouin girl’s ankle also reflect her wealth.

When the family needs money, a bracelet will be sold, to be melted down and reused. It’s romantic to think that the trinket you’re wearing was once part of the ‘shabka’ of a Nubian bride.

Fahmy’s own factory, with regards to its very system, has also retained a sense of strong tradition. “It is based on the old Turkish method of a Sheikh and his disciples, the master and his trainees have a strong relationship.

When the trainee makes his first piece, it is cause for a celebration.

She believes that the future of jewelry lies in education. “I have faith in young people who are open to new techniques. When advertising the training center, we not only target people who are already working for large jewelry design companies, but graduates fresh out of university who can’t find jobs.

Under Fahmy’s guidance, Egyptian jewelry is set to make a comeback on foreign boutiques and department stores. In a collaboration with the prestigious British designer Julien Macdonald in February, she has already paved the way.

Next month, Dr Barakat tells me, there will be a fashion show in Milan for the national heritage dresses. Egyptian designs, as much cultural messages as commodities, are being put back on the map.

Topics: FJP

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