On a small green island located in the middle of the river, between the bustling Nile banks of Cairo, a small village has retained its traditions.
The village is called Dahab, not to be mistaken for the hippy tourist resort in the Sinai, and it looks like time has stood still within its premises. It is hard to imagine that at one point in time most of Cairo consisted of similar agricultural fields with a smattering of Egyptian country style houses dotting the green landscape. The urban jungle that surrounds the sleepy island encroaches from many sides, as witnessed by the huge billboards that are erected on its soil, accompanying the traffic filled bridge that crosses the river close to the island.
The only way to reach Dahab is by taking a ferry sailboat from the Nile banks. The boat is made by Hajj Fathy’s Workshop Company, on the island. “All of Cairo’s sail boats are manufactured here, including my boat, at Fathy’s workshop,” said Ahmed, the ferryman and one of the islanders.
Anyone who has ever taken a trip on a sail boat on the Nile and has enjoyed the fresh breeze on the water or has watched the sun set over the timeless river owes Hajj Fathy’s workshop, run by his sons Othman and Mustafa, a vote of thanks for their mastery of sail boat-craftsmanship. A sailing trip on the Nile has become a staple for tourists and Cairenes alike.
Fathy’s workshop on Dahab Island is the only place left in Cairo that has preserved the ancient craft of manufacturing sail boats “My father taught us the profession, which he learnt in turn from his grandfather,” said Mustafa. The workshop is licensed by the Ministry of Irrigation and the Egyptian Shipping Authority and all finished ships must be licensed before they leave for their maiden voyage. The shipping authority visits regularly to check the quality standards of the workshop and the ships it manufactures.
“The specifications of a boat depend on what the boatman or the client wants, he decides the shape of and size of his boat, we just carry out his instructions,” said Mustafa. The colours and style of the boat and its decorations are up to the clients as well. Many of the clients of the Fathy brothers opt to paint the sail boats themselves to put their personal touch on their new boat.
The boats are made of iron sheets and the Fathy brothers make sure of the quality and durability of their raw materials. “The safety of the people that will use our boats, whether they are tourists on a fun trip or regular passengers on a ferry, is our responsibility as long as the boat carries our signature,” said Othman.
The sail boats pass through several stages until they reach their final shape. In the first stage the basic structure of the sail boat is designed, which is called the fanous. The fanous dictates the general size of the sail boat its length, width and height. Once the basic structure is built it is reinforced with iron trusses and covered by sheets of iron welded together. The final step is when the owner of the new boat adds the colour and patterns of paint. This process, from start to finish, takes around one month.
The sails the boat will need can be obtained from Rabei’s workshop; a master sail maker who lives on the island too.
“Sailboat manufacturing is not an easy task and it needs specialised craftsmen, who have been involved in this profession since their childhood,” said Mustafa, hinting that the workshop is the only place where these craftsmen can still be found.