Once-popular Egyptian crafts are dying out
Cairo - Fez-making is dying out across Egypt but Mohamed Jamal has learnt no other craft. The 32-year-old has been making fezzes since he was 12. As a school dropout, he was apprenticed by a fez factory owner who believed he would have a brilliant future if he mastered the craft of making fezzes.
Jamal has done so, only to find his occupation may not have much of a future as fashion changed.
“When I first came here 20 years ago, I used to see a lot of people coming to this factory and ordering the red hats,” Jamal said. “Now, however, very few people are interested in the same hats and the number of these people keeps decreasing day after day.”
Al-Tarabishi factory, where Jamal works, is one of only six facilities in Egypt producing the truncated-cone-shaped red hats with tassels attached to the tops.
Fezzes were mandated headgear for males in Egypt in the 19th century by Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha. This allowed al-Tarabishi factory to thrive.
Buried deep in the narrow alleys of al-Ghoria, a frantic market, the factory boasts fez-making equipment as old as the headgear it makes. The fez press, an oversized brass stovetop, sits to the right of the factory entrance. Three large hand-tightened presses sit upon it. Each press has a large handle that cranks pressure onto the forms.
When this press was installed more than 100 years ago, it was a real wonder. The men who ordered a fez spent time looking at how the machine turned felt or other fabrics into fezzes.
Now the machine is as old and outdated as fezzes themselves.
Ahmed Morsi, a Cairo University professor of folklore, has been trying to save fez-making and other threatened crafts with help from other folklore lovers. They have created Egypt’s first crafts archive.
“The archive is an important step to protect the memory of these crafts but our government should have done something to protect them from dying out,” Morsi said. “We are talking here about scores of crafts that are being wiped out in real life.”
Brass tray engraving, word embroidery onto fabric and clay pottery throwing are but few of the crafts disappearing across Egypt.
Brass tray engraving by hand was practiced by a sizeable number of craftsmen in Fatimid Cairo, where scores of shops of brass tray engravers were ubiquitous sights. None of the shops remain. Engravers have sought other professions as electrically engraved objects from countries such as China invade the Egyptian market.
Jamal says he has learnt no other profession. The factory where he works was once the Mecca of Egypt’s pashas, major land owners, businessmen and government officials.
But the factory’s business is a mere fraction of what it was in the past as fezzes lose their allure as the singular headgear of Egyptian men. Few wear them, aside from students and sheikhs from nearby al-Azhar mosque.
Most of the sheikhs and students wander past goods displayed outside shops to reach al-Tarabishi factory to buy fezzes for less than $3 or repair the hats they already own.
Jamal’s face becomes animated when one of these sheikhs or students shows up.
“These clients give me confidence that I am doing something useful,” Jamal said. “But how long will they keep coming?”