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  05 Jul 2022, 10:01

Egypt family keeps alive tradition behind hajj centrepiece

 CAIRO, July 5, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - Under the steady hum of a ceiling fan, Ahmed
Othman weaves golden threads through black fabric, creating Koranic verses, a
century after his grandfather's work adorned the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand
Mosque.

A ceremonial hanging of the kiswa, huge pieces of black silk embroidered with
gold patterns, over the cubic structure that is the centrepiece of the Grand
Mosque symbolises the launch of the hajj annual pilgrimage, which starts this
week.

Othman's family used to be honoured with the task of producing the kiswa.

His family's creations would be despatched in a camel caravan to Islam's
holiest site in western Saudi Arabia towards which Muslims across the world
turn to pray.

Now, Othman keeps the tradition alive in a small workshop, tucked above the
labyrinthine Khan al-Khalili bazaar in central Cairo, where mass-produced
souvenirs line the alleys.

The area is historically home to Egypt's traditional handicrafts, but
artisans face growing challenges.

Materials, mostly imported, have become expensive, particularly as Egypt
faces economic woes and a devalued currency.

Plummeting purchasing power makes high quality hand-crafted goods
inaccessible to the average Egyptian, while master craftspeople find it hard
to hand down their skills as young people turn to more lucrative jobs.

This wouldn't be the case "if there was good money in the craft", Othman
sighed, hunched over one of the many tapestries that fill his workshop.

Sheets of black and brown felt are covered in verses and prayers, delicately
embroidered in silver and gold.

Every stitch echoes the "sacred ritual" Othman's grandfather was entrusted
with in 1924.

"For a whole year, 10 craftsmen" would work on the kiswa that covers the
Kaaba which pilgrims circumambulate, using silver thread in a lengthy labour
of love.

- Sprinkled rosewater -

From the 13th century, Egyptian artisans made the giant cloth in sections,
which authorities transported to Mecca with great ceremony.

Celebrations would mark the processions through cities, flanked by guards and
clergymen as Egyptians sprinkled rosewater from balconies above.

Othman's grandfather, Othman Abdelhamid, was the last to supervise a fully
Egyptian-made kiswa in 1926.

From 1927, manufacturing began to move to Mecca in the nascent Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia, which would fully take over production of the kiswa in 1962.

The family went on to embroider military regalia for Egyptian and foreign
dignitaries, including former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

"In addition to our work with military rank embroideries, my father started
embroidering Koranic verses on tapestries," and then reproducing whole
sections of the kiswa.

Clients began flooding in for "exact replicas of the kiswa, down to the last
detail".

Though today they offer small tableaus for as little as 100 Egyptian pounds
(about $5), massive customised orders go for several thousand dollars, such
as replicas of the Kaaba door, which Othman proudly claims are
indistinguishable from the originals in Mecca.

- Back-breaking -

But the family has not been immune to the economic turbulence that began with
the coronavirus pandemic, which decimated small businesses and craftsmanship
in Egypt.

Since early 2020, they have sold around "two pieces per month", whereas
before they would sell at least one tapestry a day.

Othman worries that a sense of "worldwide austerity" makes business unlikely
to bounce back.

Today, there might only be a dozen or so craftsmen whose work he considers
authentic, with many artisans leaving the craft for quicker cash flows.

"They can make 200 to 300 pounds a day," ($10-$16) driving a tuktuk motorised
rickshaw, or a minibus, Othman said. "They're not going to sit on a loom
breaking their backs all day."

But still, a century and a half after his great grandfather left his native
Turkey and brought the craft with him to Egypt, Othman says he has stayed
loyal to techniques learnt as a child when he would duck out of school to
watch his father work.

"It's on us to uphold the craft the same way we learned it, so it's authentic
to the legacy we inherited," he said.

 

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