They have been turning clay into art in Egypt’s first capital since the Muslim conquest, but the modern-day potters of Fustat say their craft and way of life are in danger amid a stalled government workshop project, slumping tourism and the youths’ lack of interest in learning a tradition.
By Dominika Maslikowski
Photography by Mohsen Allam
Salesman Abdel Rahman, 26, lights another cigarette as he sits in the shade of a ramshackle stand selling beige mushroom-shaped patio lamps that light up the entire road at night. Across the street smoke rises from a landfill that locals say used to be a warehouse before it drifts slowly towards Amr Ibn Al-Aas mosque.
Before the revolution, Abdel Rahman says, concerts brought customers into the area and people enjoyed perusing the stacks of clay bowls and vases. Business was good, and a businessman named Naguib taught pottery to young people who couldn’t find work. Naguib has since died and the youth aren’t interested in something that isn’t easy to master and doesn’t bring in much money.
A government project was supposed to give the area a boost and replace the potters’ old furnaces — which ran on wood, tires or garbage and caused environmental and health hazards — with state-of-the-art workshops. The first phase of this Pottery Village, built by the Cairo Governorate and Ministry of Tourism, was completed in 2006 and provided 31 workshops for 12 artists and 17 local craftsmen. But the second phase has been under construction since 2004 and the delays have left many locals frustrated.
“I blame bureaucracy and corruption. That’s why construction hasn’t finished,” alleges 33-year-old potter Mahmoud, who declined to give his last name. He echoes the complaints of many locals who blame government inefficiency for the hold-up. “The first part of the village (which is now completed) was for the potters working across the street. That was built by Arab Contractors, and they did a good job on that one. But the second village wasn’t given to those contractors, and there was corruption and building that wasn’t the same standard as the old village.”
The second part of the village is about 70% done, according to the Environmental Ministry, which is coordinating the project. When complete, phase two will have 150 pottery workshops with advanced furnaces to accommodate the rest of the area’s artists.
The delays have left many locals feeling hopeless and led others to abandon the craft altogether, says Ahmed Gaber Saber, 32, who owns three workshops in the completed section of the village’s phase two. He and the other potters who have already received their workshops cite a long list of complaints: The workshops were not delivered at the promised size and lacked basic amenities that some potters could not afford to install.
Some potters who took workshops at the village found the pottery wheels weren’t working, or there was no water or electricity, Abdel Rahman adds.
“I had to put in electric meters, for example. I used to have 2,000 sq. meters. The new workshops I got are 700 sq. meters total, and at first they wanted to give me even less and I had to negotiate,” Saber claims. He adds that the new spaces did not include housing, a critical issue for those potters who used to live in their old workshops as well.
“I think about three-fourths of the money was embezzled, so that’s why construction was poor,” Saber alleges. “They delivered smaller workshops because they started selling some workshops to people who were not from the area who kept the workshops and later sold them for profit when the prices went up. We filed many complaints at the Cairo Governorate but we’re still in the same position today.”
Because the old workshops were torn down to make room for the new village, the potters say the delays are causing a lot of hardship. Some just left the craft for different kinds of work, Abdel Rahman says.
Saber says other potters have taken matters into their own hands. “Some people started building their own workshops because they got fed up with waiting for their promised facilities. After the revolution, people started coming back and building because they were just sitting at home without work. Craftsmen can never do anything else.”
“Most people come here by accident, or when they get lost. That includes mostly Egyptians and some tourists.”
Unraveling Red Tape
The delays were caused by the Cairo Governorate, says Mona Samy Habib, a consultant at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, which is coordinating the project with the governorate, the potters and the Ministry of International Cooperation. The governorate has failed to issue a security clearance to move people who are still on the land where the construction is hoped to take place, like those who work in quarrying or run cafes, Habib explains. They want to have a place in the new village but the village is meant only for the pottery industry, she adds.
The first part of the village was funded by the Italian government while the second phase was kick-started with funds from USAID. While both phases were allocated about the same amount of money, the second one was built at a lower standard because of the rising costs of construction materials, Habib notes. The critical issue has been the price hike in furnaces: Not only are they more expensive than they used to be, but the potters must also be trained in how to use them.
Habib adds that the first village was also less costly because there were no problems with infrastructure like sewage or building roads, while the second village required more work.
“The potters don’t really mind the second village, even if the construction might not be up to par. It’s still much better than what they have now,” Habib claims. “Most of them didn’t give the real area of the space they worked in. They told the government they had bigger workshops than in actuality to get bigger workshops from the government. I didn’t see anyone living in a workshop. Maybe they say this so they can have more benefits — not only to have a workshop but also another house. I don’t know. The people who proved they have houses in this area got apartments from the government.”
Environment Minister Laila Iskander recently announced she’s reached an agreement with the Cairo governor to remove old housing so the second phase of the Pottery Village with natural gas furnaces can move forward. During their meeting on September 17, the minister and governor agreed to take steps to remove all illegal construction that’s hindering the project and finalize a contract with the power company.
The potters, however, are tired of the promises and the waiting. They have taken their own initiatives by brainstorming marketing strategies, saying the government has not been promoting their craft. Abdel Rahman says that they’re also exporting their products and covering the costs themselves. If they had government sponsorship for exports, it would would minimize paperwork and eliminate taxes.
Their products are exported to Europe and Gulf countries and sold at shops in upscale Cairo neighborhoods, but business has hit a slump and those sales are not enough for the estimated 3,000 people who rely on the area’s pottery business to make their living.
“We were just discussing marketing a few days ago because sales are so bad that we’re thinking of marketing by ourselves,”
Abdel Rahman says. “The government still functions by the methods of the old regimes and demands of people that they make progress, but when people try to progress they face hurdles because of the government. Things are really bad now and people don’t buy like they used to. They only care when they happen to pass by.”
Despite the craft’s uncertain future, Abdel-Hakim Abdel-Hakim, director of the nearby Fustat Traditional Crafts Center, is hopeful about instilling the love of the potter’s wheel in the young generation. When he selects candidates for the center’s two-year courses, the first thing he looks for is the student’s ability to teach the craft and inspire others.
Fustat has been famous for pottery ever since Amr Ibn al-Aas arrived and built Egypt’s first capital there under Muslim rule. When in 1995 the government wanted to relocate the potters, Abdel-Hakim was one of the people who insisted the potters remain in the spot where they have worked for centuries. After several years of talks, the government agreed in 1999 to keep the potters in Old Cairo.
A decade ago the craft was still very traditional and the potters made mostly water vessels until they began experimenting with new designs and lighter materials like fibreglass and polyester, which are often made using molds.
Amr ibn al-Aas would not recognise the area today. Traditional bowls and vases have given way to arrays of mushroom-shaped lamps, colorful moon and flower designs and even flamingoes. At night, when all the lamps along the road of pottery stands are lit up like a ceramic amusement park, a magical flying fairy would not look out of place.
At the Fustat Traditional Crafts Center, owned by the Culture Ministry, some 30 different crafts are made from glasswork, jewelery and carpentry to traditional rugs and the pottery here is more artsy and traditional. Abdel-Hakim doesn’t discriminate, though, saying all styles have their place in the ceramics world. Artisans in the area make mass-produced works and that’s good for the publicity of the area because it makes pottery more available and popularizes it, he says.
The center was founded in 1958 and had a renovation in 1993 from the Culture Ministry in an effort to give the run-down neighborhood a lift. It currently houses three galleries where artists exhibit their work and a traditional school for crafts and Islamic art that has already seen three classes graduate from the two-year course. However, like the potters down the street, the center says it isn’t easy to bring in the customers in today’s economy.
“Most people come here by accident, or when they get lost,” says Ahmed Wahid, 36, who is in charge of production at the center and teaches flower painting and Islamic design. “That includes mostly Egyptians and some tourists. We try to tell people and to make exhibits. People come to the area for the Amr ibn al-Aas mosque and Mar Girgis, so we try to advertise ourselves by word-of-mouth.”
Reaching out to a young generation and getting them interested isn’t easy in the age of video games and computers. Many parents who worry about their children’s future often push them into fields that can yield more stable careers and higher salaries. Abdel Hakim says they are trying to work with schools to find talented students to come to the center and learn learn the traditional crafts like pottery.
“The problem now is that pottery is in decline. Fathers now want to make their sons doctors. Most craftsmen are from the old generation,” Abdel-Hakim says. “The next generation isn’t interested. Pottery is a craft that if you don’t learn when you’re young, you can’t learn when you’re older. We are trying to address this problem because after a decade these crafts will decline.” et