Egypt’s Ramadan still has a Chinese flavour

An April decree bans importing imitations of traditional Egyptian handicrafts, including Ramadan lanterns. But is it enough to revive local handicraft businesses?

Lamia Hassan, Tuesday 9 Jun 2015 (Ahram Online)

unnamed2Islamic Cairo’s Khan El Khalili market is crammed with shoppers buying the goods they need for the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. From its entrance on Azhar Street to its smallest alley, the neighbourhood is brimming with people, mostly locals, examining the products displayed in shops and on the side of the street.

As Ramadan approaches, the season’s colourful lanterns have just made a comeback around the market, starting from the tiny LE 5 lanterns to the bigger ones selling for hundreds of Egyptian pounds.

Known to be the hallmark of unique Egyptian products, Khan El Khalili and its surrounding streets have long bustled with shoppers from all over Egypt and the rest of the world. With its handmade copper plates, cushions, clothes, alabaster, jewelry, lanterns and even chandeliers, Khan El Khalili caters to all different tastes.

But, while the products cramming the market have remained the same for years, their origin has recently changed.

Especially when it comes to Ramadan lanterns, Pharaonic-themed souvenirs and jewelry, cheaper Chinese imports now outweigh local products.

“People used to come from all over to buy the finest goods made by Egyptians, but then the cheap [imported] products took over the market,” says Hassan Mohamed, the owner of a small workshop in El Darb El Ahmar that makes engraved copper plates.

Chinese products started appearing in the market 10 to 12 years ago, says Amr Abdallah from Awlad Ezzat (Ezzat’s Sons), one of the big lantern shops on Al Azhar Street.

“Chinese products weren’t very popular when they first appeared, but over the years more shops started importing and replacing their local products,” says Abdallah.

When the Chinese Ramadan lanterns became popular, Abdallah himself started importing them, he says.

But five or seven years ago, he changed his mind.

“I decided that it was time to stop buying imported lanterns and to support local business,” he says.

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Ban on imported imitations

Amid concerns about foreign imports putting local craftsmen out of busines, Egyptian Minister of Trade and Industry Moneer Fakhry Abdel Nour in April announced an import ban on all imitations of Egypt’s traditional handicrafts, as a move to protect Egyptian identity and intellectual property rights.

The ban comes as an application of Article 20 of the 1994 international General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which gives any country the right to take the necessary measures to protect its “national treasures of artistic, historic or archaeological value.”

“It’s our right to protect our intellectual property and our identity and to take the necessary measures to do so, and all the countries do the same,” says Yasser Gaber Shaker, the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s spokesperson.

The ban includes Ramadan lanterns and Pharaonic-themed souvenirs such as papyrus.

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But it remains unclear to what extent the ban will help to revive local handicraft production and sales.

While the ministry says the decree has already been implemented, some vendors claim that they have not yet seen a clear document detailing its terms. Most salesmen have already placed their orders for the season, they add.

Ministry spokesperson Shaker however claims that importers have spread a rumour that the ban has been postponed so that they can continue to sell their imported products.

Preserving crafts from the past

Not far away from Khan El Khalili and Al Azhar, Taht El-Raba’a, the production house behind many of the market’s lantern shops, is all geared up for Ramadan.

Unlike the other shop owners, Abdel Aziz Hashim hangs only the old-fashioned tinted glass lanterns outside his shop.

“For me, these are the only lanterns I know,” he explains. “Everything else they added or brought in from China has nothing to do with Ramadan.”

But over the last decade, plastic lanterns from China have flooded the Egypt market.

“Try asking kids who are born in the past 10 years about the traditional lanterns,” echoes Salama Hanafy, whose family has run a lantern making business from a tiny room in the neighbourhood for over 50 years. “They will know nothing about them.”

Although both Hashim and Hanafy welcome the new ban, they say that its implementation will be difficult.

Importers might already have enough imported goods in storage for the next year or even two, says Hashim.

And traditional lanterns will remain more expensive due to a rise in the cost of the materials needed to make them, says Hanafy: “We used to buy the glass for the lanterns for LE0.60 a kilo, but now it’s LE 3, which will definitely increase the cost of a lantern.”

Emphasising quality

But Hisham Raslan, another Khan El Khalili shop owner, relates the recent shift to Chinese products to a decline in the quality and creativity of local work.

“One of the reasons we have always depended on local handicrafts is for their quality, but when this started deteriorating and the Chinese manufacturers started to coming up with ideas for new products, we started to depend heavily on Chinese products,” he says.

Raslan, who is against the ban on imports, says that the products imported from China are different to those produced locally.

For example, Chinese manufacturers have innovated with pens covered with images of Pharoahs, Pyramids and Ancient Egyptian statues, he says.

The new decree is a positive step in the right direction, but more efforts are needed to revive local handicraft industries, says anthropologist Nawal El Messiri, who has worked on reviving local traditional craft industries for years at the Egyptian Folk Traditions Society.

The government and concerned organisations should raise awareness among manufacturers on the importance of quality for business growth, she says.

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“When manufacturers understand that people will stop buying their lanterns if they continue to make them with sharp edges or in poor quality, they automatically put more effort into what they make,” says El Messiri.

When tinsel embroidery from Upper Egypt was in danger of disappearing, her organisation helped to train local youth to master the technique and managed to sell their products outside Egypt, she says.

Beyond traditional handicrafts and Ramadan items, the government could also help to protect other local craft industries from foreign competition, she adds.

“Some of the best local furniture comes from Damietta, but many similar items are also imported,” she says. “There should be bans on all of these.”

For his part, Shaker stresses that the trade ministry supports local craft businesses with more than just the April ban on imports.

“We are working with 39 small and medium industries in 17 governorates across Egypt to help them develop their business and up their standards to revive the local industries,” he says.

As Ramadan approaches, Hashim says he wishes to one day see all shops only selling local tinted glass lanterns like his, although this is unlikely to be soon.

“We have been wishing for a decree like this for years, and it’s about time we use our dollar reserves to buy only the essential items that we cannot produce, and instead depend heavily on local businesses,” he says.

Snow on Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road

When I went back to Cairo last December, I was thinking that I will be able to enjoy the warm weather after months of cold in New York. Well, it was warm sometimes in the morning, but not as I expected it to be.

Now that we are in January, the fact that Cairo sees snow this year before New York is definitely worth mentioning. Who would have ever thought that Cairo will have snow or hail? Here we are, the world is changing!

 

Bursting My Bubble

Wandering aimlessly the chaotic streets of Cairo was something that I have always loved to do. Whether by night or day, I always thought there is something charming about it. But, as I grew up, I came to realize the ugly truth: there’s no way to enjoy it without going through the awful sexual harassment on the streets everyday.

Starting from when I used to park my car few streets away and walk to the university’s campus on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, this is when I started changing my views about the streets of Cairo. And, even when I finished school and moved to Mohandessin for my first job, then Maadi for my second, it was still the same old story.

I bet we all agree how awful and common the harassment is in Egypt, and some ladies know how to deal with it, and some blame it on what you dress (which is definitely a lie), but for me it was different; yes, I try to fight it by writing and talking about it, but because I can’t stand it I will just put my headphones and music on every time I leave my car. I just chose to live in a bubble I created, but replacing the ugly words with the music I choose for myself.

It became something essential to me to an extent that if I forget my headphones at home I would be so nervous and don’t want to leave the car. I was always aware that people on the street verbally harass me as I pass by and sometimes I could guess what they are saying, but at the end of the day I felt okay as long as I don’t actually have to hear it.

For years now, I chose the headphones thing as my defense mechanism against harassment and tried to be alert all the time. Sometimes I just pretended that music is on so that I don’t have to hear anything. I was always aware that it is a very weak one, but it was the only way for me to partially enjoy walking in Cairo.

Only this year (or last year as we just started a new one), I got a chance to spend my first four months ever away from Egypt. As much as I hated the homesickness experience, spending four months with almost no harassments on the streets at all gave me a chance to realize how weak I was. I realized that instead of trying to solve the problem I just tried to live in my bubble by not listening to any harassments, while I’m aware that they will never go away like this. I always used to give myself the excuse that I have tried, given that I talked about the issue several times and during the International Women’s Day march in 2011, which was a complete failure.

This December when I went back to Cairo, I thought I should change. I was still scared of being harassed since the moment I walked out of the plane, and it actually happened. But, I just decided I will stand up for myself. I will not let anyone change the way I live or stop me from doing something I always loved to do.

Maged Butter ( @MagButter ) recounting his detention by CSF

Written & video testimony of what happened to Maged

In the coming tweets I’ll tell u a brief of how I was detained and beaten up. I was w/ @monaeltahawy at Mohamed Mahmoud st, while the police is heavily shooting, a couple of persons in civilian clothes surrounded us.

They pushed us aside 2 a nearby alley (bon appetite) claiming it’s a better refuge, while they pushed us, 1 of them groped @monaeltahawy.

..@monaeltahawy slapped him & tried to beat him, while the other defended him. I tried to pull mona’s arm & run from the shooting but they didnt let her ago & I heard her shouting “my phone, u animal,” and in less than 10 seconds, csf surrounded us & pulled us apart.

I didn’t see @monaeltahawy since then. 5 soldiers surrounded me, beat me with batons all over my body w/ extra dose for my head, and dragged me along M.Mahmoud st, 2 beating me with batons, 1 kicking me, 1 fingering my ass, 1 checking my pockets, till the end of the st., also kicking my balls.

Then they handed me 2 a police officer, who also gave me a couple of punches. He dragged me along while I’m screaming, bleeding like a fountain of blood. He asked me “where r u from”, I answered “Alex”..he “no, u r not Egyptian, u r a spy”. Me “u can see my ID”..He “I dont see IDs u cant speak Arabic well” Me “my mouth/lips r severely beaten, I cant speak at all not only Arabic ”
Then he handed me to 2 soldiers, also kicked me in the chest. I saw many army officers, & cried for their help but they seemed happy w/ my blood.
1 man in a civilian clothes came out of a crowd & stopped us, asked “what’s going on here?”..”they beat me up..” He asked “where r u from?” Me..”Alex”..He..”Take him”..then they sent me to a kiosk where they put another 28 detainees among them a Dr.
They got me an ambulance & put a bandage for my bleeding head. And they put us in a car, and we were sent to Torrah Cen. Police Camp.
We were there past 2am, they collected everything we have & told us we will be released at 10am. I asked for medical help but, no answer.

At 8am, we were sent in the same car back to M.Mahmoud st. & set us free. but they didn’t give us the stuff they took at the prison.
While we r walking from the car to the protesters on the other side of the street, army soldiers greeted us calling us “heroes” !! and I met the same man in civilian clothes whom I saw the night b4. I asked “why u didn’t help me?” “I don’t recognize u” he smiled.
I told him what happened, he apologized & hugged me. I asked about my phone as I need to call my family, He “I don’t know who took it”. Me “How come u dont, I can recognize last night officer who was responsible of what happened” He “I don’t know who were the soldiers”. Me “How come u dont know ur soldiers?” He “Come back later I’ll find u ur phone” Me “I wont come later, I need to contact my family now”.

He gave me his phone & offered 2 dial my family but I insisted on having mine. then I asked “who r u?” He “I’m major general Maher “. Me “police or army?”, “police” Me “How can I reach u?” He “Here is my phone number ****, now u need to go” with a big smile on his face.

I left, we didn’t get our stuff back, they threw them among protester to claim that the protesters stole them and disappeared. I went to the field hospital, I got 5 stitches in my forehead, 3 beside my eye, and lots of bruises all over my body & endless chest pain.

Worst thing, they beat me b4 they accuse me of anything. no interrogation, no accusations, nothing! the only question was “where r u from?””

I can’t go to #tahrir or #Smouha in the coming weeks, I beg everyone who’s reading this to head there instead of me because u might be next.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?desktop_uri=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DlQqc3T-8Gmg%26feature%3Dshare&feature=share&v=lQqc3T-8Gmg&gl=US

Egypt: new vision/division?

 

Sitting with friends joking about the latest gossips in town, one of my friends brought up that her sister was at H&M CityStars the other day and saw that they started covering the models’ bodies in the photos like they do in some countries (i.e Saudi Arabia). When that first came up we just made fun of that and laughed about it, as both my friend and her sister were not sure then what this is really about or if it happened by mistake in one photo. But, it wasn’t until the next day that my friend’s sister went back to the store and this is when we saw the first actual photo from there.

H&M CityStars covering the model's leg (photo by Dalia Rabie)

 

What started as a joke turned into a serious concern when i decided to go beyond the photo taken at the story, and dig more in the website.

 

When I saw the first photo my intention was just to simply go on the website and find the same photo of the dress there, and see whether it is the same on the website or they just covered in the store. My surprise was when i decided to open both the Egypt and US versions of the website and compare the latest collections. It was funny to see the two sides of it as the same model appears in one photo wearing shorts and on the other version with legs covered.

H&M website Egypt Vs. US (photo credit: H&M website)

I was faced by a question: is that a new direction H&M Egypt is taking or it was always there but we never noticed? Being a frequent visitor to the store, i remember well that i have seen photos of models wearing shorts and skirts without having their legs covered, which makes me sure now that this is kind of new, but just not sure how recent it is. What i found funny is that unlike Saudi they are not covering all the skin, but they cover the legs and arms in one photo, legs only in one and then arms in another, which was a bit weird and not clear. I understand that in Saudi it is part of their culture that they cover-up the models in photos as women are all covered there, as well as doing it from a religious side. But, the fact that maybe the owner took this decision lately or suddenly noticed that the store here is different than other stores needs to be justified. We have a totally different culture here, one that we even see now stricter than how it was back in the 60s and 70s, but still not a seriously strict one; not as free as Lebanon now, but at the same time different from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

H&M website Egypt vs. US (photo credit: H&M website)

 

Living in this country for over 24 years now, I am totally aware that there might be many frustrations about life in Egypt, but there were also some privileges that I always enjoyed and was not sure that anything would ever change those privileges. Although women get harassed almost anywhere they go, no matter what they are wearing or their age group, but at the same time we enjoyed some freedom that maybe some other countries in the Middle East (example: Saudi Arabia and others) might not have. Visiting Saudi Arabia once, i might not be the best judge, but i was able to notice some of the differences between Egypt and there. While shopping there, i noticed that most of the international stores there have a specific fashion line for ladies there, for example Mango, Vero Moda, as women there wear long skirts or dresses underneath their abayas most of the time.

H&M website Egypt vs. US (photo credit: H&M website)

When i went to looking for the fitting room in most of the stores i found out that women are not allowed to try the clothes in stores, instead you have to buy them, maybe go try them at the rest room in the shopping mall, and if they do not fit you go back to exchange them. Walking around with my cousins at the mall, when we tried to find a cafe’ or somewhere to sit for a bit, i found out that many of the cafe’s and restaurants wouldn’t let you sit unless you are with your family. Not only that, but most of the cabs wouldn’t take you if you are a girl on your own; we were in groups most of the time. Other than the shopping and cabs’ experience, most importantly, women of the country were always prohibited from driving, and also Saudi women, as well as those visiting, are not allowed in or out of the country unless they go with their guardian (mehrem).

 

Back to Egypt, although the numbers of veiled were dramatically increasing over the past years, still we never had the pressure of having to be all covered to leave the house, like in Saudi, no one limits who you sit with at restaurants and women were allowed to drive. Also, men and women sit together normally, without someone asking how they are related to one another, like the ‘Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ Committee in Saudi do, as they enforce the Saudi rules on people of the country and visitors there.

 

I remember maybe a year or couple years ago Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris brought up that the country we’re living in is not the Egypt he knew. He pointed out that the veil covering almost half the body (what’s referred to in Arabic as khemar) and the niqab (full-face veil) were transferred to our country from other countries (like Saudi and Afghanistan). When he said so people attacked him claiming that he offended the veil, but what he said was actually true. It’s not that the other countries are bad or it is a shame to have these veils, but it is just that it’s not our country.

 

The H&M thing might be a coincidence, and I might be overreacting about it, but it is just that i feel that our country might be moving to a new direction, a kind of backward direction, one we did not plan or aim for. I guess I or someone needs to visit the store to find out the story behind that because it is not like a trend in CityStars. It is more an H&M thing as i saw the same in H&M Dandy Mall.

Please check the website to see the difference yourself: http://www.hm.com/eg/summertime#path=1.1.7&transition=10&duration=500 & http://www.hm.com/us/summertime#path=1.1.7&transition=10&duration=500