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.

Channeling Success

Ramadan mosalsalat have become a big business, but the financial landscape that surrounds them remains uncertain. By Lamia Hassan

photo credit: Middle East Online

(Business Today Egypt, October 2010)

Renowned TV producer Mohamed Fawzy hedged his bets this Ramadan. He shopped around three mosalsalat (soap operas) — a third season of his show El-Daly, starring Nour El- Sherif, Farah El-Omda (The Mayor’s Wedding) and Ana El-Quds (I Am Jerusalem).

Fawzy rushed to finish the shows in time for the Holy Month, hoping at least one would fetch a hefty return from a network hungry for programming. Unfortunately, other producers had the same idea.

Faced with a glut of new content — 50 mosalsalat aired this year, compared to 38 in 2009 — Fawzy failed to strike a deal and held onto the shows. Such is the uncertain landscape of Ramadan TV. The flowering of satellite stations in the last decade has stoked fierce competition during the Holy Month, upending the business models that have dominated Egyptian broadcasting for decades.

While a full third of annual advertising revenues are generated during the month, industry insiders say profit models remain uncertain. Series are becoming increasingly expensive, production timelines have been sped up and the plethora of shows mean producers aren’t guaranteed a sale.

“I don’t think the next year or the following years will see as [many series],” says producer Gamal Al-Adl of Al-Adl Group, one of the biggest studios in the country.

Talk show host and media commentator Moataz El Demerdash also questions whether viewers have the appetite for that much Ramadan fare.

“Instead of just producing a large number [of mosalsalat], we have to study this market from A-Z as a whole and examine closely the profits coming out of it. [We need] to see what the market can tolerate.”

A Shifting Market

Ramadan mosalsalat have been a staple for more than 20 years, with millions of viewers tuning in after iftar.

photo credit: Ismailia Online

Channels 1 and 2 used to be the mainstays for series. But expanding local and satellite television markets mean more channels are competing for viewers.

The focus now is less on mosalsalat as a cultural tradition and more as revenue stream. Since the recent makeover of the Nile Television Network (NTN), the Nile Drama channel has been dedicated to serials. Increased content prompted executives to launch the Drama 2 channel this Ramadan. And there’s still spillover. Mosalsalat have also begun appearing on NTN’s Nile Comedy and Nile Life.

Other companies have joined the competition over the last two years, including Panorama Drama 1 and 2, Cairo Drama, Melody Drama 1 and 2. Arab Radio and Television has also begun airing the shows on its three channels Hekayat, Hekayat Kaman and Hekayat Zaman.

“The reason behind the rise of all these [shows] is that mosalsalat have become a large part of the ‘advertising revenue cake’,” says Al-Adl. He estimates that advertisers in Egypt and the Gulf spend a combined LE 1.3 billion during Ramadan. According to estimates in the press, the production budget of the 50 Ramadan serials that aired this year was LE 750 million.

The push for content has also driven producers to cut corners, says Hisham El-Awamry, the manager of Hekayat.

“Some producers film during the day and deliver the tape right before air time.” One episode of the series Al- Hara (The Alley) was only 30 minutes long, falling short of the 45 to 50 minute range typical of episodes.

El-Awamry says things like that happen because production companies are churning out several projects at the same time. “They bet on one big project, and produce one or two other series as well, at a lower quality.”

The frantic environment leads to wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. According to El-Awamry, each channel discusses different deals with production companies about when to air series.

“There are different categories that come with the deals between the production companies and the channels,” says El-Awamry.

“Some channels gets exclusive airing of the series, while others get first-run rights, and others have to wait for the second run, after Ramadan.”

Despite the kinks, producers are bullish about the Ramadan market.

“Not only the stars, like Yousra and Nour El-Sherif, attract advertisers, but all those who are involved in the process are considered stars as well,” says Al-Adl.

“Even if the series are not depending on big actors and actresses, a big production company, or the series’ director encourages the advertisers to air their ads during the series.” bt