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Flags of our brothers

Flag makers in Egypt tell Ahram Online that the spike in demand for the national flag is coming to an end, but their flag-making business continues to thrive as the Arab Spring sweeps across the region

Mohamed El Hebeishy, Wednesday 8 Jun 2011
A flag vendor in Tahrir Square – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy
A flag vendor in Tahrir Square – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy
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He stood around the corner not far from Hardees; a skinny modest man with a small beard, stunning white earphones and a cigarette clenched firmly between his lips. Hajj Torki is well in his fifties and for his entire life flag making was - and still is - his only profession.

“Even when I was a kid, I used to go down with my father to sell flags whenever a football match was being played” he asserted.

By all means, the seasonality of a football match, or even a tournament, had for long impacted the flag-making business; however, as of 25 January the market dynamics took a different turn.  

“What we [my nephew and I] sold during the 18 days of the revolution was more or less what we usually sell in three or even four months” Hajj Torki commented.

Sheer feelings of patriotism surfaced during the revolution, and although some Egyptians didn’t descend physically down to Tahrir Square where the demonstrations were held, Egyptians did buy the nation’s flag in a sort of passive participation.

After 11 February, when Mubarak resigned after 30 years of reign, the demand for flags briefly plummeted and only soared up once since; and not for Egypt’s flag this time, but rather for other Arab nations’ flags.

“First it was Libya, followed by Yemen and now it is Syria. [The demand for] Palestine has always been there; we are just selling more Palestinian flags nowadays” explained Hajj Torki, whose display also features flags of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

“Which country’s flag sells more depends on the demonstrations of the day. For example, if there are people protesting in front of the Libyan embassy, then we will sell more of Libya’s flag, and so on,” he commented.

By all means, Tahrir Square is the biggest venue for selling flags, but it is certainly not the only one: some flags aren’t even sold in Egypt.

Tracking down flag makers saw me navigating the recently tiled, not even paved, narrow alleyways snaking through the densely-populated Cairo neighbourhood of Kitkat. I was off to see Ahmed Abd Allah. A flag maker by inheritance, Ahmed’s family has been in the profession for over a century. Their workshop covers the whole flag-making process, from scissoring the fabric, to printing the coat of arms and finally sewing all the parts together.

Ahmed’s workshop not only produces Egypt’s flag, but other nations as well, including Syria’s old flag.

Unlike Libya, which has only had two flags since independence in 1951, Syria has had four distinctive flag designs used through six different periods since the country gained independence from France back in 1946: the green, white and black with three red coloured stars in the middle is the flag adapted first by the Syrian Republic between 1932 - 1958 and later by the Syrian Arab Republic between 1961 - 1963. This is the same design that was being made in Ahmed’s workshop when I dropped by.    

“The situation in Syria is very different from that in Libya. While Benghazi, and most of the country’s east, is liberated, the Syrian regime still has its grip firmly controlling Syria. That is primarily why they [Syrian revolutionaries] opted for Egypt to make their country’s old flag” explained Ahmed Abd Allah, a well-cultured and educated man in his mid thirties.

First it was the nation’s flag that stirred Egypt’s flag making business, but soon it expanded geographically to cover other Arab states: Libya, Yemen - and now Syria. Which Arab nation is next?

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