At the faculty of engineering at Ain shams University, the office of professor Hamed El-Mousely is loaded with wooden ornaments that range from arabesques to furniture samples manufactured from date palm mid ribs. How he managed to transform what is usually viewed as agricultural waste into useful, cheap and sustainable wood is quite inspirational.
The story of El-Mousely and his "princess" as he refers to palm trees, started back in the late seventies, when he was among a delegation from Ain Shams University to Al-Arish in North Sinai.
"The situation was quite provocative for me, for I found that the locals of Al-Arish were bewildered by the western life style that was imported to them via the Israeli invasion. In everything, housing, clothing, etc. So I felt that they were culturally crushed. I swear that's what gave me the idea to search for what materials they already had, and when I checked the traditional Arish house building style, I realised that the ceiling was formed from gereed (palm leaves). At that time the palm tree was never studied either in the faculty of engineering or agriculture," he remembered.
Recycling is not a novelty in rural areas and villages, and it is only when 'modernity' hit hard that people started to deviate from their own environmental facilities and use whatever is modern regardless of its impact. The results were the loss of numerous handicrafts, environmental friendly ornaments and more pollution. Hence the idea of re-examining traditional crafts and looking for new possibilities to boost the social and cultural heritage of local communities.
Why palm trees?
"Palm trees are found in all Egyptian governorates, as well as all Arab countries. It was a sign. Palm trees have been our partners in civilization for thousands of years, hence cultural memory relates to the palm tree. It is the mental essence of generations that passed on how they interacted with the material around them for their basic needs in housing, furniture, food etc."
In the old days, palm leaves were used in the ceiling (al-khoos), wicker or flexible twigs as handmade tapestries and baskets. Due to the changes in building styles, so the gereed and khoos were wasted and no one wanted them.
“Re-discovering them was our mission, to show the village a modern version of how to best use the material in its environment.”
"Renewable resources + Renewable thinking = Sustainable development," is the success equation, according to El-Mousely. Hence he started to prove to them that not all the traditional things are necessarily outdated.
This was done through his NGO, the Egyptian Society for Endogenous Development of Local Communities (EGYCOM).
Being a professor of design and production himself, fellow professors from numerous colleges joined forces and created this NGO to empower, enhance and sustain the innovative and proactive spirit of local communities.
“We started with Gedida village in Dakhala Oasis and started off by using palm leaves in arabesque motifs, a thing that was first done using Zan and Abanous wood that was quite expensive,” he remembered. “In 1975 the girls of Al-Wahat accepted and we designed and created things locally. That was our first step.”
They soon duplicated it in Fayoum governorate, in the village of Aalam, as well as in Minya governorate’s Al-Qayat village. The project had a leading role in combating poverty in one of the poorest areas in Minya.
Currently a training centre is located in this small village for the young people to transform palm leaves into furniture.