Egypt: Developing their crafts

Mai Samih , Tuesday 30 Jul 2019

Many craftsmen in Egypt are developing their skills to meet the increasing needs of middle-class customers

A raffa fixing a fabric cut

Demand has been increasing for some traditional crafts in Egypt, especially after the floatation of the pound and the subsequent increase in prices. More and more people from the middle classes are retrieving older solutions to face financial problems, with crafts like those of the raffa (a tailor who sews fabric cuts) and cobbler attracting more and more clientele as they provide solutions to make do and mend.

At the same time, more and more craftsmen are changing their crafts to more practical ones, especially as a result of the new demand. Many people from the middle classes are seeking methods of fixing clothes they already have instead of buying new ones because of increasing prices. A t-shirt that could cost LE200 in local clothes shops could reach LE500 or LE1,000 in some international brand outlets, for example.

According to UN statistics, in 2018 the population growth in Egypt was some 2.2 per cent. In the same year, Egypt’s GDP growth rate was 4.3 per cent, and its GDP per capita was $2,823. Not many people can afford to be buying new clothes throughout the year, and so they tend to fix and hold on to what they already have.

Soad Mohamed, a housewife in Giza, said it was better for her to take care of the clothes she already had so that she would not have to buy new ones or spend a lot of money fixing them. “I would rather fix a blouse that cost me LE300 or LE400 than buy a new one since it is expensive these days. There is nothing shameful in doing so. I also teach my children to take care of their shoes, clothes and school bags since it is not easy to buy them new ones,” she said.

“I had to fix a t-shirt that was brand new except it had got a cut in it. A new one would cost me about LE400 or even more. I have other priorities than buying new clothes,” said Nada Al-Sayed, an engineer.

“We have a shop nearby that will fix anything, and then you don’t have to worry about it again. I had a pair of shoes fixed there, and now they are as good as new,” said one inhabitant of Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab district who chose to speak under condition of anonymity.

In the populous area of Sayeda Zeinab just across from Sayeda Zeinab Square and the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque, there is small shop called “Arandas” on the ground floor of a building probably built in the time of the khedive Ismail. Just across from there, there is an empty area surrounded by other buildings. Magdi Fayek and his assistant sit in Arandas, named after a famous shoemaker in the district. Fayek is an old man now, and the shop has a neglected air.

The furniture is old but comfortable. Fayek sits behind a worn glass and wood counter loaded with shoes and bags. On the left-hand side, his tools hang on the wall. On the back wall, there is a picture of Arandas. His assistant sits shining shoes to his left.

“In the past, we would make shoes from scratch. Then we started to fix the worn-out shoes for people from the district as well as those from nearby districts. Then the raw materials became too expensive for us and for the customers as well. Two German shoe soles can cost LE55, for example, and by the time we fix them they cost the customer LE80,” Fayek said, adding that in one month the price of one type of shoe sole had leaped from LE30 to LE40.

“For this reason, we now fix absolutely anything a customer wants us to fix. We now have more customers coming to fix their stuff here,” Fayek said, adding that many of the customers were from the middle classes, especially the younger generation. However, there were also many from the older generations, with customers ranging in age from 12 to 60 years.

TRADITIONAL SKILLS: Fayek is disappointed that few people from the younger generations are willing to learn the craft from him today, however.
“A young man who used to work as a porter came to work here for a while, but he soon left and preferred to go back to his first job although I offered him a higher salary. Young people these days want more money with less effort,” Fayek lamented.

As he spoke, three customers came in, with two men in their mid-30s wanting him to fix their leather shoes. Shortly after that, a 10-year-old came in for a piece of leather. Fayek handed him a small piece. “We craftsmen lend each other spare parts because they are becoming more and more expensive,” Fayek explained.

He listed the work of the shop. “My assistant here cleans trainers and makes them look as good as new. We fix women’s bags and children’s school bags. We change zips or any other part, and we also fix leather shoes and soles. We can even remake a worn-out shoe if a customer wants us to,” he said, adding that in most cases the profit margin is very small.

Fayek is not the only craftsman who has migrated into fixing old things. In Bosta Street, a lower-middle class area near Giza Square, is the shop of Ashraf Al-Eleimi, a tailor. The shop dates back to 1948, and Al-Eleimi has been working in the shop for over 30 years. It is a small, clean shop in a busy but not so clean street.

Al-Eleimi agrees with Fayek that his customers have changed in terms of class. “I have customers who don’t look like they need to fix their clothes,” Al-Eleimi said, adding that he also has customers from the lower-middle classes who want to pay less for the services they ask for.

“For example, some of my customers want to pay less than LE10 for me to fix their clothes,” he said.

“The type of work can include a t-shirt with a cigarette burn on it or an iron burn or even a nail cut,” he said. Many customers prefer to fix their clothes instead of buying new ones that could cost them more than they used to pay in the past. “I have customers who would rather fix a t-shirt with a cut in it than buy a new one,” he commented.

“I have customers in their 30s or older, though most come from the older generation. The younger generation of customers has no patience. So, if a piece of clothing is difficult to fix, they will always ask their parents to buy them new clothes instead. Some of them don’t want to fix their clothes,” Al-Eleimi said.

“The raw materials we use are not as good as they used to be in terms of quality, and they have increased vastly in price,” he added.

Near the Giza Bridge, five minutes from Cairo University, there is another shop that specialises in fixing shoes. Mohamed Ali, the owner, has been operating for 80 years ever since his grandfather and his father used to work in the field. The shop is filled with tools and old machines, and three assistants stand behind the counter.

His craft has also been facing problems. “We have a lot of burdens. The raw materials are expensive, and the customers are decreasing. They are mostly middle class, educated people or employees, and they are usually aged from 40 to 60 since young people do not like to fix their shoes. They are always looking for new ones instead,” he said.

“We usually work with our hands, not with machines. In the past, the shoe soles would be good quality, but now they are not,” he added. Even the material has changed, with ready-made heels and other items being common.

“There has been a recession in the clothes industry recently, since many customers cannot afford to buy a new dress for LE500 or LE600, for example, or a two-piece outfit for LE700,” said Gamal Abdallah, a children’s clothes shop owner in Giza.

“These high prices make people either buy their clothes from the Wekalet Al-Balah, Souq Al-Gomaa or Ataba, all street markets where they can get clothes for less money, or resort to mending them,” he said, adding that all clothes are more expensive these days, including trousers, dresses and shoes.

Abdallah said that it was natural that more and more people should be mending their clothes. “It is more difficult today, and in the past there was more new purchasing. Shops might have a person who would shorten a pair of trousers to suit a customer, but today salaries are higher, and it is becoming less and less economic for us,” he said.

“There is less and less buying and selling of new clothes. People tend to mend a piece of clothing many times, because not everyone can mend things properly. The prices are too expensive for many customers, and this has created a larger recession. The wages of workers have also increased, with the result that something that once cost LE20 can now cost LE50,” Abdallah said.

“A customer comes in with a young child and tries on some clothes, for example. If the clothes are not suitable for the child, he won’t buy them and will go to another shop. In the past the products displayed were less and the demand was more, and the clothes were better in quality,” he added.

Social and economic factors had made many craftsmen depend on mending already existing articles. “Customers are either too busy to fix things themselves, or they don’t have the skills that they used to have in the past. This may also explain why they depend on others to fix things for them,” Abdallah concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Developing their crafts

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