Across the spacious show room with vast old windows, the shelves contained samples of blown stained glass, traditional embroidery and a rectangular mirror with wooden borders inlaid with silver and mother of pearl.
Founded in 2016, the Karama Foundation, which is the development arm of GebRaa social enterprise, aims to achieve economic, social and cultural development in order to preserve and revive at-risk intangible Egyptian heritage including traditional handicrafts.
With a background in business and a firsthand experience in volunteer work, it was only natural for Rania Seddik, founder of Karama (“Dignity”), to come up with a project that combines the best of both worlds.
“I started my business enterprise GebRaa in 2008 and focused on handicrafts because it is a sector that has a lot of manpower, already has its competitive edge – for we have crafts that are centuries years old – and which needs intervention because of all the capitalism and consumerism. It does not need much capital and has limited barriers to access and has a great impact on culture,” explained Rania Seddik to Ahram Online.
Building on the idea that heritage crafts would create more jobs, as well as enhance and safeguard the urban social fabric of the community, Seddik emphasised how organic the supply chain of Egyptian traditional crafts is. “Women would work on their embroidery from home, men would work in their workshop which is practically downstairs in their home, and their children would play outside the workshop and learn the tricks of the trade from their fathers, and that is how organic heritage knowledge is transmitted from one generation to the other,” she added.
Sadly, such natural transfer of knowledge has come to an abrupt stop due to modernity and capitalism. Now, children prefer to drive tuktuks rather than spend hours learning the craft of their parents. This has negatively affected several trades such as blown glass workshops. Only two such workshops survive in all of Egypt, which is a very small representation of such an ancient Egyptian handicraft that has historically involved making glass from sand or recycling broken glass. The craft of pearl inlaying is also under threat.
Reviving and safeguarding such traditional crafts was a priority for Karama, which focuses focused on increasing the quality of products, reviving the concept of eco-friendliness that have always been part of traditional handicrafts, including people with disabilities and attracting a new generation to some of the traditional trades.
According to 18-year-old Marslino Hazem, a student in the Talaat Harb Vocation school, he knew about the Karama Foundation through a training program in his school. “Through the training I have learned new ways of using engraving and inlaying, where before we only knew the traditional inlaying techniques,” explained Hazem.
While to his colleague, 18-year-old Mohamed Abul Azm, inlaying different materials other than traditional pearls was a novelty he learned through the same training. “We learned that we can use it in copper as well as silver and bone, we also learned how to create new motifs and we feel free to make up our own designs, “Abul Azm added.
“We also conducted trainings on safety, quality control, and pricing for some 30 women embroiders in Saint Catherine, Sohag, Giza and Motamadia since 2022. As for the art of inlaying, through the fund from the Drosos Foundation, we created a design competition to make new inlaying designs and we managed to renovate 11 inlaying workshops that are basically located in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district. The masters of heritage crafts are called human treasures as per UNESCO, and we have to help them safeguard their heritage and transmit it to a new generation,” noted Seddik
Karama also focuses on reviving the world’s oldest board game, Senet. Senet is a 5,000-year-old board game that was famous in ancient Egypt, examples of which were found in the tomb of King Tut Ankh Amoun and are now exhibited in the Egyptian Museum.
Reviving the traditional social engagement and community practices affiliated with traditional crafts, like Senet, is a big added economic, as well as social, value for local communities.
“You see we have a wooden table that is a result of 13 handcrafters working on it, each one is specialised in a specific area and together they complete an organic supply chain that is more of a social support network and does not welcome competitiveness,” she added.
This July, the efforts of Karama were accredited by UNESCO for working in the field of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage in Egypt.
“This makes us the third Egyptian NGO affiliated with intangible heritage to be accredited by UNESCO, and this allows us to apply for UNESCO grants in order to safeguard or enlist elements of intangible heritage that are under threat of extinction in Egypt,” explained Seddik