Ever since the Mameluke period, Darb Al-Barabra (Berber Street) in Historic Cairo has been famous for its shops in which products used for occasions like weddings and baby showers (sebou) are sold, along with goodie bags, materials for decoration, and chandeliers for home use.
The street is named Darb Al-Barabra either after the descendants of the Berber tribe or the Amazighs from North Africa and Morocco who came to Egypt with Jawhar Al-Siqilli, one of the founders of Cairo, who lived in the area at the time of the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in the 10th century CE, or after the Nubian workers who lived and gathered there at the beginning of the 19th century.
The city of Cairo was founded by the Fatimids in 969 CE with the aim of further penetrating into Africa and creating a commercial hub. Darb Al-Barabra is just one example of the traditional streets of Cairo at that time.
Egyptians from different backgrounds all have things in common when it comes to celebrating the birth of a newborn child. Sebou (meaning seventh day in Arabic) is a traditional celebration for welcoming babies into the world that is held one week after a baby is born, unlike Western baby showers which are usually held before a baby is born.
In a sebou the baby is dressed in new clothes and is carried around in a silver colander full of nuts and seeds. It is then gently shaken while family members form a circle around it and chant.
This shaking tradition dates back to the ancient Egyptians and has the aim of cleansing a baby from evil spirits. It is depicted in an image on the walls of the tomb of queen Hatshepsut at Deir Al-Bahari on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor, in which the events of the queen’s birth are illustrated. Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld, is depicted rolling a sieve, showing how customs and traditions from ancient and modern Egypt are intertwined.
During a sebou, the mother gently steps over a sieve with her baby seven times while other women sprinkle her with salt to ward off the evil eye. They make as much noise as possible using metal pestles, for instance, to put any evil spirits to flight and prepare the newborn for the real world so he or she does not fear it. Family members buy gifts for the newborn baby and are also given gifts when they go home, usually a silk bag full of nuts and sweets.
Nowadays, some families arrange for the slaughter of an animal, and this is considered an offering or aqiqah to protect the newborn. It is a custom taken from the story of the Prophet Abraham who also slaughtered a ram sent from heaven to save his son’s life and referred to in the Quran and the Old Testament of the Bible.
However, these long-held traditions have changed as a result of the financial situation of some families and the aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown, said shop owner Ahmed Youssef, 69, in Darb Al-Barabra. “There is a big difference between the time before the coronavirus and after it in terms of sales,” Youssef said.
“We sell our products at cheaper prices to encourage customers to buy them. After the coronavirus pandemic, we didn’t have as many customers because a sebou celebration is a form of gathering and nobody can arrange one under such conditions. Consequently, not many people have been buying sebou gift boxes or wedding gift boxes. People who have newborns arrange for an aqiqah instead,” he said.
However, not all the tradition is lost. “Although most of our products are Chinese, we still have some Egyptian products. As the Arabic proverb says, ‘a situation that seems harmful could turn out to be a blessing.’ The lockdown encouraged Egyptian manufacturers to make their own products, which are almost the same quality as the imported ones,” Youssef said, adding that before the pandemic he had to travel abroad to get his products, but now he can find what he wants in Egypt.
“Egyptian people are skilled and good at their crafts. Little by little, more and more things are going to be made in Egypt. This is something that makes me proud as an Egyptian. The few customers we have now all buy Egyptian products, which are a cheaper alternative to imported products,” Youssef said.
Before the pandemic, merchants might pay an average of $3,000, but now the price of the same imported goods may have increased to $14,000, a huge leap that would make them increase the prices of their products to customers. “This is why buying Egyptian products is much cheaper,” Youssef said, pointing to a statue of an angel and saying it was an example of an Egyptian product.
STARTING OUT: “I started to work in this field when I was about 14 years old with my father. My father said that a lot of foreign merchants lived in Darb Al-Barabra and he would tell me how they were excellent at what they did and that he had learned from them,” Youssef said.
“I learned everything he knew. We are still working in the field of selling sebou and wedding gifts today,” he added.
There is artistic craftsmanship in each product he sells, no matter its source. “We add details that are a source of happiness for our customers, like a card that resembles an ID or an Ahly Club pass with the name of the baby on it, or we include a traditional blue ribbon for a baby boy and a red one for a baby girl with Quranic verses written on them or prayers, as well as the name of the baby,” Youssef said.
“Before the pandemic, people would buy a lot of products, but now they want to buy the best at cheaper prices. Otherwise, they go to other shops that sell products more cheaply.”
“In the past, we would have many Christian customers who would buy wedding gift boxes from us. They might buy 400 boxes a time. Nowadays, nobody is arranging weddings because of the coronavirus.” But there are still customers who take gift boxes to distribute among their relatives without organising a wedding ceremony.
The tastes of customers have also changed, Youssef said. “In the past, people would buy little statues. If it’s a baby girl, they would buy statues of little girls or angels, and if it was a boy, the statue would be of a boy. Nowadays, people tend to buy simpler, cheaper products. People buy Egyptian products because they are cheaper for a sebou and copies of the Quran for wedding gift boxes,” he said.
“We have a problem with street vendors who do not give customers the chance to come to our shops because they block the pavements with their stands. We pay electricity bills and taxes, but they don’t pay anything. They cause traffic jams as well, especially in Al-Geish Street, the main street leading to Darb Al-Barabra,” he commented.
Mohamed Hussein, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and a chandelier shop owner in Darb Al-Barabra for over 22 years, agreed. “Customers now never make it to the shops. They buy from street vendors instead, mostly because of the cheap prices. They are taking our customers away from us,” he said.
“Nowadays, few Egyptian or imported chandeliers are sold. Sometimes, a client buys the Egyptian products because the imported ones are too expensive since tariffs have increased. People tend to buy a local product even if its finishing is not as good as the imported one because it is cheaper. A customer might take the Egyptian alternative out of necessity, not choice,” Hussein said.
He added that only 10 per cent of customers buy imported chandeliers. Many customers buy modern ones, but they always seek cheaper ones, nonetheless. “If we compare customer behaviour with that of some seven years ago, only five per cent of the previous number of customers come to buy our products now,” Hussein said. “The shop owners have to sell local products or else close down, or sell clothes instead of lamps,” he added.
Abdou Montasser, the owner of a DIY shop in Darb Al-Barabra who mostly depends on imported products, had another opinion, however. “Local products are not demanded by all customers,” he said. “The imported products are often better in terms of quality, like the helium balloons that are now a trend after the social media platforms posted images of them.”
He said there were still certain products sold for each occasion, though clients will watch their budgets. Montasser’s main problem has been the decrease in clients during the lockdown. “I hope we all have better luck now, because over the past two years we had to stay at home without working,” he said.
Sameh Abdallah is another chandelier shop owner in Darb Al-Barabra who has been working in the field for over 30 years. “We first started to sell the copper chandeliers that were used by our parents and grandparents. They used to be oxidised in colour with only three designs on the market. Then, designs started to vary and become more complex. Designers would use metal designs with ribbon shapes in chandeliers and even gold-plated pieces,” Abdallah said.
“In the past, customers would buy long-lasting chandeliers that were either made of copper or gold-plated metal. Now, they rarely buy these products. The majority of clients buy the imported products, and it is simple or plain designs that are most in demand now. A client may prefer a simple chandelier lit with a LED lamp despite its high cost because it saves him electricity although it may cost up to LE350. Crystal chandeliers are in the least demand because they are difficult to clean and are fragile,” Abdallah said, adding that less than 10 per cent of products are made in Egypt.
“The Egyptian products that are on the market now are copies of Chinese products that are popular with clients. As for a purely Egyptian product, there are none, unfortunately,” he said.
“Our most important barrier to progress is that there is no creativity. Shop owners want rapid financial gains, so they import products, which is easier for them. Another problem is that there are many people who sell copies, especially the street vendors who cause us a lot of trouble,” Abdallah said.
“I would like to see more Egyptian products on the market, but this will be possible only if they are developed. Instead of copying an imported product, an Egyptian craftsman should innovate and make his own designs. There should be more focus on the quality of the product than on the financial gain behind it,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.