Saturday, December 1, 2012

More than meets the eye

For the past week, I’ve been on an expedition to upper Egypt as part of a job I’ve been called to work on with Fair Trade Egypt. This is an Egyptian organization that collects authentic Egyptian handcrafts made by people all over Egypt, from Siwa, to Sinai, the Western desert, all the way to Aswan and everywhere in between, and sells these crafts in Cairo. Not only that, but the organization also works on developing the communities that produce the crafts by providing them with any needed classes, developmental trainings, awareness seminars, or new tools to make their crafting experience easier or safer.

For years, Fair Trade Egypt’s office and showroom existed in the considerably upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, mainly selling their products to expats and visiting foreigners, who could appreciate the value of a handmade product. Recently, they’ve opened a new showroom in Maadi hoping for more exposure, and have opted for a complete website revamp, and that’s where I came in: to shoot the products and write the website’s content, including stories about those wonderfully skilled hands who brought these products to life.

Fate had it that there was a possibility to go to upper Egypt to visit a number of the artisan groups who live there over the course of a week. We would travel by car, start from Assiut, and move south to a new city or village each day over that week till we finally reached Aswan.

I thought I’d meet very simple-minded people who merely inherited a craft from their families. I thought I’d just go, as we did long ago on school trips, see a few people work in some worn-out workshops, and take pictures of them while they craft their products. I thought we wouldn’t be able to easily talk about other topics apart from the nature of their work. I thought I already knew all I needed to know about upper Egyptians. I thought upper Egyptians were all basically the same.

I could wholeheartedly say I’ve been positively astounded and humbled by the experience. It felt like I had met real people for the very first time.

Here’s just a little of what I found…

- If someone doesn’t have a high school or university degree, by no means does that have to equate with being ignorant. It also doesn’t mean that someone with ones must be “better”.

- All upper Egyptians, are in fact, not at all the same. People from Assiut are different from those from Sohag, who are different from those from Qena, who are different from those from Luxor, who are even different from the similarly touristic Aswan.

- It really does show you a deeper meaning for the word ‘courage’, to know that the very smiley, chatty, 30-something year old lady merrily working on her new beaded necklace design in front of you, who is with a deceased mother and a father who abandoned her, had completely burned herself by accident with boiling water as she was trying to bring it to her husband so he wouldn’t get cold as he showered, only to later be emotionally and physically abused, and divorced because of her burn scars.

- As unhealthy as some traditions are, quite a lot of them have preserved manners and values that are sorely missing in modern-day, “civilized” Cairo.

- A single woman who is more determined, motivated, well-spoken, street-smart and hard working than a dozen of Cairene men put together.

- An overall, and unanimous, sincere loathing of Chinese products.

- That one may never, ever refuse an upper Egyptian’s offer for a cup of tea.

- A farmer, dressed in a traditional galabiya, looking no different than anyone most Cairenes would instantly judge as an ignorant village hillbilly, who had studied Law then took up Information Technology and worked as a Network Support Engineer in Cairo, but then returned to work the land with his father, thinking it’s unwise and a form of betrayal to the country to leave perfectly good lands to wither just because of an unsupportive government, even though he’s been losing with every harvest because of that. He’s also pro-Baradie.

- A wonderful old man who believes it’s far more important to have strings (of fabric, which he works with) in his house, rather than money in his pocket.

- A sweet old woman who seemed to be in her late 80s, but has no clue how old she really is, who insists to work on the loom even with a broken arm, and asked me to send her a picture of her while she’s working so she can preserve the memory. And when she bid me farewell, she hugged me tight and told me to come back home whenever I liked.

- A Nubian man, so proud of his heritage and traditional arts, and how the Nubian language was one of the reasons Egypt was victorious in the 6th of October war, and his niece, who not only offered us tea, but prepared dinner for us, and also gave us a big bag full of dates and oranges for the road.

- People who give you a great big smile and a “please join us!” cheer when you’re just asking for directions.

- People who live in tiny, tiny homes made of mud, yet happily offer you all they’ve got.

- People who work for work’s sake, not for its financial return.

- I found the young, glittery-eyed hopes of the youth, and the solid wisdom of the elderly, delivered with warm, tender hands and soft words.

- I found Egypt as it used to be, once upon a time.

- I found Egypt as it ought to be.


Originally published in The Clairvoyance Collective:
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