Egypt Family’s Hajj Centerpiece Honors Tradition
(Source By Dreamstime.com)
A century after his grandfather’s labor graced the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque,
Ahmed Othman weaves golden threads through the black fabric to create Koranic words.
This week, pilgrims will begin their annual hajj pilgrimage with a ceremonial hanging of the kiswa,
large pieces of black silk embroidered with gold motifs, over the Grand Mosque’s central cubic structure.
When Othman’s family produced the kiswa,
it was considered an honor.
He would send his family’s artwork to Islam’s holiest place in western Saudi Arabia,
where Muslims around the world gather to pray, via camel caravan.
As a result, Othman has set a shop in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili bazaar,
above the maze of alleyways lined with mass-produced trinkets,
to carry on the family tradition.
The neighborhood has long been a hub for Egyptian handicrafts,
but artists are facing increasing difficulties.
Economic difficulties and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound have led to an
increase in the cost of imported materials.
Even for the most affluent Egyptians,
high-quality handcrafted goods are out of reach because of the
country’s dwindling purchasing power.
While working on one of h
are many tapestries,
Othman sighed and said,
“If there was excellent money in the craft,
this wouldn’t be the case”.
Intricately stitched phrases and prayers adorn
sheets of black and brown felt.
In every thread,
Othman’s grandfather’s “holy rite” is remembered.
The kiswa that covers the Kaaba,
which pilgrims circumambulate,
was stitched together by “ten craftsmen” over the course of
a year using silver thread.
– Egyptian artisans began making the massive cloth in the 13th century
and shipped it to Mecca with much fanfare.
The processions through the cities were marked by celebrations,
with guards and clergymen on either side.
Egyptians would sprinkle rosewater from their balconies.
In 1926, Othman’s grandfather Othman Abdelhamid was the last person to be in
charge of making a kiswa from start to finish in Egypt.
From 1927 on, the kiswa was made in Mecca,
which was part of the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In 1962, the kiswa was made only in Saudi Arabia.
The family went on to embroider military uniforms for
Egyptian and foreign dignitaries,
including former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
My father began embroidering Koranic verses on tapestries and
subsequently replicating entire parts of the kiswa.
People started coming in for “exact copies of the kiswa in every way.”
Today, they sell small tableaus for as little as 100 Egyptian pounds,
which is about $5. Large custom orders,
like replicas of the Kaaba door,
which Othman is proud to say are the same as the ones in Mecca, cost several thousand dollars.
– Back-breaking –
But the family hasn’t been able to avoid the economic turmoil that
started with the coronavirus pandemic and destroyed small businesses and handicrafts in Egypt.
Since the beginning of the year 2020, they have sold about “two pieces per month.”
Before that, they sold at least one tapestry every day.
Othman worries that “worldwide austerity”
will make it hard for businesses to get better.
Today, there may only be a dozen or so craftsmen whose work he thinks is real.
This is because many craftsmen have left their jobs to make more money in other ways.
“They can make 200 to 300 pounds a day,”
which is $10 to $16, Othman said about people who drive a tuk-tuk or a minibus.
“They won’t sit on a loom all day and strain their backs.”
But even though it has been a century and a half since his great-grandfather
left Turkey and brought the craft with him to Egypt,
Othman says he has stayed true to the techniques he learned
as a child when he would sneak out of school to watch his father work.
In order to maintain the integrity of the legacy he received,
“it’s on us to uphold the craft” as he put it.
Egypt Family’s Hajj