Cairo: Virtually cut off from the world around him, Faraj Darwish is working to finalise a wooden cage, a daily job he has been doing for more than 30 years.
Darwish, 43, is one of a few hundreds of artisans across Egypt manufacturing cages and other products from dried palm wood.
In recent years, the craft has fallen on hard times.
“I inherited this craft from my father,” says Darwish inside his modest workshop in the Cairo suburb of Al Marj.
“I have been doing it since I was 10 and have since known no other job. In the good old years, we had to work extra hours in order to meet the demand for cages used for containing vegetables and fruits as well as coops for birds,” he adds. “All this has gone,” he says wistfully.
Darwish, a father of three, hails from a Nile Delta village famous for manufacturing palm-wood products.
“Anyone taking up this craft should really love it. He should be an artist and does not think of money only.”
In doing the job, Darwish employs a hammer, a sword-like tool to trim the dried palm leaf stalks, a driller and a lumber block for piecing together strips of the wood.
“I buy a stock of palm leaf stalks from Giza,” he says, referring to a city near Cairo famous for the Pyramids. “I leave them to dry well in the sun until they become hard. After drying comes the stage of cutting the stalks into strips of various strips followed by drilling and finally the finishing stage. The process needs a lot of concentration and patience.”
Despite the sluggish business, Darwish says that he can make both ends meet by selling his products to fruit and vegetable merchants.
“Winter is the best season because it has many types of fruits, which are packed in wooden cages after their harvesting. In summer, the demand drops. So I turn to mend old chairs in order to earn a few pounds for my family to survive. I sometimes make lattice chairs and tables and sell them to summer vacationers.”
A wooden cage sells for 10-40 Egyptian pounds (Dhs 2-8), depending on the size, Darwish says. Tables and chairs sell for 60 pounds apiece.
Darwish does not sound upbeat about the future of the craft.
“Egypt may be unique in having people who can manufacture amazing and practical products from palm leaf stalks. But unfortunately, there are no efforts from the government to preserve this art,” he says. “As far as I know, there is not a single school among the industrial schools spread across the republic that teaches this art. So, the craft is dying.”
Wooden cages were first known in Egypt under the Fatimids who ruled the country from 969 until 1171AD.
According to Darwish, demand for his products has dropped in recent years due to the wide popularity of plastic items.
“People now prefer plastic cages and containers, although our products are more durable, healthy and useful. The wooden cage protects vegetables and fruits from the sun temperatures, unlike the plastic container that absorbs heat, thus allowing the contents to perish,” he explains.
“Also, present-day customers cannot see the artistic part of our products. They are among very few things in which machines are not used.”
Darwish is reluctant to see his children taking up his trade. “It is a craft without a future. It is also very back-breaking. You can spend long hours sitting on the ground with your back bent in order to manufacture one cage. Our capital is health, but this can be lost one day.”
Many young people, who started a career in this craft, have later abandoned it, according to him.
“It is hard to find an assistant nowadays. There has been a mass migration from this craft to other jobs where they can have guarantees for the future such as medical insurance and a pension. We do not have a syndicate to solve our problems and give us a pension us when we can longer work due to ill health,” he adds.
“People think our craft is inferior. Some of them even do not know it still exists although those working in it are real artists.”
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