Saving Egypt's heritage
Clothing designer Shahira Mehrez is dedicated to collecting and preserving Egypt's multifarious heritage, as she explains to Dina Ezzat
For many, her name is associated with the traditional galabiyyas (women's robes) that she makes for a limited clientele inside and outside Egypt. Designer Shahira Mehrez provides the well-off with elegant outfits to wear on special occasions, and makes galabiyyas for women who want a traditional look for a particular gathering. But she has other interests too.
"I work to collect and preserve Egyptian heritage in general, and not just clothing. I am also interested in kelims [traditional carpets], pottery, jewellery, and even recipes," Mehrez said. "I collect these things not only because I want to and am interested in making new versions of them, but also because I want to keep the heritage alive."
Mehrez, seated on a traditional sofa with an Islamic window behind her, welcomes visitors to her Giza store. She has been selling traditional clothes since the 1980s, including designs from the Western Oases to the eastern border, and from the Nile Delta to Upper Egypt and the southern border.
The clothes come in a variety of colours and are typical of the designs associated with particular regions. Mehrez herself is dressed in one of her own galabiyyas and wears some typical Egyptian jewellery, a way of dressing she as adopted many years ago. "It is about my identity and my culture. It is about who I am and how I like to come across and be perceived," she told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Her passion for acquiring and wearing what could roughly be qualified as ethnic items was ignited gradually. But once embraced, she has been clinging hard to it. She was brought up in an upper middle-class family in the heart of Cairo. Mehrez lived her childhood years in pre-1952 Egypt where, like other girls of her class from the capital and the country's larger cities, she attended a French school, acquiring a culture that was predominantly European.
However, in a house where singer Umm Kulthum's monthly concerts were celebrated and where the cooks provided traditional food for the family and others, this strong European influence was often challenged. But it was the advent of the nationalistic rule of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser that forced this young woman with her European education to confront important questions of identity, especially after the departure of the foreign teachers from her school.
Those were the heydays of nationalism, calls for independence, and a new emphasis on development. It was the time of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company and the subsequent Tripartite Aggression by the UK, France and Israel. It was also the period of Nasser's oratory and then the 1967 defeat.
Mehrez was searching for her Egyptian identity, something that did not become easier when she graduated from school to join the American University in Cairo to study chemistry. "At that time I wanted to be like Marie Curie," she explained, speaking of her admiration for the Polish-born and French-educated physicist and chemist who did pioneering research on radioactivity in the early 20th century.
The young Mehrez developed leftist political tendencies, which she still has in a softer version, though she was confused at the time because the left promoted European thinking and socialism as Egypt's path towards development, possibly neglecting native currents of thought. But Mehrez was also being introduced to new ideas and developing her curiosity about the heritage items she came across, starting with a "beautiful dress I got when I was 16."
It was an encounter that Mehrez had in the second half of the 1960s with the legendary Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi that helped her cross from confusion to embracing her "hybrid identity". She learned that subscribing to Western and modern ways and being interested in Egypt's heritage did not need to be mutually exclusive.
Through her friendship with Fathi and her travels with him, Mehrez started to learn more and more about her Egyptian identity. She also attributes her interest to the professors she learned from, including Afaf Lutfy Al-Sayyed, an AUC graduate like Mehrez and later a professor of history at UCLA in the US.
She fell in love with Egyptian heritage and started to collect items from the decorative to the sartorial. Soon she had started an MA degree in Islamic Arts, but she had also realised that an academic career was not for her. Instead, she opted for something more practical, designing and making traditional garments in order to keep the country's heritage alive and to help Egyptian women re-embrace a culture that they had largely abandoned in favour of an "imitation of and fascination with the West."
According to Mehrez, it is this understanding of Egypt's sartorial heritage that has hampered the re-introduction of the galabiyya in Egypt, even as more and more women have been re-adopting the Muslim hijab, or headscarf. Such women do not wear the traditional galabiyya, Mehrez said, even though this might be more compatible with their search for modesty than mixed-and-matched Western-style skirts and shirts and a confusing diversity of hair-covers.
"Why do we have to dress like Western women? There is no logic in it. I think we are still unable to duly appreciate and cherish our own culture," Mehrez said.
It was towards the end of the 1970s that she made her first major efforts to capture the declining diversity of traditional costumes in her designs, travelling across the country to get them copied by local tailors. "I reminded people that these were original designs. I do not toy with fashion. These were traditional designs that I had identified and perpetuated," Mehrez said.
When she first launched her range of traditional galabiyyas, Mehrez worked jointly with famous jewellery designer Azza Fahmi, a brand name in heritage-inspired jewels. A few years down the road, each pursued an independent path, though both wanted to give Egyptian heritage its due place in the designs.
"We have such a grand heritage. It is as old as Egypt itself, and it consists of the designs of costumes and jewellery that have been systematically developed over the years," Mehrez said. Today when she travels overseas she has one reply when people admire her clothes and jewellery: "I wear the gold of the pharaohs and my traditional galabiyyas with pride."
Through her work in the preservation and promotion of Egypt's heritage over the past three decades Mehrez has managed to establish a name for herself and to preserve many items threatened in the wider environment. "I sometimes go to a village and ask people if they know a tailor who can make a particular robe that belongs to the traditions of the area I am in. Sometimes, sadly, they are not able to identify the design," she said.
She now uses local tailors to copy designs made by others across the country. She is proud of her "protected designs" because she knows that no official body has taken the time or put in the effort to document this sartorial heritage, meaning that without Mehrez's efforts it could have disappeared.
However, Mehrez may not have had the same breakthrough in persuading others to wear her galabiyyas, even though elite women may wear them for particular events. This, she feels, is not only because of the price tags on the robes, placing them outside the means of the majority of the population.
"I make special arrangements for those who wish to wear traditional clothes but cannot afford the prices. I also advise people on where to get inexpensive versions," she said. "It isn't a matter of financial means, but instead is a question of identity."
She added that it will take more time and more hard work before the traditional is duly celebrated in Egypt. In her seventies today, and with many political and charitable activities, Mehrez is as committed to her mission as she has ever been. She is working on three books documenting the Egyptian heritage of the 19th and 20th centuries. "I am not sure when I will finish them, and I am not even sure which one I will finish first," she said.
Yet Mehrez is certain that she will keep on working and collecting the kind of items that are safely deposited in special rooms in her house in Dokki. One day she hopes to put her collection on display. "I am working on it, and I will make sure to leave some money for someone to do so if I have to go before I am done with my mission," she added.
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