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The Egyptian family keeps alive the tradition behind the Hajj centerpiece

#Egyptian #family #alive #tradition #Hajj #centerpiece

To the steady hum of a ceiling fan, Ahmed Othman weaves golden threads through black fabric and creates verses from the Koran, a century after his grandfather’s work adorned the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

A ceremonial hanging of the kiswa, huge pieces of black silk embroidered with gold designs, over the cubic structure that forms the centerpiece of the Grand Mosque, symbolizing the start of the annual haj pilgrimage, which begins this week.

Othman’s family used to have the honor of making the Kiswa.

His family’s creations would be sent in a camel caravan to Islam’s holiest site in western Saudi Arabia, to which Muslims around the world turn to pray.

Now, Othman keeps the tradition alive in a small workshop tucked above the labyrinthine Khan al-Khalili Bazaar in central Cairo, where mass-produced souvenirs line the alleyways.

The area has historically been home to traditional Egyptian handicrafts, but artisans face growing challenges.

Materials, mostly imported, have become expensive, especially as Egypt faces economic problems and a devalued currency.

Declining purchasing power makes quality handcrafted goods inaccessible to the average Egyptian, while master craftsmen find it difficult to pass on their skills as young people turn to more lucrative jobs.

That wouldn’t be the case “if there was good money in the craft,” Othman sighed, hunched over one of the many tapestries that fill his workshop.

Sheets of black and brown felt are covered with verses and prayers delicately embroidered in silver and gold.

Each engraving commemorates the “sacred ritual” entrusted to Othman’s grandfather in 1924.

“For a whole year, 10 craftsmen labored” on the Kiswa covering the Kaaba, which is circumambulated by pilgrims, using threads of silver in a laborious labor of love.

– sprinkled with rose water –

From the 13th century, Egyptian craftsmen made the huge cloth in parts, which the authorities transported to Mecca with great ceremony.

Celebrations marked the processions through the cities, flanked by guards and clergy, while the Egyptians sprinkled rosewater from the balconies above.

Othman’s grandfather, Othman Abdelhamid, was the last to oversee an entirely Egyptian-made Kiswa in 1926.

From 1927, production was relocated to Mecca in the up-and-coming Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was to take over full production of the Kiswa in 1962.

The family then embroidered military insignia for Egyptian and foreign dignitaries, including former Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

“In addition to our work with military rank embroidery, my father began to embroider verses from the Koran on tapestries,” and then reproduce entire sections of the Kiswa.

Customers began flocking to “exact replicas of the Kiswa down to the last detail.”

Although today they offer small tableaux for as little as 100 Egyptian pounds (about US$5), massive custom orders go for several thousand dollars, such as B. Replicas of the Kaaba door, which Othman proudly claims are indistinguishable from the originals in Mecca.

– backbreaking –

But the family wasn’t immune to the economic turmoil that began with the coronavirus pandemic decimating small businesses and craftsmanship in Egypt.

As of early 2020, they’ve been selling about “two a month,” while previously they were selling at least one tapestry a day.

Othman fears a sense of “worldwide austerity” makes business unlikely to recover.

Today there may only be a dozen or so craftsmen whose work he considers authentic, with many craftsmen leaving the craft to make quicker money.

“They can make £200 to £300 a day” ($10 to $16) driving a motorized tuktuk rickshaw or minibus, Othman said. “You’re not going to sit on a loom all day and break your back.”

But even a century and a half after his great-grandfather left his native Turkey and brought the craft with him to Egypt, Othman says he stayed true to the techniques he learned as a child, leaving school to help his father at work to watch.

“It’s up to us to maintain the craft as we learned it so that it’s authentic to the legacy we’ve inherited,” he said.

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#Egyptian #family #alive #tradition #Hajj #centerpiece

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