A Dyeing Tradition in Egypt: Photo-essay

Salama Mahmoud Salama, 75, the owner of a dye workshop looks at yarns in the workshop in old Cairo, Egypt, March 17, 2016. Egypt's hard currency crisis and competition from modern factories in Asia and at home threaten one of the last dye workshops in Egypt. But one of its owners takes comfort in the trade's ancient resilience. Mohamed Mostafa boasts that the profession dates back 3,000 years, so it can survive anything. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "AMR DYE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

Salama Mahmoud Salama, 75, the owner of a dye workshop looks at yarns in the workshop in old Cairo, Egypt, March 17, 2016. Egypt’s hard currency crisis and competition from modern factories in Asia and at home threaten one of the last dye workshops in Egypt. But one of its owners takes comfort in the trade’s ancient resilience. Mohamed Mostafa boasts that the profession dates back 3,000 years, so it can survive anything. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Amr Abdallah Dalsh
April, 2016

Egypt’s hard-currency crisis and competition from modern factories in Asia and at home threaten one of the last dyeing workshops in Egypt but one of its owners takes comfort in the trade’s ancient resilience.

Mohamed Mostafa boasts that the trade dates back 3,000 years, so it can survive anything.

“It is sick but it won’t die,” said Mostafa, who runs the grimy workshop built in 1901 along with his father and brothers. “If God is willing it will last another 100 years.”

Times are tough.

Mostafa says prices for raw materials have exploded since an uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, triggering political upheaval and bringing the economy to its knees.

Before those days, when protests in Tahrir Square raised high hopes of a bright future for millions of Egyptians, the small workshop used to bring in around 700 Egyptian pounds a week. That has fallen to 400.

A shortage of dollars needed for the purchase of goods has also taken its toll on the small business, which once had numerous workers.

The workshop, with its old television and water jugs covered in dirt faces fierce competition from factories in countries such as China and India.

The shop, which dyes material used for shirts and sheets and other goods, takes about three days to turn around the product, relying on a father and two sons to run the show, compared with about 15 people before Mubarak’s demise.

Still, history suggests obstacles can be overcome. The trade goes back to First Dynasty, 3,100 years before Christ.

Born in 1937, Salama Mahmoud Salama still exudes pride despite the challenges after 42 years on the job. He speaks of customers from Cairo, Alexandria and Aswan as he sits beside sacks near a poster of a politician with Happy New Year wishes glued to a wall.

“At first Egypt traded in cotton and silk now they import so the industry is weak,” said Salama, dark-skinned and wearing a white skull cap. “Before there was funding by the government.”

Puffing on a cigarette, Mostafa still takes great pride in his profession.

His t-shirt, covered in dye stains, speaks volumes about the amount of work he puts in, hoping to overcome the odds while toiling away in the workshop surrounded by narrow alleyways in the Darb al-Ahmar area of informal settlements in old Cairo.

He says there are only four workshops like his in all of Egypt.

“Handwork is better. You have greater control over the colour in phases,” he said, recalling how his trade once produced goods in high demand on the same level as tea and sugar.

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