Walk into the Markaz showroom in Maadi and you’re in a treasure trove of handmade crafts from all over Egypt: delicately embroidered cushions and shawls, colourful hand-woven bedcovers, baskets and rugs, to a name just a few.
“Usually the crafts maker in any community is one of the poorest, not valued at all. From my point of view, those people have treasures in their hands,” says Mohamed Amin, founder of Markaz, who travels to 14 different governorates to commission crafts for his showroom, working with traditional artisans to translate their skills into marketable pieces.
Markaz is helping bring these precious handicrafts to a wider, contemporary audience. Mohamed explains that traditionally, there was always a connection between the craftsperson and the consumer, but this link has now been broken. “In the past, as soon as a woman had some money, she would buy supplies and have a neighbour who was good at embroidery make a dress for her daughter. Today, crafts makers have lost that direct connection with the market. They don’t have any understanding of what the market needs, because they are in marginalized, remote areas. And most importantly, they don’t have the capital. To innovate and create is a risk. It’s a vicious circle,” he says.
Markaz is breaking the cycle by providing steady work and income to craftspeople all over Egypt. Mohamed explains, “There is a social responsibility here, as we have to keep people working. They cannot wait to receive their wages until the product is sold, so they do half- finished pieces and three-fourth finished pieces for us and we do the final finishing. They continue working all year. We have a long term relationship.”
Markaz also provides design guidance, encouraging a new generation of artisans to make products that appeal to contemporary tastes. “Those young adolescents girls who think their mothers’ tarhas [veils] are baladi and old-fashioned, now they are producing those tarhas but in their own taste,” says Mohamed. “The design input that we have is guiding the product to contemporary market needs. But the real design development comes from within. If you want to have a new product, you offer the right guidance to the young generation, so they develop the skill and have fun,” he adds.
Mohamed worked as a consultant for several years, managing international projects that generated income for artisans in places as diverse as Sinai, Akhmim and Fayoum. Then he decided to become partners with the craftspeople themselves, so launched his own business in 1999 and in 2005 opened the Markaz showroom in Maadi.
He says Markaz would love to encourage more of Egypt’s amazing crafts. “The skills we wish to stimulate are ouya [tatting], the fine intricate needlework on a shawl or bandana. We could sell five times as much as we sell if we had capacity for production. And along the south Red Sea area, they have fantastic skills that are not stimulated at all. Very fine straw and leather work, basketry.”
Mohamed says that the natural environment is linked to the crafts produced. “It’s an observation I’ve made through the years. It starts with the variety of biodiversity in Egypt. We have 14 eco-zones. Each of those areas produces different raw materials, and man traditionally turns raw materials into useful and decorative items.”
Markaz artisans are sometimes inspired by other cultures as well. Mohamed says, “When I travel, I often see a nice piece of hand-woven cloth from India or Guatemala and bring it back to my office. Then one of our artisans visits, looks at it and comes back three or four months later with an inspiration of that piece. I must say, after all these years I am proud of the surprises we get. It’s a real pleasure; it keeps us going.”
The best sellers are Markaz’s own products, designed and produced exclusively for the shop, “because of their uniqueness. You can’t find them elsewhere: cushion covers, bedcovers, purses, shawls. Ouya work [tatting] is very popular,” Mohamed explains. Markaz also sells traditional products directly from producers like cotton scarves from Nagada, bedcovers from Akhmim and hand-woven, woolen carpets from North Sinai and Marsah Matrouh.
The next challenge is going international. “We’ve just come back from an international fair in Tokyo. We found a huge acceptance and admiration in Japan, but their market is very difficult. We’ve already exported to the U.S., Canada, Austria, Great Britain and Switzerland. It’s about 2 to 5 percent of our sales, but we’d like at least 50 percent of our sales to be exports. We could triple to five-fold our production easily,” says Mohamed.
For now, Markaz is providing a very welcome haven filled with beautiful Egyptian crafts, bringing the best of what artisans have to offer to this corner of Maadi.
1b Road 199, entrance from Road 233
Digla, Maadi, Cairo
Tel: 275 47026 / 0100 240 5858