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Salama Mahmoud Cotton & Silk Dyer: Artisan of al-Darb al-Ahmar, Cairo

Born in 1937, Salama has been working in his dye workshop near the 14th century Aslam al-Silahdar Mosque for 73 years. He arrives in the workshop at 6am and stays until as late as he has to. Currently, he employs 12 people. They dye cotton and silk for use in clothes, upholstery, and curtains.

“Integrity is important," he says. "With integrity I can produce what people want, and develop my business. Without integrity, there is no business.”

Salama's brother and son dying and drying cotton skeins.
Salama's brother works the dryer

“The neighbourhood has not changed. What changes is when the craftsman die, the craft dies too. The majority of parents here tell their kids to work in offices and work at desks.” Despite this, his sons and girls are learning in the tannery.

Salama's brothers and son getting ready to take the dyed cotton to market

“For us, nothing has changed [because of the revolution]. The only thing that has changed is the President. Our lives, the food we eat, the money we earn – it is the same.” In the past, Salama sold a lot more. Business was booming during the Nasser days, partly because of Egypt’s close relationship with Russia. “They would give us weapons and we would give them cloth.”

Cotton skeins drying on the rooftop of Salama's workshop (bottom left), in the heart of al-Darb al-Ahmar, Cairo.

“After Nasser came Sadaat, and then it became chaos because Sadaat liberalized the Egyptian economy and exported Egyptian workers. Globalisation has definitely affected the Egyptian economy negatively. And it even affected the father-son relationship. Before, sons would give their salary to their father. When Sadaat came with globalisation, it changed. It was all about 'me and my life'. The father-son relationship was affected. And a lot of jobs were lost.”

Salama in full flow.

When asked if he is hopeful for the future: “What hope is there? I am 81! Today we are in very hard times, but I myself am happy. If you love yourself, people will love you.”

Salama and his brother in the workshop has has run for 73 years.

"If you love yourself, people will love you.”

‘The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo’ exhibition is taking place at the Royal Geographical Society, Exhibition Road, London, from 22 March to 24 April 2018.

This exhibition showcases the people and personalities that make up daily life in this unique district, home to over 1,000 artisan workshops and 60 monuments of Islamic architecture. It presents artisans at work, some of whom are part of a tradition going back a thousand years but whose skills may not last another generation. More information available here.

For more information, please contact: christopher.w-steer@akdn.org

Created By
Christopher Wilton-Steer
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