Egyptian women's intricate needlework at risk of disappearing
GAZERIT SHANDAWEEL, Egypt — Veiled women gather on couches in a small room with chipped sky-blue walls. Using tiny homemade copper needles, they sew thin silver-metal strips into colorful starched tulle cloth that will be sold as scarves.
The sparkling designs range from pharaonic to Coptic Christian to Islamic.
“Every scarf has a unique design; each has a story,” said seamstress Sheima Abdou, 38, pointing out the varying motifs — a bride, a candle, a camel. “See these stars? You see them on the pharaonic temples.”
The specialized needlework known as tally is unique to rural Upper Egypt and dates back hundreds of years. But it began disappearing in the last century and is at risk of going the way of so many handicrafts, now mass-produced by machine.
Abdou and Dr. Nawal el-Messiri, a member of Egypt's Society for Folk Tradition, are trying to save the artisan skill and generate jobs for women in the villages where it originated.
Messiri, author of “The Making of a Traditional Artist: The Art of Tally and Sustainable Development,” said tally produces a “very elegant” material that “sort of glimmers.”
The earliest historical reference she has found for the craft is a 19th-century mention of a caliph taxing tally and carpets.
Older versions, made with pure silver and gold thread, were expensive and “elite merchandise,” she explained. But demand grew as Christian missionaries and tourists traveled on the Nile in the 1800s and saw the intricate embroidery in villages.
About 290 miles south of Cairo, in Sohag province, Abdou works with about 150 women to produce tally scarves and dresses.
Abdou must speak loudly over the whooshing air and clicking wooden arms of a loom drawing tight the seamstresses' yarns. She recalls how hard it was to learn the painstaking needlework as a 12-year-old.
The original tally “was heavy because it was made with 100 percent silver,” she said. “Mothers would give it to their daughters on their wedding day,” handing down scarves that often passed through three or four generations.
Tally is “difficult to mechanize,” Messiri said, because “you are working with metal thread. Each stitch is a separate stitch. … You have to pass through six stages of doing it,” producing identical designs on both sides of a scarf.
Sales ebb and flow; many belly dancers prefer tally for their costumes, but finding artisans to produce the desired quality is difficult.
Then, in 2002, a researcher whom Messiri sent to Upper Egypt phoned her to exclaim, “I found a treasure!” It was 12 women in Sohag working with tally, encouraged by a UNICEF project.
Messiri set up a program for those women to train others; she estimates that 150 village women now have the skill, in addition to the 150 who work with Abdou.
Most Upper Egypt villages are poor and isolated, according to Messiri; many of the men go abroad to find jobs, and farmland is scarce. So village women “have lots of free time and can easily get involved in handicrafts.”
Yet the intricate embroidery is time-consuming. The basic tulle cloth is not costly, but the metal thread is expensive.
“A girl could take 15 days at least to make a scarf,” Abdou said, and is paid 40 Egyptian pounds, or $5, per scarf. “Some girls feel like it is not worth it.”
Their creations are highly prized, however. In Zamalek, an upscale Cairo neighborhood, one merchant praised Abdou's work as the finest. Shops typically sell the scarves for $50 or more.
Abdou was shocked to learn of that retail inflation. But selling scarves on consignment, she said, could mean not getting paid for a year.
“We wish (we could) sell these at a decent price,” she said.
She would like to rent a shop near the Great Pyramids, a popular tourist destination, and share it with other artisans but is “afraid I never will.”
Messiri has encouraged the seamstresses to market themselves at fairs and exhibitions in Egypt; Abdou has attended exhibits in France and India. Messiri started a project to make silk scarves and bring in more money.
Silk is too expensive to place in unskilled hands, so the young women first learn to weave with cotton. Some are experimenting with tally designs on cotton, a more difficult task since the fabric is not as stiff as tulle's fine mesh.
The best weavers will work with the silk, and some looms are set up in mud brick houses throughout the village.
Messiri asked Abdou to take charge of that project because “she is an entrepreneur … very honest, and her work is very good. … She is something unique, and I hope we find more like her.”
Both women hope Egyptian officials take a greater interest in the economic potential of handicrafts produced by the country's artisans.
“Many conferences talk about handiworks, but I see very little interest in it,” said Abdou. “I have never seen anyone doing what we are doing. If the state paid attention to the handiwork that we and others are doing, it would make a difference.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent.