The Fair Trade Center
A Shopping Museum
by Seif Kamel
It was my first time to visit Luxor in some 15 years, since I went to Luxor with my parents when I was in high school. Of course the monuments havent changed much since then or the manners of the kind hearted people living in Luxor. The thing that I notice that has changed is that there is now more of an attempt from the people, the government, and NGOs to improve the living conditions of the people. This is because of the challenges of modern life. Many of the people who once earned their living from handcrafts face hardships because of the problem in marketing their products. However, there is an attempt to help these people at the Fair Trade Center near the Emilio Hotel in Luxor.
After reaching the east bank by the enjoyable national ferry that makes the trip between the west and east banks in 15 minutes, I had to walk for another 15 minutes to reach the Fair Trade Center near the Emilio Hotel on Karnack Street. It took a few laps around the area to find it but that was fine as this is the place of the old market (Al Sooq Al Shaa'by in Luxor).
From the outside the Fair Trade Center looks as if it is just another gift and souvenir shop. However, when one enters the shop it becomes clear that it is quite different. That is because the Fair Trade Center is not an ordinary shop. Every product sold is a story of a poor family earning money from selling their products to the Fair Trade Center and similar organizations. The organization collects their products from a lot of places around Egypt including the Sinai, Upper Egypt, Cairo, and many others. The girls working in the Fair Trade Center are well educated women that have the skills and the language to treat tourists in a very friendly and professional manner.
The Fair Trade Center itself
The Fair Trade Center is a non-profit project aimed at supporting people, among the poorest of the population, by marketing their handicraft products while guaranteeing them a fair price for their work and thereby supporting the existence of the old Egyptian tradition. The Luxor outlet is a social project of a local company and is run by young women from Luxor. It offers high quality products at fair prices and information about the producers. Some of the products and people include:
Naqada weaving project
The Village of Naqada lies on the West Bank of the Nile close to Qena. It has been a center for weaving for many centuries. The "Ferka", a long-length scarf, woven in fine designs and colors, is the main specialty of the Naqada weavers. In the past it was worn by Sudanese women on three major occasions: marriage, child birth, and male circumcision.
Originally, the "Ferka" was woven with a cotton and silk blend of yarn. In the last 50 years, artificial fibers have been introduced into the blend in order to increase the brightness of the fabric. The weaving work is still mainly done at home, using simple handlooms of a type that have been in use since Pharaonic times.
The cessation of the trade with Sudan and the ups and downs of tourism have left many weavers without employment and most of them are illiterate and landless. Church workers in the area have been helping to alleviate their situation by bringing their products to Cairo.
Nowadays, the women of Naqada weave other products also, mainly scarves from the best cotton, based on the old designs. The Fair Trade Center helps these working women in marketing their products and increasing their profits by selling their products to tourists in the store. The scarves they produce are a mixture of cotton, silk and fabrics with colorful designs. They suit women and some of them suit men as well. There are many designs and sizes of the scarves and every item is a piece of art. Their prices range from about 45 to 80 Egyptian pounds according to the size and the material, which is mainly produced to be easy on the skin.
Fansina Bedouin Crafts
Fansina, which means Sinai arts, is a Bedouin owned business that produces and markets Bedouin crafts. It was established as an income generating initiative for the local craftspeople in the South Sinai. It seeks to promote and sustain the Sinai Bedouin culture's heritage and operates on principles of fair trade.
To emphasize the beauty of their products, Fansina has chosen the symbol of Mona Lisa attired with Bedouin crafts products. Fansina operates the Bedouin house in St. Catharine in the South Sinai where they offer their products for sale. The project is supported by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency and The European Union.
The Fair Trade Center sells many items of the Fansina products. They sell colorful handmade small bags that cost from 30 to 40 Egyptian pounds. They also sell the famous dancing scarves that the belly dancer puts around her waist while dancing. There are many different colors of these and they cost about 35 Egyptian pounds a each. There are also the "Mandeel" the piece of cloth the Bedouin women use to hide their faces. This item costs 62 pounds because of the many ornaments. All of the Fansina products are great and make wonderful gifts. The most interesting item is the huge piece of cloth that Bedouins use to put on their camel to make it easy for passengers to ride. This piece of art takes weeks to finish and it costs 462 pounds but it is a real masterpiece.
Community Development Association of Abu Tawila
The Community Development Association of Abu Tawila was originally founded in 1967 in Abu Tawila, near Arish in the North of the Sinai, with the aim of promoting the social development of the local community. However, due to the Israeli invasion of Sinai in 1967, the activities were halted. In 1982, the association was established again and since that year, it has been promoting socio-economic development through encouraging small production projects.
Particular attention is paid to promoting women's role in comprehensive development, cultural, religious and social awareness as well as environmental preservation. There were originally 150 founding members of the association, and the fact that women participate in the management of the association is quite significant.
One of the most important activities of the Association is the production of Bedouin Kilim carpets. This income-generating activity involves approximately 70 women and it allows the preservation of traditional handicraft techniques, which were in danger of dying out.
The Fair Trade Center sells Bedouin Kilim carpets with different colors and designs. The only aspect that all these carpets have in common is that they are produced in North Sinai and that they are all handmade. Some of them cost about 200 pounds while others are more than 1,000 Egyptian pounds, according to their sizes.
Fayoum Pottery School
The children in the villages of the Fayoum have at all times created their own toys, forming them from the clay of the canals. Two Swiss potters have chosen Fayoum for their new workshop and developed their own pottery using local materials.
From the start, their work attracted the children of the neighborhood who came to watch, and soon they started making their own creations. At the initiative of the authorities and with the help of a development fund, a vocational school was built where the children can learn various pottery techniques while developing their own innate artistic sense.
Their products are unique and varied. The objects created by the children shouldnt be a source of income for them. Otherwise, they would soon lose their creativity and do only what sells. Nevertheless, a small financial contribution from the sales is distributed to the children who attend the school regularly. This motivates them and helps their families let them attend the school. The school uses a very simple technology, especially for the kilns. Thus, after their apprenticeship, the students can start their own production with little initial investment.
The Fair Trade Center sells many of their pottery products. Most of them are simple pottery designs that are white with simple red or blue drawings. A mug or a cup of tea is great from the Fayoum pottery. The items cost from 35 to 100 pounds.
Brass and leather workshop
In a poor area in the East of Cairo, a few unemployed Christians have founded a family workshop to help people support their families. They produce simple jewelry from brass and metal. These pieces are engraved with traditional Islamic and Christian designs. They also produce beautiful leather bags and decorative objects. The bags are really fine products. This is because they are practical, very classy, and cheap. The bags cost from 85 to 160 pounds according to size.
Hegaza wood-carving project
The woodcarving project in the village of Hegaza, 30 km from Luxor, was begun in 1986. A special workshop was established to train young men, ages 16 to 19, through an intensive
program lasting three years. After training, each of the young men is responsible to train another group of 35 young men in the art of woodcarving. This workshop issued from the imitative of a young freshman who taught the first group in the production of small wood-carved objects, helping them to increase their income and to have a decent life.
The products designs are widely inspired from nature, including animals and plants. Combining modernity and tradition, the artisans draw inspiration from ancient Egyptian drawings and objects such as can be seen in various museums all over the world.
They sell wooden carved toys and some other spoons and small wooden plates in the Fair Trade Center. They cost from 20 to 60 pounds
A lot of refugees from war-torn African countries live in Egypt. Egypt allows them to stay in the country but doesnt allow them to work or go to school and doesn't give them any assistance, welfare, medical services or others benefits. UNHCR and a group of NGOs support them with their elementary needs.
Some of the women find household work. Most men dont have any means of supporting their families. Several social organizations have started workshops to help them learn a craft and earn a small income.
The first such workshop, TUKUL Crafts, was created by a group of churches in Cairo. They produce products with traditional African motifs.
The Fair Trade Center has supported the creation of another small workshop where refugees are trained in traditional crafts of creating "mother of pearl" decoration. The first products of this recently created workshop are coasters with Islamic designs. These coasters can also be distributed as an inexpensive present for companies and organizations. Special designs can be created on demand. Other products are in the planning stage. They also sell beautiful bags with Sudan designs. A bag cost about 62 pounds.
The pottery of Garagos
Garagos is a small village 25 km north of Luxor. While most villages in Upper Egypt survive off of agriculture, much of the population of Garagos make their living by creating pottery.
On the initiative of two French monks, the famous architect Hassan Fathi designed the pottery that was first made in 1955. The nephew of one of the monks and owner of a pottery company in France, Robert De Mongolfier, came to Garagos to teach the young men the new craft and to support them until they were able to function without help.
Most of the products are sold at annual exhibitions in Cairo and Alexandria. A lot of tourists once came to Garagos to admire the work and buy the products. But after some recent events, the increased security measures do not allow this anymore.
The objects are produced with the same red silt that the pharaohs used 5,000 years ago for their pottery. The work from Garagos is characterized by the brown, blue, and gray glazing with slight yellow and green tones. The designs are fish, birds and the Coptic cross. I saw a whole set designed for tea and hot drinks from Garagos. It can suit a newly married couple or anyone at home. It costs about 220 pounds for the whole set.
Association of the Protection of the Environment
The Association of the Protection of the Environment was established in 1984 with the purpose of improving the livelihood of Cairo's garbage collectors by engaging them in recycling of solid urban household waste. It builds upon, and upgrades, the technical expertise of the formal and informal sector garbage collectors, while improving their professional, educational and health standards.
The association set up a paper-recycling unit. This income-generating project helps girls and young women gain relative financial independence and assert themselves with their families. Over 60 girls and women are involved in this project. The whole recycling paper process takes place in a special workshop at the premises of the association. The products are recycled from second-hand paper that the association gets from different sources. The paper is then used for notebooks, cards, and art paper. The lesser quality paper is printed and used for a wide range of small accessories. The association offers a variety of social services to producers, including education, as well as personal and environmental hygiene.
There is a big selection of cards produced from recycled paper in the Fair Trade Center with simple drawing on them. They cost from 10 to 20 Egyptian pounds per card
Thursday Bedouin Market
These creations come from the Bedouin market that takes place each and every Thursday morning in El Arish on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Bedouin women from all over and across the Sinai make the journey to the market, or send a representative, to sell the traditional crafts their families have been making for generations. The income these women earn each Thursday is essential to their family's well being.
These Bedouins pieces are mainly from the Central part of the Sinai, an area that is difficult to reach. Due to their inaccessible geographic locations, the women who make these items are not organized into a producers group like most of the other craftspeople represented at the Fair Trade Center.
Decoration is vital for the appearance of a Bedouin woman. She does not consider herself to be properly dressed unless she is wearing a variety of accessories in addition to the Borqo' (face covering which leaves the eyes showing). These include several of the items which may be worn about the head, the face, shoulders or waist. Often, the Bedouin women will wear such accessories under her garment to give an illusion of greater body size, which is considered an important element of beauty for the Bedouins.
The Fair Trade Center sells two main items from the Bedouin market. They sell the borqo' for 62 pounds and the piece of colored cloth the Bedouin woman puts around her waist for 35 pounds. These are some of the items that seem to be especially of interest to tourists..
Women Income Generation and Training Association
The program started in 1990 with the aim of helping the Bedouin women of the isolated villages of the North Sinai to earn a more regular income and have more direct control over their own lives, through awareness building, poverty alleviation and mobilization. Preservation of the cultural heritage of the North Sinai is another aim of this initiative. Today approximately 250 women participate in this program. They have also access to literacy classes and health education.
Currently, the Association runs two income-generating activities: embroidery work and weaving. The embroidery designs are adapted from the local traditional dresses that girls prepare in anticipation of their wedding day. The motifs are bold and geometric, using mainly red and blue. The stitching used is a fine cross-stitching. The hand woven textiles are inspired from the local woolen kilims. The traditional weaving technique on outdoor pit looms has been adapted to weaving cotton kilims on indoor looms. The striped designs and soft rich colors are typical of the area.
The Fair Trade Center sells many gallabeya, the traditional Egyptian woman dress. They have some white and others very colorful with many handmade designs. The prices of these items range considerably from 250 to 600 pounds according to how much handmade designs the dress has. The white dress is the cheapest.
The weavers of Akmim
Akhmim is a predominantly Coptic town in Upper Egypt which has been a center for textiles since Pharaonic times. As a result of the modernization of the textile industry, the demand for manual weaving has slowed down dramatically. For the landless families of Akhmim, this has meant unemployment and poverty.
In 1988, the Orthodox Youth Association started a program to maintain the tradition of hand weaving in Akhmim and assist some of the poorest families in the area. They began with three looms and a limited supply of raw material. There are now more than 20 weavers and their families working for the association.
The weavers work in family units. It takes two people to operate the loom and several others in the preparation stage. Most of the workers are men and the women who assist in finishing of the products. Most products reproduce design and motifs inspired by the Coptic tradition and motifs dating back to the birth of Christianity.
The Fair Trade Center sells many items from Akhmim, but mainly they sell bedspreads of different sizes and designs. Some of them are 160 X 240 cms, which sell for about 104 Egyptian pounds. Another size is 270 X 270 cms for 216 pounds. Some of the bedspreads are sold by the meter, at about 70 pounds per meter.
The Fair Trade center sells other products they get from Luxor as well. They sell attractive looking soaps with animal designs that are very suitable for kids.. The animal soap costs 16 pounds. They also sell a set of three soaps for 44 pounds.
They also sell very pretty bottles in a variety of designs. They can be used as gifts or souvenirs. They cost from 10 to 15 pounds. Other items include the many silver accessories the Fair Trade Center sells. They sell rings, earrings, and bracelets. A small silver earring can make a very fine gift and costs between 25 and 60 pounds according to design and weight. They also sell huge silver accessories that cost from 600 to 2000 pounds. I dont think a woman can wear this huge piece. I think they rather use it for decorations at home.
The Fair Trade Center is like a shopping museum. It is a museum for handcrafts because many of the products might have died out were it not for the Center. I think it is a must see shopping spot for tourists in Egypt. It also gives the tourists a chance to help poor people all around Egypt by buying their products. The Fair Trade Center has another shop called "Naturally Egypt" on Radwa Sherifa St., close to the Sonesta Hotel in Luxor.
Last Updated: June 8th, 2011<