Mashrabiya, A Day of Art and Adventure
by Seif Kamel
Mashrabiya work, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a most sophisticated wood work and at the same time, very beautiful. It is used mainly in decorating windows from outside but it can also be used inside the house as well. It was first used in the Islamic period in Egypt and flourished during the Fatimid Period.
Today, Mashrabiya is primarily decorative, but historically it might be considered an early form of tented windows. It allowed someone from the inside to look out without being seen. Hence, the mashrabiya screens were frequently used to cover the windows of the women's quarters within homes, as well as for other similar purposes. And though mashrabiya screens are closely associated with the Islamic culture, their use was certainly not restricted to that culture.
Mashrabiya screens were particularly suitable to Egypt, where quality wood is in short supply, but small trees could be cut up into the pieces needed for mashrabiya work.
Interestingly, while there has been a steady decline in the manufacture of mashrabiya screens in Egypt, there use is becoming more popular elsewhere in architectural design, and their use in modern Egyptian home design may even now be on the increase.
Yet, finding a real artist working in this medium is not that easy. There are some large factories that make mashrabiya screens, along with other kinds of furniture but I wanted to visit a small work shop that where these fine wooden screens remain a form of art. In my search for such shops, I was directed to the area of Ghuri, the market next to the Hussein Mosque in the Al Azhar district, which is remarkably rich with Fatimid and Mameluke monuments
The day started normally like any other day with me drinking my favorite Turkish coffee. Our driver was off that day and this meant I was able to use the family car all the day because my mom doesnt drive anymore. I decided to take the car and park it near the Hussein Mosque, and then continue my journey walking.
I started out walking on the street opposite the Hussein Mosque and as I expected it was very crowded. Now I have to say that, though I am Egyptian and have always lived in Cairo, just like someone from New York, Paris, or many other large cities, I can hardly admit to intimately knowing all of Cairo. To many Cairo is really hundreds, or even thousands of small neighborhoods, small towns if you will, that combine to make the whole, and most of the time, one may know a particular part of Cairo well, but not all of it.
So, here I was, wondering around looking for the Ghuria market, and when found it, I felt like I was entering a new world on an adventure.
Inside, the market was a narrow road that had many shops on both sides. The shops mainly sold all kinds of cloth with different colors and materials. Other shops were selling shoes and some were selling carpets. Of course, I had come to find out about mashrabiya work so it is not perhaps surprising that I noticed all the ornamental screens, in different colors, sizes and styles, that covered many of the shop windows. I stopped in one of these to make my initial inquires, but this first shop owner had little knowledge of where I might find a workshop. He advised me to ask the man in the shop in front of him. The man in this next shop told me to keep walking along the same lane and than take a right turn, than pass under the gate, and than ask there. Honestly, I didnt know what he meant by passing under the gate, but I soon found out.
A short time later, I found myself in front of one of the biggest gates I had ever seen, in a city known for its gates. Certainly it is a well known Cairo landmark, but this was my first sight of the gate that at one time allowed passage into and out of the ancient city during the Fatimid Period. El Metwali can be translated as "the man who takes care of the people". Is was so named because, during the Fatimid Period, there was an official sitting beside the gate who was not only the gate keeper, but in a certain respect, a link between the common people and the government. in the period of Fatimids and he used to be the link between the people and the government. Today, people know the gate better as Bab Zuweila (Zuwayla), named for a Berber tribe who were quartered in this area of Cairo.
Walking through the gate, I found myself in front of one of the most interesting markets in Egypt. It is one of the most original market streets, retaining a ceiling that has small openings inside to allow light to pass through. It is a fascinating place, with everywhere, windows covered in mashrabiya screens. At first I found only more shops selling carpets and souvenirs for tourists, but then I finally came upon a wood workshop. There, I asked the man about a mashrabiya workshop and he directed me just outside the market, where I should ask for Am Hosny. Off course I did and off course I couldn't find him. However, there was an old man who told me that I should go to Mohamed Aly Street near The Abdin palace where I would find many Arabesque work shops. This was turning into a real adventure, but I was determined.
However, as I was about to leave the market, an old man called me. He had figured me for a writer and told me about a man that he knew who works with mashrabiya. He would try to call him, but in typical Egyptian fashion, he did not have the man's number with him and I would have to return to his carpet store, located in the new mall built by the Egyptian government for tourism shops, known as El Khayameya, to retrieve it.
He just said you reporter (in Arabic) and I had to go to him. He told me what are you looking for and I told him I am looking for arabesque, he told me he knows a man that works in arabesque and told me he will call him for me. He looked at his mobile phone and told me that he doesnt have his number, but he can ask for his number if I go with him to his store as he has a carpet store.
Of course, now I had to see all of his carpets, and even photograph some of them. This was a typical Egyptian ploy to sidetrack the reporter, but honestly some of the carpets were very pretty and very reasonable prices (Prince Magic Carpet Shop; phone 02/ 0105684088). He even invited me to have a glass of tea. Adventures such as this are why sometimes it seems to take a day to do in Egypt what should get accomplished in an hour. But after half an hour of chatting with Mr. Mamdouh, he gave me very complicated instructions to reach the mashrabiya work shop.
I walked for more than an hour in narrow lanes and streets and although I was feeling exhausted, the walk was quite enjoyable because it was in Old (Islamic) Cairo, with its fashionable decorations, and all the people I asked, tried their best to help me. At the end I reached a person working on a wooden sofa in the street, I asked him and he told me about a small workshop for mashrabiya, allowing at the same time that it was not a very good one. He said for the best mashrabiya, I should go to Mohamed Aly (Mohamed Ali) St. The adventure continues, but I was now so far away from my car that I had to take a taxi back to it.
Now, I made my way to Mohamed Aly Street, passing through many other places I had never seen. I suddenly found myself in the middle of the cemetery near Hussein. It was a bit eerie to me, but not because of the tombs, but rather the strange Egyptians who live in the cemetery. For just a moment I had the feeling that I might be surrounded by ghosts.
Nevertheless, in one of these weird lanes with tombs all about, I found a kind looking old man who was working a piece of cotton in the street. He gave me very good instructions that really helped me find my way. As I left him, I a thought invaded my mind. Was he a real man or just a kind soul that God sent to help me in this strange place.
Soon, I finally found my way to Mohamed Aly Street, one of the most famous streets in Cairo. It was famous in the past for having the best belly dancers and oriental bands in Egypt. Today, there remain many shops selling different musical instruments at very good prices. I also found many furniture shops, wood workshops, and finally, in one of the narrow lanes to the right of Mohamed Aly Street, a mashrabiya workshop.
Inside, there were many mashrabiya screens on the walls, along with two people who were so absorbed by their work that they failed to notice my presence. When I finally greeted them, they both looked up at me as if they had awoke from a dream. When I informed the older man that I was a writer trying to do a story on mashrabiya, I was really surprised when he told me he was too busy and perhaps I could return later. Most people don't mind a bit of publicity and are eager to get it. I was cunning enough to than tell him that I was also looking for a price of mashrabiya for my home and inquired about the price. Now, it seems, he had a bit more time.
The shop owner's name was Hussein or El Osta Hussein. He explained that his family has worked as professional mashrabiya artists though the ages. He also told me that not as many people are interested in mashrabiya these days, or know the value of it, but judging from how busy he seemed, there appeared to be no shortage of orders.
Now it had already been a long day, and is usual, I did not get all the information I had hoped to find out about mashrabiya. I wanted to find out all about the various styles and the techniques for making these fine wooden objects, but these artisans do not give up ancient family secrets easily.
I did find out that, though the screens are most frequently used for windows, they can also form pieces of furniture or parts of furniture such as beds, sofas and chairs, as well as art objects for walls.
According to Hussein, the wood used for the mashrabiya is very important. He explained that Zan wood is most often used, but other types of wood may range from lemon wood to Abanos, of which Abanos is clearly the most expensive. We are told that some types of Abanos may cost as much as ten thousand Egyptian pounds.
Using his tools, Hussein takes small pieces of wood and shapes them into regular forms of various sizes. Afterwards, these pieces are linked together using a very strong glue to make the final mashrabiya screen. The wood is then stained various colors, often between dark red and black.
Hussein further explains that a meter of mashrabiya screen usually costs between 200 and 800 Egyptian pounds, due to many factors. For example, the size of the wood makes a big difference, but another important element is how simple or sophisticated the style and the intricacy of the work. Some have many small pieces of wood, while others may have very few. Hussein explains that an average piece of mashrabiya will take him two to three days to complete.
This is a true Arabic art and these days, more prestigious than many realize. I myself found a new love for it, and vowed before leaving this district that someday my home would be full of such beautiful pieces of wooden magic.
Name: El Osta Hussein
Address: 22 Tabozada from El Qala'a Street
Telephone: 02/2919858, 02/7312730
last updated: June 8th, 2011