Egyptian villagers sustain tradition of papyrus making

AL-QARAMUS, EGYPT (AFP): Even though the pandemic has dealt a major blow to Egypt’s tourism, villagers in the lush green fields of the country’s fertile Delta Valley try to keep their tradition of papyrus making alive while also struggling to make a living from it.

In the 1970s, an art teacher in the village of al-Qaramous taught farmers the millennia-old techniques for transforming the plant into sought-after paper decorated with ornate drawings and text.

The village and its surrounds, located about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Cairo, now make up the largest hub of papyrus production in the country, experts in the sector say.

A woman uses a thread to slice papyrus into thin strips at the workshop in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt

Abdel Mobdi Moussalam, 48, cuts papyrus reeds from his land in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt

Once used by ancient Egyptians as writing paper, local artists now decorate the papyrus with hieroglyphics, Arabic calligraphy and representations from antiquity and nature to create souvenirs for eager visitors.

But tourism in the North African country has taken a battering since its 2011 revolution, and after a Russian airliner was downed by the terrorist group Daesh in 2015.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further debilitated the sector: Egypt earned just $4 billion in tourist revenues last year, a quarter of what it had anticipated before the global health crisis.

Abdel Mobdi Moussalam, 48 (R) and an assistant prepare soaked papyrus strips before compression and drying at the workshop in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt

A woman uses a thread to slice papyrus into thin strips at the workshop in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt

Today, al-Qaramous has 25 farms trying to make ends meet by selling papyrus, compared to around 500 prior to the revolution, according to farmer and artist Said Tarakhan.

“I lost about 80 percent of my total income – I used to earn nearly $1,000 a month and now it’s almost zero,” the 60-year-old told Agence France-Presse (AFP) as he showed off his replica Tutankhamun paintings.

‘It will return’

The papyrus plant, with its fan-shaped foliage, grows in water and can reach 4 meters (13 feet) in height. Its form has served as inspiration for decorating the columns of ancient Egyptian temples.

To make paper, workers use wire to cut the stems into thin strips, which are immersed in water and then layered on top of each other to create sheets.

A woman prepares papyrus to compress and dry it at the workshop in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt

A woman lays out soaked thin strips of papyrus to form a sheet, before compression and drying at the workshop in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt

The sheets are placed into a compressor to compact them, and the resulting paper is left to dry in the sun before being decorated with writing or colorful designs.

Papyrus workshop owner Abdel Mobdi Mussalam, 48, said his staff has dwindled from eight a decade ago to just two.

“Papyrus is our only source of income. It’s what feeds me and my children,” he told AFP.

Abdel Mobdi Moussalam, 48, dries papyrus sheets at his workshop in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt's northern fertile Nile Delta region, northeast of the capital, July 28, 2021. (AFP Photo)
Abdel Mobdi Moussalam, 48, dries papyrus sheets at his workshop in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt’s northern fertile Nile Delta region, northeast of the capital, July 28, 2021. (AFP Photo)

Tarakhan said he was trying to branch out into other papyrus products such as notebooks and sketchbooks.

A few months ago, his son Mohammed launched an online store to sell their new range.

“At first, we were just selling locally to those who came to us, but after the coronavirus, we thought that we could reach more people, and even foreigners, through the internet,” the 30-year-old said.

“We are trying to think differently so that we can carry on,” said the elder Tarakhan, who in 2014 founded a local association for papyrus craftspeople.

Farmer and painter Said Tarakhan, 60, draws on papyrus sheets at home in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt's northern fertile Nile Delta region, northeast of the capital, on July 28, 2021. (AFP Photo)
Farmer and painter Said Tarakhan, 60, draws on papyrus sheets at home in the village of al-Qaramous in Sharqiyah province, in Egypt’s northern fertile Nile Delta region, northeast of the capital, on July 28, 2021. (AFP Photo)

“I thank Covid-19 for locking us in our homes and forcing us to improve our business model.”

Near the famous Giza Pyramids around 100 kilometers away, Ashraf al-Sarawi displays papyrus paintings in his large shop, devoid of tourists.

He said he lost most of his income last year due to the pandemic, but expressed hope that tourism would pick up soon.

“Tourism never dies,” the 48-year-old said. “It may get sick for a while, but it will return.”

Courtesy: Daily Sabah

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