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Craftsmen carve out their corner in Egypt

With almost no unemployment, Damietta, a center of handmade furniture, is an anomaly in Egypt. But the $1-billion industry, reliant on exports, is feeling the squeeze of the global downturn.

November 30, 2009|By Jeffrey Fleishman
  • Carpenters work in Mohamed Ellabban's workshop in Damietta. “Most of our furniture is exported and weÂ’ve lost 80% of our overseas sales,” Ellabban says, but he says he will not lay off workers.
Carpenters work in Mohamed Ellabban's workshop in Damietta. “Most… (Asmaa Waguih / For The Times )

Reporting from Damietta, Egypt — Chisel, scrape, chisel, scrape.

Blow the dust.

Chisel, scrape.

The band saw hums. Wood curls spill from the planer, putty and lacquer men smooth and polish, upholsterers tighten copper-colored springs, trucks loaded with painted chairs race over streets and sandpaper boys hurry through alleys, dusted, like ghosts.

The seaside echoes with work. Furniture work. It moves fast and begins with raw wood passed from craftsman to craftsman until it is cut, carved and glued into tables, chairs and cabinets that match the decor of the palace of an Italian count or the boudoir of a naughty French queen.

Egypt doesn't boast many economic successes, but this town on the Mediterranean coast, which centuries ago battled Crusaders, has almost no unemployment. Walk for 30 seconds in any direction and you'll bump into a woodworker, if you don't get run over first by motorcycles that dart through traffic past sweet shops and red-capped holy men with flying scarves and Korans.

Statistics can be suspect in Egypt, but the Damietta Chamber of Commerce says the region's 37,000 furniture workshops employ 360,000 craftsmen in an industry that earns more than $1 billion a year. Some of that goes to Ellabban Furniture, where if you happen to catch the owner between prayers, you can hear about the bed made for former Egyptian King Farouk's mother or the pieces sent to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

"I was 3 years old when I got into the trade," says Mohamed Ellabban, whose father founded the company in 1934. "One of my first memories is when I was 4 or 5. The city back then was only two main roads lined with houses and workshops, and there were, maybe, only two machines in all of Damietta for cutting wood. It was done by hand."

Damietta and the world keep on changing "and now we're dealing with people from all over," he says. "We're getting more educated. Our craftsmen are picking up styles from the Internet and they're traveling to Europe to learn new techniques."

Ellabban attended the Fine Arts University in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, and returned to his father's shop, which today has 60 workers and exports to Europe, Asia and America. He designs much of the company's furniture, but his hands have grown less steady with time, and he doesn't do as much carpentry or painting anymore. And in these days of global recession, amid his charcoal and pencil drawings, there are pages of shrinking numbers and canceled orders.

"Most of our furniture is exported and we've lost 80% of our overseas sales," says Ellabban, 64, whose gold-rimmed glasses are as large and round as teacups. "Korea stopped some of its orders and now we have furniture we can't sell because it's made to Korean specifications."

Egypt's high import tariffs have protected the furniture business for years, but rising material costs and outdated production in many shops have made the industry less competitive both at home and abroad. The scenario seems a painful one. Will Ellabban fire some of his workers? The question startles him: "I can't let these workers go. They're the best in the business, and I can't lose them even if it costs me in these bad times."

A file scrapes downstairs. Taha Elgantiri skims back and forth across a table leg. The son of a farmer, he started here in 1956, when he followed his uncle to work one day. His three sons have followed him. Just about every other person here is related to someone working with a tool nearby, the legacy of Syrian and Lebanese craftsmen who brought classic European styles here generations ago.

"I suppose I'll be here till I die," he says, his hands thick and scarred but oddly smooth.

Leaves and roses rise from the beechwood in Mohammed Abdel Razek's hands. As a boy, he sanded. When he became a man, they handed him a chisel. There are 20 on his work bench now, along with a vise and two wooden mallets. Tap, tap, tap. The air around him is scented with resin and singed wood from the saw's blade, but when he works he sees only chisel points along the grain.

"I've become a master," he says. "For me it's an art, not just a way to make a living. It's what I've known since I was this high. I couldn't image doing anything else. My son is 12 and he's in school, but I bring him here to learn like I learned from other men years ago."

The streets beyond the Ellabban factory are busy in the early afternoon. Traffic hugs the corniche, and fishing nets thrown from narrow dhows slap the marshes, and farther out, where the Nile opens to the sea, larger fishing boats and freighters sail the horizon. These images can't be glimpsed from the alleys that thread Damietta's center, where thousands of craftsmen amble in and out of shops the size of tiny garages. Saddle horses and tools are hauled into the alleys. The wood is worked; there are few secrets here, each man, each boy, watches and studies another.

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