CAIRO - On the west bank of the Damietta branch of the River Nile about 60 kilometres north of Cairo, lies a village that carries the name of Saqiet Abu Sha'ra.
The homes of this village are typical, at least outwardly, of rural residences across the country. But an inside view into these homes shows how the dwellers are leading a different life.
The modest homes of Abu Sha'ra are like beehives where children, women and men are engaged from 12 to l4 hours a day in hand weaving.
They have developed a reputation as the suppliers of the best silk carpets, rugs and tapestries in Egypt. Each home in the village is furnished with one or more looms where children as young as seven learn their first practical lesson in dealing with threads.
The young people of Abu Sha'ra are perhaps luckier than their counterparts in other parts of the country, as they have no worries about finding a job. The workshop-like homes are ready to open their doors to more workers since the village annually exports about 35,000 square metres of handmade carpets.
President Hosni Mubarak was personally surprised when he once found on the walls of the Elysée Palace a silk tapestry bearing the label, 'Woven at Saqiet Abu Sha'ra'. He decided at the time to visit the village after he returned home from Paris.
He was prompted to see first-hand how the village was managing a lucrative business that earned it a good reputation in many foreign countries.
According to Karima, a 30-year old worker who was trained as a child at the hands of her father and elder brothers, it is very tiring to sit for long hours doing a job that requires concentration, accuracy and finesse. However, she too encourages her children to learn the secrets of weaving, although she is keen to send them to school.
Young workers under 10 are paid about two Egyptian pounds a day, which is gradually increased as they develop their weaving skills. The highest pay however according to Sheikh Khaled, a schoolteacher at an Azharite institute in the village, is LE l5. Like other villages, Khaled has three looms that keep him, his wife and three children busy in the afternoon. It is this business not teaching that secures him a reasonable income with which he and his family can lead a decent life.
The village is estimated to have a population of about l7,000 of which 80 per cent are one way or another engaged in handmade weaving. Haj Abdel-Moneim Saeed, one of the oldest workers there, told the Arabic newspaper Al-Akhbar how one small silk rug would take months to be completed.
The making of all these handwoven works goes through four stages. It begins with stretching threads lengthways on the looms to prepare them for the weaving process, then comes the artistic part of designing the carpet, tapestry or rug.
The design is copied onto a graph so that the weavers can follow every detail in the right colour and, finally, when the whole piece is ready, it is washed, ironed and wrapped to be sold to traders in major cities.
The per metre cost of a silk carpet, as Haj Abdel-Moneim explains, ranges between LE l,300 to LE l5,000. Loom owners actually realise an average profit of around LE 300 per metre. But consumers, who appreciate a fine piece of work, are willing to pay as much as LE 3,000 per metre for these items, usually displayed at upmarket stores in Cairo.
Ambitious as they are, the people of Saqiet Abu Sha'ra complain that the Ministry of Social Solidarity has turned its back on them. They wish that they would be given a chance to display their products, for example at the ministry fairs allocated to the national Productive Families Association in order to break the middle circle of retailers.
They believe that if their products found their way directly to consumers, both parties would benefit instead of leaving it all in the hands of traders.
Mohamed Moustafa, the Chairman of the village's Carpets and Rugs Association, says that more than ten years ago the Ministry used to provide the village with raw materials. But today it has washed its hands of the villagers for no comprehensible reason.
He has urged the Ministry of Social Solidarity to help the village promote its sales, especially given that Abu Sha'ra, which was once on the tourist companies programme of visits, seems to have been dropped from their agendas.