The handicraft shops in the center of Siwa are suffering sluggish sales as a result of the ongoing tourism slump. Visitors are few and far between and stock is piling up on the shelves.
All across Egypt handicrafts are easy to come by, but here in this remote oasis town close to the Libyan border hundreds of years of isolation have protected the local designs from outside influence.
Mabrouka Omar Bashir is something of an embroidery expert. She learnt the traditional styles and now sews for shops in the local bazaar as well as orders from Cairo.
Bashir also supervises a group of embroiderers, all young unmarried women like herself, who produce goods for an NGO. She says this growth in demand from outsiders has saved the ancient skill, which was in danger of dying out completely as textiles from the outside world flowed into the town when the road was built in 1985.
“If we did not modernize these handicrafts and keep making them they would eventually die out. Even now they are being produced less. Before they used to make around 20 veils and three nasherahs for each wedding. And women's shawls used to contain more embroidery,” said Bashir, referring to nasherahs which are heavily embroidered wedding shawls.
“If we did not protect these handicrafts they would die out, there will be generations who wouldn’t know the meaning of this craft and this heritage, they would only see them hanging in the bazaars. They wouldn’t know their real usage,” she added.
Zamalek, a chic corner of Cairo known for designer boutiques, is a far cry from the dusty streets of Siwa. But here you can find a taste of the oasis, albeit with designer touches and price tags to match.
Leila Neamatalla is a fashion designer and long-time fan of Siwa. She saw the potential in the embroidery there and her shop ‘Siwa’ is dedicated to these unique styles.
Neamatalla sources her fabrics from Upper Egypt and sends pieces to Siwa to be embroidered to order. At her workshop in Cairo the seamstresses finish the panels and attach them to the garments.
When she started this endeavor ten years ago, Neamatalla had to knock on doors to find Siwa women who still had the embroidery skills and knew the traditional designs.
With a small army of grandmothers she set up workshops and put 300 local women through training. She now employs three supervisors full time and calls up the seamstresses as they are needed.
The cushions sell for between 35 to 50 Egyptian pounds (5.69 t0 8.12 U.S dollars) and the embroidered wedding shawls cost around 50 Egyptian pounds.
Neamatalla says business is slack these days and she has considered closing her shop as a result of the recession that has plagued Egypt since the revolution. Downturns in Europe and the United States have dented exports in a big way and now she relies on sales from the Gulf.
In brighter days Neamatalla’s work hit the catwalk in Milan as part of fashion designer Tony Scervino’s 2004 collection.
But despite the grim economic climate the business woman is determined to support her seamstresses.
“With this project, with the women, the unmarried girls working, it gave them the possibility to choose a husband, to say yes or no. At the same time when the father is no more there in a conservative society the girl goes and lives with her brother. So in a family where the wife is there, she has children, she becomes the unpaid maid in the house. And it's very humiliating,” said Neamatalla.
“So with this embroidery project it gave them a lot of dignity. Also it gives sense to their lives, they go to work, they meet other girls, they chat, they laugh, they spend a nice morning, they earn money. It gives them a status in the house. The sister-in-law becomes suddenly much nicer; if she needs something for the house, a refrigerator or an oven, some clothes for the kids, it's handy to have a sister-in-law that is unmarried and earning money,” she added.
Since the increase in hardline Islamic Salafism in Siwa over the past 15 years or so, women here are not encouraged to play a significant role in public life. As such employment opportunities are limited and economic dependence on male relatives is common.
Mabrouka Omar Bashir agrees with Leila Neamatalla that embroidery work gives women here some independence.
“These products are made by housewives who want to increase their income and because of the tradition that discourages women from going outside the house. Now they learn these crafts and can work inside their homes,” Bashir said.
“And from these crafts they make products and these products get sold to the bazaars and the bazaar owners started to bring specific orders and distributed them amongst the producers who work from home and they take it back and sell it to the customers,” she added.
Despite the effect on Egypt's economy of more than a year and a half of political turmoil after Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year, small businesses like Neamatalla’s provide a bright opportunity for locals living in a gloomy economic climate.