Ahmed Abou Ouf, his wife, and sister-in-law, all work together in a shaded, stone area to produce delicate papyrus products; a dying skill in Egypt. They built the workplace right next to their house in al-Qaramous, a rural village in Egypt’s Sharqeya governorate. Animals roam freely around the papyrus production equipment in this workspace that has produced papyrus for approximately two decades.
The story begins with Dr. Hassan Ragab, the founder of the Pharaonic Village, a tourist attraction in Giza and “the man who rediscovered papyrus in 1978,” said Abdel Rahman El-Sayed, another villager active in the papyrus industry for the past twenty-six years. “There was a man here from the village who was started incorporating art into it [papyrus production] after working [with Hassan Ragab] and fine arts professor Dr. Anas Mustafa. ”
El-Sayed stated that the project had been a way to revive the heritage of the village and to help residents make a sustainable living. “The entire village used to do this type of work. You would come and see everyone making papyrus,” El-Sayed told MENASource.
Abou Ouf and his family are one of the few families who have continued to produce papyrus in their village for decades, and are known for having kept the ancient Egyptian practice alive.
Abu Ouf’s family works long hours to produce the papyrus before drying it in front of oven. “We have been standing here since nine a.m.,” Ragia, Abu Ouf’s wife told MENASource as she carefully placed each strip of papyrus next to the other, horizontally, then vertically in this multistep process.
The papyrus production involves the labor of the entire family, who split up the process between them. In El-Sayed’s family, his three children and wife all take part.
“We all work together to keep life going, and it makes things easier for all of us” El-Sayed’s wife said. The 16-year-old Asmaa has been helping the family since she was eleven. “We split the work. I organize the strips together to make the paper.” Asmaa’s younger sister, the 11-year-old Israa now helps as well. “I started two years ago,” she said.
El-Sayed explained that there are only around 15 feddans (15.6 acres) of papyrus compared to the approximately 500 feddans (519 acres) that had once been planted throughout the village. “The problem with tourism is now we have more paper than we know what to do with.”
The economic price hikes accompanied by an overall downfall in the number of tourists visiting the country that bought papyrus souvenirs have put the villagers in a vulnerable position. “Now, more than 90 percent [of the people who previously produced papyrus] prefer to work in factories that produce clothing, home appliances, and other goods instead,” El Sayed said.
“It is more stable. They know that they will have 2,000 EGP (around 112 USD) at the end of each month.” El-Sayed continued, “but with papyrus, sometimes work is steady and sometimes it isn’t.”
Nonetheless, there are still families that have decided not to give up on the papyrus production, despite the hardships. For El-Sayed, “this [papyrus] work is more comfortable for me than spending eight hours daily working in a factory and four more hours commuting.”
“If things go well, you could make more than the salary earned in a factory,” he said. El-Sayed sells the large papyrus paper to traders in Old Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh for 100 EGP (5.58 USD) per paper, while the smaller papyrus paper sells at 20 EGP (1.12 USD ) per piece. “There they sell the large paper for 300 to 500 EGP (16.80 to 28 USD) per piece.”
For Abu Ouf, “being at home is better than going to the factory. There’s no one to dictate what you should do, yes it is tough and things are expensive, but it is better.”
Ragia, who married into the family seventeen years ago, started working with the Abu Ouf’s on making the papyrus paper, but says she doesn’t want her children to work with them. “It would be too distracting for them. I want them to just focus focus on school,” the mother of five told MENASource.
Work has slowly been picking up over the past year. “It seems there were more tourists before Ramadan, and that has helped,” Abu Ouf said. He added that “at the same time, the price of chlorine [used to give the papyrus its yellow color] went from costing 30 EGP (1.67 USD) per gallon to costing 180 EGP (around 10 USD).”
For El-Sayed, holding on to papyrus production has another upside; maintaining his heritage. “I went to Dubai last year to showcase our work as part of a campaign to promote tourism in Egypt. People loved the papyrus.” According to him, there are artists who have papyrus exhibitions abroad and traders who export the paper to some Gulf and European countries, which means some producers are still dedicated.
The future of the papyrus plant and its production in Egypt is still unclear, as the region’s political and economic crises have taken a toll on heritage preservation. Nonetheless, El-Sayed is sure that while “[papyrus] might decrease even more drastically [than it has now], it will never be extinct.”
Jihad Abaza is a freelance journalist and anthropologist in Egypt.