A Magical Trip to a Village of Artisans

December 7, 2021

By Kanzy Khafagy

CAIRO—Last year, I married my high school sweetheart. There may have been a more difficult time to get married than during a pandemic, but not in my memory. Amid various not-so-fun tasks, though, was one that I embraced: shopping.

One of the many Egyptian marriage traditions is that you buy all sorts of things for your new home. Since the pandemic made shopping more complicated due to supply chain disruptions, with the help of my mother I decided to buy local. And at the top of my list was locally-produced crafts—because I thought the least I could do during this public health crisis was to demonstrate some support for local artists.

Once I discovered that some artisans sold their products online through websites like Jumia or on their personal Instagram accounts, I got to work. I placed orders for salt lamps from Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert—these are supposed to improve your mood—and for a handwoven tableau depicting the 2011 Egyptian revolution that was made in Asyut, in the south of Egypt. Then I remembered the exquisite pottery produced in the small village of Tunis, a nearly three-hour drive southwest of Cairo. I ordered several pieces.

Many months later, though—after the wedding festivities were over—I started wondering about Tunis and its artisans. With the numbers of international tourists dropping dramatically, how had these craftspeople and their businesses weathered the pandemic?

I had to find out—so my new husband and I traveled to Tunis in early November. On our way from Cairo, we passed the Qarun Touristic Lake, flanked by kilometers of farms, and I could feel myself relaxing and unwinding from fast-paced city life. But two hours into the trip, I received a speeding ticket–perhaps I was too anxious to get there.

At the entrance to Tunis, a welcome sign flanked by locally-made clay tablets greeted us. I parked my car, we walked into the village, and I started asking questions.

A pottery shop in Tunis.
A pottery shop in Tunis. Photo by: Kanzy Khafagy.

A magical entrance

Immediately upon entering the village of Tunis, art surrounded us. Colorful murals covered the village walls, and pottery stores and workshops displayed their beautiful products. We were soon drawn into a pottery shop owned by Ashraf AbdelKadr.

“Each piece is unique,” AbdelKadr told me as he showed us around his workshop. “Even if I wanted to replicate a piece I would fail, as each one of them has a piece of my soul in it.” He and six family members had been creating pottery since he was a teen-ager. “It takes me at least a week to produce anything you see here—it is a long and thorough process, but the outcome is always worth it,” he said. AbdelKadr suggested that I try making pottery, and so I sat next to the wheel, followed his instructions to get my hands dirty and … made a mess. But the experience was intimate, one that made me very happy that I had traveled to the village.

Kanzy Khafagy at the pottery wheel.
Kanzy Khafagy at the pottery wheel. Photo by: Omar Mohamed.

My husband and I noticed that we were among just a few tourists in Tunis, an observation that seemed to confirm my fears. Another local artisan, Randa Omar, the first female potter in her family, told me that prior to the pandemic the biggest source of business was from foreign tourists as well as expatriates.

“They would come to our village during the weekends and buy a lot of things and never bargained. They appreciated our work,” she said. “I struggled the first months of the pandemic. I hardly made any sales,” Omar said.

Randa Omar is the first female potter in her family.
Randa Omar is the first female potter in her family. Photo by: Kanzy Khafagy.

The shift to digital

Omar was far from alone. Three months into the pandemic, Egypt’s handicraft industry suffered a 70 percent loss in sales, dealing a significant blow to the creative economy. One leading bank, ALEXBANK, helped mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic by advising artisans on how to sell their products online.

Before my trip to Tunis, Laila Hosni, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at ALEXBANK, told me how they wanted to act fast after the pandemic hit to assist Egypt’s crafts sector. “In March of 2020, we contacted the Ministry of Social Solidarity and [the online marketplace] Jumia for a collaboration to create an online store on Jumia to sell some of the artisans’ products and help them reach a wider potential buyer base,” Hosni said.

Omar was one of the artisans who participated. The Jumia-based sales helped keep her business running. After that positive experience, she plans to launch her own online shop in 2022. Until then, she will continue to sell on Jumia and export her products through an Instagram online store called Malaika.

“Things are getting better,” Omar said. “We are recovering from 2020 and we now can participate in bazaars to sell our products and encourage people to visit Tunis.”

AbdelKadr took a different route: “An innovative, traditional, safe one,” he said, smiling.

He reached out to the wide array of connections among loyal customers and galleries that he has developed for nearly two decades. He sent them broadcast messages on WhatsApp promoting his products and, for the first time, offered to create commissioned pieces. The new approach introduced a new line of business. Sales started slowly, but are starting to pick up.

Ashraf AbdelKadr creating a piece of pottery.
Ashraf AbdelKadr creating a piece of pottery. Photo by: Kanzy Khafagy.

Working on commissioned pieces is challenging because it “takes a longer time as I discuss with the client all the elements involved in the piece,” he said, noting that he enjoys it despite the challenge. “If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have done it,” he added.

Higher risk, higher return

As I walked back to my hotel in Tunis, I noticed a new store, Minerva Pottery, which looked different from the others. It was modern, double the size of its neighbors, and many shoppers were inside. Most of the other stores were named after the main artisan, but this one was named after the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom and arts.

I climbed up its stairs and was greeted by a mix of modern and traditional pottery designs “all inspired by Egypt's history,” as owner Haitham Khattab told me.

Unlike most of the artisans in Tunis, Khattab is from Giza, outside Cairo. He and his family have been working in the tourism industry since the 1980s, but they shifted to the handicraft industry after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. At the beginning, their business model was to sell through galleries, but Khattab said he always knew that they must have a retail presence as well. Tunis offered them what they needed: knowledgeable workers and a steady flow of customers. They opened their first store in October 2020, when domestic tourism was picking up a bit in Egypt. The store was successful enough that he opened a second store in September 2021.

I had to ask him for his secret. “High quality products, perseverance, study, a vision, word of mouth, and the will to take risks,” Khattab said. He believed that it was a risk to move to a new industry and another risk to open their first store, but he said it was worth it. “It is the belief that the future belongs to the risk-takers,” he said.

Minerva has an active Instagram account that Khattab is running on his own –admittedly a work in progress. “At the beginning, I didn’t really think much of how I took those photos. But as our account grew bigger and I got more inquiries about it, I started paying more attention to it,” he said, and we laughed.

The newest addition to Kanzy’s mug collection. Photo by: Kanzy Khafagy.

The trip to Tunis surprised me in several ways. Now that I am back in Cairo, and sipping coffee from my new favorite mug from Tunis, I realize that my fears about the artisans’ ability to keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic were misplaced. Talking with them showed me their resilience. Omar, AbdelKadr, and Khattab each found a different way to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. That makes me appreciate them – and their beautiful creations–even more.

Kanzy Khafagy is an IFC Communications Analyst based in Cairo. If you’d like to shop for crafts from local Egyptian artists as she did, go to Ebda3 Men Masr or ask for Tunis’s pottery products on Malaika’s Instagram account.

Published in December 2021