Haroun Abdul Sabour working on one of his art piece at his workshop in Cairo. Image Credit: Ramadan Al Sherbini/Gulf News

Cairo: In a serpentine alley in Islamic Cairo, Haroun Abdul Sabour sits in his workshop engrossed in his delicate work, inattentive to a road accident involving owners of two donkey carts some metres away.

Clutching a pencil-like iron chisel and a hammer, Abdul Sabour, 52, diligently moves the two tools on a copper tray placed on a small table in front of him.

“This is the art that needs the concentration of all senses,” says Sabour with his eyes still focused on the tray.

“Lines engraved across the tray should intermingle and harmonise to eventually produce an artwork like a greatest painting,” he told Gulf News.

Abdul Sabour has been in the centuries-old craft since his childhood.

“It is a family business,” he says with a nostalgic look.

“My father, may Allah rest his soul in peace, took me out of the school when I was in the sixth grade telling me, ‘This is a craft you won’t learn at school and needs a talented artist who loves it.’ Later, I realised what he meant.”

But unlike Abdul Sabour, his two younger brothers did not follow in their father’s footsteps and chose to complete their education.

“One is a university professor and the other is a lawyer. For me, if time returned, I’d choose this craft as my life job. It gives you a sense of purpose. It teaches you patience. Shaping a piece of copper into an artwork can take hours. After you finish it, you feel its beauty.”

Explaining various steps taken to create an art work, Abdul Sabour said: “First we turn a piece of copper into a circular or square shape and clean it. Then, the required design is sketched on it with the help of a pencil. Afterwards, we start the engraving process using the chisel and the hammer. Later, the piece is inlaid with gold, silver or bronze, depending on the customer’s demand or on what we think will enhance its beauty.”

“I am also inspired by the enchanting decorations on the walls of mosques in our district,” Abdul Sabour says passionately. “After all, copper engraving is closely linked to the Islamic art.”

Main buyers of Abdul Sabour’s works used to be foreign tourists visiting the nearby Khan Al Khalili bazaar. But their numbers have dwindled over recent years due to the unrest that followed the 2011 uprising.

“This craft is dying,” says Fekri Ahmad, an artisan in another copper engraving workshop in the area.

“In the past, there were at least 20 workshops specialised in copper etching in this area alone. But gradually, most of them shut down or changed their business to more lucrative activities,” he told Gulf News.

“In the good old days, copper was an essential part of Egyptians’ life. It was used in manufacturing kitchen utensils that were valued like gold. At the time, families were keen to buy copper utensils for their children before they get married. But time has changed,” Ahmad said.

“Aluminium has replaced copper pots, There is a big drop in number of tourists coming to Egypt and the state does not show any interest in preserving this art. So, how can our craft survive?”

In recent years, Ahmad has turned his attention to producing engraved copper plates usually bought as souvenir.

The 48-year-old artisan, who also inherited this jobs from his father, has a number of complaints.

“Things are not good any more. Prices of copper have soared. Moreover, cheap Chinese copper has flooded the [Egyptian] market. The Chinese copper looks attractive, but its quality is bad. It loses its shine in a short span of time,” he argues.

Low wages are another problem, according to Ahmad.

“Young people do not have the patience to stay in this craft. It does not ensure a handsome income for a young man, who wants to marry and have a family. Therefore, many apprentices have turned to other jobs. The dollar has sent everything crazy in this country.”

In November, Egypt free-floated the local pound and cut fuel subsidy as part of harsh measures to reform the ailing economy.

The step has triggered hikes in prices of different goods and services in the country of 92 million people.

“In order to cut costs, some workshops have shifted to machines for the so-called chemical engraving and are using cheap copper mixed with iron instead of pure copper,” he says. None of Ahmad’s four sons is interested in his craft.

“It is better for them to complete their education and find some other jobs,” he said.

“In a time when traditional crafts are dying, it is crazy to cling to any of them!”