As one of the best-known countries for selling quality handmade leather products, Egypt’s old tanners hold the secret to turning animal hides into leather of all colours and sizes.
Taking a step into the world of leather tanneries that lie in the heart of Old Cairo feels like a step back in time to Mohammed Ali’s era, when these factories were originally built. In the huge factories, with old machines running loudly inside rooms with grey walls that seem on the verge of collapse, patient workers use their hands to apply colour to the skins during the treatment process. Children use their free-time outside school to carry the finished leathers from one place to another in order to earn some spare change.
With thousands of animals being slaughtered in Egypt every day, workers handle the skins from the moment they are brought in from the butchers until they are produced as fine leather products exported to factories both inside Egypt and abroad.
The process of turning hides into leather takes a few days. In the pre-tanning process, animals’ skin is removed of hair, degreased, desalted, and soaked in water from between six hours up to a couple of days depending on the animal.
The leather is then modified and remade, usually into shoes, belts, and bags. Many of these products are exported abroad to be sold at high prices, especially if they were manufactured by hand.
Alongside the process of turning animal hides into fancy, extremely expensive bags, there are many untold stories of hardship and struggle.
The livelihood of Egyptian tanners is at risk. Their job is almost extinct due to the proliferation of electronic factories, and the government wants to move the tanneries far away, outside central Cairo, to El-Robeky near 6th of October City.
In Magra El-Oyoun in Old Cairo, more than 350 tanneries used to exist here providing work for 40,000 workers of all ages. However, after the majority were relocated, only 2,000 workers are still here to fight for their 50 factories.
Most tanners spend their lives depending on the money they earn from their profession. Just like any handicraft in Egypt, many of them inherited this work from their ancestors. However, recently they were presented with another challenge: cheaply-produced faux leather with a similar look and texture to the real quality leather.
The government has plans to transform Old Cairo into a historical touristic area, but this requires relocating the factories. Though the state has promised to provide various transportation and chemicals needed for the work, many of the workers who have lived by the tanneries all their lives refuse to move. They have already been suffering from limited means and income. Moving a new industrial district would mean spending the majority of their salaries on the commute without any promises of their income being increase.
A dying art is being threatened by misplaced modernity and change.
All photos taken by Mohammed Omar