A walk along the Nile Cornish in Cairo can be quite hectic but in the city of Damietta, it is a captivating experience. Connecting the Nile and the Mediterranean Sea, the city consists of three main areas: Damietta, New Damietta and Ras Al-Bar which is known for its port and clear swimming water. The city has its own fishing fleet and holds one of the most important Public Free Zones in the country. Home to the infamously loved Egyptian dessert Meshabek and original white cheese, the city has set itself apart from other Egyptian provinces.
In 2009, the city of Damietta defied worldwide economic depression and had zero unemployment due to the handcrafted furniture industry, which is what the city is best known for. It is this industry in particular that makes Damietta resemble English Sheffield.
Around 500,000 residents live in the urban area of Damietta, which is the same number of those living in the city of Sheffield. Relying on one mainly propagated industry, Damietta and Sheffield both share a passion for embedding it in their identity. Damietta shares the same legacy as Sheffield for manufacturing; except in Damietta’s case it is furniture, not steel. And just as Sheffield is known to be the city of steel, Damietta is the citadel of furniture.
Damietta Economy: its port, its furniture and its sea
Perhaps the resemblance between Sheffield and Egypt lies more in just the ability to make but rather in the economic effect of making. According to the Damietta governorate website, around two-thirds of the country’s wooden furniture is made in the city, highlighting that the total production of the city is 375,000 rooms including bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms. The total value of daily production amounts to EGP 2 million, the Damietta governorate adds.
“Due to its high quality, the Damietta product [furniture] has found a place for itself on the exportation map,” the website states in Arabic, adding that the value of exported furniture in 2011 totaled $36 million USD and increased to $129.5 million USD in 2005. Last year, the value of exported furniture registered $280 million USD. The city is always holding furniture exhibitions in Damietta as well as in other Egyptian governorates, the governorate adds. Around 20% of furniture exported is produced by large and medium-sized facilities, around 130, while around 35,000 smaller workshops comprise 80% of all exported furniture.
The city is also home to one of the largest and busiest ports in the county since the beginning of the 19th century – the Damietta port. The fact that it is located close to the Nile and has one of the country’s most beautiful beaches, Ras Al-Bar, has made it a destination for local tourism and allowed it to welcome thousands of visitors during the summer and spring.
The Present Culture
The city contains 81 information technology centers to cater to its residents and has its own open-air Roman Theatre, which holds several concerts, festivals and events. Annually, the city holds celebrations for independence day in May. These celebrations are coupled with the East Delta celebrations and Easter, which crowds the city with locals and visitors.
“Two of the beaches witnessed sports competitions between locals and visitors,” a report released by the governorate states. “Thousands of people visited the city to enjoy the beach and visit [local] areas.”
“On Easter, the governorate [beach] welcomed 1.5 million citizens from Damietta and other provinces,” the report adds. The second edition of the celebrations took place in August. This year the city organized a week-long festival for folkloric dance, music and drama but in the Roman Theater, the Cultural Palace of Damietta, the Cultural Palace of New Damietta and the Damietta Park.
Islam Abu Zeid, an interior decorator and the Ministry of Youth and Sports’ Trainer for Fine Arts, states that the ministry holds an annual workshop where it invites locals to learn about art for three to five days. The workshop offers transportation reimbursement for those participating to encourage people to join.
“After the students finish their workshop, an exhibition is held for them to showcase what they have learned,” Abu Zeid says.
Unlike Sheffield and aside from making furniture, the making ideology is not highly celebrated in the Egyptian city. Abu Zeid highlighted that making profit is more important than being creative for the locals. He stressed that the focus is mainly on products that can be exported, adding that locals can work from dawn to midnight to produce a product of high-quality but it must be one that they can sell.
Mai Ali, an Arts school graduate, went back to her local city after finishing her studies. Driven with her passion for making, Ali decided to open up the Made in Damietta gallery where she could make local products aside from furniture.
“I remember, at the time, it was only myself along with my friends, who both graduated from art schools that had galleries that were not furniture or antiques,” Ali explains. Her friends, Menna ElShazly and Basma Al-Kafrawy, decided to open up spaces for glass painting and holding creativity workshops for children. Ali’s and ElShazly’s galleries did not stay open, however.
“I opened the gallery for three years and in those years most of my clients were from Cairo and Alexandria,” Ali says. ” The Damietta audience is very traditional and is skeptical when the products are not what he is used to.” Unlike the traditional wooden antiques and golden-finished products, Ali’s products are colorful and bright, ranging from paintings and tables to cards, bags and jewelry.
“Instead of paying monthly rent, I now sell my products online,” Ali says, highlighting that ElShazly has done the same. “Basma [Al-Kafrawy] is still open and is planning to broaden her activity.”
Other art students have decided to join big furniture manufacturing names in the city, hoping to bring about a new creative mentality. Their dreams came to a halt, however, when the owner wanted to remain traditional and are unable to put their artistic skills to their full use, Ali suggests.
Economic Diversity and Independent Initiatives
In Sheffield, diversifying the city’s economy to include creative makers included intervention from the council. Toby Hyam, founder and managing director of Creative Space Management says that the council built recording studios and spaces for artists that focused on young people. At the time, Hyam adds, the projects were funded and owned by the council. Perhaps what Damietta also needs is to look into how technology and the art of making can collaborate to regenerate its making identity and put the 81 information technology centers to creative use.
Abu Zeid suggests that what Damietta is lacking is the trained experienced staff who can make art development a consistent matter in the city. Kim Streets, the CEO of independent charity organization Museums Sheffield, says that her organization tries to market Sheiffeld to businesses that are willing to move to a new city. More importantly, however, the organization tries to position museums, heritage, arts, culture and design as central in a vibrant city economy.
“For the people who live here, [we want people] to have access to great art and great culture,” Streets says. “[People] have a clear understanding of heritage. That this [Sheffield] is a world city and that it is built on its people. That sense of city pride and identity is really important in the work that we do.”
“We work with people who live here, who might bring their families or maybe school kids visiting. We work with particular communities and then we work with businesses to connect them with arts and culture,” Streets adds.
The Egyptian city still witnesses some independent initiatives from local residents from time to time. One of these projects was Gedary, My Wall, which adorned some of the city’s walls with murals and graffiti designs for the first time in its history. Twenty four-year-old local street artist Ahmed Gaber launched the initiative on Facebook, creating a buzz and intriguing other artists to join the self-funded project.
Gaber, also known as Nemo, contacted artists personally and asked them to volunteer for the project, adorning the walls of a Damietta village named Kfour Al- Ghab with vibrant colors and lively drawings. Eight artists from various provinces in the country joined the initiative and drew murals between the June 29th and July 3rd and painted 25 murals.
“I paint my murals in the Nile Delta,” Gaber says, highlighting that he enjoys working in areas where graffiti is not
necessarily accepted. “I was approached by a co-op founded by locals that sought to make a difference in the area. They were involved with charitable work when they approached me and suggested we do something in Kfour Al-Ghab.” Gaber’s excitement to implement the project was shared by other graffiti artists who wanted to join. He highlights that after he started making calls to other artists, their number increased from three to five to eight. One of those artists was a local who decided to learn how to draw murals and carry on with more work after the Gedary team has left.
“Each artist knew which wall he would be drawing on and what the mural would look like,” Gaber says, explaining why it only took the team of eight to finish 25 murals in five days. “The first five walls are the hardest because locals are still skeptical but after they saw how the work adorned the walls, they were really welcoming.”
Economically, Damietta seems to be a success. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development report, Damietta is a higher per capita income than most other Nile Valley provinces. The maritime province ranked third countrywide in the latest UN Development Program index of human development – real GDP per capita in 2003-2004 was EGP 6933. The 2010 report indicated that GDP per capita increased to EGP 7883.5. Almost everyone in the city has access to pipe water and sanitation. The unemployment rate remains almost 0%, with only 25 people unemployed.
But despite its economic strength, its cultural scene remains silent even though it has a lot to say on many ruling dynasties who left behind Pharaonic legacy, Greek heritage, Roman history and Islamic architecture. The city’s musical and tech scenes are still lagging behind and unless the event is an official one that is sponsored by the government, nothing goes on. Taking Sheffield as an example to follow its pattern might help the ‘diamond in the rough’ city become the diamond of the Delta, taking the passion for making to new unprecedented levels.
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