The Last Bookbinders of Cairo
Four Egyptian brothers turn new pages in a proud family tradition.
On a small pedestrian street behind Cairo’s iconic Al Azhar Mosque, the Abdel Zaher binding shop stands out with its elaborate signage. As one makes their way through the alley, they are met with everything that is modern day Cairo: centuries-old structures are juxtaposed with a modern day market selling fruits, vegetables and ‘Made in China’ goods. Closer to the shop, the products on sale transform to paperback books, and established shops with wooden fronts begin to appear.
Abdel Zaher's shop has a modern full-glass front, with the shop's name elegantly engraved. The shop boasts two parallel stacks of handmade paper-based products: notebooks, photoalbums, sketchbooks, calendars and paper boxes and file holders. The designs vary, from leather-bound pieces to cloth and marble paper hardcovers of different shapes and sizes. The two other rooms in the shop host a workshop space full of materials and metal engravers, and a regular touristic bookshop selling novels, academic and coffee-table books.
Established in 1936, the shop has been around for over 80 years. Mohamed Abdel Zaher, who died in October 2014, took over the business after his father in 1952 and his four sons now run it. It has always been a family business, his son Ahmed says, adding that all five of the brothers have been working in the shop with their father.
The atelier, with its two workshops inside the store and upstairs, present the remainder of a centuries-old art that is almost lost in Egypt's capital city.
Abdel Zaher's shop has many customers, but over the last few decades it’s been mostly foreigners: whether from Cairo's expat community or tourists visiting the Hussein area, where Khan El Khalili, Cairo's most famous tourist market, lies across the street from the shop.
Originally, the business was concerned with binding books. Customers would bring books they bought to be bound handmade, with a hardcover, in order to be preserved. In the mid 1990s, when Ahmed's older brothers got involved with the shop, the family shifted to the production of other paper-based products such as notebooks and sketchbooks.
‘The number of intellectuals in Egypt decreased and so the ones who were concerned with binding their books became much fewer,’ Ahmed says. ‘To preserve the craft we use the same materials and craftsmanship in our new products.’
Ahmed also cites the industrialisation of bookbinding and the production of hardcover books commercially as reasons for the decline. ‘Publishers were more concerned with decreasing costs, so they cut the quality. They care about selling books, not if the books would last.’
Mohamed Abdel Zaher had nine children. All five of his sons are involved with bookbinding. Hussam, the eldest at 49 years old, is the only one not working at his father's shop; he opened his own bookbinding business in Fustat near Coptic Cairo. The other brothers all manage the various aspects of the family business.
Hussein, 44, runs the workshop that employs almost 20 workers. They handle the binding and making of the various products. The work is very detailed and intricate. It can take as many as eight years to become a bookbinder who can make a product from start to finish. Yasser, 35, handles the finishing and quality control aspect of the products while Ahmed, 33, runs the shop and takes the lead on marketing. The youngest, Hassan, 26, only got involved recently so is working across the different departments to accustom himself to the various elements of the business.
‘I started to be involved in the business when I was in high school, but even before that I was involved sporadically,’ Ahmed explains, adding that he worked in the shop at the same time as studying for his Bachelors degree in accounting. ‘But since then I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life.’
In their products the Abdel Zaher family uses a broad range of materials in various qualities. The most classical is their leather-covered books. They also started importing marbled paper from Europe with an array of patterns and colours in the late 1990s – these are the most popular products among their foreign customers.
Making the books is a delicate process. The sheets of paper are first stitched together, then glued to the handmade covers. The shop also does hand-printed gold leaf personalised prints on their leather notebooks. They mainly use natural goat leather and marble paper, which they import from abroad.
‘Each season we introduce new materials and designs which are usually inspired by customers' requests,’ Ahmed explains. ‘They are born from the moment. Someone gets an idea, we do a sample, get feedback and then produce it. We don’t produce until we get a round of feedback from customers and distributors.’
To cater to a variety of customers, about eight years ago, the shop started making more products that would be attractive to a younger generation: notebooks with colourful Egyptian tentmakers fabrics, and more recently ones with Arabic words and calligraphy.
Though the decline in tourism to Egypt after 2011 and the exodus of expats from Cairo left a void to the business, Ahmed believes that things are looking up. He asserts that the last tourism seasons have been better in terms of sales, especially around Christmas, when many customers buy their presents at Abdel Zaher.
For the time being, the brothers are focused on resuscitating themselves after the last couple of years and focused on staying afloat. But they have many ideas for the future, including running a workshop for aspiring independent bookbinders to teach them the craft.
Writer: Rowan El Shimi
Photographer: Nadia Mounier
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