Egypt’s Upcycling Design, Hipster Touch In Ancient Land

Colorful knapsack made of discarded plastic
Colorful knapsack made of discarded plastic
Rowan El Shimi

CAIRO — Strolling through Lisbon's hilltop alleys in 2008, I came across a shop selling uniquely designed "upcycled" products, things made by reusing material that would otherwise be discarded. The items there included a milk-carton wallet, a liquor-bottle lamp and a cereal-box notebook cover.

In my young, hopeful state, I felt right at home. It embodied how I wanted people to live: without waste, with creativity and with possessions that carry a cause.

The shop wasn't one of a kind, of course. Due to awareness campaigns, the economically privileged around the world were shifting consumption habits and looking for organic, locally produced and environmentally friendly food, clothes, furniture and transport. Designers, farming initiatives and business people were stepping up to be part of the movement.

At the time, upcycling wasn't big in Egypt in product design, and I couldn't understand why. But because I had the narrow reference frame of what I'd seen in European hipster shops, I missed the fact that this has been happening in daily life for generations. It's more evident in the countryside — but all over Cairo, you see repurposed old glass jars, tuna-can ashtrays and plastic-crate chairs.

Now, one also finds a growing interest among young, upper middle-class city dwellers in creating their own furniture from leftover bottles, wood and car tires. And designers have recently started to catch on. Several are included in Dubai Design Week's Cairo Now! A City Incomplete exhibition.

Making treasures from trash

Two of these upcycling outfits transform plastic bags — the second most commonly wasted material in Egypt — into beautifully colorful fabrics, out of which they create their products.

Up-Fuse, a social design enterprise initiated by Rana Rafie and Yara Yassin during their university studies in Berlin in 2013, repurposes neglected plastic bags into colorful and durable backpacks, tote bags, wallets and cases.

It brings Rafie and Yassin's passion for design together with their experience in green technology and social development: Rafie ran the fabrication lab for green technology startup IceCairo, while Yassin worked with the United Nations in Upper Egypt to support Nubians producing handicrafts.

The designers are collaborating with Roh al-Shabab (Youth Soul), an NGO in the garbage collectors' district Manshiet Nasser, on the upcycling process of plastic bags.

"We taught them how to process and clean the bags in an environmentally friendly and hygienic way, which they do in their spare time to create income," Rafie tells me. "Part of our revenue goes to the NGO for education and hygiene awareness programs."

Up-Fuse also works with artisans in north Cairo's Warraq district to create designs out of the material created at Rouh al-Shabab. They say they want to support local production because a lot of workshops are closing.

"In Egypt, as much as we're a developing country, we produce a lot of waste. Pollution is one of the biggest problems we face," Rafie adds. "We have so much treasure that we don't see. There are endless possibilities to be done with all the waste generated."

Reform Studio is another initiative creating products from plastic waste, focusing upholstering furniture with a fabric made from plastic bags and recycled cotton threads that they call Plastix. It too emerged in 2013 and was born out of a university project: Hend Hafez and Mariam Hazem started working together at the German University in Cairo.

"We never design for the sake of design," Hazem says. "It has to solve a problem." Their solution is to create upholstery, beach clutches, placemats and rugs. People donate plastic bags through a continuously expanding network, and Reform Studio works with home-based craftswomen to weave their signature material.

Inspired by both their city and their material, Reform Studio's collections include painting and adding new cushioning to iconic Cairo cafe chairs; vibrant reupholstering of 1960s metal frame chairs; and their latest collection, Chaotic Design, focuses on Cairo's street chairs.

Reform Studio is interested in making consumers aware of their products' environmental and social impact. Their "Grammy's Collection" chairs bear labels reading: "Each chair is created using 152 wasted plastic bags by the hand of 1 craftsman's work and 3 housewives' effort."

"Conscious consumption"

Reform Studio and Up-Fuse focus on selling products in both Egypt and abroad, saying markets are more attuned to their outputs elsewhere. The founders of both initiatives do know their products cost more than the average price of similar items.

"We try to make it clear that it's not that we're expensive, but it is the other products that are cheap," Rafie says. "Since we support a movement of conscious consumption where you can choose to buy one product that lives longer, instead of buying 10 bags, you can buy one or two. We really consider the lifespan of the product."

"Each piece is unique. That's part of why handmade products are always more expensive," Hafez says, adding that Reform Studio has various price ranges. "Not all eco-friendly products are expensive."

While Up-Fuse and Reform Studio have a holistic approach that keeps in mind the environment and craftspeople's livelihoods, other upcyclers have a more purely aesthetic approach.

Block B furniture founder Ahmed Abouzeid, who left a corporate life in advertising to turn to chairs and couches, uses design to mirror Cairo's random urban reality. Through paint, colored pins, fabrics, cowhide, leather and plastics, he transforms the often gold-plated Louis Farouk furniture found in Egyptian homes into surprising, edgy explosions.

"I like the nod to the classical, to our history, to our shared culture, to our society. My work tends to be over the top. It's sort of commentary on urban culture," he says. "They're beautiful pieces, hand made in Egypt and crafted really well. But I look at them as works of art."

Dina Naguib, another former member of the advertising world, runs a project called Ehem that has two collections: water pipes repurposed into lighting solutions, shelves and shoes (This is Not a Pipe) and old meat grinders turned into lamps (The Meatless Grinder). The collections tap into nostalgia through their vintage starting point, but the materials and finishing lend the finished products an industrial look.

Many other Egyptian designers and NGOs are approaching materials in innovative ways. Gazwareen, for example, uses Mediterranean driftwood to create furniture. The Association for the Protection of the Environment has long worked with communities in Manshiet Nasser, and Al-Nafeza uses agricultural waste, such as rice straw, to create paper-based products.

And with Egypt's high pollution levels, prolific waste, unconsidered consumption habits and under-employment, the recent and growing focus on upcycling has potential to become sustainable and widespread.

*This text is part of a collaboration with Cairobservor on the occasion of Cairo Now! City Incomplete, curated by Cairobserver's Mohamed Elshahed, at Dubai Design Week.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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