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Latticework factory recalls an architectural heritage

By Robin JareauxSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1983



Cairo

Sitting gracefully beside a canal, a short camel ride from the great pyramids in Giza, is the many-domed Mashrabiyah Factory. It looks more like a pasha's oasis hideaway than a three-year-old woodworking facility built by three enterprising Egyptians. But within its cool, vaulted chambers you can hear the muffled buzz of lathes turning plain spokes of wood into ornate spindles for mashrabiyah woodwork.

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Mashrabiyah, or moucharaby, is most familiar as the elaborate wood-lattice window screen behind which one might expect to glimpse the dark kohl-rimmed eyes of a harem girl. This craft reached its optimum form in the 1500s during the era of Mameluke rule in Egypt. Traditionally made without glue or nails, each wooden web is made of intricate spindles fitted into others to create complex patterns. Throughout Cairo, old homes and mosques can still be seen with these dusty masterpieces of the carver's art screening the harsh Egyptian sunshine.

The Mashrabiyah Factory was established Jan. 30, 1980, by three men using their own capital to revive a valuable Egyptian handicraft. They exemplify an increasing free-enterprise spirit among Egyptians.

''At the beginning, we sold mostly to foreigners,'' says production manager Ahmad Rabie. ''But now Egyptians are beginning to recognize the importance of their original culture.''

While the traditional craft is enjoying new popularity, the biggest problem in the production of mashrabiyah was finding skilled carpenters to revive a tradition that had nearly died out. Today the factory has 45 trained workers. Most have learned the art of making mashrabiyah in just the past few years.

Since mashrabiyah is the word traditionally used to describe only the lattice window screen, it is evident that the term is being broadened to describe almost any piece of furniture containing the elaborate woodwork. Pointing to a wood couch with mashrabiyah panels, Mr. Rabie says: ''The point is, we aren't designing antiques. We are producing practical furniture with an up-to-date function. Mashrabiyah is a flexible concept, and can be used in many objects from a buffet to a dining-room table.''

''We get our ideas for patterns from Egyptian architecture and heritage,'' adds Nihad Shirazy, an architectural consultant. ''Our aim is to revive old Egyptian style and bring it up to date.''

The idea is an appealing one, and the factory is expanding. Fayed Shukry, the factory's founder, made sure that all the early profits were reinvested in the enterprise. In 1981 the factory's profits were about (STR)12,000 (Egyptian), or about $8,600. He says he expects 1982 earnings to be triple that.

Besides its woodworking crew, two architects have been added to the staff. In their office inside the Mashrabiyah Factory's multilevel building, they have begun to research and design traditional Egyptian-style homes for well-to-do clients interested in their country's architectural heritage. These asymmetrical houses, replete with fountains, foyers, and stacks of secluded chambers, also incorporate the factory's mashrabiyah windows and furnishings.

Explaining how all this traditional design can fit into the modern Egyptian's life style, Mr. Shirazy says: ''It is fairly simple to modernize. What would have been the harem becomes the room for the video.''

Surely, even the pasha would be pleased.