An oasis of proud perfection and order amid Cairo tumult

Mohammed Abd El-Zaher's bookshop has been binding books by hand since 1936, building a gilded reputation and withstanding the rise and fall of many a regime.

Christa Case Bryant / The Christian Science Monitor
Bookshop owner Mohammed Abd el-Zaher demonstrates how he places letter templates together like Scrabble pieces before heating them over an open flame and imprinting custom gold lettering on his hand-bound books.

There is at least one place where supreme order prevails amid all the political upheaval in Egypt: Abd El-Zaher Bookshop, which caters to many foreign embassies in Cairo as well as well-heeled customers around the globe.

Established in 1936, it has withstood the rise and fall of the supremely popular pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser; Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated after becoming the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel; Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years after Sadat; and most recently, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was deposed by the military July 3.

Here, they are concerned not with the latest conspiracy theories but with a timeless craft: binding books by hand. Amid Cairo’s chaotic streets, where the daily frictions of life in a teeming city have been exacerbated by political tension, the bookshop offers an oasis of perfection, from its carefully arranged shelves to the gilt spines and custom lettering that adorn its books.

“I’m very precise in the work I do,” says owner Mohammed Abd El-Zaher, who began as an errand boy before taking charge in 1962. “I’m proud because I am able to preserve something that is dying out. Especially now in Cairo with everything evolving very quickly, it’s very important to take care of these smaller details.”

And at a time when many Egyptians are embarrassed about the turmoil in their country, once the most powerful and venerated in the Arab world, he also takes pride in the fact that foreigners value his shop’s work.

“It makes us so happy that an Egyptian product that we made with our hands can impress a foreigner,” says Mr. Abd el-Zaher, whose team of 14 uses paper and other materials from as far away as France and India. “It also really impresses us that we can get materials from abroad and make something that foreigners can’t make.”

To be sure, the deterioration in Egypt’s economy has affected business, though not because of the drop in tourism. “Normally tourists come here to ride the camels or see the pyramids” – not pick their way through creaking carts and stray dogs to select a new guest book or travel journal from his store.

“The more important thing,” he says, “is that our clientele – a certain type of foreigner intellectuals who like customized binding – these people have left.”

Still, they’re ordering from abroad, sometimes paying up to six times more for shipping than for the binding work itself, just to possess themselves of the handiwork of an Egyptian tradesman toiling in the shadow of Cairo’s Al Azhar mosque – and the country’s unpredictable politics.

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