In the depths of Cairo’s City of the Dead, Umm Essam unveils her latest creation: a blood-red belly-dance costume, complete with golden pearls.
But there are no models or podiums in this dressmaker’s tiny workshop hidden deep in the alleys of one of the city’s oldest cemeteries.
At the bottom of a sandy path, erected over a tomb, lie two cramped rooms and a minuscule kitchen: her workshop by day, her home by night.
Like thousands of Egyptians, Umm Essam, whose real name is Fawziya Mohammed al-Sayyed, was driven to this unlikely spot of real estate by the housing crisis and dire poverty that plague Egypt. The gradual migration to the necropolis forced authorities to connect the area to the electric and water grids.
“Three years ago, I decided to embark on the job of making belly-dance costumes, as my previous job of dressmaker was in decline,” says Umm Essam, still enthusiastic despite her 60 years of age and a life of hard labour.
The designer, whose only assets are a strong will and an old sewing machine, draws inspiration for her costumes from the Arabic superstars she watches on her tiny television screen, the only distraction in an area of few tarmac roads and smelly septic tanks.
She has come a long way since her first outfit. Today, she is the queen of an improbable kingdom, where dozens of neighbours help her cut and bead fabrics, while the laundry dries between tombstones used by the local children for games of hide-and-seek.
Each costume, a fitted bustier, a low-waist skirt and a wide belt, requires 1kg of glass pearls and several metres of colourful fabric.
“We make about 100 costumes a month. My daughter Madiha takes them to the [Red Sea resorts] of Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh,” says Umm Essam, referring to the country’s top tourist hot spots, popular with foreigners.
But despite the high output of costumes which keep the designer up till dawn, the gains are slim.
“I sell each costume for a little over 150 Egyptian pounds [$26], but in reality I only gain about 20 pounds [about $3] because the rest is spent on fabric, pearls and payments to friends,” she says.
But at least this little sum of money allows her to put food on the table for her family, in a country where most people earn less than 600 pounds [about $104] a month, and where unemployment is rampant.
“The retailer sells my costumes to tourists for at least 500 pounds [$87],” she says bitterly.
But despite the hardship, Umm Essam continues to produce daily and has even brought in her granddaughters to help, in the hope of one day escaping the neighbourhood of the dead.
Seven-year-old Fawziya works on the children’s costumes. “I learnt by watching my grandmother do the job,” she says, balancing a bowl of pearls on her knees.
“We have three sizes — adults, adolescents and children,” says the grandmother, who throws sideways glances at her granddaughter to check on the yellow pearls being attached to the latest costume.
“From time to time, we manage to sell a costume to a heaven-sent foreigner, who hears about us through word of mouth, like the Qatari man who ordered some costumes a few months ago,” says Umm Essam.
“I had to design custom-made patterns because he ordered bustiers for some pretty voluptuous chests,” she says, trying to hide her laughter behind her hand. — AFP