In the heart of old Cairo, especially in El-Darb El-Ahmar, time stands still at Cairo’s oldest dyehouse, where artisans still hand dye fabrics and threads. Stepping inside the place, feels like traveling in time and place to the last century; with timeworn walls, patched fabrics and human hands that one can no longer recognise their original skin colours.
Eighty-year-old Salama, or “Uncle Salama” as he likes to be called, is the owner of the dying house. With a warm smile and sincere welcomes, he greets people and would not start talking without offering them a cup of tea first.
Colours are what Salama’s life is all about since 1955. For 63 years, dying fabrics is the daily life routine of Salama. Despite the fact that he cannot read or write, Salama’s long expertise years, made him one of the best experts in matching colours, fabrics, and designs.
Salama is not the first owner of the dyehouse. It was originally established in 1901, and it was owned from one owner to another until he bought it.
“I started working here at the age of 17, and I learned everything I know on the hands of the house’s previous owner, whose name was Hanafy El-Za’abalawy,” he told Daily News Egypt.
Notably, the dyehouse is considered the oldest and currently, the only dyehouse in Cairo, yet not that commonly known, and it holds working artisans who are among some of the city’s hidden talents.
Despite the huge reduction in number of customers still want to hand-dye fabrics, Salama never thought of closing the place or change his career.
“There are still few people who still appreciate and cherish hand-dyed fabrics,” he explained.
According to him, hand-coloured textiles are much higher in quality than the manufactured ones, as “their colours are brighter, last longer, and much cheaper.”
While dying fabrics, Salama makes sure to monitor the workers as they apply specific amount of dye, and sets them a specific timer, “few minutes more or less, turn the colour into a complete different pigment,” he added.
He also makes sure that all the used dying colours are natural, in order not to affect the quality of fabrics.
All photos taken by Doaa’ Nasr