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Annual Egyptian Crafts Sale at Red Cross

Thursday, November 21, 2013 • 12:20pm

Colorful patchwork quilts, hand-embroidered linens and quirky stuffed animals handcrafted by Egyptian Zabbaleen women will once again be featured at a holiday sale Saturday and Sunday, December 7-8, at the American Red Cross New Jersey Crossroads at 695 Springfield Ave. in Summit. Sale hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days, and the public is warmly invited.

            You will see no evidence of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution in the vibrant wall hangings, place mats and rag rugs. But the craftswomen, who are part of the garbage recycling community in Moqattam on the outskirts of Cairo, have fewer Egyptian customers because of the political tumult. So the annual sale in Summit and another in New York City are crucial to the survival of the cottage craft industry.

            “With demonstrations and curfews curtailing people’s activities, Cairo residents are not venturing out to purchase the cottage-industry goods produced by the women of the garbage collector community,” said Nimet Habachy, a Cairo-born broadcaster well-known as a host on the classical music radio station WQXR.

            Nimet and her sister Suzan Habachy, retired from the United Nations, visited Summit recently to talk about the Cairo craft project and the effects of the revolution.  

            The Habachy sisters moved to the US with their family in the 1950s, attended school here and established their careers in New York City. They first visited the trash collecting and sorting district of Moqattam in the early 1990s and soon became active in supporting a school for women and girls, where all the crafts are made, as well as a Headstart-style daycare center for children 3-5.

            About 100 women enroll each year in the crafts school, where they get instruction in literacy, weaving, sewing and paper recycling. Fabric remnants donated by Egyptian textile manufacturers are used in the handmade quilts, crib mobiles and cloth books. Other materials like paper are recycled from garbage throwaways and used to create stationery, lightweight necklaces and earrings.

            These schools have been crucial to the advancement of the Zabbaleen women, says Nimet. “Producing goods coming out of a garbage dump that are viable in the New York City area is in its own way a miracle. Most of these women have had no formal schooling, and some come into the project not knowing how to make a straight line.”

            The sisters demonstrate their own creativity in finding venues for selling the handicrafts. In addition to Summit, they are also holding a sale at Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal church on Manhattan’s East Side (Dec. 11-13). Their Summit connection is longtime local resident Marilyn Pfaltz, who went to Bryn Mawr College as did the Habachy sisters.

            While in Summit, the sisters taped a television interview with Christopher Taylor, Professor of Islamic Studies at Drew University, which was moderated by Marilyn Pfaltz. The show will appear in a few weeks on Summit’s Channel 36. In addition, a show of Pfaltz's photographs of Zabbaleen women and children at work and school will be displayed in Fellowship Hall at The Unitarian Church in Summit from November 24 through December.

            For more information about the sale, call the Red Cross at (908) 273-2076.

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