White gold

Amina Kadous

2020 - Ongoing

Cairo, Muḩāfaz̧at al Qāhirah, Egypt

The first seeds of my identity were planted in El Mehalla Al Kobra, my home and where I was born. El Mehalla was one of the most popular cities in Egypt. Known as home of Egyptian cotton, and an important center for harvesting and spinning white cotton. My great grandfather was one of the first merchants in the city to lead the initial stage of the popular “manufacturing” textile trade at the time. In 1969, my grandfather established his textile factory in the city and my father joined him in the 80’s.

Uprooted and extracted from its ground, I see myself reflected in the cotton’s journey. It embodies my history and personal identity as I continuously try to become. The white cotton flower endures change internally and externally until it is loomed into woven and drawn fabrics. Likewise, I feel similar, trying to adapt to the outside world. Growing up in the midst of all current of change of Egypt. Caught between hands and air, trying to weave my existence in today’s current. I fear losing my last threads living only through my history.

In 1969, 3 million acres of cotton were planted. Making it the highest in the history of cotton cultivation in the country. As the cotton dispersed over the years, cultivated lands were shrinking and the egyptian farmer was seen as an enemy, replaced with the new industrial agriculture policies. Subsidies were reduced and neoliberalism policies were implemented. Egypt started to focus on export industries and decreased the cotton production. Emptying factory walls and turning them to piles of dust. As the cotton cycle changes, My father started to opt for imported cotton from countries such as Pakistan and Greece. While most of the Egyptian cotton supplies were exported abroad.

The cotton is a major symbol for us as Egyptians. It’s part of our cultural wealth, heritage and history that ties us all to our past. The cotton is my past and my present, its the threads that will continue to weave no matter how worn out it will get. My project aims to find answers.With the new social, political and economic privatization of the public sector, the country aims to revive the cotton industry. Investing billions in what would be the largest textile factory in the world built on the grounds of El Mehalla, as well as developing new ginning factories to replace the old ones, improving working conditions making a need for more cotton to be produced. As new private sector investors plan to bring back the Egyptian cotton, will they be able to retrieve the white gold of the past ?

I imagine my story coming together as a book and an oral history website documenting my personal and national history. I invite the audience to join me in a conversation about identity, both personal and national. One that unfolds the history of Egypt and one that ties all socio-economic and political factors of a country that have long been known by the white cotton. As we experience the cycle of growth differently, some of us will be planting their seeds now others will be harvesting, while others will be learning to let go and weave their threads of their present into their own white gold.

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  • A gift of the nile, cotton for centuries was one of the best crops that cultivated along the river banks of the delta. The ancient Egyptians used it as shrouds for wrapping their dead.

    The American civil war erupted making way for the Egyptian cotton to take over the global market. The British turned to Egypt for their cotton supplies, transforming the country to their own cotton farmland and in 1882 they occupied the country. The British only saw Egypt as an agricultural state, they didn’t support the industry in the country.

  • Around cotton everything seems light, like floating clouds of hope that are malleable and interchangeable. But I see now what a labor-intensive crop it is. I feel the burden of the famers as they struggle through the heat, the harsh burns of the sun as they race to finish their shift picking the cotton to avoid the shouts of their chaperones.

  • Warda in arabic " A blooming soul" Warda like many other female framers work day and night in the field during the cotton harvest season to look after their families. Most of them used to say, " “we used to say, whoever wants to wed their children they should wait until the harvest season. Everything was tied to the cotton. If you wanted to build a house, it was after you sold your cotton... This was a time when people would sell cotton to buy land, now they are selling whatever they have to pay the debts of the cotton. I have a lot of duties to take care of and what money is usually left won’t even add up to the value of the cost of the yearly hassle spent growing this crop.."

  • At the Misr Ginning Factory in El Mehalla opened in 1920’s. Many of these factories are still operated on the old system of machines and hand labor. Requiring many headcount.
    While the British only saw as an agriculture state, after their occupation they have built ginning factories along the delta line near every cotton plantation equipping them with the newest and latest ginning machines making Egypt the country with the oldest ginning machines and the oldest ginning factories in the world.

  • Found through my grandfather’s archive, 1958 stamp of a female Egyptian Farmer holding a cotton crop flower with “ United Arab Republic” appearing on the top.

    After 1952 Coup, President Nasser came supporting the industrialization of the country and encouraged the textile industry. He backed the Egyptian farmer and used the Egyptian cotton as a lucrative weapon. The cotton contributed to the arming of the Egyptian army in the 50s and the 60s, by exporting it to the Soviet Union in return for importing weapons. And in 1969 the cotton reached its highest production in the country’s entire history.

    In fact by the end of Nasser’s era, the term “ farmer” or “falah” فلاح was rarely mentioned in any of the following presidential speeches.

  • At the Carpet factory part of the larger complex of El Mehalla Spinning and Weaving factory.
    The factory was the number one leading textile production company in the nation. It was a major symbol for reforming the Egyptian national identity in the mid 1900 when everything was 100% Egyptian made with pride. I remember my aunt used to tell me that my grandparents used to buy all their home interior fabrics from there when it was in glorious years. As the Egyptian cotton declines over the years and as the country’s efforts are diverted towards other issues, the factory now faces the extinct of this craft as craftsmen no longer exist and people are no longer eager to continue the legacy of this factory and this craft as its being replaced by fast paced advancement machines.

  • Photos of My grandfather in his father’s Manufacturing and textile fabric store in El Mehalla El Kobra.

    My great grandfather was one of the first merchants in the city to lead the initial stage of the popular “manufacturing” textile trade at the time in the 1900’s. A merchant of silk and wool.

  • The current state of the shop now.

    Inside the shop “The Administration” in Arabic script is written on the door.
    As I enter the main office of great-grandfather. Moments of silence and pause capture me as the icons of my past seem trapped in their era as life takes its course.

  • My Grandfather’s suits were mainly 100% Egyptian cotton made from Misr Spinning and Weaving Factory.
    During his time and up until the 1970’s all products were Egyptian cotton made.

  • My grandparents passed away ten years ago leaving a void in all of us. My aunt sitting in her parents room after she moved it to Cairo.

    My aunt says
    “You kept searching, amina, until you found them… I have never seen Gedo’s belongings before… you’re the one who found them…”
    My Aunt told me…
    “…your grandfather never talked a lot, we didn’t know many things until he passed away, we were lost; but its my duty to tell you our stories because you should know everything.”

  • My grandfather’s office was like a treasure trove where I found his memories.

    Documenting the remnants of my identity, and the transitional connection between my personal history and that of a city. Drawing on the legacies of my grandfather, his archives that I unearthed from his office which was always a wonderland for me when was I was a kid.

  • Mehalla for me was my family’s home.
    That was my only connections with the city and the only knowledge I was brought up to know of Mehalla. As my grandparents’ left and passed away ten years ago I still try to cope with their absence as I try to recreate the threads of my current present.

  • My grandparent’s wedding portrait, 1961
    Image transferred onto handmade cotton paper.

  • A tempting desire to pause time, to immortalize and sanctify my childhood memories. Triggered by an unfinished moment in my childhood memories, I long for the time when everything felt more complete, through the remains of my family home and land. The revelations sparked a longing for familiar grounds where my roots and tree flourished. I realize my fear of letting go of the thread, the tree and the history that bins us. I delve into the metaphorical and underlying meanings of white gold as a larger concept of my national history and personal identity. One that I was shaped by yet only came to know as I grew older and after I lost those who planted my seeds.

  • A slogan for the workers appears on the walls of the gin room in Anater Ginning Factory built in built in 1894, during the reign of the Ottoman ruler Mohamed Ali Pacha.

    “ This factory belongs to you and the cotton is our national wealth and our hope. Protect and cherish them well .”

  • Up until the 1980’s the state was controlling the cotton from seed supply to export. With president Mubarak the collapse continued. The short staple seeds entered the country altering the identity of the long staple Egyptian white cotton and by 1994, the cotton trade was Liberalized, killing the crop.

    On April 6, 2008, the first spark of the 2011 Egyptian revolution shot through the voices of the labor workers of El Mehalla Ghazl company. 32,000 workers went on a strike, demanding their rights protesting and calling for improved working conditions and higher wages.

  • The former general director of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company stands inside one of four power plant stations.
    Four power plant stations located on the premises of the Misr Spinning and weaving Company, they are what powers the machines and provide power to the factories as well. I was told that up until a certain time they used to power for the whole area of El Mehalla.

  • Inside the Misr Ginning factory. One of the main reasons that made cotton foster in Egypt was the excess of the child labor. But now a days many of that decreased as during the 1950’s Nasser has implemented education systems.

  • As new private sector investors plan to bring back the Egyptian cotton, will they be able to retrieve the white gold of the past ?