When he was 12, Mohamed Abdel Zaher went to work with his father and grandfather in the book-binding workshop behind the Al Azhar mosque. He was intrigued by the chorus of hammers, scissors and stack cutters at work. That was 1952, when all books were sold wrapped in paper covers, binding workshops were commonplace and clients included everyone from students to scholars.
The workshop was established by Ali Higab in 1936. Higab mentored Abdel Zaher’s family, who then bought the workshop after his death in 1966.
However, the modernisation of book publishing threatened the trade’s very existence. Workshops were either mechanised or shut down, but Abdel Zaher was determined to preserve his craft.
Suffering heavy losses, Abdel Zaher recognised that his market was changing. Binding was no longer an essential but luxury service. The precision and quality of his work became renowned among Cairo’s elite. Volumes of journals, books and photo albums were brought in for leather binding and gold tooling.
“Every step is done by hand, every book is unique,” says Abdel Zaher as he looks through a pile of old books waiting to be tooled. “I remind my team that they are not workers, they are artists.”
The books are deconstructed and re-sewn on recessed cord. They are then trimmed, gilded, clamped and hammered. Finally, the underlay and leather are cut and glued around the cover. The finishing is restricted to family members to ensure quality. Five of Abdel Zaher’s nine children work with him.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Abdel Zaher worked on developing his designs. “Since restrictions on import had been lifted, we started looking for the best materials around the world,” he says. He introduced quarter-bound books, using a combination of leather and imported marbled paper, cloth and fish skin.
His sons have also combined traditional craft with modern-day needs, designing notebooks, photo albums, sketchbooks, folders and CD boxes. The company has also shown at international trade fairs and exports its products to France, the UK and the United States.
“Appreciation of the art is what keeps us going,” says Abdel Zaher, who set up a workshop on the roof of his home and mastered paper marbling after his “retirement”. His first batch now covers rows of notebooks on display.
Wekalet Qaytbay, behind Al Azhar mosque; +2 02 511 8041