Page last updated at 12:55 GMT, Tuesday, 14 April 2009 13:55 UK

Egypt town boasts 'zero unemployment'

Asal Furniture
Reproductions of French furniture are snapped up by European shops

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Damietta

It sounds too good to be true in these depressing economic times - a town with zero unemployment in the Arab world's most populous country.

Welcome to Damietta, a thriving Egyptian port, where handcrafted furniture is turning heads not just in the capital, Cairo, but also far beyond the country's borders.

Here they produce furniture of the highest standards, which is exported to Europe and the Gulf.

One of the biggest factories is Asal Furniture, where they have doubled exports in five years and where they now employ almost 1,000 workers.

I used to come from school to work in my father's shop. In this town we are taught not to waste our time
Hani al-Hayat

Their success is remarkable and they cannot help boasting it is all down to this town's work ethic - something the company's sales director Hani Elkhayyat believes his compatriots would do well to emulate.

"We have worked all our lives, since we were children," said Mr Elkhayyat.

"I used to come home from school to work in my father's shop. In this town we are taught not to waste our time."

"Even the president, Hosni Mubarak, when he visited, said he wished he had 100 Damiettas."

Hani is a university graduate. Like many others, he finished his studies and returned to the family business to what he knows best.

"I have been making furniture since I was 12 years old," he said.

"I learnt it from my father - he learnt it from his father. It is a skill passed through the generations."

Secret of success

Egypt has a fast-growing population. Youth unemployment and the menial nature of jobs and the low salaries that await graduates are the government's nagging problems.

Such problems lead to instability, but there are no such worries in Damietta.

Here many of the young aspire to better the skills of their grandfathers.


Inside one of Damietta's many furniture workshops

Abdu al-Gindi runs one of 50 small, family-owned workshops that carry out the specialist jobs for Asal Furniture. At the moment he is teaching his grandson the secrets of his success.

"No-one is unemployed," he says. "Take a look around this neighbourhood you won't find anyone without any work. Lazy people are shunned in this town. There are just too many jobs to do - we haven't time to sit around."

In fact every house in his neighbourhood seems to have a carpenter's shop beneath it.

There are 60,000 such shops in Damietta, all of them making furniture for export; shops that specialise in every stage of the process, from carving, to painting, to upholstering.

The people of Damietta have made a family trade into a successful global enterprise. It is the sort of entrepreneurial spirit the government would dearly love to encourage across the country.

Outside facing

Damietta does have natural advantage - it is in the Nile Delta, close to the mouth of the Suez Canal. The government has helped by abolishing all tariffs.

But Salah Misbah, an economist and an opposition politician, says it is not that Damietta is exceptional - it is that the rest of the country lags far behind.

Abdu al-Gindi and his grandson
Skills are passed on through the generations

"You have to believe in work," he said. "These people think 24 hours about what they are going to produce. They don't depend on anyone else here. And yet I don't think Damietta is anything but a normal town - for me it's the rest of the country that is less than normal."

Those who grew up in Damietta, like former Egyptian ambassador to Washington Dr Abdel Raouf al-Ridi, agree.

"The people of Damietta are merchants," said Dr Ridi.

"This is Egypt's oldest port. They have always faced the outside world. They depend on themselves.

"Many of the other Egyptians are from farming communities - they wait for the fruit to fall from the trees. Not here.

"There is a saying here - the hand that is not working is not a pure hand."

That work ethic is engrained in people from Damietta at a young age - it seems almost spiritual.

And perhaps in such difficult times their success serves as a reminder to all that, with skill and hard work, anything is possible.

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