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“If you want to change something, you need to teach people about it. If we want to change our society for the better, culture and knowledge are the place to start.”
Those are the words of Nada Zein Eldin, owner and co-founder of Takiyyat Musafir- a cultural hub located in Old Cairo- when asked why she thinks starting her business was important. Takiyyat Musafir aims to expand knowledge about Egyptian and Middle Eastern culture and tourism.
How it all started
Nada’s intention for starting the business had been there for four years, and she had been looking for places all that time. Still, she never found a place that spoke to her, not to mention her studies were always taking up much of her time, especially as she has been based in Japan for her PhD studies for the past two years. She knew she needed someone to go through the journey with her, and so she recruited her best friend Shaimaa Nader to be her co-founder. Shaimaa was quick to come on board, given her very similar mindset and passion about Egyptian culture.
While the name might sound old and a little unfamiliar, it originates from Nada’s massive admiration for Sufism. ‘Takiyya‘ is a name given to venues in the old ages where both poor and rich travelers found shelter. The co-founders wanted to incorporate cultural identity into the name, given that the primary purpose behind the center is to improve what the co-founders saw as a weakening knowledge of Egyptian culture. Their logo is also inspired by the Islamic architecture found in the touristic areas surrounding the Takiyya and prominent in its interiors. It takes the engraved shape of a star inside the sun, designed by one of their best friends.
Nada saw the location that today hosts Takiyyat Musafir by pure accident in November 2020 while walking down the street with her friends, and immediately knew that was the place she had been looking for. By January 2021, they had finished all the necessary paperwork and immediately started the restoration process of the place. Given that Takiyyat Musafir used to be an abandoned apartment in old Cairo, there were so many things that went into the process of transforming it into the current business venue. That included installing new water pipes, electricity, building new rooms into the apartment and restoring the entire infrastructure. Nada’s involvement in the restoration was hands-on, using whatever knowledge and practical experience she had to build Takiyyat Musafir. Looking at photos of the place before and after the restoration, it is mind-boggling to believe it only took one month to set it up for the opening. Nada and Shaimaa share that their passion and excitement about launching were the driving force behind their sleepless nights working on restoring and furnishing the place.
The building where this project is located has been standing for around 700 years, incorporating a mix of Islamic and Mamluk architecture. The building is considered a ‘distinguished architectural heritage,’ meaning it cannot be torn down due to its architectural brilliance and uniqueness.
In the renovation and furnishing process, Nada and Shaimaa resorted to a brilliant local carpenter called Mr. Ashraf, whom they praised for his cultural vision and hard work, specializing in khayamiya as well as Islamic and Arabesque work that he displays in his workshop in Bab Al-Wazir neighborhood.
Currently a PhD student in Japan, Nada had graduated with a degree in geography in 2011 from Ain Shams University and worked afterwards in the field of Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS). In 2013, she decided to pursue a master’s degree at Cairo University in the field of restoration. At the same time, she created a Facebook group called ‘Taalo Ne3raf Masr,’ literally translated to ‘Let’s get to know Egypt’, to create tours for small groups around Cairo and Egypt to help people to get to know their culture more.
While working so hard on pursuing her studies, Nada was also used to giving seminars in cultural and artistic venues in Egypt through the Facebook group she created. That’s when the idea behind Takiyyat Musafir started to bloom because she always wished there would be a place where people could gather and learn about culture and tourism.
The idea for the center goes back even further than that. From a young age, Nada was highly fascinated by travel and cultural exploration. She never settled for just looking around; she loved getting to know local people everywhere she went and asking questions to learn firsthand about different cultures. She cites her father as the person who instilled the love of culture in her since her childhood, visiting the Cairo Citadel every single vacation in addition to a trip exploring a different part of Egypt.
Core activities of Takiyyat Musafir
Takiyyat Musafir’s line of business is incredibly diverse, including art and culture seminars, workshops, music concerts and children’s activities. In just five months since opening, it has conducted ten seminars, five workshops and two music concerts. The content provided is also very diverse. Examples include seminars about Arabic typography, Spain and its relation to the Arab world and a series of seminars about the family of Muhammad Ali; the Ottoman governor who is considered the founder of modern Egypt. Takiyyat Musafir has also provided workshops teaching string art, crochet, handmade leather products, embroidery, and oud and other traditional musical instruments. All the activities are set up and led by local experts in their field.
Takiyyat Musafir also acts as a co-working space. It was imperative to both Nada and Shaimaa to provide an authentic, soothing place in the heart of old Cairo for people to enjoy working from a home-like and engaging environment. The place is fully equipped with wi-fi and telephone services, and a self-service kitchenette. The business earns its revenue through fees charged for using the venue as a co-working space at an hourly rate. Moreover, tickets are charged for the different events and workshops, with pricing determined based on the event’s length, complexity, uniqueness, and also the instructor or speaker.
Vistors would also find a special gift shop dedicated to promoting handmade crafts and art made by people from all over Egypt, from St. Catherine to Wahet Al Dakhla and other locations, where locals take pride in their authentic handcrafted products. Furthermore, the center is very keen on promoting local resources. Everything in Takiyyat Musafir is locally sourced, produced and built by local artisans and workers. Takiyyat Musafir also had a setup for Ramadan Iftars by order, where all the food on the menu was from trusted local restaurants in the area. Most of their activities are through connections that drive other connections, social media and television media attention.
Some accessories and books found in the Takiyyat Musafir were presented as gifts from prominent cultural figures, such as researcher and professor of cultural studies Sahar Abdelhakim who has a room dedicated in her honor in Takiyyat Musafir, and writer Reem Bassiouny who hosted her book signing event there.
A sector with new challenges
According to the co-founders, Takiyyat Musafir has undoubtedly been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the impact has been smaller on their project compared to other businesses in the sector. Given that the center opened in February 2021, when Egypt was just about to experience the third COVID-19 wave, the business has done much better than the owners expected. However, the company has currently suspended its seminars out of concern for people’s health and safety.
Nevertheless, despite the hurdles the tourism sector is passing through, Takiyyat Musafir has been exceptionally well-received by locals and foreigners, attracting visitors from places such as the UK, France, Japan, Malaysia, India, among others, and receiving positive reviews. Everyone always seems amazed by the uniqueness of the place and the breadth of knowledge it provides, and foreigners are especially attracted to the incredible array of authentic local products in the gift shop.
What the future holds for Takiyyat Musafir
Nada and Shaimaa are now keen on reinvesting all the money earned back into the business to accelerate its growth. They want people to notice something different each time they visit so that the place keeps improving. Their future vision involves a network of Takiyyat Musafir all over Egypt, stemming out of keenness on developing cultural awareness all over the country.
They aspire to build this network through collaborations with locals interested in improving and educating people about culture, arts and tourism.
Nada and Shaimaa are also working on creating pop-ups catering to specific groups such as women in Saint Catherine, renowned for their handmade crafts and embroidery. They dream of continuing to add to and diversify the business model of Takiyyat Musafir to include all aspects of Egyptian cultural society and arts.