Falling Into Oblivion

Egyptian rice paper making struggles to survive

Enas Khamis posing for a photo with some of her rice paper making products. Photo by Salwa Samir
Enas Khamis posing for a photo with some of her rice paper making products. Photo by Salwa Samir

Falling Into Oblivion

In the late 1980s, after her graduation from the Alexandria University’s Fine Arts Faculty, Enas Khamis thought of environment-friendly ways of making paper rather than cutting trees.

She found her way of using the plant refuse such as rice straw, which contributes to the overwhelming problem of black cloud that first appeared over the Nile Delta and Cairo in 1990s, due to its burning at the end of the harvest season in September and October.

Every year, Egypt produces around 32 million tons of agricultural waste and 17 percent of this is rice straw.

“Some people don't know how to recycle the rice straw so they burn it causing the phenomenon of the black cloud,” Khamis told Majalla. “In the past, we had factories that turned rice straw into products, but unfortunately they were closed over time and thus the phenomenon of black clouds appeared,” she added.

To learn more about the technique of rice paper making, Khamis obtained a grant from the Japan Foundation in the Cairo Office to travel to Japan for studying the process and techniques of producing paper from rice straw.

“In Japan there are villages whose main industry is making paper,” Khamis said. “I learnt how to produce paper using rice straw in a simple workshop.”  

In 2001, Khamis and her family left Alexandria and settled in the Egyptian capital, where the black cloud happened, to spread the word about her paper making experience and to open her workshop of rice paper making. 

In 2005, it was legally registered as a non-governmental organization called “Elnafeza” (The Window) Foundation – a leading social organisation for its innovative solution to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society. 

She rented a workshop space in the Old Cairo area which is rich in related-pottery and crafts workshops. She then tried to reach people in her new area.

“I invited the girls and women in the area to teach them the paper making technique,” Khamis, 59, said.

“I started with 10 members. Then I collaborated with a foundation whose members are deaf and mute and let them join our team. The number of workers reached 35,” she added.

In the beginning, she found difficulty to connect with the deaf and dumb members, but their relatives who could hear and speak helped her to communicate with them.


Khamis used to buy rice straw from a trader in Cairo, nearly every week.

Then together with her team they put it in a big basin full of water for three or four days. “The longer it stays in water it will be better to soften it.”

Then they remove it and put it inside boiling water for three hours to ripen. Later, they clean it from impurities and put it in a grinder or mill for an hour.

The next step is cleaning it again from any impurities, then they put it in basins of water in which there are frames of different sizes -  A4 and A5. 

“We remove it after it has taken the shape inside the frame and put it on a flat surface such as a wall or wooden table and leave it until it dries,” she said, adding that they use it to mould into many shapes, add color and print on it using silkscreen.

Khamis said she produces 150 products out of rice straw paper like frames, small gift boxes, lanterns, bookmarks and lighting fixtures. 

She participated in many exhibitions such as Turathna (Our Heritage), which is the largest exhibition for Egyptian handicrafts and local handmade art. This exposition is organized by the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency (MSMEDA), where hundreds of craftsmen, artisans, and exhibitors display their products to the public under the sponsorship of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. 

She also participated in conferences held by the Ministry of Environment. She was awarded many times by the successive ministers of environment.


 Before COVID-19 that hit the world in 2020, Khamis’ products sold briskly. There were tourists coming specially for her. She even exported her products abroad, especially to Germany.

The matter turned 180 degrees after COVID. She wasn't able to export or even to sell products to locals in this area, which is considered one of the tourist sites.

“These circumstances made me unable to pay for the workers whose number declined to three,” Khamis said bitterly. 

Recently, she has had issues with the administration of the place as she wasn't able to pay the rent of her workshop, which adds more burden to her. 

“I'm in consultation to find a solution. I hope it will be soon,” she said.

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