18 - 24 February 1999
Issue No. 417
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Special Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Almost paradiseFayza Hassan and photographer Randa Shaath go back to nature
In the 1950s, a cosmopolitan elite delighted in the discovery of Agami's unpopulated shores and their miraculously secluded white beaches. With a few stones, they built themselves castles in the fine sand which provided them with a maximum of privacy and a minimum of worldly comforts. It was back to basics, they said, feasting on wild figs and bravely fighting the mosquitoes which kept them awake throughout the silent nights. In time, the desert island dream paled and they built up Agami to the image of the city they had left behind.
Pottery seems to grow naturally in Tunis, where food and beverages are presented in vessels fresh from the kiln
Approaching the small village of Tunis in Fayoum, one is vividly reminded of the days when Agami was the preserve of a privileged few. The bumpy ride leading to the retreat is not very different; here too, herds of goats spring suddenly out of nowhere, gaily trotting across the road only inches away from the speeding cars. The colours are different, however; variegated hues of green, yellow and brown have replaced the blinding whiteness of the erstwhile private summer resort, but Lake Qarun, stretching across 50 kilometres, prolongs the illusion.
More indigenous than the real thing...
Tunis, which accommodates a community of artists, is home to potter Ahmed Abu Zeid, who settled in a rambling peasant house several years ago. He boasts no cupola à la Hassan Fathi, although a number of neighbouring residences sport several, which clearly bespeak the architectural allegiances of their occupiers. Remarkably, not a single satellite dish sprouts from the domed or flat roofs, although the new tourist resort just down the road proudly displays at least half a dozen. Abu Zeid's house is simply a considerably improved but otherwise fairly typical rural dwelling, featuring stone and cement walls, some left bare, others covered with the traditional pressed straw.
The gate of the small front garden is open, and so is the kitchen door. Here, Ikram, Abu Zeid's wife, is labouring at the stove, preparing a huge meal. The word is out that Abu Zeid is showing his most recent work, and she is expecting a crowd. Friends drift in, bringing more friends in tow. Some are long-time residents of Tunis and have walked over from neighbouring houses, while others have driven in from Cairo. The two high-ceilinged living rooms are buzzing with conversations in German, Italian, French, English, Dutch and Arabic. There are painters, writers, potters, poets and photographers. Some are helping in the kitchen, carrying out trays laden with soft drinks, or making coffee, while others carefully examine the exhibits, pouncing on a chosen cup, a particularly fine bowl or mug which they hasten to mark with a red dot then put away safely. The master of the house walks in and out, seeing to his guests' comfort and refusing to get involved in the accounts. Nancy is taking care of finances, he insists.
Ahmed Abu Zeid at work at Eveline and Michel's house.
Abu Zeid began his apprenticeship with the renowned artist potter Mohieddin Hussein. He took his first steps in the craft with electric kilns, which gave him little satisfaction: "It was more like semi-industrial production," he says. He felt little desire to follow that particular path. He went to Benha, where he experimented with wood-fired kilns. The results were equally unsatisfactory. Eveline and Michel, gurus of pottery and the alternative, back-to-the countryside lifestyle, heard of his attempts and came to visit him in Benha. They were looking for talented young potters to train. They invited him to Tunis where, they told him, he would become acquainted with an entirely different approach. Abu Zeid left Benha for Fayoum and began working with the famous couple. "I was convinced then that I was on the right track," he says. He decided to stay on, and looked for a place of his own. He found one, a stone's throw from his mentors' home.
The house took a great deal of hard work to restore and equip, but now it is completed, its numerous, large rooms furnished with comfortable antique sofas and low tables, a vast kitchen showcasing elegantly glassed-in cupboards, an austere bathroom where the stone walls contrast with the clear light filtering through the low windows, and a huge veranda where his guests are now sitting, sipping their coffee from home-made, intricately decorated clay cups. This home, to Abu Zeid, is a haven that he has trouble forsaking even for a few days. He has built his kiln in a shed close by.
"Here, we use liquid kerosene as fuel for our kilns, you know, the same kerosene they used to use to light the primus stove. It gives off much more heat, allowing us to achieve an unparalleled brilliance of colour, without the addition of lead." Not using lead is particularly important, he explains, since all the items he makes are utilitarian: cups, plates, jugs and serving dishes. Once or twice a year, he places a large order for materials which are delivered to his doorstep. Thus equipped, he can look forward to several months of peaceful work. His son is six. He goes to the school village right up the road. "I thought about it for a long time and was prepared to move back to Cairo to ensure proper schooling for my son," Abu Zeid explains, "but we tried the school here and he has adjusted quite well. He is learning my craft first-hand, a chance he would not have if we lived in the city, and he has the surrounding fields to play in Ð more freedom than any city child would ever have."
Old doors add a subtle, artistic touch.
A perfect, bucolic picture? Ikram has a few complaints: the electricity supply is not strong enough to sustain several electrical appliances, and little grows in the garden. Only wild plants flourish luxuriantly. A woman chips in with a complaint about sand fleas. "Wait until the mosquitoes start making the rounds tonight," retorts another. "They come with the territory," says Abu Zeid lightly. He made up his mind long ago not to let these insignificant intruders spoil his life style.
It is almost dusk. We head for the city. Several groups of little boys are standing on the edge of the road, watching over a mess of wild ducks. At the sight of an approaching car, they quickly grab one of the unfortunate birds by the wings and dash forward, pretending to throw their squawking prey through the windscreen of each passing vehicle. A small truck, overloaded with precariously piled baskets filled to the brim with ripe tomatoes, meanders dangerously down the street, holding up the traffic long enough for motorists to get a good view of the green car lying upside down in the canal. "Our parents worked hard to leave this misery behind," says someone bitterly. "They came to the city and hung on for dear life to give their children a better chance. Now the children have been led to believe that going back to the old ways is a sign of intellectual superiority." The bright city lights beckon in the distance. "Look, the sky is clear tonight," comments a voice gaily. "It is good to be back."