18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The ends of the earthProfile by Fayza Hassan
The wheel spins once more, and having spun, stands still
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Special Profile Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Rumours -- given credence by recent developments -- that the fakharin (potters) will soon be moved to a remote area are making Mohamed Mandour rather nervous. He was born and grew up in Al-Fawakhir, the area that extends between Old Cairo and the Salah Salem thoroughfare, around Fustat. He still has his own workshop there: a large room, informally built, with a kiln practically on the doorstep. This is where, for almost two decades, he has produced elegant clay vases, bowls and wall plates of distinctive shape and design.
The production of decorative clay objects is a very competitive business. To the lay observer, it may seem to suffer seriously from the affliction of repetitiveness. Items on offer are of traditional inspiration and very similar. Not only do potters repeat themselves ad infinitum; those who achieve a measure of recognition are immediately copied by less successful artists. Not Mandour, however, and one of the reasons may certainly be the meticulous attention he applies to all his work, a potent deterrent for those in a hurry to exchange their wares for cash. He signs relatively few pieces. Over the years, as he gained a measure of fame, his work has become slightly more expensive. He is quite aware of the fact that many of his colleagues are flooding the market with their assembly-line goods, but he is determined to sacrifice quantity to quality. "I do not run a factory," he says smiling. "This is the work of my hands, and it takes a long time to achieve the precise shape, size and colour I have in mind every time I begin working with a lump of clay.
His dream would have been to be a simple potter, producing the useful objects that peopled his childhood: qulal (traditional water containers), balalis (large containers for oil, fuul and other comestibles) or candelabras for the subu' (the celebration marking the seventh day of a child's birth). "These are real Egyptian objects, used for centuries in the same shape and form to fill the same purpose. Making them connects us to our ancestors," he explains wistfully.
Although Mandour recently held an exhibition at an up-market gallery in Garden City, his thoughts remain with the fakharin. He has not forgotten that he started his own career as an apprentice to a potter in the area. When his father died, Mandour was six years old and the eldest child of the family. He had to work to support his brothers and sisters. "I will always be grateful to my mother," he says. "She chose this line of work for me. There were mechanics around and plumbers who made a good living and paid better wages, but although she was an ignorant woman who could neither read nor write, there must have been an artistic streak in her character. Actually, she came from a family of potters. She told me she would be proud if I turned out to be a good one. Clay was much nicer than grease, she said. She took me to an old mu'allim and told him to take me on as his helper. He was a good man." Mandour says that when his teacher saw him showing initiative, he allowed him to make his own pots and plates, then sell them and take the money for himself. "He was not greedy, unlike many today, and even when I was selling more than he did, he never begrudged me my earnings."
It is early afternoon and we are sitting in the gallery, watching the traffic go by behind the glass door. Mandour is sipping his tea. He is dressed comfortably but not ostentatiously; he may be a successful artist, but he does not own a car, a mobile phone or any of the other trappings of upward mobility. Whatever measure of success he has achieved has not gone to his head. He is a simple man, he says, with limited ambitions. There is something guarded in his attitude, however: a hint that he is not prepared to say more than necessary and a kind of vigilance bespeaking past betrayals. I met him first in the early '80s, a very slim young man with clear, eager eyes, who spoke proudly of his craft. His prices were indeed higher than average, "but" -- lifting a bowl to the light -- "try to find a flaw," he had told me almost defiantly. I followed his ascent towards celebrity from afar, and knew that he had done well.
That day, almost 20 years ago, we had tried to reach his atelier from the Old Cairo side, following a steep path. It had been difficult to find him. Everybody we spoke to knew him, however, and we were soon led to a sort of shed, on the threshold of which green vases adorned with Islamic motifs -- already his trademark -- seemed to be displayed, although they may simply have been drying in the morning sun. His reputation was already growing, and we had been surprised by the total lack of comfort in which he laboured. He had not seemed at all conscious of the shabbiness of his surroundings as he proudly showed us the new kiln, all his own, he had managed to build. A good kiln, he had explained, is the only real treasure to which a good potter should aspire. He had given a detailed description of the different fuels that can be used to fire a kiln and their respective merits. He had been much more forthcoming, at the time.
Mandour replaces his glass, drained of tea, and resumes his defence of the fakharin. "The problem is not the potters, believe me," he says emphatically. "They have practiced this trade for thousands of years and never polluted the atmosphere. Why? You may well ask... Simply because their methods are environmentally friendly. But there are only 30 or 40 who still work with clay according to the old methods. The elders of the trade are dying, and no one is replacing them. There is no money to be made here, the young think, and they turn to more lucrative occupations. There are newcomers, however, as well as genuine potters who have shifted to cutting marble because it is easier and brings in a quick income. They don't need the heartache of trial and error and pieces going to waste -- which is the daily preoccupation of potters. At least, that is what they say."
He claims that petty criminals and squatters with large families have also descended on the area, giving it a bad reputation. Little by little, the potters' domain has been invaded. Garbage is produced and burned. "Burning clay does not produce the fumes that the government is so worried about; bad fuel does," says Mandour, warming to his subject. "Why not extend natural gas to the area, for instance, and reserve it to the potters? The truth is that once the fakharin are gone, this will become a piece of prime real estate. Even artists from the city want a studio in the area, because they believe the tourists will be impressed when they say that they work in Fustat. They will have little to sacrifice if they are evicted, but the real potters will lose their livelihood and the craft will disappear for ever. It is one of our oldest crafts, going back to the Pharaohs. Then of course there are all the employees of the Ministry of Culture working in Fustat, who have never even tried to learn seriously about the old techniques. Why can't they study them and replicate them for art students so that they can carry on making things according to the old methods, saving them from oblivion? Why don't they emulate Said Saqr, who was in Fustat every day to study the ways pottery was being made, so that he could teach the craft correctly to his students? Why doesn't anyone bother these days? There is a huge fuss when an old building is pulled down, but what about ancient crafts? Are they not part of our heritage? Do you have any idea what this loss will represent for our civilisation?" A glimmer of shrewdness appears in Mandour's sad and compassionate eyes. "I would not be surprised," he says slowly, "if, after the potters are thrown into the 'mountains,' the zawat [upper class] artists come back and build themselves fashionable studios where the fakharin used to be."
Mandour is convinced that with state-of-the-art technology one could produce better, more sophisticated and solid pottery; but he points out that this is really not the purpose of his craft. It is like comparing a good photograph to a painting. They are two different arts altogether. He uses only traditional methods in his work, which he adorns with designs inspired by the ceramics displayed at the Islamic Museum. He has spent months on end there, faithfully consigning the main themes to paper. Whenever he is not sure of a detail, he simply goes back. Birds, doves and lotus flowers are typical of his work, which is also quite unique in the perfection of its curves. One recognises an object made by Mandour at a glance. His aim is to keep the ceramics in the museum from being forgotten. The fakharin, having passed the secret of the craft from father to son for generations, are disappearing. Now that we can no longer count on the skill surviving, he explains, we must guard against the eradication of the procedures themselves through the inconsiderate use of more modern techniques. He has appointed himself the guardian of this particular tradition, but he admits that it is an unending battle.
At one point, when he was still quite young, "maybe 14 or 15, it was 1967", he was noticed by Mohamed Hussein Hagras, a former professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria, who had opened a studio in Helwan with another ceramist, Safiya Ahmed Hussein, in 1965. Hagras needed a good potter for his new venue, and remembered one who had worked for him before he was appointed to his teaching position. He came to Fustat in search of the man, who by sheer coincidence happened to be Mandour's master. He saw some small statues drying in the sun -- "the ones tourists are so fond of" -- and his trained eye detected more than good craftsmanship. When asked, the old man indicated Mandour. "The students are surpassing their masters these days," he told Hagras. At once Hagras offered to take the boy on. "It must have been my lucky day," says Mandour. It was not easy to leave the old master who had been so generous. "These people often have a sensitivity which completely escapes our great intellectuals," comments Mandour with a hint of irony in his smile. "My teacher was such a sensitive person."
His favourite objects in those days were the subu' candelabras, and he made dozens of them, in all shapes and forms. They became quite popular, and he began to make more money than his teacher on a regular basis; but whenever he tried to share, "the old man gave me a look that told me not to insist," he reminisces.
Mandour realised that he needed a mentor, however. His master was getting on in years, and did not own his own kiln; he had to use one belonging to a more fortunate neighbour, which considerably delayed production. With all the work for his master and the waiting for his turn at the kiln, the young apprentice did not get much of a chance to do what he loved. Unless he moved on now, he felt that he would reach a dead end, with a whole family depending on him for their subsistence.
The period he spent working in Helwan was a happy one in general, and one Mandour considers fruitful because Hagras and Hussein did their best to launch his career, organising exhibitions of his work. They were generous with money and encouragement, and Mandour was free to study and learn, discovering new ways to improve his work. There may have been friction, nevertheless, to which he refers vaguely, but he refuses to elaborate. Eventually, the trio parted company. He is prepared to say only that it is always better to be on one's own. But is it really? I remember Mandour's debut, when he was often at the mercy of unscrupulous gallery owners; he constantly feared he would not be able to retrieve pieces that had not been sold during an exhibition -- usually those with the highest price tags. He smiles, recalling one incident in particular, when he had asked me to intervene. I had not managed to help him, unfortunately, and his vases are probably still gracing the gallery owner's terrace in some fashionable summer resort. "Things have changed now, and I don't have this problem anymore," he says, laughing. "Besides, I have learned how to look after myself." He must have, and he has come a long way. It could not have been easy for a youngster with no formal education to teach himself enough to be able to discuss art, literature and politics with the clarity of expression, knowledge and confidence that he now displays. He claims that he owes much of what he knows to the radical intellectual William Ishaq, another of his mentors, who encouraged him to educate himself. "He used to give me books and we talked about all sorts of subjects," he says.
Mandour looks dreamily at his hands, which are strong and well defined, with powerful square fingers; but his thoughts are elsewhere. "Did you see where they want to move the fakharin to? There is no way they can work there, and even if they could, who do you think will go all that way to buy a qulla? Besides," he adds sadly, "people now prefer the taste of water kept in the refrigerator in a bottle. Soon someone will come up with the idea of manufacturing the subu' candelabra in pink and blue plastic." He mulls over the thought awhile, then, shaking his head, adds: "Don't people use plastic flowers to decorate their homes nowadays?"
photo: Randa Shaath