Goha and the tentmakers
By Fayza Hassan
Given Goha's almost universal popularity, it is not surprising that he has attracted the interest of Denys Johnson-Davies, the eminent translator of Arabic into English. Johnson-Davies sent a collection of his translated Goha stories to the editors of Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers, where Patricia Lee Gauch had the idea of illustrating the 15 tales she selected with motifs taken from the work of the Cairo tentmakers, or khayamiyya.
On a visit to Egypt she had had the chance to admire their work in general and their rendition of Goha in particular. Her daughter, Sarah Gauch, who lives in Egypt, was put to task visiting the tentmakers to select samples of their work, and these she forwarded to her mother in New York. Finally, the hand- made work of Hany el-Saeed Ahmed, done according to drawings made by his uncle Hag Hamdy Mohamed Fattouh, was unanimously selected by the editor and her collaborators. "Later," says Sarah Gauch, "I found out that they were known for their Goha motifs and were considered the best in the field. That reassured me further."
In the tentmaker's market the shop of Fattouh and sons is well- known, and so is their participation in the making of the Goha book. It is not difficult to find them:
Hag Hamdy Mohamed Fattouh sits at his desk and explains that like other tentmakers he had been making pillows and wall hangings featuring Goha for a long time. They appeal to tourists. It is quite understandable: his Goha (every tentmaker seems to be working on his own model) is adorable, with a pair of cat's whiskers underlining a down-turned mouth, large ears and rolling beady eyes, chubby like a small child, and dressed like one.
Fattouh says that he looked for pictures of Goha in old books until he found one that he liked and started experimenting with him. Hany el-Sayed Ahmed, Fattouh's nephew, does the stitching after tracing his uncle's drawings onto the piece of fabric. Apart from his refined stitching, Hany is able to change Goha's expression through the alteration of a couple of stitches, or by moving the character's head slightly to the right or the left. Goha can thus look cunning, wise, mischievous or fearful in turn.
Yet, uncle and nephew are far from impressed by their international success. When asked about five pillows that reproduce the different episodes of the "Goha and the Donkey" story in which Goha, listening to his detractors in the crowd, ends up carrying the donkey, they take time locating them while encouraging us to look at other things. Fattouh hints that they sell much more of their "serious" artwork than they do of the Goha designs, which he says are not as popular with Egyptians or Arabs.
It is obvious that their new reputation as the illustrators of children's books is not going to their heads. Furthermore, Fattouh is quick to detract attention from himself and instead focus it on Sarah Gauch's and her mother's efforts. "They did all the work," he says modestly, whereas Sarah herself insists that the artists were given a great deal of leeway to express themselves, and that the Goha of the 15 tales is entirely their creation. For his part, Hany looks embarrassed when his stitching is praised, assuring us that it is all in a day's work.
In the end, the enthusiasm with which the work has been addressed by all the actors in this production has resulted in a delightful book that deserves all the praise that has been lavished upon it.