Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2008
Issue No. 890
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Made in Egypt

Amira El-Noshokaty looks into the long-forgotten world of traditional Egyptian folk art

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Clockwise from top left: wooden ornaments of Hegaza village; Azmi explaining her artwork; vivid textiles of Akhmim; AUEED's annual market photos: Amira El-Noshokaty and Nader Habib

"This is the entrance of Akhmim," points Mariam Azmi at her art work, as she ushers me in to Al-Kawsar district's sizeable garden. "On Sham Al-Neseem -- Easter -- everybody, Muslims and Copts, go there to spend the day and enjoy the greenery."

At the premises of the Upper Egypt Association for Education and Development (AUEED), the walls are covered with vivid textiles -- some with portraits depicting daily rituals that capture the core of pastoral life -- reflecting the ingenuous stitches and motifs of the Upper Egyptian artisans of Akhmim: that little village stitched into the heart of Sohag governorate in Upper Egypt. On the tables are numerous skillfully carved wooden ornaments, with typical Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic motifs, only found in the small village of Hegaza in Qena governorate, where all the tenants are carpenters. It is the annual market for products of AUEED.

"AUEED was first established in 1940, with an aim to wipe illiteracy in Upper Egypt," explained Emil Noeir, chairperson of AUEED, to Al-Ahram Weekly. Their non-profit organisation has to date managed to set up some 140 one-classroom schools. "Nowadays, we run 35 primary and preparatory schools in Minya, Assiut, Sohag, Luxor and Qena, in addition to supporting almost 11,000 pupils with an annual budget of LE8 million," Noeir added. The association has also supported the handicrafts and art works of Akhmim and Hegaza since the 1940s.

Ashraf Hadi, a carpenter who has been working with AUEED for the past eight years, carves useful wooden ornaments, such as trays and tables with lotus, birds and numerous authentic motifs of Egypt's multi-layered culture.

To Azmi, her indigenous artistic art is nothing but an imitation of her real life. Due to financial constraints, Azmi left school in sixth grade and joined the association some 40 years ago. She is now responsible for training the girls on quality control, as well as on how to draw with thread. "Our students are illiterate, schooled or special-needs women. Our training gives them a voice and an income," Azmi said.

Even though the motifs used largely draw upon the Islamic, Coptic and Pharaonic heritage, there is also room for new motifs, such as one with colourful circles that was named after its creator, Um Fawzi . "We have so many more buyers every year. This year, we've invited some 4,000 people to the fair," Azmi boasted.

Architect Afaf Kamel, a first-time visitor to AUEED's annual market, said she was impressed by the originality of the female artists. "The colour coordination is quite fascinating, bless them," she said. Donna Hugason, a US resident of Egypt, was similarly taken by the rich colours. "It's the way they portray daily life in rural areas and their extraordinary use of colours. Don't you think that the colours are fabulous?"

Folk art has always captivated people. According to Nahla Imam, professor at the Institute of Folk Culture, the preservation of this unique art has hinged on individual efforts. "In Upper Egypt, there were lots of non-governmental organisations that were interested in human development to begin with, hence have really helped the people behind the heritage," Imam said. She gave the examples of Garagous village in Luxor, which is famous for pottery and ceramics, and Ramses Wissa Wassef's project in Harania village at Al-Haram, Giza, where he managed to preserve and revive the art of handmade carpets and tapestries by training and marketing the works of local female peasants. Upper Egypt is especially rich in authentic handicrafts, according to Imam. There are complete villages in the region where textile art is the only activity. Imam said that although Upper Egyptian communities are generally at an economic disadvantage, artisans have managed to create an alternative livelihood out of producing special handicrafts that are appreciated and demanded.

"The arts are usually related to the geography of the place," Imam said. "Egypt has distinct cultural areas, such as Nubia, the Nile Valley and the desert, each with its own subculture that is reflected in the art work."

Notwithstanding the success stories, the risk of losing our folk art is still high, according to Imam. Taking Siwa Oasis as an example, Imam noticed that folk art is gradually disappearing from the area. "Being a secluded oasis, its marketing opportunities are limited. Now that television is in every house, and the invasion of abaya [plain black body cover] embroidery work has suffered," she said.

For the longest time, folk heritage has been in desperate need of a helping hand, Imam opined. It is not only reminiscent of the past, but it is also extremely useful and should be integrated in the country's economic planning. When a whole cloth, or toab, of Al-Tali (certain type of cloth that integrates silver threads in its stitching, originally worn by brides and later by folk belly dancers, ghawazi ) handmade in Akhmim, is sold, another one will be made. Not only will money find its way to that house where it has been made, our folk heritage will be reproduced and revived once again.

On another level, due to narrow marketing opportunities, such artwork tends to be quite expensive, depending mostly on foreign buyers. "Where is the role of the government? Why doesn't the Ministry of Industry promote and develop handmade tapestry for example? We see the Iranian carpets and the Tunisian porcelain promoted all over the world through governmental efforts. Such an industry would cost next to nothing, since the raw materials are already found in the surrounding environment," Imam said.

Imam believes that a key problem is an almost complete lack of public awareness of the importance of preserving this heritage. "How can I not wear clothes adorned with our cultural motifs and not eat in pottery made in Egypt? Why is Akhmim's embroidered art not decorating every home? Why are such works not exhibited in five-star hotels, instead of the foreign art they hang that tourists are accustomed to and that does not represent our culture? Why aren't we like the rest of the world?" Imam asked regretfully.

Imam insists our traditional handicrafts should be placed on the cultural map through various means, such as having an annual arts festival, akin to the cinema festival, as a starting point. She said the attitude of the media and the lack of role models are exacerbating the awareness problem.

"Take television for example. Fourty per cent of its programmes are dedicated to religious issues. Not one of these programmes advises us to help our fellow underprivileged Upper Egyptians by buying their handcrafts, which is their only source of income. Isn't that also what our religion calls for? We do not want investors; we just want to support people to continue making their handicrafts. They have the know- how; all they need is a market. It's not difficult at all," Imam concluded.

Fourteen-year-old Nancy Salah, from Mallawy village, is one of the youngest stars at the AUEED choir this year. With her silver eyeglasses and braids, she sings the old folkloric favourites of Sayed Darwish and recites the poetry of Salah Jaheen and Fouad Haddad, two pillars of Egyptian colloquial poetry, in addition to her very own folkloric songs of Minya governorate. Together she stands with her colleagues dressed in their customary bright-coloured vests, hand-embroidered in Akhmim, singing the night away. "My parents were reluctant at first, but eventually they agreed to my travelling and singing in the choir, which is part of my school's activity," she told the Weekly. "The best thing I like about it is the sense of unity that I feel when we sing together."

According to Sister Celeste Al-Khayat, the woman who founded the choir 20 years ago, at least 15 out of 45 children in every school she visited had very nice voices. "I wanted these people to know they are no longer marginalised; that they are part of the community and that they have something to offer," El-Khayat said. According to El-Khayat, preserving and reviving our cultural heritage is an important part of nurturing our Egyptian roots and it strengthens our sense of belonging and patriotism. "At first it was difficult. But they grew to understand. Art joins people from different religions," she said.

Nada Salah, 13, has been in the choir for three years. "These songs are different," she said. "They make sense. They have a meaning; they defend a cause, like calling for buying our national products, for example. That is quite unlike most of today's popular songs that make no sense."

Like 11-year-old Diana Ashraf, all girls and boys members of the choir were first heard at their school choir. While to 15- year-old Riham Fawzi, singing for the economically disadvantaged is identifying with them; it is giving them a voice. While 17-year-old Randa Raouf enjoys rediscovering old songs, 16-year-old Amira Gamal, who joined the choir when she was a second grader, has personally been affected by the choir. "At first I was very shy; now I am not. Besides, these songs reflect our lives, unlike the broadcast songs, which are very remote from reality and do not touch my life."

To Noeir, the choir of AUEED, first established 20 years ago, is also preserving our Egyptian heritage. "Nowadays we are facing fanatic thoughts and backward ideas. When a non-veiled young villager sings, it is a message in itself. When Christians and Muslims train together and sing together, there grows a fraternity between them that sends a message to the community," he said.

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