Al-Ahram Ueekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

A special radiance from the heart

Margo Veillon: Egyptian Harvests, Art book edited and with an introduction by Charlotte Hug, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2000. In the 1960s Margot Badran visited the artist's studio in Mahallat Malak

Margo Veillon's paintings, along with her sketches and photographs, of fellaheen and the Egyptian countryside, reproduced in the stunning new book Egyptian Harvests and displayed in a recent exhibition at the Cairo-Berlin Gallery, thrust me back into the Egypt of the middle decades of the last century. Looking at them, I found myself back in the little Renault Dauphine, my husband at the wheel, rumbling over a country road leading to Dessouq in the Western Delta and turning into a bumpy dirt path heading for Mahallat Malak and a visit to the Fahmy sisters. Negotiating clods of hard clay and wayward rocks and throwing up a whirl of fine dust, we suddenly lurched to a stop in front of a solid-looking house with high-arched loggia. Andrée Fahmy, shaded by a wide straw hat, greeted us warmly, a gesture repeated inside by her sister Alice who ran the ezba year round.

After being served a good country lunch and being shown to our shutter-darkened room, we were called down for late afternoon tea on the north porch. Suddenly, into a pleasant but rather sedate scene, plunged a lively person introduced as the artist Margo Veillon, and, with her, was the writer Penelope Bennett. While Penelope asked for gamoosa milk instead of tea, Margo jumped off the wicker chair onto which she had just alighted, grabbed a long stick lying about, and whacked off dry carob pods hanging from the trees making them fall in a shower on the ground. Movement is what I first remembered about Margo. She animated the house and the landscape and everyone around her.

Margo was a little intimidating to the young newcomer I was then, but she was also welcoming. One morning she invited me to see her studio. It was bursting with paintings in various stages of completion, tables full of paints and brushes, a red wooden chair, and windows letting in tall slabs of light and splashes of green from the soaring trees in their thick spring finery. Although I would like to have stayed longer, I did not linger in this second-floor sanctum as the artist seemed eager to get back to her work. I saw early on that both passion and discipline fought for control of Margo.

One day, as I approached the house from a late afternoon walk around the fields with the sun dropping onto the horizon and scattering final splashes of light on the gathering darkness of the Nile, I whiffed the intoxicating scent of freshly cut durra roasting in their leaves. After a feast of blackened corn, we all sank into the wicker chairs on the night-darkened veranda. Suddenly, we were assailed by fierce mosquitoes and armies of gnats. Egged on by their stinging bites and stirred by the music from the gramophone playing in the nearby room, we jumped out of our chairs one by one and started to dance. We whirled faster and faster, trying to fend off our attackers. We were to repeat "the dance of the mosquitoes" on subsequent evenings.

I never saw Mahallat Malak again after that early May visit. But, what was to be a long friendship with Margo was cemented there. Sadly, the next month, when the devastating June 1967 War came, Margo was abruptly cast out from her Delta paradise. Those were deeply wrenching days for everyone in Egypt. The countryside was placed out-of-bounds to all non-Egyptians with a kind of cordon militaire, and we were confined to the major cities until the early 1980s. Margo had been intensely happy at Mahallat Malak. In many ways it seems to have been her happiest moment. I don't think she ever quite got over the sudden rupture. Perhaps some of her pain was transformed into the special radiance of what for me is the "heart of the heart" of Margo's paintings of the Egyptian countryside.

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