Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2003
Issue No. 651
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Taming granite

Youssef Rakha discovers the blue collar workers of sculpture

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The open air musuem (top and bottom); assistants at work outside Basma hotel in Aswan (middle)

On visiting Aswan during the symposium, artist Gamil Shafik found himself deeply drawn to the sculptor assistants and their work.

Of all the factors contributing to the success of the Aswan Sculpture Symposium over the years, the skill and perseverance of the nahhatin (sculptor assistants) are arguably the most impressive. Broadly acclaimed as some of the best in the world -- the testimonies of sculptors who had participated, to the effect that the availability of assistants of such skill is one of the event's most attractive features, was the subject of much celebration at the closing ceremony of this year's round a few months ago -- they are the least self-aware figures in the annual gathering. Yet as it turns out their love affair with granite is not limited to the duration of the symposium. Theirs is a vocation like any other, and its activities extend from the beginning of each year to its end. Indeed Aswan's unassuming nahhatin -- in reality most of them are from Luxor -- are probably among the world's busiest blue-collar workers.

To hear the elderly headman Amm Ali El-Duwiqi speak is to gain instant and fascinating insights into the workings of such minds -- as unique as those of the symposium's participants, educated city folk who forgo the multifold comforts and interests of the urban environment to spend time in the desert battling with stone. And that is not to mention the information Amm Ali provides: the ups and downs of his own (characteristic) career, the nature of the tools employed and how they've changed, the different kinds of stone, the variety of jobs required, the dynamics of his interaction with those who work under him, the relationship to both ancient Egyptian sculpture and modern stonemasonry. The world thus evoked remains profoundly grass-roots Upper Egyptian but, thanks to the innumerable benefits of stone, interlocks with the official, the artistic-intellectual, the international.

During the building of the High Dam, for example, Amm Ali participated in the dismantling and transportation of the Abu Simbel Temple. More recently he oversaw the installment of stone sections of the Nubia Museum, a beautiful building. Hurghada, Cairo, Alexandria: Amm Ali has made a mark on all of them; his job has taken him to quarries all over the place, and he knows the ins and outs of every native stone. One kind of granite, for example, to be found on the Red Sea coast, is as red as Aswan's trademark red granite, indistinguishable on the surface, but when you approach it -- Amm Ali sounds as if he is speaking of a loved one -- it tends to be more tender. The incorporation of electric drills and wynching trucks in recent years, particularly following the founding of the symposium, rendered much of the work physically less demanding. But it doesn't explain the mystery of how the ancient Egyptians achieved such precision using only the most basic and simplest tools -- the same tools, in fact, as those Amm Ali used at the start of his career.

Elsewhere it becomes apparent that, like carpentry or plumming, the work of the nahhatin is hereditary -- handed down from one generation to the next. What amounts to an informal syndicate is presided over by the headman, who becomes, in more than one sense, his subordinates' surrogate father. Even those of them who take on the job independently of their family's professional history find in the likes of Amm Ali the kind of day-to-day support that enables them to learn and grow. There is technical critique, private counselling and disciplinarian intervention. Yet even as they work on art objects the nahhatin remain utterly detached -- as dedicated as they are anonymous. Among them the general belief is that they could single-handedly accomplish what modern granite sculptors do and more. The reason they don't is that they are not concerned with self expression. In some sense they even see this work as too easy, too obvious, valuing ancient work beyond all else.

The sculptors may disagree, but even the most self-conscious among them concede the fact that, without the aid of the nahhatin, the same projects would prove impossible; at least they would require much, much more time. Younger Egyptians who have just embarked on the otherwise frightening prospect of stone sculpture stress the physical prowess of their assistants, without which they would not dare approach that formidable medium. Older foreigners -- some of the most accomplished stone sculptors in the world -- speak of the assistants' understanding, their remarkable degree of experience and the rapport that exists with them. Everyone agrees that the nahhatin are cooperative, hard-working, intelligent and precise. They know what to do, and when; and when you explain something to them, even in the presence of the language barrier, they realise what you mean.

Plans to undertake stone sculpture activities throughout the year in addition to the symposium are exciting in that they promise many more people an opportunity to encounter not only the timeless serenity of Aswan but the indescribable process of a nahhat working on a piece of stone -- an activity more akin to the dispassionate devotion of a prayer than to involved and inevitably ostentatious sight of an artist at work. As they sing to ease the burden of the work while they go about their business they might resemble construction workers or any such ordinary workers, but look more closely and you will see sensitive and discerning artists exerting not only their bodies but their remarkably creative problem-solving minds; and smiling with modest incomprehension as you commend their work.

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