Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 March 2008
Issue No. 887
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Language of open doors

Nevine El-Aref looks at how crafts can open doors to intercultural cooperation, respect and learning between North and South

photos: Mohamed wassim
photos: Mohamed wassim

A new temporary addition to Al-Azhar Park is four decorative wooden doors, which in their original context recalled a distinguished era when Arab Muslims overwhelmed not only North Africa but also the opposite shore of the Mediterranean. The doors display the art and skill of craftsmanship in four Mediterranean countries that for a time shared a common history: Egypt, Morocco, Spain and Portugal.

Although Portugal has no direct access to the Mediterranean, it shares several of its aspects with neighbouring Spain. The distinct climate, fauna and flora of the Mediterranean, and the common history of more than 500 years of Arab Islamic presence which are reflected in the cultural heritage, customs, language, architecture, arts and crafts. Portugal also had historic and economic relations with the countries of North Africa. Fishermen worked and lived on both shores, while traders used the natural Straits of Gibraltar as a shorter sea crossing to the other side.

Stepping in the "Open Doors for Crafts and Dialogue" exhibition is like walking through a number of carpentry workshops in Egypt, Morocco, Spain and Portugal, all with their craftsmanship on display. Each pavilion, filled with the music of the oud and qanoun, displays its door against a huge wooden panel decorated with photographs and posters showing the preparation of the exhibition and how the doors were fabricated. The photographs are illustrative in a way that the one hears the sounds of sawing and chopping and the talking of the craftsmen.

The Egyptian door is honey-coloured, decorated with intricately constructed polygons and strapwork similar to those found in Mameluke mosques and exhibits a wide variety of geometrical patterns. Beside it is the Moroccan door, with a number of iron tracks and the carved work of lateral friezes. The Spanish door is a replica of a 17th century entrance to the house of the Spanish poet Lope De Vega, who lived in Madrid during the Islamic period. This is an example of the classical Spanish-style door known as Castellana, in which its upper middle part bears a small glass window with two small iron cross bars. One of the Spanish craftsmen, Rafael Melgovijo, a teacher from the Cordoba craft school, said these doors could be seen in throughout Grenada and Cordoba.

The Portuguese exhibit is a synthesis of a southern Portuguese door which, according to the Portuguese participant Bruno Des Reis, who works with his father in their family business in Malveira, was the result of knowledge, imagination, discussion and other carefully- selected criteria. His team has decorated its door with patterns in three designs, with two colours of wood and a rope-shaped doorknocker.

Reis said his creation was partly an attempt to be different from the Spanish exhibit. "But I have not seen anyone put as much work into their craft as the Egyptians," Reis remarked, looking at photographs of an intricate, trellised front door. "They hand-carve hundreds of tiny pieces, assemble them into a door shape, take them apart again, glue them, and put them back together. It is amazing," he said.

Preparation for the Al-Azhar Park exhibition began in March 2007 with an initiative by the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) in Cairo to create the setting for an intercultural dialogue that went beyond the common framework in combining exchange with joint work. It also gives craftsmen from the four participating countries the chance to work together on a joint experiment, experience shared and mutual learning and cross-border communication, and acknowledge the range of different cultural expressions in their own countries to enable a dialogue on difference and diversity. The exhibition is scheduled to tour Morocco, Spain and Portugal, stopping in each country for a month or two.

The final workshop to turn the doors into reality was put together last November at the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre at Haranniya, where 12 craftsmen, three from each participant country, gathered to place the final touches on their doors, the basis of which they had brought from their own countries.

"The project focuses on young people considered as the future agents of intercultural dialogue," Marion Fischer of GTZ told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Fischer said the Open Doors for Crafts and Dialogue project would reflect and further an understanding of what craftsmen on both shores know at certain points in history, what abilities and skills they have received from and transmitted to their colleagues on the other shore, and what both have come to assimilate in their future working practice.

"If people come to recognise the historical reality of this exchange, it can help them to resume threads of dialogue and initiate future cooperation," she said.

Fischer went on to say that the project was intended to serve a number of purposes. "Open Doors" stands for the symbolic representation of dialogue and inviting people to pass through and step into another space.

"In spring we open doors and windows in order to let in a fresh breeze. Different institutions use the concept of an 'Open [Doors] Day' to make themselves known to the interested public. Open doors allow neighbours to chat. The doors in this project mean they are open trans- nationally and multi-culturally," she said.

Press and public relations representative Brigitte Boulad said the project acknowledged diversity in the home country, and a big step towards recognising the diversity of different cultural expressions was the realisation that one's own cultural space was far from homogeneous or closed. By investigating the different cultural influences in the country one lived in, the dialogue on shared heritage would be enriched.

"This represents an important step towards active tolerance, which does not merely accept diversity but recognises and defends its positive value," Boulad said.

Achieving intercultural competence through joint work and learning from one another is another aim of the project. "The general thought continues to be attached to 'we' and 'they' schemes, reinforced by forms of dialogue that rely on 'representatives' of national, ethnical or religious groups," she added. "By contrast, a shared working experience offers the possibility to get to know each participant as an individual being rather than an abstract and stigmatised collective body. The development of mutual respect is a way of reducing prejudice."

Sherine Meshriki, coordinator of the project in Cairo, said the Open Doors for Crafts and Dialogue project could close the gaps of knowledge between the four countries, with present and future generations being provided with the appropriate instruments of dialogue. In stimulating the search for historical, theoretical and skill-oriented subjects and in providing the experience of shared and mutual learning and cross-border communication, this project would contribute to these values. It would also show the visible result of intercultural dialogue by opening up a new perspectives and demonstrating its practical value and result in a visible outcome for both the participants and the public.

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