Wednesday,20 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Wednesday,20 June, 2018
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Forgotten beauty

Rashid Ghamry tells Rania Khallaf about his new book

Forgotten beauty
Forgotten beauty
Al-Ahram Weekly

For some 20 years, journalist Rashid Ghamry – currently the deputy editor-in-chief of Akher Saa magazine – travelled across Egypt, sometimes on assignment, sometimes for pleasure. Of Egypt’s New Valley oases – Kharga, Dakhla and Farafra – he collected hundreds of pictures, which he gathered together in Oases Magic, a 240-page General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) picture book. Though not a photographer by trade, Ghamry – a literary author as well as a journalist – displays all the skill and acumen of one. The book features art photos highlighting the contrast of light and shadow or desert and greenery as well as photos of geographic landmarks like the ancient Christian Al-Bagawat Cemetery and the 800-year-old Islamic Al-Qasr Village. In his introduction he gives an account of the nature, history, architecture and arts and crafts traditions of each oasis, going on to divide the book into five sections. 

“In the beginning,” Ghamry says, “I was planning to write about these oases bearing in mind their historical and tourist value. But, time after time, I realised the topic was really bigger than my plans. The cultural side of these oases, including traditional crafts and naïve art, is equally important.” He emphasises unique tools and objects like the segga, a utensil for preserving milk, and alaqet es-sa’adah (or “the happiness holder”) in which eggs and cookies are placed as gifts for the bride and groom on the first morning after a wedding. He also points out that there is a range of embroidery traditions. But why a picture book? “I did not want the pictures to take up a marginal space,” he says, “mainly because it took me a hell of an effort to take good pictures, far more time than that in which I collected information about the place.”

For one picture, he had to climb over the crumbling minaret of the Nasreddin Mosque in Al-Qasr to photograph the windows. “Egypt is culturally rich, there are dozens of unique places that should be used by tourism planners for safari and cultural tourism, but no one cares,” he said in a depressed tone. In other Arab countries, such as Tunisia and Morocco, tourism planners cast light on similar sites and their traditional crafts by publishing guides and picture books on a large scale. But does a picture book require a specific kind of author? “It is a genre of creative writing,” Ghamry says, “which presupposes a huge interest in archaeology and indigenous culture.” Such interest is evident in the architectural details and portraits, but it hasn’t prevented Ghamry from pursuing his literary endeavours. Having released the second edition of Al-Gabanat (The Cemeteries, first published in 2010), his first novel, he is now completing a second one, “Days of God”. 

In the last chapter of Oases Magic, one of the most interesting parts of the book, Ghamry deals with arts and crafts. Official and NGO efforts are being made to revive and preserve these traditions but they are insufficient, Ghamry says. Another problem, he indicates, is that many of the products of these crafts, once a vital part of oasis life, are now obsolete. “So the designs need to be brought up to date, or turned into decorative motifs for modern, marketable products. But not technical assistance is being provided.” The government’s development programme in Farafra is great, he explains, but the fact that it completely overlooks art and culture is saddening. “Culture is money,” he insists, since the story behind the product, the sense of authenticity and uniqueness is a crucial part of saleability; hence the importance of picture books showing “a woman from Farafra patiently weaving the handwoven dress” offered for sale, for example. Farafra’s spontaneous sculptor Abdel-Moghny, who established a museum of local traditions on his own initiative, is ignored by the media even though he could be one of the pillars of the development plan.

“Needless to say,” Ghamry remarks, “Egypt has been a source of culture since the dawn of history.” He plans to publish a second volume on the Baharia and Siwa oases, also with GEBO. Pictures are a weapon in the war between two camps, as Ghamry puts it: the conservatives who want to erase our national memory, and progressive people who want to keep our cultural identity alive. This book is one of these tools. Similar books should follow to build a shield to protect culture in future. “This is Egypt’s strength. If we ignored cultural diversity, we would keep lagging behind.”

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