Friday,25 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Friday,25 May, 2018
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Make yourself at home

Mai Samih tries a feel-at-home experience for students in a Cairo workspace 

Make yourself at home

The idea of renting an area for students to work is not new. However, one work place has used a different approach to teach young people proper standards of behaviour while giving them a homely experience. 

Zourkhana in the Zamalek district of Cairo was originally a gallery, but has now been transformed into a young people’s workspace by its owner, professor of fine arts and Founder of the Zourkhana Foundation Ehab Al-Toukhi. Al-Toukhi has furnished the place so that it resembles an Egyptian home of the 1950s. 

At the entrance is a counter that resembles one from a Cairo hotel of the 1950s with a sign saying Pension Al-Saada, or Happiness Hotel. On the walls are the keys for each section of Zourkhana. To the right of the counter there is the Kahwet Al-Mawardi, the Al-Mawardi Coffee Shop, and in the middle there is the Abdel-Hamid Al-Tarzi (tailor’s) shop with an antique sewing machine surrounded by chairs. 

On the right there is Al-Mezayen (a barber’s shop) with a huge mirror on the wall and a marble table with a hair dryer and comb. There is a balcony with oriental sofas arranged around a metal table with cups and a small copper coffee heater and pot called Kaadet Khalty, or My Auntie’s Place. 


Make yourself at home

To the right of the balcony there is a traditional Cairo living room with a sign saying Al-Saloon (living room). Next to it is the Sofra (dining room) containing a small antique table with chairs bearing ornamented cushions. To the right of the dining room there is Al-Fasl 3/3 (class 3/3) with brown wooden desks resembling those in 1950s classrooms. To the left there is the kitchen. Behind the counter is the Kaadet Al-Antakha (relaxation area) with chairs for people with laptops to sit and work. 

Everywhere there are proverbs hanging on the walls looking like blue street signs. In the tailor’s shop one proverb says eish yemel al-tarqea fi al-thoub al-dayeb (patching it up will not make a worn-out dress look like new). In the dining room, another proverb says takul andina… bism Allah / basalet al-moheb kharouf (come eat at our house… in the name of Allah…an onion from your beloved is like a lamb). In the classroom another proverb says al-ilm fi al-ras… mish fi al-koras (knowledge is in the head, not the exercise book).


Make yourself at home

Al-Toukhi gave details about how the project started. “Zourkhana is one of the projects organised by our NGO licensed by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The majority of board members are professors or students, and the aim is to help individuals through art,” he said. Different projects target different age groups and have different aims. 

“Zourkhana began in 2011.We chose the name, which in Persian means a military training centre, to indicate that we are a centre preparing leaders in culture and the arts. We try to capitalise on the energy of youth in the form of art,” he said. After the 25 January Revolution the centre closed down for two years. It then re-opened with the promise that anyone who enters, especially young people, should feel at home. However, the place also has rules. Smoking is forbidden and only groups are allowed. 


Make yourself at home

Al-Toukhi explained the themes of sections of Zourkhana. The idea is to represent Egypt. Kaadet Khalty comes from the idea of Egyptian middle-class life, with the area having the intimacy of an aunt from the mother’s side of the family. The sofra area reminds people of their grandparents who would have neighbours and family members come over for dinner. The hallak (hairdresser) used to cut people’s hair while knowing all their secrets. The classroom symbolises knowledge and the importance of educating others. 

Then there is the oriental café, which represents the generosity of people from rural areas where anyone can make their favourite drinks. “The aim is to help people feel that they are at home, unlike the feeling you get when you are in a restaurant. We prefer to sit on the balcony to have some privacy. It is an atmosphere that helps us study, and since no one goes to other people’s homes much we come here instead,” commented Mohamed Mahmoud, an art student who comes to Zourkhana.  


Make yourself at home

His colleague Reem Khaled agreed. “We come here to complete our assignments because we feel relaxed here and that we are at home. The prices are not bad either,” she said. “Zourkhana as a workspace has changed a lot of things for us. It has made us think about art as a way of educating people, like going to orphanages and changing children’s ways of thinking through art.” 

“The idea is that everything in Zourkhana should be old. I bought the furniture from antique shops, for example,” Al-Toukhi said. “I chose the furniture depending on the concept I wanted to explore. For example, I looked for the old-fashioned radio sets that families would gather around each Thursday for the weekend programmes. I try to make anyone who enters Zourkhana believe they are in another age.”

“The majority of visitors are students, and this is what we aim for. We care about students and want to provide facilities for them. We want them to feel safe and respected,” he said. The idea is to help build committed citizens. “We do not have any external financial support, and we are not politically affiliated. We want to combat the materialism that is all too prevalent these days.” 


Make yourself at home

Opening hours are from 9.30am until 11pm on weekdays except Fridays. The only exception is an event for children on Fridays like a cinema day. “We are all originally artists. We have crafts we are good at, and we want to transfer them to people at large. We ask various professionals to come and give their knowledge to people who need it,” he said, adding that they also organise yoga classes as well as embroidery and jewellery making classes. 

They also invite families to learn crafts with the aim of making a living out of them. “I believe that we should help people by passing on our knowledge,” Al-Toukhi said, adding that with this in mind the centre had partnered with Misr Al-Kheir, an NGO which aims to educate talented kids in areas like Nubia, Aswan, Siwa and Fayoum. “We do not want to see any changes in the centre, as everything is here. However, we could wish the place was bigger,” commented Mahmoud.


Make yourself at home

“Some people have requested a bigger place, but I don’t want to expand too much before we have mastered what we do,” Al-Toukhi said, who added that the centre had been open for nine months and needed accurate assessments of its potential. It had been offered places in the Obour and Tagammou districts, but he preferred to wait and see, he said. 

“We plan to expand in the near future in other areas. But the problem is that to do this properly we will need a sponsor, and I am against sponsors,” Al-Toukhi concluded.

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