To whet your appetite here is some information on the Tentmakers of Cairo who are visiting Perth in July… more info to follow.
The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah– The Film
There is a narrow covered alley at the edge of the old walled city of Cairo, opposite Bab Zuyweilah. Light slants from gaps in the ceiling, painting dapples in the dust and around the feet of the constant succession of people walking through. Donkey carts, boys on bikes with two metre trays of bread on their heads, and carts of shoes and bananas, some hauled by men and some by donkeys – all stir the dust and it swirls to settle in the tiny shops on each side of the alley.
Sameh Feruga and a bird piece
In the shops men sit on broad low benches. There are cheap striped rag rugs below them, and cushions between their backs and the walls. There is usually a glass of dark black tea balanced precariously beside them and perhaps a cigarette in a stained tin ashtray. The walls are covered with incredible colour. Rich appliqued textiles are stapled gunned or put up in haphazard array with brass drawing pins. Some have winding twisting curves reminiscent of the elaborate borders on old manuscripts, some have lotus in fifty possible shapes and exploding with unlikely colour, and occasionally some have with Islamic calligraphy, simultaneously graceful and spare – and some really elaborate pieces combine all of these elements.
The men are stitching. They sew so fast that it is hard to sew how they are actually placing the stitches. Photographs of their hands blur. They have learned to sew fast because this is how they make their living and keep their families and they will tell you, “A slow stitcher has a hungry family.”
These are tentmakers. The street has changed very little since an early watercolour from 1907, and perhaps very little since it was built around 1600 AD. Steel roller doors now lock the shops securely at night. Televisions flicker in poor colour, often luridly green, and sometimes broadcasting Koran reading stations, sometimes Egyptian soap operas. The stitchers of 2013 have replaced their ancestors.
The work is part of Egypt’s history but a curiously invisible part. There is evidence of appliqued leather tents in Pharaonic tombs from 1000 BC. Paul in the Bible was a tentmaker. In 1683 Vienna captured a magnificent Ottoman tent when they defeated the Turkish attempt to capture their city. There are still panels from Ottoman tents, in the style known as Mamluk revival, from the late 1880’s occasionally sold in London’s auction houses.
Despite all this there is not one piece in the Cairo Museum. There is a Textile Museum in Cairo too –it has no tentmaker work either. The work is still in common use, but now it is usually printed panels that copy the applique street styles and which are cutting heavily into the tentmakers ability to survive. Large screens line streets for weddings and henna parties, and for Ramadan, and line the alleys of the City of the Dead for funerals. They line the terminal at the airport to greet pilgrims returning from Mecca. The stitchers even sell the printed fabric as it gives them basic bread money.
The men have adapted their work to make smaller pieces, intended for houses. And yes, it is almost all men who do the work. It was enthralling to watch audiences in America watching the men. Mouths dropped open and people were entranced. The comments were constantly repeated and were summed up by one lady who said in amazement, “It is gobsmacking enough that they are men doing needle-turned applique. Then you realise how fast they are, how small their stitches are, and you realise that they are using tools we could never even give space in our sewing rooms. What they make brings tears to my eyes.”
The men and the street have faced so much in the last few years – the catastrophic introduction of printed panels which look, from enough distance, like khiamiah, the turmoil of the revolution which has left the tourist industry stricken, and inflation which has shrunk their meagre earnings. Older stitchers are dying faster than they are being replaced, and so far there has been only one serious academic article about the men.
The Tentmakers of Cairo create work which resonates at an entirely different level, both aesthetically and culturally, from the artistry with which we are familiar. Like many of the readers of this story, they have devoted a lifetime to their craft, largely unrecognized but proud of what they do and who they are. That alone is worthy of recording and support. But most of all, they provide us with another reminder of the power of cultural traditions to excite, to share in the joy of creativity, and to enhance and challenge our understanding of our common humanity.
With thanks to Jenny Bowker for providing the article and images