A stitch in time to save Egypt’s ancient tentmaking craft

1 / 3
For the few tourists visiting the street daily, Khayamiya art remains a draw. (AFP)
2 / 3
Prices can start from as little as 50 Egyptian pounds ($2.7) and go up to several thousand pounds. (AFP)
3 / 3
These days, Khayamiya refers to the creation of ornamental items mostly in cotton that can also include pillow cases and throws. (AFP)
Updated 24 January 2019

A stitch in time to save Egypt’s ancient tentmaking craft

  • The centuries-old art of Khayamiya goes back to the time of traveling caravans, when huge tent pavilions were used as shields from the desert’s searing sun
  • Slowing demand however has stoked fears among artisans that their craft may be dying

CAIRO: Mohsen Al-Khayami has for years watched sadly as his once lucrative craft business dwindled and fellow artisans deserted the ancient art known as Khayamiya, or tentmaking, for better paying jobs.
The 68 year-old, a master of one of Egypt’s most traditional crafts, has been handstitching the decorative appliques that nowadays can range from wall hangings to bed quilts for more than half a century, so long that his customers have named him after his art.
“I learned it when I was eight,” he told AFP. “It took me years before I could master it and be able to finish a whole tapestry on my own.”
In days gone by, his craft was used to make tents and large tapestries but has evolved as demand has changed.
These days, Khayamiya refers to the creation of ornamental items mostly in cotton that can also include pillow cases and throws, although the traditional name — tentmaking when translated into English — endures.
Khayami’s shop is among two dozen others lining the covered Khayamia Street or the Street of Tentmakers, opposite the towering 11th century Bab Zuweila, one of Old Cairo’s main surviving gates.




(AFP)


The street has lured tourists for years and the craftsmen’s shops were among the main draws for foreign visitors until the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
The ensuing turmoil scared away tourists, and since then business has slowed to a trickle.
But Khayami still ostentatiously exhibits around his shop his elaborately stitched wall hangings and colorful tapestries replete with pharaonic motifs copied from ancient tombs, Arabesque designs, Kufic calligraphy of Arabic proverbs and Qur'anic texts.
On other appliques, Khayami has sketched folk tales of Old Juha, a humorous character in Arab culture, always depicted with his faithful donkey. Tales of their exploits often impart valuable lessons.
The centuries-old art of Khayamiya goes back to the time of traveling caravans, when huge tent pavilions were used as shields from the desert’s searing sun.
It is believed to have emerged during the Fatimid dynasty, which ruled Egypt about 1,000 years ago, but some argue that it even dates back to the Pharaohs.
Today, many are still used as backdrops for weddings, funerals and religious celebrations of the Holy month of Ramadan as well as the birthday of Prophet Muhammad known as Mawlid.
Slowing demand however has stoked fears among artisans that their craft may be dying, especially as younger generations prove reluctant to learn the trade, preferring a more stable source of income.
Khayami says it’s hard to know the exact number of Khayamia craftspeople left as many work from their homes or workshops outside the area.
But he said the number on the street has been dropping for years, down to around 20 from 60 in the 1980s.

“If laborers keep leaving one after the other, the craft may soon become extinct,” said Abdullah Fathy, a 31-year-old Khayamiya maker.

A similar figure was provided by Mamdouh Al-Sheribini, the executive director of the Handicraft Industry Chamber.
“The pace of people abandoning the craft has increased since 2011. Young people do not have the patience for learning a craft that takes time to master,” Khayami said.
“They cannot handle the market’s ups and downs, like us.”
Abdullah Fathy, a 31-year-old Khayamiya maker, also says many leave to start other businesses or find other jobs.
In his shop, Fathy, who learned his craft at 15, usually sits cross-legged on a pillow, bent over a piece of fabric.
It can take him a full workday to stitch one small applique. Other pieces, fanning out across meters, can take a month or even more depending on the intricacy of the design.
Prices can start from as little as 50 Egyptian pounds ($2.7) and go up to several thousand pounds.
But Fathy refuses to abandon his trade.
“If laborers keep leaving one after the other, the craft may soon become extinct,” said Fathy.
Though many craftsmen have sought to promote their products among locals, they still long for the days when their shops would teem with tourists.
“Tourists used to make up about 98 percent of our clientele. It’s usually them who appreciate the effort put into these handicrafts as opposed to Egyptians,” said 48-year old Mahmoud Fatouh, whose shop in Khayamiya has belonged to his family since the early 1900s.
Signs since late 2017 that tourists may be on their way back to Egypt have brought a small glimmer of hope.
“We see tourists more often now,” said Khayami. “It’s not the same as before (pre-2011), but it’s still better than nothing.”
“There is still hope,” he went on.
“So long as the country is stable, tourists will keep coming back,” Khayami added.




(AFP)


Official figures on tourism in 2018 have yet to be announced.
But last month, the Egyptian travel agents’ association chairman, Hossam el-Shaer, said tourists arriving in Egypt increased by 40 percent in 2018 compared to the year before, when the number of tourists reached 8.3 million, according to the CAPMAS official statistics agency.
But that 2018 figure was announced before a roadside bomb hit a tourist bus in late December, killing three Vietnamese holidaymakers near the famed pyramids in Giza.
Shaer maintains that the target for this year is an additional 30-40 percent increase.
For the few tourists visiting the street daily, Khayamiya art remains a draw.
“It is one thing I would be interested in, this textile, especially one of these appliques,” said David Pullins, an American tourist, who visited the ancient street in December.
“It’s very beautiful.”


Stars of the 'The Kitchen' movie talk to Arab News

“The Kitchen,” stars Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish and Domhnall Gleeson. (Supplied)
Updated 22 August 2019

Stars of the 'The Kitchen' movie talk to Arab News

DUBAI: “The Kitchen,” starring Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish and Domhnall Gleeson, is an ode to the ever-popular gangster movie, but also a reimagining. Three women who can’t pay the bills after their mobster husbands go to prison decide to take over the organization themselves — becoming violent criminals in the process. Gone is the Don, in his place are the Donnas.

“I love mobster movies, they’re some of my favorite movies, but I think I always watched them and thought, ‘Where am I in that story? Where am I represented?’ I never am. The opportunity to put those two things together — a real authentic, gritty mob story that has interesting, flawed, human women at the center of it felt like an incredible opportunity,” writer/director Andrea Berloff tells Arab News.

Andrea Berloff at the premier of "The Kitchen" in Hollywood. (AFP)

In casting, Berloff went against type — McCarthy and Haddish are best-known for comedic roles, and Gleeson’s roles in “Star Wars” and the Oscar-nominated “Brooklyn” suggested anything but a gangster.

“If I’d read the script I wouldn’t have thought of me for the role, so I was thrilled that Andrea for some reason thought that I could do a good job. The good ones are a surprise to you as opposed to something you track down — or that’s the way it’s been for me so far. I never thought I’d really want to play a killer in a mob movie. When this script came along, that’s what I found a bit scary and interesting,” says Gleeson.

Domhnall Gleeson at the premier of "The Kitchen" in Hollywood. (AFP)

Like Berloff, Moss has always loved the genre — especially the women in legendary projects such as “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos.” While the women of “The Kitchen” are different in many ways from those groundbreaking characters, they carry on their spirit.

“It’s something that we’ve seen in various mobster projects. With Diane Keaton and Edie Falco, and these incredible portrayals, I always find them the most interesting parts of those projects — to see the effect that that lifestyle has on women is really interesting,” Moss tells Arab News.

Elisabeth Moss loved the genre of the movie. (AFP)

McCarthy wasn’t as focused on the history of women in crime fiction as her co-star. Instead, the character and the script were rich enough that she was able to link it to her own life quite easily.

“I didn’t reference other movies,” she says. “For me, when a script it that good, and that complete, and that fully realized, I try to delve into the character itself. I thought about how I related as a mother of two, and what does that mean when you’re just trying to survive and try to take care of your kids. I don’t look to other movies as a guide — I’m a big movie fan, but I prepare a little more solo.”

Tiffany Haddish at the premier of "The Kitchen" in Hollywood. (AFP)

“I’m the same way,” says Haddish.

“It just seemed easy. It’s that great thing. Especially with Andrea running the ship, we all saw the same movie, which was really great, and we all naturally get along,” says McCarthy.

 Melissa McCarthy at the premier of "The Kitchen" in Hollywood. (AFP)

This is Berloff’s debut as a director (she was nominated for an Oscar for writing the 2016 hit “Straight Outta Compton”) and she hadn’t originally planned on helming the movie herself. But she found she felt so passionate about the story that she wanted to oversee the whole project.

“There are times when I write a script and I’m happy to hand it off to someone else and let them run with it, but in this case I felt like I had so much more to say about these characters, and this world, and these themes,” she explains. “I went in to pitch as a director and started saying to them, ‘Here’s what’s not in the script that you don’t know.’”