Egypt Pulse

Cairo's tentmakers struggle to save their craft from collapse

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Article Summary
Mahmoud al-Hariri, the last generation of a family of tentmakers in Cairo, is one of the few practitioners left of this profession in Egypt.

Situated between two historical buildings in Darb al-Ahmar district of Islamic Cairo, the small covered Khaiyamiya Street is fading away with time. The narrow street, which dates from the 13th century, takes its name from the main activity practiced there: khaiyamiya, or the art of tentmaking.

The small shops lined on both sides of the street display knotty cloth mosaics, Islamic motifs, pharaonic patterns and occasional modern designs. But the joy of color is not reflected in the mood of the craftsmen who are struggling to make ends meet as their centuries-old craft fall victim to Egypt’s 21st-century revolution followed by a decline in tourism revenues.

Mahmoud al-Hariri is one of them.

"Before the revolution, we depended 100% on tourists who bought our products. Now the income depends on a handful of Egyptians and foreign residents here who buy about 5% of my works," Hariri, the last generation of a family of tentmakers, told Al-Monitor.

Hariri sits on a wooden bench inside his nameless shop, holding a needle and thread and sewing colorful lotus motifs on the chest and sleeves of a blouse.

He started his profession as a tentmaker at the age of 8, when his uncle taught him how to use a needle and scissors. It took him two years to acquire the skills that would enable him to put together his first work: a backdrop for a funeral. "The backdrop was 5 meters in length and 3 meters in width. Five friends and I worked together, under the supervision of my uncle," he said as he continued sewing.

Since then, his life has been among colors and shapes. In the past, the most prevalent colors in khaiyamiya were red, green, yellow and blue. Nowadays, he said, khaiyamiya use all colors and are used in home decorations.

"We make colorful, ornamental applique tent decorations, bedspreads, pillowcases, cushion covers and tablecloths," he said. The shapes he uses include Pharaonic motifs, inscribed Quranic verses, forms of calligraphy, landscape and Egyptian traditional heritage patterns in his works. His skills are honed by the courses he attended in fine arts.

"I love my work. When I produce a piece and deliver it to its client, I weep out of happiness that there are people who still value my work," he said.

But this happens less and less, as there is little demand for tents. He added that tents that are sold today are mainly used in boy scout camps.

Lamenting the decline in the number of khaiyamiya artisans, he worries that he might be the last generation of this profession, as most of Egypt’s youth do not seem to have the patience to learn such a creative art

Displayed on his shop's walls are many decorative patterns that depict the folktales, geometrical shapes and scenes from Egyptian village life. 

During the interview, a woman entered the shop and asked the price of one of the patterns, which depicts a well-known story from the Kalila wa Dimna, one of the most popular books ever written and a bestseller for almost 2,000 years. The pattern describes the story of Joha and his donkey, in which Joha, his son and the donkey are criticized for the way they travel no matter what they do.

"It is 700 Egyptian pounds [$38.60]," Hariri replied. The woman looked at him, raising her eyebrows, and left the shop.

"Most of the Egyptian clients react like her when they learn the price," Hariri said. “They believe that the handmade products must be cheap. They don't value our work like foreigners do."

The art of tentmaking is indeed interesting to the Western audience. A documentary titled "The Tentmakers of Cairo" by Australian filmmaker Kim Beamish sheds more light on the tentmakers' struggles not only to maintain their craft but also to survive. The film tackles the techniques and practices surrounding the art, and underlines the contrast between the appreciation the tentmakers have abroad and the lack of it in their own country.

Beamish spent three years after the revolution immersed in the lives of craftsmen for his documentary. It was premiered on April 21, 2015, at the Visions du Reel Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland.

Hariri urges the government to pay more attention to this dying craft, and suggested that whenever there is a touristic event held abroad, khaiyamiya craftsmen should participate. 

"If they invite one of us to attend on the sidelines of these events — to show people how we make these designs — I think this will encourage tourists to come," he said. "We need out-of-the-box ideas so we can survive."

Found in: tourism, trade, heritage, employment, art, artists

Salwa Samir is an Egyptian journalist. She has been writing about human rights, social problems, immigration and children's and women's issues since 2005.

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