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Tentmakers of Cairo

Tentmakers of Cairo

On one street in old Cairo craftsmen have been producing textiles of both utility and striking beauty for centuries. The collective name for the enterprise, khayamiyya, points to the principal usage to which these works have been put – the khayma or tent. Usually made of cotton with a stitched decorative side, these linings enhanced the shelter and sociability functions of tents. Today, reflecting the nature of a changing economy, the appliquéd pieces are principally used on public and semi-public occasions such as political meetings, weddings and pilgrimage celebrations as well as targeted for the tourist trade. Designs vary from floral and geometric patterns, at times explicitly reflecting architectural motifs in the venerable neighbourhood of Bab Zuwayla, to calligraphic representations, most often invoking Qur’anic verses. Pharaonic themes became popular from the 1920s, due, some contend, to the worldwide sensation of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and, for others, the increase in foreign travellers to Egypt generally. Since the 2011 revolution in Egypt that overthrow the Mubarak regime, perhaps unsurprisingly, politics has directly intruded as a thematic focus, as seen in a work of Hany Abdel Khader that is now in the Oriental Museum of Durham University. Tanks, water cannons, soldiers, hijabed protestors, slogans, all rendered in a naive style, powerfully evoke the dramatic events that unfolded in Tahrir Square. 

Tentmakers have traditionally been male and, not unlike other crafts, the skills have been passed on within families. Women stitchers are also known today. There is concern that the craft is endangered, with cheap mass-produced works competing with the more labour-intensive, hand-stitched appliqués. The craft is in transition, if not exactly in crisis. The street (Shari‘a al-Khayamiyya), one of the few that remains roofed in Islamic Cairo, is virtually encircled now with new commanding apartment complexes, and many prefer to celebrate rites of passage in anodyne modern hotels rather than vibrant pavilions redolent of ‘tradition’. But tentmaking has moved, at least until the economic downturn since 2011, to a diversified internal market, with both mass and hand-produced works appealing to different constituencies, and a wider market of the stitched work in other parts of the Middle East and the West. Their value has also increased in tandem with the growth of public and private collections. The British Museum holds, for example, a number of pieces from the early twentieth century; older pieces are rarer, no doubt owing to the delicate nature of cloth and the demanding climate. 

If the khayamiyya have a defined place in the popular culture of Egypt, they have also caught hold of a wider artistic imagination. For example, Henri Matisse’s ‘Interior with Egyptian Curtain’ (1948), today in the Phillips Collection in Washington, depicts an Egyptian appliqué in colours typically vivid of the khayamiyya and of Matisse’s work itself. The Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr in his ‘Khayameya(2008-9) acknowledges the power of a defined cultural heritage to shape aesthetic and social identities. But, in reproducing typical arabesque and geometric patterns entirely out of matches, he points to both the fragility of the heritage and the appeal of an integrated, intricate whole.