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The Tentmakers of Cairo

Social History

Hany at Blue Mosque, Cairo

interview with Hany El Sayed Ahmed Abd El Kader

Date: 7 January 2015 Place: Hany’s shop in Historic Cairo

Khaled: How long have you been in the khayamiyya craft?
Hany: I have been working for 25 years.

K: Did your father work in khayamiyya too?
H: I have inherited this craft from my maternal grandfather and my cousins, both have taught me this craft.

K: Did they work here in the Tentmakers Street or somewhere else?
H: Exactly.

K: Did the tent-making craft change since you started or it has been the same?
H: It has entirely changed.

K: How?
H: We started working by the tark technique, which had only three colours, Egypt’s flag colours, and the orange, which was added later 30 or 40 years ago, and it was used in the suradiq-s in weddings and funeral gatherings, and it was all handmade.

K: Not printing?
H: No of course not. Printing is just a secondary technique. It is cheap and its designs are not good. Nothing compares to handicraft. We started developing this craft around 40 years ago. We started implementing the lotus flower, which is a Pharaonic motif, along with Islamic designs inspired from historic mosques around the area here. I occasionally visit one of the mosques, and copy the designs of its floors, ceiling or walls.

K: Which mosque inspired you the most?
H: The Blue Mosque here in Bab al-Wazir. The government is currently restoring it. I have borrowed some very beautiful designs from it.

K: When did the Khayamiya stop being a handicraft?
H: Around 40 years ago.

K: Why did that happen then?
H: Handmade khayamiyya became unaffordable, and the khayamiyya workers weren’t making enough for s living, so they sought other jobs, and shortly after, printing workshop owners started to buy designs from some of the khayamiyya craftsmen. They silkscreened them, and printed them on textile. That was in the 70’s.

K: Are there still tents being made here?
H: If anyone wanted a tent, I have a very beautiful tent, a handmade one.

K: Do you already have it?
H: Yes, and I make them by request.

K: When was the last time you made a tent?
H: Around 7 years ago. It was sent to Saudi Arabia, and it was 70 metres by 70 metres. It was gigantic, and admirable, because anything that is handmade gives me the chance to be creative.

K: How long did it take you to make it?
H: Around 2 years of work, and many craftsmen not just one.

K: Have you ever sold any tents in Egypt?
H: Tents that are on demand in Egypt are only the printed ones, because they are much cheaper, because handmade tents aren’t used in Egypt.

K: Did any of grandparent work on the kiswa?
H: My grandfather Mahmoud ElMekkawi, my maternal grandfather. His picture is all over our house; he used to employ half of the tentmakers here in Cairo.

K: Do you posses any pieces of the kiswa?
H: No, but we have some of his work in our houses, some Qur’anic verses and prayers.

K: Is there any guild, syndicate, or a helping fund for khayamiyya workers?
H: Recently a friend of mine told me that there is a syndicate called the Syndicate of Heritage Crafts. I have subscribed to it, and I’m a chairman of it. I hope there will be more support for the craft, because it is on the verge of extinction. Now we work with our own hands, but in 10 years we will lose our eyesight, our backs will be weaker, and our fingers will be old. This craft depends on 3 things, eyesight, back, and steady hands. This craft has a lot of risks in it. When I go to exhibitions in the UK and such I make a lot of effort. I spend 4 or 5 days, but the effort is enormous, because everybody there is so eager to see me making tents, they have hunger for handmade crafts. Last year, I gave there an educational class; I trained a lot of people and they were very happy.

K: How old were they?
H: 50’s and 60’s, but they were professionals, and they learned so quickly, because they do handmade patchworks at their homes. One woman after she finished her cushion got in touch with me three weeks after I left the UK and asked me to assess her work. It was a very beautiful gesture.

K: Is most of your work patchwork or stitching?
H: All are handmade stitching, not patchwork. Patchwork is 90% machine work, and 10% handwork. All of our productions are 100% handmade.

K: Back to the Syndicate of Heritage Crafts, before it, during your grandparents’ time, was there anything similar to it?
H: Unfortunately not. We have adopted this craft from the Turks. They were the first to arrive here and started the tentmaking trade, so when they departed, the Egyptian workers started to develop it.

K: So when some of you have an unforeseen unfortunate event….
H: No one helps him. Once the worker is sick, he stays home, and it is the same till now. I can be at home for two weeks! I see a private doctor! There is no awareness or support for the craft.

K: How about the Cultural [Development] Fund (Sunduq al-Tanmiyya al-Thaqafiyya)?
H: It only supports certain people.

K: Based on what?
H: Based on previous projects they worked on with them. They never come to the Tentmakers Street to find good workers. Someone who knows someone has a better chance than a good worker. It is all nepotism. Our country is a country of nepotism. I want my son to inherit my craft, and he loves it, but it is not in demand. There must be a motivation. When I tell someone that I’m a tentmaker, they always ask me wondering, “What is a tentmaker?!”. There is no awareness! When I went to an interview at the American embassy in Cairo to obtain a visa to attend an exhibition in New Mexico, they didn’t know what a tentmaker is! Though I had an invitation! Unlike the British embassy, they are very nice people.

K: So what did you tell them at the American embassy?
H: I told them that I am a tentmaker, I explained what a tentmaker is, I showed them pictures, and I showed them a book I took part in. It is called Goha, The Wise Fool and it was published in the USA in 2005*.

K: How many tentmaking workshops are here?
H: 29 workshops.

K: And how many craftsmen?
H: Around 3 or 4.

K: That’s all?!
H: Yes! Now tentmaking is more of a trade than a craft, and that’s why it is vanishing.

K: So what do they do these 4?
H: They do as I do, design their own work.

K: How about the people who execute the work?
H: These are workers not craftsmen.

K: And how many workers?
H: I can’t really tell, maybe around 200 men and women, they work from home. But I only work with the experienced workers, because I have been exposed to the outside world, and I know what they want.

K: Is most of your work a response to what your client demands, or do you do what you like even if it is not on demand?
H: Honestly, I do what I want, what I like my client will like too.

K: I see that there is much innovation and new designs: what brought [inspired] them?
H: The young. When the young inherited the craft from their parents, they started to innovate in design, quality and techniques. Our parents were not educated, they didn't have the knowledge we have now, and that helped us to create and innovate.

K: I would like you to tell me more about the Goha book.
H: An American journalist visited me in 2004, and photographed all khayamiyya works that depict the story of Goha, and then came back after two weeks, and told me that she wants to make a book about Goha, and she needs 15 handmade panels using khaymiyya, which will also be exhibited in the USA, and then a famous author called Denys Johnson-Davies will write the story, and I said okay. It took me a year to make them, and then it was published in 2005. I love that year, it is the year the book came out, and it is the same year I got married, it was a good year.

K: Do any of your children want to be a tentmaker?
H: Youssef, my 9-year-old son, really wishes to become a tentmaker. He loves it, but he is still too young, he has to be at least 12 to learn khayamiyya.

K: If nothing has changed, would you still like him to be a tentmaker?
H: I am a bit of a democratic father, I will leave the choice to him.

K: What will be your advice to him?
H: My job is hard, I don’t want him to become a tentmaker. My job drains my eyesight, my health, and lots of other things.

K: What changes could happen that will change your position?
H: If tentmaking got more support, and more knowledge.

K: Thank you Hany.
H: Thank you!

*Johnson-Davies, Denys, Goha, The Wise Fool, sewing by Hany El Saed, with drawings by Hag Mohamed Fattouh. New York: Philomel Books, 2005.