An artisan practising the ancient Egyptian technique of khayamiya safeguards his memories of the 2011 uprising into quilts. This article of Asia Times tracks Eight years after Egypt’s uprising, a craftsman stitches history as told by Jenny Gustafsson, in CAIRO.
There is a soft smile on Hany Abdel Kader’s face as he takes out the carefully folded cotton piece, kept at the back of his small shop.
As he unfolds the fabric, a decorated front appears, with carefully stitched appliqué in bright colors – typical of Cairo’s long-established khayamiya (needlework) tradition. But this piece is unlike any other in the neighborhood’s workshops, where the art has been practiced for centuries. It has none of khayamiya’s customary patterns, based on geometry or Arabic calligraphy, but army tanks and masses of people – scenes from the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
‘That’s when I did my first piece, when we were all unsure about what would happen in the future,’ Abdel Kader, 44, told Asia Times.
He points to images stitched along the borders of the quilt, each depicting a different scene during the revolution. One shows a figure trying to climb the enormous government building, the Mogammaa; another, the infamous camels brought in to fight protesters in the street. Most of the scenes are set in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the revolution.
Details from the quilt show state violence and wounded protesters being carried away. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer ‘I felt the need to describe what I saw. And I had the fabric at home, so I just laid out a big piece on the floor and started creating the design,’ said Abdel Kader.
As the days passed he added elements to the outer border, based on what he saw himself, heard from friends, or watched on TV. He embroidered words like ‘Peacefully’ and ‘Step down’.
He also stitched the slogan heard across the Arab world in 2011: ‘The people want the fall of the regime’.He added protesters getting hurt by bullets – and others coming to their rescue.
Eight years ago, on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed the start of mass protests. They came on the heels of similar demonstrations in Tunisia, which set the Arab Spring in motion. After 18 days of protests in Cairo, which spread to cities across Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak – in power since 1981 – was forced to resign.Protests continued throughout 2011 demanding the armed forces that took power after Mubarak’s resignation hand over the reigns of power to civilian rule. Elections in 2012 brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but the elected President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by current ruler Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who has since been accused of rights abuses and criticized for giving the military unchecked power.
Abdel Kader recalls the period of the revolution eight years ago as a step into the unknown.
‘It was a very strange and unknown time for us. Suddenly, there were tanks underneath our windows. We had never seen that before,’ he said.An ancient craft Khayamiya, which takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘tent’, historically involved the production of tents and panels to be used in a range of settings, from political gatherings to funerals to celebrations. Its usage dates back at least one thousand years in Egypt.
The view over Cairo’s ancient Al-Darb Al-Ahmar quarter, where many of the city’s craftspeople are located. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Throughout the centuries, the craft has evolved. Ottoman rulers, kings Fuad and Farouk, presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat would all receive guests in rooms decorated with khayamiya.The opening (and, almost one century later, nationalization) of the Suez Canal had tents to host guests and officials.
Traditional celebratory tents are seen at a festival in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, for the occasion of the canal’s grand opening in 1869. Photo: Collection of Roger-Viollet Egyptian musicians, when traveling, would often bring stitched panels to put up as backdrops at their performances.The popularity of khayamiya remains until present – only now, fabrics are mostly printed by machine.
‘You find them all over Egypt, they are so common that people rarely think about them,’ said art historian Seif El Rashidi, who recently co-authored a book on the topic.The most revered work done by Cairo’s khayamiya guild was doubtless on the kiswa, the elaborate cover for the holy Kaaba, the black cube in Mecca, which was historically produced each year in Cairo’s alleys and ceremoniously brought all the way to the holiest city in Islam. Abdel Kader comes from a family of such prominent crafters: his grandfather Mahmoud earned the name Al-Mekkawi, ‘of Mecca’, from being one of the leading kiswa artisans.
Amm Hassan, the colleague of Abdel Kader, works on a piece of khayamiya. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Seated in the inner corner of his shop, with his long-time colleague Amm (uncle) Hassan working on a cushion next to the entrance, Abdel Kader takes out images of his first two revolution pieces.Both are in museum collections now, at Durham University and Victoria and Albert Museum in London – destinations he never imagined when drawing that first design during the revolution.
It is not entirely uncommon that political art develops this way, historian Rashidi tells Asia Times: ‘It might be spontaneous at first. An artist starts working on something, and only later on it takes on a specific meaning.
Transforming folk art
Many of the most powerful artworks from 2011 were street art, such as Ammar Abo Bakr’s portraits of martyred protesters with angel-like wings, or Bahia Shehab’s stencilled blue bra for the protester who was dragged in the streets by members of the military until her clothes ripped – creations symbolizing the ongoing regime brutality. Or the dozens of artists who came daily to the sidewalks around Tahrir, to draw what was happening. Abdel Kader’s work is different, belonging as it does to the much less utilized craft tradition.
Usually, Abdel Kader’s work is not a commentary on society. Like all of Cairo’s khayamiya artists, he spends his days cutting, folding and stitching colorful pieces of cloth onto canvas to create vivid and detailed tapestries.
“Khayamiya is usually not a form of art that lends itself to this kind of work. That’s what makes Hany’s pieces so interesting,” said historian El Rashidi.
Eight years after the onset of the revolution, under another strong and repressive state apparatus, looking back at what happened is for many Egyptians associated with gloom, even a sense of despair.
But for Abdel Kader, the events that took place in Tahrir Square still form a source of inspiration.
In his home on the top floor of an apartment building in Muqattam, a dusty hill on the outskirts of Cairo, he has several sketches for new pieces.They portray the same crowds, the same skyline of Cairo and the same commemorative date, January 25th.
‘If I think about my craft there is something else that I would like to do,’ he said. That is to work on a big, traditional tent. But, he says, with the advent of machine printing, no asks for them these days. ♦