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Stitch Like an Egyptian

The exhibition At Durham University was wonderful - and a sellout. I am so excited that we even sold two really stunning pieces to major locations - one to the Library at Durham University, and one to the Oriental Museum.

It is the second piece that I want to talk about.

While I was in Egypt and selecting the work to come with us to Durham I was chatting to my dear friend and tentmaker, Hany Abd El Khader. I was apologising for the fact that the cases were so full of the selected work, and our luggage allowances so limited, that there was very little room for his clothes or work of his own to sell for a little extra money for himself.

The men who come as stitchers do not get paid on these trips. Because I take work from many different people in the street I do not like to favour some shops above others and like to be sure that every shop has work in the show. Some shops have better work than others, but this actually means we have some price variations that help people who do not have a lot to spend but want to buy something. Allowing the stitcher coming with me to put his own work in means that he has a chance to make some money of his own as I do not like the men to charge a commission to the shops who have supplied the work - and this is what would happen in the street.

I was explaining to Hany that we could not take much work of his. He looked quickly around the room we were in and leaned in close. "I have a new piece," he said. "I think I will just take that because it is a big piece."

I started to ask about it but he hushed me and pulled me out into the street. As we walked he explained that he had made a piece of Khayamiya work about the revolution.

I was poleaxed. As far as I know there have not been tentmaker pieces on political subjects, or used as a voice for personal statements. Subjects of Khayamiya work vary a lot - I have seen folkloric work, stories of Goha, Pharaonic pieces, tree of life work like work in the tombs, and almost an infinite variety of islamic, Rumy, and Lotus patterns.

Hany started to explain. He had been distressed at many of the things happening in Tahrir Square in January and excited at the same time. He did not really know what to think. He and his wife talked about it one night and he decided to make a piece of work about the revolution. He took a large piece of fabric - 2.5 metres by 2.5 metres. He drew a circle in the middle to represent Tahrir Square and stitched it in the colours of the Egyptian flag and started to draw in things that were happening there.

He told no-one what he was doing. It the prevalent atmosphere of suspicion in the Tentmaker's Street a design is valuable, and Hany wanted to be sure that no-one else would copy his idea. He stitched in the privacy of his house at night, and even his friend and next door neighbour, also a tentmaker and his brother in law, had no idea.

The work started to drive him. He arrived later and later in the morning for work, muttering about not sleeping well. There were no foreign residents around, and no tourists to buy work - so it did not matter much.

As there was more news on the Television he added other images. I apologise for occasional blurring - the lighting was poor but the colour was better if I did not use flash.

He put in police with riot shields, tightly wedged together and utterly menacing.


He put in the water cannon that no-one knew how to use, that spat out small dribbles of water to the amusement of the crowd.

 He put in women chanting, men praying, and police aiming their guns.

He put in the huge and boring building that looms over one corner of the Square -  the Mogamma - where almost any registration - houses, cars, marriages, deaths - has to be done in Egypt. In another corner you can glimpse the Nile.

He added cars on fire with clouds of grey smoke.

He added banners in English like "Gemeover" (spelling used at the time) and "Go Out" and added more chants and slogans used in Arabic which meant things like "Mubarak out", and "Down with the Regime."

 At the top he put a scarlet banner with "The Revolution of the 25th January is for the Egyptian People."

 It is done simply and in a naive style, but it is a powerful piece of commentary and curiously spine-chilling  when you stand in front of it.


He is still thrilled and excited to have sold it to an important Museum.

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Reader Comments (11)

Wonderful story Jenny. It is such a brilliant way to remember Such a momentous time in their history.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Walton

Fascinating! Congratulations to Hany on the sale. It is an amazing work.

Clicking on the pictures isn't enlarging them for me, unfortunately.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commentervireya

Thank you for sharing this with us - what a wonderful piece of work!

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAl Christensen

Jenny, what a moving story! I admire what you do to give voice to otherwise repressed and silenced people. The talent, bravery, and perseverance, on your part as well as theirs, is inspiring. I have just received your book Pack and Follow (my present to myself) and look forward to reading every word!
Martha Ginn

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMartha Ginn

Once again Jenny you have brought us goosebumps and good tears. I am so moved... by this piece AND by what you and the tentmakers have done since your tour in Cairo. I wonder if Hany would have embarked on a piece like this if he had not known you and known of the art quilt world? You have opened up a world for the tentmakers of Cairo...

And I have told our younger son that the "Arab Spring" is a period that will go down in history as a seminal period, one in which the people spoke and the world listened. Hany is speaking, and through him and his art the people of Egypt. I am so thrilled that the piece sold and to such a prestigious place. Well done to all of you, and thank you for sharing, Sarah

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Ann Smith

As a long-time admirer of your work and blogs (vicarious travel thrills) this tops it all -- thank you for all of your contributions in so many places, in so many ways. -- Lura

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLura Schwarz Smith

A very moving and important work, Jenny. I am so glad it will be cared for in an important museum. Glad for Hany Abd El Khader, that he sold his work, too. :)

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindi


December 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristin L

A great story, well told. Thank you.

December 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJill O'Connor

Thank-you so much Jenny for bringing this to our attention. I loved the exhibition at the Festival Of Quilts and am just so pleased you are managing to bring their work to the wider world.

December 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Lowe

Hi, Jenny. Just happened upon your site and have enjoyed viewing your marvelous art quilts. I find this post very interesting as I have lived through the revolution in Tunisia and follow the events in other countries of the region closely. The tentmaker's artwork is fascinating as a reflection of the upheaval that must be faced by the people. I find my own work pulling toward ideas about chaos and uncertainty. I will stop in occasionally to follow your news.
best from Tunisia,

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternadia

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