Back to the Middle East - Tanks in Tahrir Square

I have just returned from a marvelous trip to Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

I had a textile tour planned and had to cancel the Egypt part of it. I was so sad about that as I knew that many of those coming really wanted to meet my friends the Tentmakers in Cairo. We changed the trip to start as planned in Syria, and then to go on to Jordan instead of Egypt. I left my bookings as they were - flying into Damascus and out of Cairo three days after the tour, and just before we left, when Egypt was looking calm, I booked another flight - from Amman to Cairo.

We had been watching the news as Egypt erupted weeks earlier and seemed wild and frightening for a few days. Police were firing at and killing fellow Egyptians and the mosques seemed full of wounded. Foreigners were being regarded with suspicion. The Embassy was very busy moving people out. Then the police simply disappeared.

Many major gaols in the city had been breeched and all the prisoners escaped - or were they released? As one interviewee said,"Six gaols in one day? It is not logic." With no police presence people were warned that the thousands of released prisoners would be robbing houses to find money and food. Militias formed in every street in Cairo and many friends of mine bought guns. Every person I could contact by phone in this time - from middle class to somewhat lower - was just frightened - and tired after night after night of standing guard and barricading their streets. There were good sides too as many neighbours had time to chat in the long night watches and drank tea together.

Tanks trundled around the city and set up large army bases. The army seemed to simply sit and watch. Then the army announced that it would not fire at Egyptians.

At this point the demonstrations seemed to steady. There was almost a sigh of relief. Fridays remained high points with masses gathering after the mosque. Counter groups formed that were pro-Mubarak.

I decided not to take the group when I saw camels and horses with their riders in Tahrir Square. That was just weird. There is no way that the riders were from the pyramids as the announcers claimed. In the days that followed this was confirmed by others who worked in tourism and had never seen these riders before. They were a mounted 'rent-a-crowd', and the oddness of this after the mass gaol releases and the disappearance of the police was enough to make me cancel - regardless of how things might change.

They did change of course - and the 'Do Not Travel' travel advisory should have been enough to make me cancel anyway. There would be something infinitely tactless about an ex-Ambassador's wife deciding to lead a tour into a country against the advice of the embassy.

I want to jump the events of my tour in Syria and Jordan - though I will get to it in the next few days. I am still buzzing over seeing my friends in Egypt most recently.

I had to go to talk to the Tentmakers. I have been able to set up two exhibitions for them later in the year. One is at the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham in England - and it is huge and brilliant and one of my favourite shows. The other will be at the University of Durham which has a large Middle East Politics section.

My funding for Birmingham might fall short and I needed to talk to the men about this and find out if there was any way they could raise some funds if necessary. I can talk to them easily face to face. Their English is just not good enough to manage with a phone and Skype is not an option for people without laptops and easy internet access. I was in the area and travel to Cairo meant a ticket that cost about $300. If I had to come from Australia again when things were totally stable it might have been eight times that.

I had decided that if things were still bad I would simply book into an airport hotel and let the tentmakers come to me during the day.

Ibrahim picked me up at the airport.

Within five minutes we had passed six tanks on the airport road. Ibrahim told me about the days of fear, the worry that they all have now. He talked about the fact that he was not sure that they would be better off. He said that Mubarak kept the country stable and calm and he had subsidised bread, petrol and other basics so poor people had a chance of surviving on their incomes. "Sometimes", he said, "you need a strong father who does what you need and not what you want and that is the problem with a democracy - that leaders are afraid to lose an election if they do what you need."

We came past the City of the Dead and I asked after my friends there. Ibrahim pointed out that there were police on a lot of the entrances - "Because perhaps people were afraid that the convicts had gone there to hide."

We came past the Khan and there were a couple of tanks on the road near the Muslim University.

We hooked up over the flyover and I was able to look down on Medan Ataba. This is the main shopping area - a huge market that threads through many alleys and streets. It is always so packed that I used to say that you could lift both feet and keep moving. In the open area we could see from the flyover it is always a seething mass of people around small tables of underwear, socks, and shoes.

It was empty. It was a real shock to see this - the stalls were there and were stacked with the usual goods, but there were no people at all. When I exclaimed Ibrahim pointed out that people were really afraid. There was not much money coming from anywhere, and if they had money they were afraid to spend it, and if they didn't have any they could not spend it. "You can always manage a few more weeks without new clothes," he said, and I was struck by the truth of this. Of all the things I saw in this first day it was Medan Ataba that was the thing that made it clear that everything was not yet normal.

We threaded through the streets of downtown Cairo and Ibrahim announced that he wanted to show me what was happening in Tahrir Square. I had a moment of trepidation but I trust Ibrahim. Bob had asked me to use drivers I knew as much as possible as he also trusted Ibrahim and Mohamed.

Imagine a huge open area the size of a large football stadium. It has at least six streets that lead into it. Most had tanks, a sultry greyed yellow, like desert sand, squatting like large toads in the corners. In each one soldier was visible standing in the opening often laughing and chatting to people. There is a grassed area in the centre with a low wall around it - like a very large centre of a roundabout. It was so full of people that I could not even see if there was still grass. It had tents and stalls - so many food stalls selling boiled chick peas, khoshary, toasted newspaper cones of the seeds that Egyptians love to eat, roasted sweet potato stalls with black sugary trails bubbling out of the tiny ovens, and whole sweet potatoes keeping hot on racks around the oven. I saw dozens of small children on their father's shoulders.

Sellers moved through the traffic - weaving through tightly packed cars and offering flags, balloons, bubble blowers, long ribbons of Egyptian flags - anything you can imagine that looked festive and cheerful. All the kerbs were newly painted in crisp if somewhat blurry black and white. The square sparkled - another shock in a city that was never known for its civic pride or cleanliness.

On one side road traffic was blocked off as a demonstration moved through chanting loudly - and the demonstrators looked about 14 and were almost all male. They were, according to Ibrahim, asking for better high schools.

The museum is a rich reddish terracotta, a festive colour, and looked quite shocking with the building behind it working as a jet black backdrop - the multi storey headquarters of the leading party which was burnt in the first days of demonstrations. That was the elephant in the room - a stark reminder of violence.

There were no police in an area that was always thick with police. Traffic was being controlled by demonstrators and civilians. Two had whistles on strips of ribbon in the colours of the flag. One was doing a good imitation of the style of an Italian policeman - with his arms twirling in the air. The crowd were joyful and noisy and though it took ages to get through the square it was so entertaining that I really did not mind. At one stage I passed out 5 pounds to a young man with the striped ribbons draped on his arm to buy one and got five instead of one ribbon plus change - I kept them knowing the family would enjoy them.

Ibrahim delivered me to the hotel. It is hard to believe that the pages you have just waded through take me only to noon on my first day. I planned to visit my dear tentmakers in the afternoon so - more later!


Do you want to come to Syria and Egypt with me?

We have set dates and costed the Syria and Egypt tour for next year. It will start on the 18th February next year. This time we have given the 'on the ground' costing and you have to book separately to get there and back - but Nick and the lovely team at Impulse can organise that for you.

It does not include a Nile Cruise but people usually go on and add this option in - it is a lovely thing to do but there is not enough that is textile-related to justify me joining you on that (which would mean that you would be paying for me). Those who go are accompanied by a lovely Egyptian Guide.

I love this trip. I lived for three and a half years in Syria and four and a half years in Egypt. You would not find many expert guides who know and love both countries so well.

The big advantage of a textile tour is not so much that you see textiles - but that you move off the standard tourist routes. Of course we see the Krak de Chevaliers



and Palmyra



and the old city of Damascus in Syria,



and the Pyramids (Saqqara as well as Giza)


and the Egyptian Museum in Egypt - but we also move off into areas where locals live and work and we get to know the country better with the insight this gives us.

You know that the group will all have something in common - most are not young and wanting to go to nightclubs in the evenings. Partners who come usually find that they love it - we have better opportunities for really wonderful photography than most tours offer.

We might walk in mud on some days - but always stay in good hotels, so there is a relief in walking into something comfortable and familiar.

I love to take people in to the best textile sites in the beautiful Old City of Damascus in Syria,

Damascus silk brocade



and to the Tentmakers' Street




and the Dyers' Khan in old Cairo,


and to Wissa Wassef - a truly stunning and joyful tapestry school - the best of all Egypt's long term projects.

Wissa Wassef


If enough are interested we could add a few informal days earlier in the north of Syria to see Aleppo, the Dead Cities,



the beehive houses,



and Heike Webber's embroidery project - Anat


- but that will depend on interest. It would simply be with me and a hired car and driver and not part of the formal tour.

Please contact Nick at Impulse - address right at the very top of this post. I wish I could remember how to put that link into Impulse tours!


So many layouts....

I am dithering over another sample for Houston. For quite a while I have added to these blocks from time to time. I always demonstrate the technique in these hot colours, and the blocks have built up.

The class is called Shimmering Triangles, and you make very quick triangle sets, turn them into one of a dozen possible blocks that shimmer, and then place the blocks in the colour order you choose.

Any block that emulates, even vaguely, a half square triangle, can be placed in any of the log cabin layouts. for days I have been turning and changing blocks downstairs and trying to work out how I might sew this piece together. I will not quilt it as tops are lighter to carry - but I would like to stitch it before I go.

So here are the choices.

The simple, all pointing the same way, option.


I was turning alternate rows and while it is not my favourite, I thought the hooks looked quite interesting.


This is the log cabin layout usually called Barn Raising.


Zigzags - I am leaning this way at the moment.


Alternating light/dark squares on point. I have another sample in this setting, with a different block so do not think I will use it - but I do like this look.


Another possibility - Zigzags with an occasional square.


There is one other option. I have not tried it yet but I will try the zigzags with some huge flower blocks tucked in here and there - they are also oranges and reds. You will have to wait for this one as I am off to teach a class!

Please tell me if you have a favourite.


Houston Class

I have a class that I will teach at Houston called Free Motion Quilting with a Starter Scrap". It is a bit of a mouthful but it means what it says.

I supply the 'scraps' in the class as a kit, and people bring cut pieces to go around it. They make a little quilt.

We have a practice session with patterns that I demonstrate on small spare quilt sandwiches. Then - they work on their pieces, going around the main shapes in their centres, and finishing flowers (or other things) where they have been cut off.

We extend the images by making more in other areas, and I teach simple ways to think through that, then pack in filler patterns (taught in the morning session) around them.



I am posting images of the sort of piece this makes, and a few details. I have been greatly honoured to have been invited to be Bernina's artist of the year in Australia. That means that I demonstrate whatever I choose to do at shows all over Australia. I chose free motion quilting on the idea of a 'starter scrap' as many traditional quilters say that they cannot think where to start with free motion quilting - and most traditional quilts have little pieces of prints which have been cut.

These are little ones that I have done as demonstrations in the shows, and Bernina has no problems with the idea of me selling them. I bring them to Houston for sale. I have no idea what I might charge for these as they are so far away from my usual work - but I have flights and accommodation to pay for so I am keen to sell them. I have about fifteen pieces, plus some small quilts in the same style. Any suggestions? Please?

I have discovered that my very favourite thread is back - Mettler's Silk Finish (which is pure cotton) and there are so many stunning colours - so look at the little jewels I can make with these. It is lovely thread, soft and supple and it forms very firm stitches - and it does not coil off the reel like some cotton threads.







This is one of the three little quilts - simple pieces of Kaffe Fasset fabrics with a frame, and then put together as strippy quilts. These are what I think of as Lucky Dip quilts - I plan only to finish where images are cut off - and the rest is up to what people in the shows ask me to demonstrate for them. I like the fact that the quilts can look good with minimal planning. I show only four or five main patterns, all easy to teach and people can make them without drawing in advance.


It is faced not bound - and I am starting to realise that I love the look of a facing - it is so clean and modern.

Sorry about the horrible photographs. I have a good design wall but cannot get far enough away from it for good photographs without moving a very large table - so they look distorted. All are nicely square - I promise.


My Moo Cards

One little bit of extravagance that is a regular indulgence is a regular purchase of Moo cards. I love these business cards. They are delicious to handle - firm card with a matt plastic coating to give a soft satiny sheen. It looks very professional to have your own images of work on your cards and my quilts are often strongly coloured. I offer a fan of cards and suggest anyone who has asked for a card choose one. That offers just a bit of insight into the person who asked.


At different times I have used different types of images. For promoting my textile tours I have had cards printed with photographs from Egypt, Syria and India, and if I am doing a talk on textiles in Egypt - those are the cards I take to show off that tour.

I sprawled a few on my Syrian table cloth. They could be better photographs - but you will get the idea!


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