Wednesday
Dec162009

Map for the Tentmakers of Cairo

Finally I can really show people how to find the Tentmakers of Old Cairo. Or how to locate Khan Khayamiya, or Kayamiya - as they are all the same thing.

My son Sam made a wonderful map for those who wish to walk. Or for those who wish to get a taxi to Either Khan El Khalili, or from Bab El Khalk (or Bab el Qalk as the pronunciation is the same). Taxis know both of those locations.

You will see Bab Zuweilah marked on the map and it looks like this.

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This is the single most wonderful street to visit in Cairo to let visitors get the feel of the modern city, and of the incredible humour and kindness of Egyptians. You will not be pushed to buy and can visit, drink tea or kakadeh, and chat, and watch a wonderfully interesting world go by.

They do not make tents so much nowadays - but the work that they make now is derived from from the colourful appliquéd linings of tents of the old days, when the tentmakers (or Khayamiya in Arabic) made brilliant linings, ceilings and covered screens for the streets. They are still used:

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as screens in the desert to provide essential windbreaks for cooking, eating and sleeping,

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and at weddings and henna parties like this amazing one in a Cairo street.

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And funerals like the one in the City of the Dead in Cairo,

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and any celebration that needs to look like a celebration.

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The street is beautiful. It was built in 1647 for shoemakers, but now is the domain of the men who make beautiful hand appliqué.

These are a few pieces to get you inspired.

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A piece of calligraphy, from the Koran to be hung on a wall.

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This is a very traditional piece here, and with traditional colours.

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You can see a Flickr photoset of all of the images I took for one exhibition.

If you really feel like browsing through a LOT of photos of all sorts of things and have a few hours to spare the link to all my organised sets is here. Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Italy and India - and lots more.

But please remember - if you know someone visiting Cairo, print off the map for them, and tell them to take a cab to:

either Khan El Khalili and start from the street opposite the green bridge on the OTHER side from the Khan,

Or

To take a cab to Bab El Khalk where you will walk up the road from the police station to Bab Zuweilah and the Tentmakers Street.

The latter is my pick as there are wonderful things to see on this street. But that is another blog.

Tell them to go without a guide. Guides demand a commission form the men for bringing tourists - and the price will go up a lot.

Say hello from me.

Friday
Dec042009

India and the "Untouchable" Village

I do know that the term is not currently considered appropriate. I could say something, like "the people previously known as untouchables, or Dalits - or whatever. The mere fact that there is a new term for the same group still implies a social status.

This village, near Udaipur, gave me the most joyous experience of my trip. I am being selfish in not giving its name as I would hate to see hundreds of tourists visiting there, and it would change the way the people relate to tourists. We were the first visitors since I was there in May. It is made of 'found' materials, except for some roofing tiles - stones and mud and mud brick and mud plaster.

In May I took a lot of photographs. It was late afternoon and the light was almost silvery, even though it was Summer. We had a few sweets for children but we hardly got out of the car and most of my photographs were taken through the car window. However, we had met some of the people on the road and photographed them with their animals. I had a big pile of prints to hand back, and I had asked the group to keep shampoos and toiletries from hotels for the women of the village.

It was cooler in November, and we made it our first stop of the day.

I think it is easier to simply add photographs and let those tell the stories.

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Mr Sheik from Thomas Cook was our guide and can be contacted through Thomas Cook Udaipur if readers wish.

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If you want to join me one day in India - you are very welcome.

This was just one morning of a very rich and wonderful day.

Check details on my website for the itinerary - though there may be changes from year to year. You can contact Stephanie or Nina at Impulse Travel in Sydney, Australia, and we work with Namish Sharma at Thomas Cook (TCI) in Delhi, India. If we have enough people we run the tour!

Friday
Dec042009

Anish Kapoor and Watching the Watchers

I was lucky enough, courtesy of my lovely husband, to have a week in London recently - and I was not even working. He had a meeting, some points in his Frequent Flyer account, and a lovely hotel on the edge of Sloane Square.

I used the time blissfully wandering London, and saw some wonderful exhibitions - the British museum, the V&A and its Maharajah exhibition, The National Gallery, and I went to see Anish Kapoor's huge solo exhibition in the Royal Academy.

I am not going to try to write a review for Anish Kapoor as these things are done by people far more proficient than I am.

I want to talk about just one element - ‘Svayambh’ (meaning ‘auto-generated’). The language is Sanskrit - which is like using a Latin title as the language is a dead language even in India.

A huge block - 20 tons - of red wax moves slowly through three galleries on a straight track. It moves very slowly, but the movement is easily visible and it takes about two hours to move from one end of its track to the other. It is shaped like a large loaf of bread with a curved top, as this is the shape of the arched entrances that it pushes through.

I watched it come through the final room at one end, over about twenty minutes as it reached the end, packing lumps of previously dropped wax against the end of the track and the wall, then reversing to start the slow slide back. Clumps stuck as it moved away, and seemed to creep after it, dropping off slowly to leave big lumps on the track. Small pools formed in the dips, wet and oily. A guard told me that the wax was mixed with Vaseline to make it softer and sticky.

It was inexorable - the original irresistible object. As it dragged through the beautiful arches between different rooms it left thick traces dragged against the marble arches, and lumps sheered off on the fronts and backs of the arches. The object was shaped by the arches - and it moved like a huge and very slow paintbrush, dragging softly, wetly, against the entrances and leaving its colour and sludge behind.

I went to the far room and just sat for about one and a half hours. It was still a long way away. People would walk in straight to the red track, with the detritus of previous visits piled against the wall and its small sludgy pools gleaming in the pure whiteness of that beautiful gallery. The ceiling's beautiful plasterwork is gilded and the floor is parquetry - the feeling of the space is pristine and the globs of oily sticky wax feel like a violation.

People would step straight over the very insignificant white narrow wooden strip which paralleled the track and peer down the track to see how far away the monumental block of wax was, to estimate how long it might take to arrive.

When I first walked in I had done the same.

I sat to watch people, more that the work.

Some stood for a while and talked. Older women often looked appalled at what they saw as a terrible mess.

There was a woman leaning against the wall. Her arms were folded tightly against her body, and her mouth was turned down and sullen. She had long brown hair. She did not seem to be in uniform and it wasn't until she started growling at people for stepping over the white line that I realised she was a guard.

I cannot believe that Anish Kapoor ever meant his audience to be harassed - but I watched in amazement as what might have been interesting and pleasant became very much otherwise for many of the audience that morning.

British audiences are polite and usually moved instantly and apologised when growled at. Some did not actually realise at first that she was speaking to them and looked guilty as they jumped back. She almost verbally attacked a woman who took a call on her mobile - despite the fact that at that stage I was the only other person in the room. One woman asked a question about the art work and she snapped "I do not know because I am not an artist".

Right on the hour the guard changed. The new guard was younger, polite, and tended to keep reiterating "Please keep behind the white line, Sir, please keep behind the white line." She was in uniform, her security tag was clear and visible (no folded arms and resentful body language here). It was a gentler harassment - like being on the platform as the train approaches on the Tube. It almost turned into insistent background noise and as more and more people came in she was often ignored.

On the next hour the guard was a young man. The wax was now in the next room so it was clearly closer to arriving, and more and more people were walking in to check on it. He was young, and positioned himself in the space between the white line and the track, leaning against the end wall so he could sight straight down the forbidden space. He seemed not to be worried by people stepping in to look. I talked to him and he told me about the Vaseline in the wax to make it malleable, about the latex they had used to protect the white paint and arches and which would peel away later, and that he had no real problem with people looking as long as he felt there was no immediate danger. If people looked as if they would touch the wax he would stop them - usually on grounds that it was sticky and hard to remove.

People asked about the work and he answered and asked them questions to elicit what they thought about it. He pulled people in, made them interested and involved, and he used the paintbrush analogy.

I realised that I had seen three very different experiences, just because of the guard. I wondered briefly if that was actually an intention of the work - but I am sure it was not. I think it was just different interpretation of a gallery's need to keep its clientele safe from twenty tons of moving wax.

Other exhibits forced us to weave through a crowding of work, taking quite careful movements to prevent physical contact.

I am sure Anish Kapoor would have preferred the third guard.

Saturday
Nov072009

India

I am in India again. All around us the rhythms of the country lilt and rock, in a gentle swinging rhythm that is soft and sweet, like rolling in honey.

There is an amazing sense of contrasts - hot and spicy, rich and earthy foods and smooth and delicate sugary and densely milky desserts. The dryness and earth colours of Rajasthan with the odd butterfly brightness of the women in fantastic saris – raspberry and fuchsia and cyclamen and saffron and chartreuse and ochre and orange – all wrapped and edged with gold. Desert and thorn trees, and a moving dusty cloud which shifts to reveal herds of creamy horned cattle, tall lean men in white dhotis and tunics and deep crimson turbans as herds are moved south in a desperate attempt to dodge the drought.

We visited a tiny village near Udaipur where people who used to be called untouchables have built their houses in found stone and thatching. Their lives are probably poor and bleak, dependent on what they can grow but we were greeted with glee and a sense of welcome. I had taken photographs in May and delivered them to those who recognized themselves. The contrast between that tiny village in the beautiful hilly area where they nestled with the rich and extraordinarily beautiful lake city of Udaipur with its three white palaces and three man made lakes was humbling.

We have watched block printing with long padded tables lined with cotton which goes through three processes before it is even put on the table. We watched block printing, resist printing with mud and straw, dye dipping in natural colours and indigo vats with their oily green slick on the surface. Some fabrics went through eight processes and still sold for less per metre than a cappuccino in Canberra.

We visited a home where the family was tying tiny rhythmic points into silks to dye it – and we tried popping those tiny knots off the dyed fabric to reveal little white squares with colour in the centres. The fabrics made this way were beautiful and incredibly time-enriched, and they held the rippling shapes of the tying so they hug shoulders and curve over bodies.

We visited the tiny walled town of Patan to see Patong weaving – double ikat, mind-bogglingly complicated. On the way we went across a bridge over a long and dry river bed – to see a river of people pouring downstream, climbing over the edges of the bridge and down the banks to join a huge and brightly coloured crowd in the far distance. It was a cattle market and explained the large herds of lean and bony cattle we had been seeing all morning, steadily plodding towards the same destination.

We are now in Chennai and have arrived with the second monsoon – which is devastating for me as we have booked beautiful resorts for the next four days. I had imagined quiet relaxing hours on beaches after sightseeing. I had planned to visit dyeing workshops –which will not be dyeing in the torrential rain. I had hoped that they would see the French colony of Pondicherry in sunshine with the sea washing against the city walls, and the ashram full of flowers and their sun-warm scent.

Instead every road is a river, brown and fast flowing- to somewhere else. People are staying home, and those on the streets look dark and somber in heavy wet-weather plastics. Men move around with trousers rolled to their knees, or just give up and wade calf-deep in the water. Cars move slowly with a wake like a battle ship which rocks the water heavily against the tiny shops that edge Pondicherry Market – which – oddly enough – is in Chennai.

I looked to BBC weather for reassurance and hope – but it predicts heavy rain for the next five days. Our plans may have to change - but it looks as if we might have time to go to tailors to have fabrics turned to clothes, and to post offices to relieve impossibly heavy suitcases. It is a country used to resilience and change, and we can take our cues from the Indians.

All will be well as India is never ever boring.

Monday
Aug172009

Sand Storm over the White Desert

I would hate everyone to think that a lack of posts means inertia. What it means is that life is just too busy for writing of any sort.

I have been making a big quilt. I thought I would take you a little through my making process to show you how badly I veer off course in case it helps others who do the same.

One of my absolute favourite places in Egypt was the Western Desert - and especially the White Desert. It was relatively easy to get to - five hours drive from Cairo to the oasis of Bahariya, then we piled into the car of our guide who drove us another hour and a half to the desert. It was also pretty easy to organise for visitors. A phone call or email to Peter Wirth, the owner of the International Hot Springs Hotel, and a car would be sent to Cairo to collect anyone and bring them down. This meant I did not actually have to own a car to get there.

I probably went about thirty times over our four years. We would drive though the Black Desert to get there - passing huge black basalt lumps nestled into ochre sand. It was an extraordinary sense of distance and peace to swirl through sand, crawl over gibbers, and bump over rock, and all in an open four wheel drive with a large Bedouin at the wheel.

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Our favourite guide was Magdy Badrmany. He became a good friend. His English was good so anyone could be sent with him, he was a quiet and careful driver, he could cook a feast over a gas jet or a small tended fire, and he would take you on a tour of the night sky - unbelievable littered with constellations and strewn with stars. Many nights I chose to sleep out of the tent so I could watch falling stars arcing overhead and fading into the edges of the sky.

Once in the desert you enter a soft white world.

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There is a silvery light at dawn that touches and paints the edges of the amazing calcium carbonate formations with hints of mauve and pink, and long long shadows that reach across the sand like stretching fingers. It was the bottom of an old sea, and here and there are fossil evidence, fragile curled shells emerging from the chalk.

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As it was rich in iron and crystallised iron pyrite, like smoothly polished jet, emerges also, in long fingers, or curled around fossils, or as desert flowers, perfect crystals in matte black that nestle with short spikes into your hands. In our first year I picked up many. At the end of our posting I brought back most, full of shame as I had seen areas denuded of treasures, many of which were abandoned by their collectors at service stations in Bahariya.

By lunch time the light is stark and hard, the pure white dazzles and the shadows of the stones are inky and blue and pool tightly below each formation. Our guides would tuck in tight in the meagre shade, while their particular tourists, like mad dogs and Englishmen, would roam for photos.

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A sand storm meant that I would wrap my camera tightly and not use it so I do not have those photos. At first it is an equal lifting of gold sand and white fine dust. As soon as the wind has moved on the sand settles, but in the white desert the dust stays in the air for days, so fine and light that it is like a thin fog.

In this light the sun is softened and you start to see the soft cramy bieges that tint the chalk, warming the formations. The sand can seem peach, the hint of coral even spreading into greyer areas where the iron stones gather.

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Night tints the horizon with soft pinks, until it blazes into a vast and unsettling sunset, and leaves even the whitest shapes as dark and forbidding silhouettes.

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For the White Desert Quilt I planned to make I had thought of making a series of quilts. I wanted a sense of its vastness, the huge wrap-around horizon, ridged and beautiful with far distant forms, like bent old men talking. I thought of starting the first with dawn light, then through the day with the changes of light until the final pieces was the deep blues of the lit-by-starlight desert. It would have been a total of about eight metres - at least. I also wanted it to feel vast and overpowering, and to include Magdy as his presence is intrinsic, large, quiet but with a real streak of fun and a boyish humour. That whole idea had to go as I would never be able to show it anywhere.

I started to pull images together that would feed the idea I wanted to work with. I collated images of particular well known formations, mushrooms, the chicken and the egg, the rabbit. I pulled up images of Magdy. Working with someone you know well is complex as it has to be perfect - to feel like that person - or in my mind the quilt cannot work.

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I considered some of the animal life of the area - fennec foxes and camels - but decided it felt kitsch.

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I had been mulling over it for sometime. I wanted to combine piecing and pictures, but the area and the tribes have no real patterning that is part of their history. I decided to use the kaleidoscope block as a swirling sky of sandstorm and the other side to be blue - so I could play with neutrals and the tinting of cream and colour in the same quilt.

Then - someone pointed out that the entries for Canberra Quilters - my local guild - were due that Friday. Talk about panic!

I drew what I had planned. Sort of. I sketched an idea of the colours that would be in it, and the patterning of the sky on a sheet of kaleidoscope blocks. It was too short in height and too wide in length, but I sent in an entry that looked a bit like this.

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I was embarrassed, but added a note that I would have no problem with being rejected. I also had three months to make the work and it felt a long way away at the time. They did not reject me, but I kept in touch to assure organisers that things were moving on the quilt.

I spent a month on a swirling sky - that was too busy, too strongly coloured, too tightly controlled - too everything really.

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I wasted that month as I junked the whole thing. More simplicity was called for. I was out at our small airport and saw a poster enticing people into a career in the army. On the helmet was a swirl of dust kicked up by a helicopter - and it was exactly the sort of movement I remembered from 'my' sandstorm.

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I opted for squares on point.

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Now I was truly under pressure.

I elongated the view I had originally drawn of his body, combining several images in one composite to have the wind flipping his felted and braided vest. I worked on the background, and even that had to be radically simplified. The view was pulled in tighter and closer and I had lost some of the sense of awe-inspiring distance I had wanted, so had to push it a bit further away.

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I made Magdy's body and then his face, though it felt odd to be pushing a hot iron over his face as it started to feel like him.

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The top

I stitched everything down, and put a lot more information into his face with stitching.

I started quilting with two weeks to go. I had intended to be clever, and include imagery of many things in the area in the quilting. In the end I calmed it down, adding only a few fossils in the border at the bottom. It is a simple place, and I risked losing the sense of peace - and the sense of place - that I felt in the quilt if I added too much that was distracting.

I entered it as 'not for judging' but the committee pointed out that I could be judged for my category without being judged for best of show - and that sounded good. I won last year and am content with that. You never think you will win - or I do not - by the time the work is finished I am sick of it and it seems dull and boring.

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I won my category. The final pictures are withheld as I want to enter the piece in others shows - possibly overseas. Some consider a personal blog a publication of sorts - so I am sorry - but wait a few more months.

This will give a better idea of its size.

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It fits absolutely in my current series of Egyptians that I admire for their calm acceptance of the life they are given, and their absolute competence in their chosen work. I did not name this one after Magdy as I am finding that people do not remember the men's names and cannot name the quilts - so it is Sandstorm over the White Desert. His name is written in a strip at the bottom.

And small bit of private glee - it has been accepted into Houston!

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