Thursday, May 26, 2005

The tassel suq

The tassel suq Cords

We had a lovely day several days ago, when two friends went with me on a search for notions and odds and ends, and found the tassel suq. This is a long row of shops selling all sorts of handmade upholstery bits and pieces - if you can make it with silk cords or fluff (which I have doubts about as they look like rayon to me) then it is here!

And even more tassels Men at the Fabric Suq
I have always loved chairs because ever since seeing Vincent Van Gogh's yellow bedroom I have realised they imply the presence of people. Also - they are great shapes, especially repeated.

Tangled cords in the tassel suq And more tassels
Tassels lie like slugs View from a window looking across the Nile to Zamalek
Cottons in the second hand fabric area

I have been exploring back streets of the suq area by happily accompanying strange men who tell me to come with them.

The dyeing place

No children, don't follow my example. I did have friends with me, but this is Achmed, who brought me to a really interesting place where people were dyeing silks (though I suspect rayons) in old baths and in industrial quantities.

Silks waiting to be dyed
They call it silk but it may be rayon Dyed 'silks' drying on the roof
Keep on going through the photos to see the tassels and cords that are made with this stuff!

Cards in the paper suq
Look carefully and you will see the three of us with the street behind us in the reflections.

The card suq is a revelation. If it can be made in paper it is here. It can be remearkably over the top, adn efffusive, but also so elegant. It is cheap, with lovely embossed card blanks with envelopes selling at about one hundred for twenty Australian dollars.

Cards from the paper suq Dolls for confirmation parties for Coptic Christians
Wedding invitations from an order for fifteen hundred
Wedding invitations from an order for fifteen hundred, with the bride and groom's first names in Arabic and gold.

A tangle of dolls in the wedding suq Have glue gun....
Wedding dolls, labels, tulle and lace, all ready for wedding favours with the glue gun waiting.

Buttons and cheap beads Button drawers in blue
... and button drawers in red

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I just re-read my own blog. The oil was actually three pounds for both bottles – otherwise having the lovely sewing machine mechanic giving me back my money does not make sense! It was seventy five cents for two bottles. I was tired when I wrote it, and my maths is not good even when I am not tired!

The Good Oil

I needed sewing machine oil the other day. My new machine started flashing an oil light. I had a quilt deadline to meet. According to the book, my machine needed to be cleaned and oiled. I cleaned it. Oil had come with the machine in a sealed bottle. I had used it once, and because I didn’t trust the new seal I had carefully propped it up into a box beside the machine. Then I had a sewing group upstairs and my lovely housekeeper, Veronica, had joined me for the last of the ‘cleaning up flurry’.

I couldn’t find it. I searched every possible place, and some that were not so possible.

I gave in and tried to find alternative sources. Two friends had machines, but neither had oil.

The guide books didn’t mention sewing machines.

I decided that the only possibility was Medan Abata which has a huge number of tiny hardware shops. Think of Bunnings fragmented into six hundred tiny shops, except that most of them have almost the same stock.

I booked a taxi, and was waiting the hour or so that he said he would be when a friend from the embassy rang. Our husbands were both out and working (and yes, it was a weekend, even here ) so she decided to come with me.

We were dropped at the entrance to a very large and very active market. We had to walk through the shoe section, then the cheap t-shirts, then the underwear. Spruikers were everywhere, it was just starting to get dark, but lit from all the shop windows.

We hesitated over some very roundly padded bras in hot pink with green lace, and I was caught surreptitiously admiring some very large white knitted y-fronts. It is odd being in a very different culture which is known for its modesty, then suddenly finding all their undergarments laid out, hung up and spread before you in very large quantities. It is actually hard to look at the men around without wondering which are wearing y-fronts and which have the white boxers that look like baggy Aussie stubbies.

There was a ‘sexy’ underwear suq in Damascus that had matching sets of bras and pants covered in sequins or feathers, and each set was all of three Australian dollars. I had often bought them when we lived there, not for myself but because they were a very light gift to post for friends in Australia, and I would send them as a bit of a joke. At one stage I asked one of the men who sold them who usually bought them. He said “Our women”. I must have looked a bit surprised, as I had noticed a lot of women in the suq but thought them middle aged and well covered in clothing.

I realise now that in fact they were probably younger than I am now. He gave me a very straight look, and said “You westerners just look at our women and you see the mountain. Underneath they are volcanoes.” It has been a lesson I often remember not to judge from what is on the surface.

We moved on through the suq, and went into the first of the hardware shops. I told him I needed oil, and mimed sewing on a machine. He reached into a glass case and offered me a circular saw, explaining that he only had little ones. Thank goodness for that, this seemed quite big enough.

At this point I realised that my miming wasn’t too good. I drew a little sewing machine, pointed to it, and said “zeit” – which is Arabic for oil. He nodded furiously, and took my little book, and carefully drew a tiny oil bottle beside the machine, with a long thin nozzle and half filled with horizontal dashes.

I asked him where I could get oil and he took me to the door, pointed and indicated straight ahead, then left, then right. I asked him to write in Arabic ‘sewing machine oil’ and he did.

Off we went. I have learnt by experience that you check and recheck directions. It is an interesting thing in the Middle East, that no-one admits not knowing where things are. They will direct you with great certainty, but you can be going in absolutely the wrong direction. We checked, and others sent us in the same direction, and said the same name. I couldn’t work out if it was a company or a street, but it didn’t seem to be a street. One man took my drawing, with the words for sewing machine oil in Arabic, and wrote again. Then he indicated that he had written the address for us to show people.

We spoke to so many people and there was such a wonderful feeling of warmth and humour from those who helped us. It was a wonderful market area, huge and winding, a labyrinth, but it felt very safe and very friendly.

We were obviously getting close, as the last man had just pointed to an area a bit further down the road.

Believe it or not, it was a sewing machine shop. I doubt if anything there was produced any later than forty years ago. Most of the machines were really old. Beautiful old Singers, with black enamel and gold decals – where they hadn’t worn off – and even one with a fiddle base. Some were obviously treadles, and some hand cranks, some were other brands, and there were a few Elnas. Best of all, every single machine moved like satin, with that beautiful effortless slide of a perfectly tuned and serviced machine.

We both bought oil. I am a little concerned as it was not in a Singer bottle. I am only reassured by the memory of those old machines and their beautiful movement.

I asked the price. He said three pounds. I reached for my purse. My friend didn’t have small money so I pulled out six pounds to pay for both, a five, and a one. He was horrified and gave me the one back, and change. They were three pounds each, so we bought two bottles of oil for about a dollar and fifty cents.

Best of all, we left there and found a second hand book market which was brilliant. I have been desperate for reading material, and this was wonderful. I bought a huge bag of books in English. Some I would not have bothered with in Australia, but I am so desperate for reading that I have been reading anything.

As we left my friend’s scarf slipped off and fell. Neither of us noticed and we were at the edge of the curb and waiting for a cab when someone called out, ran to us and pushed the scarf into her hands.

It was a great day, and sometimes small things can leave you so warm and happy.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Ramses Wissa Wassef School, Threads of Life

Birds in a cage, made after a trip to the zoo. The first piece

I saw Wissa Wassef today!

It was actually accidental. I have been going out on Friday mornings when the traffic was not heavy, to try to learn my way around Cairo. Last week I drove loops all over Zamalek, but was too afraid to leave the island as I was afraid I wouldn't find my way back.

This time Bob was able to come too and was willing to navigate.

I decided to try to find the Pyramids at Giza. It is something I am going to need to do with visitors coming through, and I felt that as they were big and would be easy to see I might be able to find them easily!

We managed that with only a few wrong turns, and then I decided that as we had seen the road to Sakkara we would go there next. I had been there before and liked it better than Giza, as there were less annoying sellers of postcards and camel drivers trying to ask you to pay exhorbitant charges for a ride on their camels. We were driving down the side of the canal when Bob noticed a signpost for Wissa Wassef. I looped back, and around again to cross a very full canal, and still only intended to find out where it was so we could make an appointment to visit next week. However, it was much closer than I realised, and I had to pull up beside it to turn. A man waved us in, telling us it was open for visitors, but of course no weavers were there on a Friday.

I wrote a little about this place a day or so ago, and so I don’t need to go over it again.

The basics - Ramses Wissa Wassef started a school for weaving in 1952. He trained children to weave, out of a belief that every child can make art, but that usually we train it out of them. He decided that he would not select children, but would take any children who wanted to come (within their restrictions on numbers of course). He would not permit them to copy others ideas, or to repeat ideas, nor was anyone to direct what they made in any way. They provide a lot of visual stimulation with trips to the desert, the Nile, the Red Sea, and more local trips to zoos and market places.

I have a huge selection of photographs of the work on the walls and of the absolutely beautiful buildings designed by Ramses Wissa Wassef in mud brick to sit easily with the landscape. Some I will put on this site, and I will have even more on my Flickr site (see the link to the right hand side).

Madder growing in the garden

Ramses Wissa Wassef wove his own first tapestry to make sure that he knew how to do it. He dyed his own wools also. They grow all the plants they use for dyeing themselves, with the exception of indigo which they bring in. I was shown madder growing, and the root of this is harvested after it has been in the ground for three years. They use no dyes except natural dyes. They weave in wool and cotton, but most of the bigger work is in wool.

Angels telling of the birth of Jesus the Wissa Wassef Centre through a weaver's eyes
this piece was made a a pair with the one I described at the palace , but was not purchased. The gardens at Wissa Wassef
A bronze girl dreams by an old door Ceramic dove on a window sill
This plant produces the yellow dye

The Funeral
This piece was made by a child weaver. The tradition is from the time of the Pharoahs, that mourners are brought in for a funeral who would paint their faces with indigo and dance and sing traditional songs. Behind them, the family of the deceased are also painted with indigo, and they have prostrated themselves with grief. Other members of the village have come to the funeral to sit and chat.

Yoanna and a very interesting piece
One weaver came to Joanna's mother and said "My husband has left me for another woman, and I am so upset and angry and sad that I cannot make beautiful things".
"Make a war,” was the answer, "and show your anger".
This piece is the result. At the bottom of the image, where it was started, are rats and sly slinking animals to represent the husband. Then we have the violence of a battle on horseback, swords clashing, and horses falling.
These pieces take a long time to make. At about this level, her husband returned.
She added the water, to calm the image. Then life came back to normal, and she allowed horses to drink at the water, and to dance with their riders on them. The sun rose in glory, and the sky was blue again.

Life in a village by the Nile The Creation, a tryptich
Noah's Ark, by a young weaver
The Marketplace
Detail of the Marketplace, with a quilt covering a table.
Two pieces by the same adult weaver
Pool and trees with rocks behind - detail follows
Detail of the previous tapestry, note animals hiding in the trees
Details of the wonderful colours used in the rocks on the left of the same image
Plants against the sky
Detail of women weaving boxes from the centres of palm leaves
The courtyard at the Pottery at Wissa Wassef
Wonderfully expressive people at the pottery

Friday, May 20, 2005

Aoud, Pipe and Drum

Last night we went to an aoud concert. This is a beautiful Middle Eastern musical instrument, a string instrument like a guitar, but with about twenty strings (maybe less, I was trying to count the tension knobs as they played). It has a very deep round belly. Music aficionados are by now wincing at my lack of correct terminology. They have the option of skipping this bit.

See it here.

The concert was in a very basic hall with chairs on the sort of structure more used in sports stadiums. It didn’t help that it was tucked under the busiest bridge in Zamalek which meant that it vibrated all the time from traffic, with occasional louder and more intrusive sounds.

There was a very small audience at first, but it doubled by the end of the evening. The players simply walked, in, picked up their instruments, and started. No fanfare or announcements.

There were three musicians, a taller, slightly older man, George Kazazian, who played the aoud (that first letter is supposed to be the equivalent of the ayn – one of the more unpronounceable of the Arabic alphabets, and a bit like twisting and a around your throat before letting it out). A younger man who played the drum, and another who looked young enough to be in is teens, who played a bamboo pipe.

I love this style of music. It was gentle, very clever, and almost conversational in the way the instruments worked with each other. The drummer rarely had a break, and most of the drumming was done at the edge of the top of the drum, and flicking to the centre occasionally. He often had a hand on the centre, and moved this around to change the sound he was getting. He did an occasional solo and it was amazing how many sounds he could get from a small and apparently simple instrument.

The bamboo pipe was just as impressive. It was very simple, no special mouthpiece or reed, just a long narrow section of bamboo with about eight segments, and holes at the lower end, both above and below. He had his mouth to the instrument most of the time, and I couldn’t work out if he came in at a signal I didn’t see, or if he made up his own mind where to come in. His softer notes had a sobbing, ‘crying in the wind’ quality, and he would use these often as sounds that floated through the music of the drum and aoud. Occasionally he would play more and louder, and keep his eye on the aoud player. Then the nod was obvious, and his would be the main instrument, with others simply playing repetitive passages as background.

There was no doubt that the aoud was the master, both as man and instrument. It sounds a little like a Spanish guitar, and the rather free form way of playing seemed very unrehearsed. Sometimes the music was demanding, sometimes so intermittent that you wondered if he could be falling asleep, as the intervals between notes became longer and more thoughtful.

The three together were just wonderful and I sat a lot with my eyes closed to let them mix in my head without the distraction of sight. They were having fun too, and there were times when you could see them laughing at each other, as the drummer set a frantic pace for the others, or the aoud player pulled the pipe into what sounded like a duel of two instruments.

We asked for CDs. He didn’t have any with him. I would have loved one, and will watch for the group again.

Lamps and Domes

Lamps Lamps
Yesterday was spent exploring the area called Mohandisseen with two good friends. We did a gallery crawl, and I bought all sorts of little odds and ends, and have a few major purchases planned. I have been looking for a hanging light in a traditional style for my reading room with its beautiful domed roof. One of the things - or several of them actually, was a collection of brass "hands of Fatima". They are well known here as a "ward" a protection against evil, or the evil eye. These are great shapes, and I will hang them upstairs.

Carving the shapes Carved clay pieces await firing
We called in a little local pottery making lovely things, especially the pieces where the clay was intricately carved into Islamic patterns. I have to go back to this one!

Dome details Detail of Domes
We also found a gallery/antique shop with some really interesting paintings of domes of Cairo. I have photographed some here. I am embarrassed that I don't know the name of the artist. We thought we had it, then realised that the name on the corner of one painting (which I didn't photograph) did not match the name on the card we were given, and they are clearly the work of one person. However, I did ask permission to put these up when I was there, and was granted it. I will send the name when I have it.
Domes and Minarets Domes and minarets
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