Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Friends of the Coptic Museum

I went by myself to a reception to mark the opening of the Coptic Museum for the Friends of the Coptic Museum.

Bob was at a talk by Robert Fisk at the British Council but I wanted to see the Museum and it was going to be open to all the guests, and with guides available.

I was way too early. I knew I would be but Bob had to be dropped in time for Fisk and it seemed logical to go straight on. It meant I had far too much time. Mahmoud drove a way I had never been before. Traffic was heavy on the mainland so he hopped over a bridge onto Rodda Island and drove parallel to the heavily banked up city traffic on the Island. It is a poorer area than the island Zamalek is built on which is actually called El Gezira which simply means The Island.

Unfortunately it meant that we arrived even earlier. I had my small notebook in my bag.

I had taken some notes as I sat in the back of the car. Then I took a whole lot more in the Museum courtyard, and even inside the Museum. I intended them for the base of a blog, put together with connecting bits filled in - but I think they are interesting just as they are.

So - here they are.

I watch a small girl, perhaps four years old, in a ankle length pure white skirt with deep frills in bright, very hot pink, net around the bottom. They stand out like the ruffles on a flamenco costume. She is obviously proud of her skirt but has been tempted by her brothers to join them in their game. They are climbing large piles of builders' rubble - mostly just dirt. As she climbs I watch in maternal horror as she plants her feet into the ruffles and strains against them. I know they are tearing. I can almost hear them ripping from the car. At one point she stands and tries to brush the dirt off that her knees have imprinted in the skirt. It is white and she is not very good at getting dirt off. In fact her hands are heavily encrusted and are making it worse. I know she has considered the fact that her mother will be horrified at the state of a skirt that is obviously new, but her brothers are ahead of her now and the lure of the dirt is just too much. She starts to climb again.

The Coptic Museum is in a glorious old house. At least, it looks like a glorious old house - it might have been recently purpose-built in that style but I would be surprised. I walk through into a large open courtyard, and it has two levels with shallow stairs dividing the levels. At one end of the lower side a trio is setting up. A French horn and a harp seem an unlikely pair, but sound beautiful together.

Tables are covered in white damask cloth which is covered in a richly buttery cream lace. They look bridal. Add wide shallow bowls of cream arum lilies and magnolias against dark and glossy leaves under a shimmer of babies breath. I put an elbow on my table and it drops enough to make me think it is collapsing. It is a heart-stopping moment. There must be a full five inches of difference between the level of the stone pavement on one side compared to the other. There are full sized date palms over our heads and the breeze is rippling the fronds, then moving wildly through them - adding their own sussuration to the ripple of soft sound from the harp.

Bob has just objected to my using that word on grounds that if he hasn't heard it others won't know it either. I think he is wrong - but just in case - it means 'a faint indistinct background sound like whispering, muttering or humming'. What better word describes the sound of wind in the fronds of a date palm as evening falls in Egypt?

The harp is tuned, and starts to play with a ripple of sound like water over stones. The harpist is a young dark woman, very beautiful, obviously Egyptian, and there is drama in the way her pale slim arm stretches across the width of the harp to pluck at the strings and her hair drops over her downturned face as she feels and dreams her way into the music, obviously not even attempting to see what she is doing. She looks like images I have seen of harpists on walls of tombs, though they are usually male. I have seen two different tombs with very similar images of harpists. Their eyes are closed, and in each case the archaeologist has described them as blind. I am now wondering if it is just that they close their eyes to play, like this young woman. The French horn and saxophone join in playing Ave Maria and it is one of those times when the hair stands up on my arms. There are still only a handful of people in the courtyard as some others who arrived have taken advantage of free tours through an empty museum. The players play as if they do it for their own pleasure - and perhaps they do.

A well dressed lady at the table next to me has a real Gucci bag. I have started to admire these with the sort of bewildered admiration because I would like one but can't imagine how anyone can deem a handbag worth THAT much money. To my total amazement she has just tipped all the contents of the large bowl of mixed nuts into her bag, closed it quickly, replaced the bowl and looked around to see if anyone saw her do it. My mouth is still open and I didn't look away fast enough. She registers, blinks, looks away and moves quickly to another table which has a full bowl of nuts.

A young man comes down the broad stone steps. He is serious and intent, talking into a black walkie talkie. He wears a black suit, black shirt in a deeper darker black, and a silk tie in wide diagonal stripes of hot pink and black, so it looks as if someone has put hatching lines across his chest with a bright pink Sharpie.

Another man walks in looking so similar. The stripes on his tie are softer pink, his shirt a touch closer to charcoal The men stop and stare at each other, so surprised. It is obviously not a uniform!

There is a real risk that by the time the other guest arrive I will have eaten every cashew in the nut bowl on this table.

There are bare trees outside - no leaves, but the branches carry huge fleshy scarlet flowers. Walking through Zamalek the other day one landed on my shoulder and I thought a schoolchild had hit me with a ball. I will call them flame trees though I know they are not. The sun is very low now and through the dark wood of the door from the courtyard where I wait is a window with two elegant columns set into its sides.Below the window a young flame tree is glowing as if the flowers are flames in the setting sun It casts a perfect crisp black shadow against the golden walls.

I decide to go into the Museum. I have left it a bit late as I know there is a lot to see, but I have realised that my time could be better spent than scribbling notes in my book and eating cashews.

I am upstairs now, and looking down at the courtyard through the meshrabiya. The dark lacy wood is beautiful, but fractures the view into thousands of pieces. A group of four policemen in black serge 'Winter' uniforms run past me, peering with urgency through the meshrabiya screens and making frustrated comments. They can obviously see no more clearly than the women of last century could through these grills, and they were also obviously supposed to be the 'upstairs security' for someone of importance about to arrive.

It is a near-perfect museum as each floor wraps around a courtyard, single room after single room. You move very easily from room to room, and by blocking some stairs and opening others they have managed to herd people exactly as they wish. The lift has been inserted as an afterthought - an attempt to help those not able to manage the many flights of stairs inside the building. they have made it elegant though - polished wood and elaborate cages of ironwork like the lovely old lifts of Victorian England that always look as if they should be hand-cranked.

I am back in the courtyard. The wind is reaching fingers down into the crowd and I am glad I wore a suit. I have just realised that my place at the previous table is long gone - perhaps that is why they urged me to go and see the museum before, not after when the crowds hit. The sky has turned pink and there is a wash of the softest mauve. One star is just appearing. On the dull old-gold of the plasterwork on the building there are long dark streaks that mean that there will be bats here at nightfall. I wonder what those streaks might look like on pure white damask cloths with a cream lace overlay. I would never have thought of putting together blue-mauve, pink and old gold - a warm, rich golden yellow ochre - but the colours are wonderful together.

A lady opposite at my 'new' table has her thinning reddish hair curled as tightly as a poodle. There are even odd tucked-in fake curls to thicken it a little - obvious because they are several shades darker than her own hair. It is hard not to stare as it is such a bizarre style. It is even harder to imagine the mind of a hairdresser who thought this would look good.

A young tech back behind the stage - who imagines himself out of sight - has just whirled the microphone around his head like a lasso. A group of them are huddled over the mixer board in one corner giggling like schoolboys.

The waiter was just beckoned - imperiously - by a lady at this table. I am here but no-one has spoken to me and my first half smile was met by the lady with one glance, and then she turned away. In Australia I cannot imagine that we could not greet a stranger who arrived at the table and I feel uncomfortable and awkward. She orders drinks. I have just raised my full glass of apple juice to my lips when the waiter asks me if I would like a drink. We both laugh at the same time. It felt as if I suddenly had a friend.

A Coptic priest walks past. They wear marvelous embroidered bonnets - black with crosses in brown and caramel cross stitch. He wears long full back robes that swirl majestically as he moves, and he is now bending to adjust the laptop and projector while speaking into a mobile phone. His arm is between the projector and the screen, so a small brilliant image of the Coptic Museum is projected on his sleeve complete with a bright purple background.

Black and white is 'in'. Leopard print is huge. My sister was right. It is everywhere in loose jackets, in tight dresses, and one woman even has leopard skin leggings. One outfit has four different prints of the same animal. Hot pink is popular but I was recently told by an Egyptian friend that that was from two years ago but people here still like it. I still haven't worked out if that was a catty comment. Blonde hair is layered and flipped up, and shimmers in multiple colours and multiple lengths in radically layered cuts. It is amazing how many women have blonde hair - and how few men.

It is later, the speeches are over and Bob has arrived to pick me up. I am a bit worried that he is quite casually dressed for this function but it is late and very dark and he doesn't really care.

We leave past the roman fortress ruins which are beautifully spotlit, arches within arches casting arched shadows in a complex curving and interlacing rhythm. Honeyed stone against velvet blackness. The shrill shrieks of bats split the night and frequently one emerges into the spotlight like a huge moth and exits with the panache of a diva.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Brazil, Sao Paulo, Iguassu Falls, and Rio by Hearsay

Brazil was great. Brilliant. Despite horror stories from everyone about muggings and theft.

I worked in Sao Paulo.

Bob spent some of the time in Rio.

Then both of us went to the Iguassu Falls.

Brazilians are lovely people.

The girls are particularly beautiful - tall and glamorous with bodies that look as if they spend every spare moment at samba schools. They wear minimal clothing which was odd for the first few minutes there. The tiny singlet tops bare most of their assets and the assets are as firm and golden as every other part of them. The tops are lime and orange and black and white and scarlet and turquoise - no greyed colour here. Pants are usually black and very tight - like leggings in Lycra or bike pants, often Capri length and they skim dangerously just at the level of the hips where you wonder if they might just slide right off. Hair is invariably long and often in tumbled curls as well - high swinging ponytails were fashionable. It is lucky Bob is old enough not to hyperventilate.

He was very taken aback when he braved the Metro system and worked it out, but beautiful girls kept giving him their seats. It shook him that they thought him so old - both honoured and eliminated at the same time.

Somehow that amazing glowing beauty does not hold any better in Brazil than it does anywhere else. While there were a handful of lovely older women in my classes and more around the festival there were thousands of women at the quilt Festival who were very nice, and very like women in other countries. In fact, I fitted in well and people kept addressing me in Portuguese. There is a strong racial mix - and it included lots of Japanese too - especially doing patchwork. Many were older women born in Brazil. Japan has some of the best and most interesting patchwork in the world. Brazil is obviously heading that way too as the work on display was brilliant and vivid and striking.

Brazilians touch! I had not realised how much I miss this in the Middle East. They put a hand on your shoulder when speaking to you and look earnestly into your eyes. They hug on first meeting and kiss - male to female, and female to female. Men just hug. Did I say that the young men are beautiful too? In a restaurant on the corner near the hotel we ordered 'Cappucino medio' as it was spelt on the menu. Medium cappuccino. The lovely young nineteen year old waiter put his hand on my shoulder and leant down to see my eyes. His were light grey, ringed with thick black lashes set into flawless olive skin and between high slanted cheekbones.
"After me", he ordered. "Cappusino madio".

I repeated it - pretty well I thought.
"No, maaaaadio". I said it again. This time I got a pat on the back.

We were taken - only half an hour after we arrived after the twenty four hours of traveling (and I add in all time from door to door) - to a Churrascaria - a Brazilian barbecue restaurant. These are based on gaucho cooking. Men wear marvelous traditional clothing - white shirts, long sleeved and loose, baggy pants gathered and tucked into long just-below-the-knee boots. In the window a group of really hefty skewers plugged through ribs rotate and bubble around the open fire.

You have a huge salad bar and help yourself from here first. A lot of the salads were different too - especially the hearts of palm. While I have had it before it was everywhere in Brazil. They are superb - light and fresh and crunchy and like a white asparagus spear but with a different flavour and lifting in layers like an onion.

Then you eat your salad - American style and first. Cold meats are served with it, and seafood and grilled seed-crusted tuna - perhaps pandering to the large Japanese population.
Then there is a little scarlet cardboard disc that sits beside you like a coaster. On one side it is red, with No in several languages. On the other side it is green with Yes. When you turn it over the men in gaucho pants start moving around the table with huge skewers of meat. It is cooked to different stages and in different ways. The cheaper cuts are first and I noticed that many refused rib cuts as a cheaper cut. I had some and they really missed out. It was melting tender, and they quickly separated tender lean meat from the bone and fat on the plate.

Other cuts were the better ones - rump and fillet and a specialty cut I did not know with a name like piranha which was amazingly flavourful. Brazilian meat is quite salted and they shave a thin long slice from whatever is on the particular skewer (and these were almost a metre long and five cm thick) with an evil looking knife while you hold the top of the cut with pincers supplied and transfer it to your plate. They circle you like sharks waiting and zooming in whenever there is space on your plate. It was, without a doubt, the best meat I have ever tasted. Flipping the little card to red again stops the offers of meat.

I was given one of the discs to take home by a very cheeky friend with Bernina in Brazil. The instruction was to place it on my husband's pillow each night - with either the red "Nao Obrigado" or the green "Sim Por Favor" showing.

I should have started this with the capirinha, pronounced capirinya. We certainly started with it. Take a large fresh firm green lime and cut it into four wedges. Cross cut each wedge in half. Drop this into an old-fashioned class. Add two teaspoons of sugar. Crush with a small pestle until it is half full of sugary juice. Add ice (they use long hollow cubes) till it domes above the glass. Top up with alcohol - don't know what it is in Brazil but suspect it is sugar based though not at all sweet - they offer vodka as an alternative if you wish. It is almost guaranteed to remove all inhibitions.

It is a stunning drink. Really fresh and tastes wonderful but so alcoholic that the only night I had two I was having to concentrate very carefully when answering my mail on my return to the hotel.

Just on the corner from the hotel, and we had to walk past it to get to the Conference Centre where the Quilt Festival was held, was the most unbelievable bakery-restaurant-coffee shop.

Bella Paulista, Casa de Paes. As you walked in through the turnstile you were given a hunk of printed cardboard like an oversized coaster. If you wanted to sit at a table you waited and were seated. Sometimes you waited in line, and if the line was really long they passed free food on trays along it occasionally.

Once at a table you were handed the menu. This looked ordinary enough until you saw food going past to other people. On the list of Traditional Sandwiches we ordered Bauru. It was listed as a sandwich with ham, tomato and cheese. My friend who spoke Portuguese altered the basic recipe, switching ham for roast beef, and changed the usual cheese. I had expected just that - a white sandwich with three fillings. This was more like a good section of a baguette of French bread, and the filling was about four inches thick. The roast beef, all fifteen thin slices was moist and perfect, the tomato half green so it was fresh and sharp and crisp to the bite, the cheese was a thick white cheese that still tasted of fresh milk, firm and grilled and slightly salted. All ingredients had obviously been put on a grill before the sandwich was assembled, as the bread was fresh and untoasted, and the filling hot. They were amazing and sumptuous and I think Bob had one every day we were there without changing.

And then there was the cappuccino - or Cappucino medio. This was, without a doubt, the best cappuccino I have ever had. It was dark and richly roasted coffee, fragrant and full of flavour. It had just the right amount of milk froth - enough to firmly insulate the coffee below to stop it cooling too fast, but not enough so the first mouthful just gives you a moustache and nothing but hot milk. It was dusted with cinnamon and the fragrance wafted up to you as the waiter put the cups reverently on the table. It was the sort of coffee you drink in silence, and the last mouthful always had a suggestion of chocolate.

The juices were wonderful and I will always remember Brazil for the pineapple and mint juice - it was fresh and light with none of the sharpness of pineapple in the south of Australia, and lusciously sweet and green with fresh mint. It also had a foam on top which I skimmed off with the straw first as it was almost creamy and firm.

As you ordered you showed your number on the cardboard coaster. You could add items later as you wished and one night we stayed for hours talking and eating in a desultory way. We even shared three desserts. More about the Passionfruit mousse another time. They also sold baked goods in the front, and some grocery items.

As you left each person submitted their 'coaster' to the cashier. You could add to your bill with extra bakery things as you wished. Your bill was totted up on the computer and you were charged accordingly. If you wanted to pay for others you just picked up their coasters as well. It was such a clever system with none of the frustrations of trying to split bills in Australia. You could not leave without handing in a coaster, even if there was nothing on it. One night Bob had 105 and I had 501.

Tabbi had arranged for us to travel to the Iguassu Falls. We flew in and stepped off the plane into steaming heat - we were right at the centre of the continent and the Falls is at the junction of Paraguay and Argentina and Brazil. They spell Iguassu with a c with a wriggle below - but it does not translate on this computer. There are 275 waterfalls two miles wide. It is wider than Victoria Falls and higher than Niagara. Tabs also recommended the ride in the boat under the falls. Now when she said you rode under the falls I somehow imagined that she meant that you traveled in the space behind the water, perhaps getting a little damp with the spray.

You don't. You ride UNDER the falls. We were utterly totally drenched. I couldn't see a thing as you have to close your eyes tight from the sheer volume of thundering water. Add another thirty screeching tourists and mind you - they only screech in anticipation as you close your mouth fast when in the water -and it was the most amazing fun. Hilarious and drenching and warm enough to be almost comfortable. We were in a craft like a large rubber duck that reared up over the huge bucking rapids as we traveled up the river - and I thought THAT was exciting. We had been told not to stand unless the boat stopped and no-one was going to try it.

The boat would stop. People would ceremoniously unwrap their cameras from the supplied plastic bags. Photos were taken. What I saw from my particular vantage point beside the boat driver was that on the first stop he inserted his feet in plastic bags and expertly applied wide rubber bands like bandages over the bags. On the second stop he put on heavy plastic leggings like oilskins. On the third stop he put on a jacket and hood. On the fourth stop he firmly tied everything down - hood included. At this point I decided the camera in its plastic bag would go UNDER the left breast inside the bra, under the shirt, and under the lifejacket of two inch thick polystyrene. Nothing, I thought, would go through that. Bob had my handbag on his lap wrapped in the garbage bag from the boat deck - they didn't have another bag big enough and had kindly tipped out the tissues and banana peels to give it to me. First dip into a fall and I was aware of water rushing over me as if the clothes did not exist, and somehow I was particularly aware of the sheer volume being directed over the little Canon Ixus in my bra. You will be glad to know that the plastic bag worked and it survived. I will add photos later.

It was wet, and fun and a must if you go there. The wind was a bit cool coming back, but only because we were so wet. I had been hot all the way there.

We had stopped on the way at a centre for the Nature Park which they are rightly proud of as Brazil has a great record for conservation - starting with the fact that they have designed cars that run on sugar based alcohol. I don't think they get the lime and sugar though.

As the car pulled up at the park and we climbed out I was absolutely enchanted. The air was full of butterflies. All colours, all sizes. Scarlet and black that flashed brilliant victory signs as they flew, tiny white and green ones, small blue ones with that achingly clear blue of cornflowers and summer skies that flickered in the trees like holes cut through where the sky seeped in. A little one sat on my arm and proceeded to lick gently at me - the licks were visible as it curled a tiny black tongue, but I could not actually feel them. It had the number 80 on its wings, and I wondered if the next one was 81? As we moved towards the boat ride in the cart a huge blue - glittery cobalt shining blue - butterfly drifted slowly past on ethereal wings. The biggest in Brazil, the guide said. We were constantly surrounded by them, and I kept suspecting a huge net all around us - a set-up like a bird park. There wasn't.

There were also gorgeous little animals everywhere - like long-nosed raccoons with very stripy vertical tails like meercats.They were about the size of a very large cat, and very social and there were dozens walking around - even some quite little ones. I had my feet sniffed but have been long enough in Egypt to think "rabies" and back off. We were told they were coatis. They loved the peanuts that one person had tossed onto the decking, but totally ignored the spill of rice and black beans form a split garbage bag nearby. I was sympathetic. I like peanuts better too.

We walked about six hundred metres down steps. It was beautiful - everything you think a rain forest should be - but I wasn't appreciating it much as I was absolutely dripping sweat in the heat and humidity. It was one of the times when I wished I had stopped to put on my cotton pants instead of the smarter synthetic ones I had chosen to travel in. We had been met as planned by Tabbi at the airport by a charming and very easy-on-the-eyes young Brazilian named Aerton or Ayrton. He had asked if we wanted to tour immediately, and was rattling off costs and possibilities. Bob was suspicious - his hackles go up when rushed - but it made sense to me. We arrived at three thirty and the park closed for entry at five - so we did not have a lot of time. The boat ride would take two hours. We had to leave at eleven thirty next morning so time was shortish, and the park did not open till nine in the morning.

In retrospect it was the right decision. We arrived back at the park and changed and still were very wet when checking in at the hotel. Overnight in humidity did not dry the clothes all that well but at least they were not dripping and were a bit easier to pack than they would have been if we were in the boat just before flying.

Next day we had a ride in a helicopter instead. That was fabulous too - $70 each which was so much cheaper than an equivalent ride at home. We took off with a sweep over rainforest, then slowly along the path of the river and made four figure eights over the water falls. We flew over Argentine airspace but I noticed he kept well out of Paraguay. From what I have heard of it I was not surprised. Bob had carefully herded me into the very front seat beside the pilot so I have great videos and photos, much to the disappointment of the gentleman who had just too loud a voice when telling his mate to try to get the front seat. We were in front, but they were quite determined and Bob just somehow got in the way!

We had been introduced to a lovely taxi driver called Carlos. When he picked us up after the trip to the Falls he had bought all the makings for Capiringhas - even the sugar. Then someone else - my boss with Bernina in Brazil I think - gave us the pestles and knives and glass in a set. I guess we did have one every single night - but the trip was fun and I am sure a mild inebriation every evening for an hour or so helped!

I would go back like a shot. Bob loved Rio but everyone in both cities had personal robbery stories, and one friend has been robbed seven times and each time at gunpoint.
Bob tells of his bus driver who pulled up at the Painted stairs in Rio, the tour group climbed out and took photos and climbed back in. He closed the door and walked to his side. Someone stepped forward and put a gun to his head. The driver was forced to get back in and slide into the passenger seat while the gunman, followed by two others on bikes, drove to another location. Then they robbed every passenger of every cent, every mobile and every camera or item of jewelery. Then they took the keys to the bus and left.

Worrying - but the rest of the country makes up for it. Tourism was well run and effective. Organisation is quick and very impressive. People are kind and friendly and beautiful. We loved it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I wrote this piece as a press release for an exhibition to be held at the Australasian Quilt Convention in Melbourne. Since it was not used I thought it might make a good blog entry. I will add a report on the exhibition later in the day with some photographs. The exhibition was called 'Stitch Like an Egyptian'.

Barb Zuweilah towers above you, tall caramel stone minarets cutting into a blue sky. It is the gate of the old city of Cairo, built in the tenth century, one of several Southern Gates in the old city wall and the only one remaining today.

Tucked underneath, one an a half metres wide and twice as long, is the shop of one of the tentmakers. He is usually called Dendon. It is not his name. He likes turkey, and this means turkey.

He is dark, slim, in his fifties and elegant with silvery hair. He sits cross legged on a small bench stitching at incredible appliqué work. As he sews he cuts back excess fabric, and turns under the edges. His hands stitch so fast that it is hard to photograph, just a blur of movement. He is working on a complex design, with twisting trails of colour, ultramarine, cobalt, crimson, gold and turquoise winding under and over each other on a black background. It is reminiscent of Celtic appliqué and knotting, but radiating from a central point and undoubtedly Islamic.


Above our heads is his main area, both workroom and storeroom and shop. From the outside the upstairs is remarkable as a beautiful example of an old meshrabieh – the latticed and decorative window that allowed women in past centuries to see out without being seen. When in this room at night the green light from the mosque beside us washes everything across every surface, an underwater room which is covered on every available space of the white plaster walls with decorative hangings.


Dendon is one of a slowly disappearing group – the tentmakers of Old Islamic Cairo. There are perhaps forty of the older stitchers left. Younger ones are being trained but the work is hard and slow and wearying, and the money is small so the drop out rate is high. This is a country where hand work is not well paid or greatly respected. The spectacular work of old – the great linings for Ramadan tents and for funerals and weddings and other celebrations has largely been replaced with printed fabric which passes for the same thing – at a distance. This is an original piece in the photograph above, but all the Khan sells the copy fabric, tentmakers included as it is one way to eke out a small living.

The connection to funerals has also made the work unpopular for modern Egyptians with the nagging superstition that it must be bad luck to bring work that has a connection with funerals into a house. The market nowadays is almost all tourism, though few tourists make it to the Khan Khayamiya.


Bab Zuweilah

Khan Khayamiya – the Khan of the Tentmakers – stretches opposite Bab Zuweilah. Pass the ful medamas (broad bean porridge) seller with his brightly decorated cart and the heavy whiff of spices and garlic and green onion. Skirt the mud that is in the centre of the road and dodge around the man who sells ducks and chickens and rabbits standing on top of their cages. Step in to the cool of the undercover area. This is the only remaining place in Old Cairo that still has the original covering over the street.


Khan Khayamiya

The sun slants in dusty fingers through the clerestory openings, lighting occasional doorways. While the street is not busy an occasional donkey cart or truck forces it way through, and good natured people step aside to make room in the narrow street. All down the sides of the streets are the tentmakers shops. Brightly coloured hangings cover the walls and hang outside the doors, and stitchers sit and sew in every shop. One younger man told me sadly that he had stopped stitching because his knees could not take the work. It seemed so strange that knees could be a part of the stitching process, but the traditional way to work is cross legged.

Dendon's cousin Ahmed Soliman works around the corner, off the main street. His son has a small shop in the Khan and his work covers the walls here. He and his nephew Ayman are happy and excited as they are coming to Melbourne with an exhibition of Tentmakers' work for the Australasian Quilt Convention. Ahmed is another of the older stitchers. He has no English and his nephew will translate for him as he stitches in the exhibition space at the conference. Centamin Egypt, Emirates Airline, Expertise Events and Madame Tricot with pay the costs of their fares and accommodation and food, as these are poor men.


Dendon's finished piece

The work on the walls in Khan Khayamiya is entrancing. Bright or subdued, Islamic in style, Pharaonic, or street scenes of traditional Egyptian life, large enough to cover a bed or small enough to cover a cushion, it entices and invites along with the constant entreaties from the sellers. This is not an area where you will see tourists. They are well away, three blocks away in the Khan El Khalily. Many of these sellers will have a friend there who will exhibit their work – for a fee – but this is where the real action is. Move into a shop and talk to one of the sellers or stitchers. They are happy to show you what they do, and this is not an area for hard selling, like the Khan El Khalily. Stay a little longer and you will be offered tea – or Khakadeh – the hot and spicy hibiscus tea so loved by Egyptians.

I can think of few things better than to sit in one of these shops watching the world go by and sipping hot tea, watching the flying fingers stitching down bright colours on a soft cotton ground.

Come and see their work in Melbourne.

It may be as close as you will get to Khan Khayamiya.

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