Khayamiya: the Texture of Life and Death

Khayamiya: the Texture of Life and Death

In all arts we combine one material with another extraneous to it. Painting is not with paper on paper, and engraving is not with wood on wood. Even the manufacture of pottery is not with earth inside earth. Elements which are different from each other are mixed and fuse or mingle together to offer us each art from them, except in khayamiya, in which cloth is embroidered with cloth, and the material of embroidery namely thread which is the origin of the cloth - joins what is embroidered with what embroiders, through magical steps which disappear to make way for the beauty of the final form that they achieve. This combination between the members of one body we do not find except in that art which has lived for centuries resisting extinction thanks to a few of its artists, and a covered street which we visited to offer you here a vision which has broadened, so that expressions are too narrow for it.

Enter the geography of the place, which lies opposite Zuwaila Gate in Fatimid Cairo through the gateway of history. I accept the explanation that attributes the manufacture of tents to the age of the pyramid builders, between a sunshade for the foreman of the workmen and a tent for Pharaoh s trips, that tent to which patches of cloth were added to decorate. This was the real beginning of the art of khayamiya, with ornamentation which flourished during the Coptic Age, as is indicated by many embroidered pieces in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. The tent of Fustat which after which the city was named was from the time of Amr Ibn Al-Aas the conqueror of Egypt.

With the advent of the age of Al-Muizz li-Din Allah the Fatimid, came the sunshade, that flat awning which was known in the palaces as a dome, and the Arabs in the age of the Ayyubid state made it into a round tent. History relates how Khamarawayh, one of the amirs of the Tulunid state, spent from the state treasury until it was emptied on equipping resting stations for his daughter Qatr Al-Nada. These were large decorated tents with curtains (doors) also of woven textiles. Elegance in the decoration of tents was only really known in the Fatimid era, when they were like mobile palaces which gave those living in them the opulence of the luxury which they left behind in their palaces which they built.

In the book Al-Mawa iz wal-I tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wal-Athar, known as Al-Maqrizi s Khitat after its author Taqi Al-Din Abi Al-Abbas Ahmad Ibn Ali Al-Maqrizi, who died in 845 AH, there is a description of the lanes and streets of Cairo as he saw them, as if it were a city of artisans after whom the lanes were called. This began from the greatest street, the Casbah of Cairo, the Kharanfash Gate, where the manufacture of Khayamiya began, then the Khal iyyin (Timber Merchants ) Market, the Batiniya Quarter, the butchers , grain merchants and greengrocers shops. Not far off is the Travelers Market, in which is sold everything needed for camel journeys and the saddles and appurtenances for camels, particularly during the pilgrimage season. Then the itinerant cooks wandering all over the place, and close to the Aqmar Mosque is the Chandlers Market, for lighting strips and massive torches used in processions. (There is no doubt that khayamiya, in the covered street, was just like the covered markets which were lit by lanterns all through the night, until a curfew was imposed after the ruler became disconcerted by the problems that staying up late at night causes to people). After that was the Barrazin Market - opposite the Nasr Gate crowded with artisans: weavers, cotton ginners, dyers, darners, tailors, ironers and draftsmen, and anyone who has any connection with the textile industry. There were even shops for the manufacturers of wooden locks for massive doors.

Behind the Aqmar Mosque was the wide expanse of the Poulterers Market, in which chickens, geese and small birds were sold, as well as turtledoves, nightingales, blackbirds, parrots and quails, until we reached Bayn Al-Qasrayn Street. And in the area inn the center there was a large number of moneychangers, then the stone benches of the Box Makers' Market, where jewelry like rings, bracelets and anklets are displayed. Then the comb-sellers, stationers and confectioners, with whom there were pistachio nuts, almonds and raisins. Next to them were the spur makers, whose wares varied from cheap iron spurs to valuable ones made of pure gold. Then there were the saddlers (bridles, saddles and leather belts for horses).

In the neighborhood of Al-Azhar Mosque there was the Furriers Market, and behind the buildings of the Sultan Al-Ghoury the Inlayers Market where inlaid copper was made, those superbly beautiful utensils inlaid with gold and silver. Nearby was the Confectioners Market, the makers of colored sweets, sugar dolls shaped like people (the Mawlid Bride) and animals (like horses, lions and cats). On the way back you arrive at Zuwaila Gate and remember how the corpses of criminals and prisoners of war used to be hung on it.

In his book on the Crusades, William of Tyre tells in 1167 about the visit of Frankish ambassadors to Cairo. They were led by the Wazir Shawar himself to an amazingly beautiful palace, with great ornamentation. While the report pays attention to precision and astonishment in describing the palace, its structure, domes and colonnades, they arrive at the Grand Palace where the Caliph lives. This is even more splendid than what they had seen. In a spacious room divided into two by a curtain extending from one wall to the other, on which pictures of animals, birds and people had been woven and which was decorated with sapphires, emeralds and thousands of precious stones. The curtain was plated with silver and gold.

O Omnipotent, o Omniscient

The day begins with sprinkling water on the road in front of the khayamiya shops, so that the dust under the feet of passers-by will settle. Dust is the enemy of the khayamiya craftsman and his products. The khayamiya artist Ala whispers to me: when the Ministry of Culture completes the repair of the khayamiya street, no car will pass along it, and it will be for pedestrians only. The street will be repaved with small squares of black basalt stone, so the street will regain its splendor, and so that repairs can mend what time has ruined.

The strange thing is that the amazing design of the khayamiya shops was the lowest part of it, and was open on to the narrow street, fitted up according to one of the people who lived there for riding animals, which would be tied up with their backs to the street, whereas the upper parts, namely the second floor of the shops, are used as living quarters. The men from the caravans used to rest in them, and through spaces in the back like laundry chutes in big hotels now, they would throw food to their animals. After the transition from one age to another, the use of the place changed, and the industry moved to this place from the place where it had first been established, in Kharanfash.

The facades of these shops resemble each other: a wooden door with more than one panel. Its size was constant, and above it was an arch of stone construction. The outside structure keeps its white and pink colors. There is no other item but wood and stone in the roof of the covered street, except for rectangular openings as lighting for the place throughout the day, which may be used as a divine sundial as the sun moves from its rising to its setting. Wood has its presence in the lattice work of oriel windows on the second floor whose dark brown color has been preserved in the repairs. There is no doubt that these allowed light, gently, to enter places where the men of the caravans used to rest, without anything revealing their presence except their animals resting below the caravanserai. Just like in fairy tales when numbers have stories and interpretations, I found myself seeing in the number of shops, which came to forty, a reference to one of the stories of the 1001 Nights.

A khaymi - as the artist calls himself on the basis of his art spins his colors together, blood-red and pink, sky blue and sea blue, the green of the meadows and of freshness, the yellow of the desert and the sun which are less used because they are close to the basic beige (light brown) background color. There are also turquoise, black and orange which come into all the designs. He spins the precious colors together, to form his even more precious garden from them with the leaves and stalks of the lotus flower.

The most famous units used are verses from the Holy Quran, Pharaonic drawings, leaves of plants the most common of which is the lotus flower and the least common are Byzantine roses, derivative successive geometrical shapes of an Islamic character, squares, derivative Islamic decorations, hearts and circles. Also folk tales from Egypt, Persia and Turkey (I saw the story of Juha, his donkey and his son), as well as modern scenes like that of the liquorice juice vendor and village games of singlestick fencing for which the Egyptian countryside is renowned.

The researcher Ismat Ahmad Awad, in one of her studies of khayamiya, enumerated pictures of parts of Islamic decorative units in khayamiya works and found that there were twenty which she named and I will describe to you: the bu ga (which has the shape of a rhombus), the signet ring (from two or more squares on top of each other), the head flower (which looks like the two horns of a gazelle), a flower (which symbolizes a flower in cross section), another flower (with another shape), half a flower (a section of it), a branch (bearing flowers and leaves), another (a different one), a garment (like the coronet of a flower), a cube (an upside-down hollow heart), an almond (an upside-down splendid heart), a date (like the leaf of a tree), a pentagon (as it is called, with five sides), a candle (unlit), a mafrouka (like the points of spears), another mafrouka (which combines three points of spears), a serpent s head (an appropriate name which is found in plenty to end decorations), a lion s paw (not wild), a knot (which looks like a conjunction between vertical units), and a chain (which is commonly used for drawing borders).

When a cloth manufacturer squats in that way of sitting specific to his work, it is as if he raises himself above the Earth and withdraws himself from it, in order to enter the hermitage of creativity. He is in the presence of art, and I see him looking at the fertile ground of the cloth in front of him even if it is small as if he were on a wide magic carpet which is conveying him to a world of precise details, generous bows and magic roads. The flower turns into a garden of beauty, and its stalk becomes a ladder towards the window of art. The broad letters represent a form of maps, which have no features except that khaymi who affirms, after inviting us to drink glasses of tea:

The industry is not dying out, but its quality is declining. I have a sample of external work carried out by another shop. A customer comes to me as happened two hours ago and offers me cheap and expensive goods. This is not related to the size of the work, but to its quality.

The number of people in the profession has increased, and other groups have begun to carry out the art of khayamiya. You have Minya Governorate in southern Egypt. Employment in it is high, and so boys come to Cairo to work in anything. There are some who learn khayamiya half way (meaning that they do not learn it completely), just like somebody who just learns how to write in order to work as a clerk at the door of the court. He goes back to his town, either in Minya or Helwan (a suburb of Cairo) or elsewhere, to apply the little that he has learnt and brings it back to us, and of course we don t accept it. We have a standard of excellence, which is what has preserved the name of khayamiya up to now after 400 years of consolidation of this art in Egypt. Skill at the art of khayamiya requires age. A master of this art may have spent 15 years learning it. But there are simple designs at which one can become skilled in three months, like the lotus flower.

The crafts which still exist up to now, and have resisted extinction like khayamiya," and some of whose scenes have inspired pictorial artists during the course of our development, are many.

The ancient tarboosh (round red hat) industry, goldsmiths and silversmiths, stained glass, copper beating, tanning, binding old books, repairing clothes, embroidery, rug weaving, making leather cushions, arabesque carving used in the pulpits of mosques, household furniture, and decoration with shells and ivory.

But let me get to the point." Hashim the khaymi brought me back from the carpet of reverie. Among the boys who come to work in khayamiya there are none who want to learn. They are not prepared to sit down cross-legged or squatting, for those long hours. And now a boy believes that he is bigger than me, so how will he accept to learn from me? Television has corrupted this generation, boys and girls. If you find someone who has the capability, he has to become skilled at the profession in two or three years. He sighs. The most important thing is to love the profession, and so I never feel its difficulties.

Although I did not inherit it, the fact that art is inherited in my family is what gave me a love of art. My father was a sculptor, and one of those who worked on the ancient wooden designs for mosques.

The Covering for the Kaaba

The pilgrimage caravan from Egypt to Hijaz used to include up to 500 soldiers during years of stability, or even more, up to 2,000 during troubled years. It guarded the kiswa, which was hung on the sacred Kaaba. This is a covering embroidered with gold, while the hems at its edges are embroidered with silver and inlaid with a crust of jewels. Its manufacture was started in the month of Rabia Al-Akhar, so that it would be ready within six months. The Governor would inspect it from time to time and weigh it. Its weight would usually come to 17 kantars of silk and 30 kantars of pure silver.

This annual kiswa was regarded as the most valuable thing manufactured by the art of khayamiya. The person in charge of protecting the caravan and transporting the kiswa was a senior military person whose title was Amir Al-Hajj. He was so important that he was placed in the third rank after a pasha and a daftardar. He would leave every year in a large procession amidst tremendous popular celebrations.

Dr. Laila Abdullatif gave us a portrayal of those celebrations in her book about Egyptian society in the Ottoman era. Among other things she said that they were held in the middle of the month of Shawwal. The litter to transport the kiswa goes around in a large celebration after the shopkeepers whose shops it would go past had decorated it. Many of the inhabitants of Cairo would throng together to see the cavalcade in which the precious kiswa was placed on a decorated camel which would make its way in the midst of the joyous cries of the women and the supplications and cheers of the mass of people, and advance to Qaramidan Square in the citadel. At the head of the procession would go the cavalry, accompanied by musical bans until they reached the citadel. Then the Pasha would dismount to hand over the honored kiswa to the Amir al-Hajj. That is followed by another celebration held in a tent in Al-Birka to hand over the Surra, the funds sent to be distributed to the poor of Makkah and Madina.

Dr. Yunan Labib Rizq, the historian of the celebrations for sending the kiswa to the pilgrimage of 1344 AH, that these celebrations began with the kiswa being transported from the place where it was manufactured in Kharanfash to Muhammad Ali Square. In front of it marched two blocks or rows from the Ninth Infantry Battalion with its music and its flag. The crowds followed this splendid procession as far as the square. In the evening the kiswa was displayed on a stone bench and people came in crowds to look at it. When all the Amirs and notables attending had arrived, refreshments and cakes were handed round to them. Sheikh Ahmad Nada and Sheikh Ali Mahmoud were reciting verses from the Holy Quran until the first part of the night had passed.

The following day, the ceremonies were conducted to send off the litter. These were presided over by the King and attended by the ministers, senior palace officials and other senior scholars, officials, merchants and notables, all in clothes for major ceremonial occasions, with medals. The Egyptian garrison and its weapons were reviewed in front of the King, and a 21 gun salute was fired when His Majesty arrived at Muhammad Ali Square, and a similar 21 gun salute when he left.

The arts of decorating the honored kiswa for the Kaaba included calligraphy, whose form fulfills the function of its meaning, and the decorative units with a regular projection and a dignified, calm color. In one of the kiswas for the sacred Kaaba we see eight belts, whose length varies from five metres seventy centimetres to seven and a half metres. On each of these belts there are verses of the Holy Quran: In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. We have made the House a place of return for people, and of security. And taken from the standing place of Abraham a place of prayer. And We entrusted Abraham and Ishmael to purify My house for those who walk around it, those who stay there for worship, and those who kneel down and who bow down their heads.

Ibrahim Hilmi, in his book Kiswat al-Kaaba al-Musharrafa wa Funun al-Hajj (The Covering of the Revered Kaaba and the Arts of the Pilgrimage), says that an artist would choose the thuluth script for all the belt, and write with threads of raised canvas, and under it two strips decorated with raised gold and silver embroidery. Each strip would be enclosed between two lines of leafy patterns on each side of the branch of a plant with a wavy appearance. The writing comes between leafy arches, giving the gold and silver embroidery its symmetry and visual equilibrium.

A Pavilion for a Mourning Ceremony

The sound reaches us of a crier paying last honors to the deceased whose mission in this transitory world has ended. He would punctuate his call with vocal stops: "Gentlemen, the deceased Hajj Lutfi Hussein, relative of the Jussein, Abu Ghali, Yasin and Shalabi families, father of Dr. Alaa Lutfi in the Faculty of Letters, the Engineer Ala Lutfi in the Municipal Council and Adil Lutfi in the Public Secondary School, and relative by marriage of the Jazzar and Abu Shuraiba families, has passed away to the mercy of God. There is none who remains or is eternal but God. The mourning ceremony will be next to his home in Abdulmunim Musa Street.

The crier goes round the streets of the small town in a light carriage pulled by a horse that is sad like the crier s voice. The crier tries by means of a loudspeaker to reach the hearing of the inhabitants of the town. We begin the day by praying God to have mercy on Hajj Lutfi and forgive him, and asking the Almighty to inspire his family with patience and consolation. We know that the pavilion which will be erected in the street where the deceased lived, after the funeral service for him in the mosque, will be a last gateway where he would bid farewell to his family and loved ones, as if sitting in the pavilion listening to verses from the Holy Quran is connected with the farewell journey.

No doubt one of the sons or relatives of Hajj Lutfi will run around to one of the rug shops, and there he will agree over the funeral, the rugs for the pavilion and arrangements for the departure of the deceased. There the size of the pavilion will be chosen, the form of the lamps, and everything related to the gateway of departure from this life. After that the rug workers will begin to erect the pavilion.

Here they are digging holes for the wooden poles to which are fastened the walls of khayamiya cloth with their dark colors over which blue prevails, and their sedate gold and silver embroidery. The cloth wall is two and a half metres wide and five and a half metres long. They use wooden ladders on which they move with a lightness envied by circus acrobats.

During my boyhood I used to watch them from my window, and be amazed as they traversed the distance between earth and sky, how easy this movement was for them which looked like walking in space erecting a khayamiya pavilion, one cloth wall after another!

And a Pavilion for a Wedding

Here in the pavilion that partition between two lives, the works of art of those sitting are drawings resembling plants of paradise in the eternity of their decorativeness, the permanence of their vitality and the perpetuity of their colors. In the pavilion erected in a wedding and for it the dark navy blue color, which dominates pavilions for mourning ceremonies, turns into the red color of rubies, and combines with the mature flush of blood in the happy faces, and the color of the drink sweetened with sugar and mixed with rose water. While the Holy Quran accompanies the movement of those who erect the pavilion of the mourning ceremony, loud music comes with their movement when they put up a wedding pavilion. It is as if people want someone saying farewell to life that he should meet the afterlife as it deserves, with glorification of God and praise, whereas they encourage him to meet this world with joy, as if it were a talisman to save him from its misfortunes.

One of the other common uses of khayamiya is pavilions for celebrating the Prophet's Birthday, tents for shops during religious festivals, skirts for khayamiya dancers, clothes for dervishes, covers for riding animals like camels, confectioners pavilions for the Prophet s Birthday, tables for people to eat the evening meal during the fast of Ramadan, wall hangings for tombs inside mosques, the kiswa for the Kaaba, standards and flags. There are flags for the Sheikhs of Sufi orders, and a year does not go by in a city in Egypt without the spectacle of these Sufi journeys affecting some aspect of it.

The flags are called standards because they are raised on a stick which ends in a standard. It is a brass ornament which bears the word Majesty, or is hollow in the shape of a star or a crescent. These flag standards are raised on the day of the celebration of the anniversary of one of the Sheikhs of the Sufi orders, perhaps because some people need to follow in their footsteps, or it is an expression of that overwhelming feeling of love towards them. The content of the decorations on the flags bear the word Majesty (God), the name of His noble Prophet (bpuh), the names of the four rightly-guided Caliphs (may God be pleased with them), as well as the name of the Sheikh of the order. Apart from the names there are Quranic verses, expressions of the oneness of God, and the word madad, which is said in order to ask help from God Almighty.

The colors of the flags vary. They may be the color of the basic background, white, black, green or red. But decorations are added in the same way as that called lafaq in the art of khayamiya. Their shapes are squares, rectangles and triangles. One of their sides may be as long as one and a half metres and their length is the three metres to the lower end of the flag. These colored decorations are made, as well as soft, colored pieces of cloth on the single-colored cloth.

An Artist and a Merchant

A khaymi s speech always mingles that of an artist with that of a merchant. His words combine the historical and the current when he braids them from the two plaits of his daily life and the hoped-for things of his dreams. It is said that this work originated among the Tatars, spread to India, and then to Egypt, and reached the height of its brilliance in the Mameluke era. But I believe it began since the Fatimids. They were wealthy, and the Egyptians tricked them into making the tents in which they lived into an art, which deserved to be paid for rewardingly, some tents with Quranic verses in them, others with Islamic designs, afterwards those with Pharaonic pictures (which increased according to the wishes of tourists), and others with portrayal of natural scenery.

This shop is about sixty years old, Hashim said. I entered the profession after completing the fourth grade (primary). I loved reading, and would find books suitable for people older than me, and read them. I thought of Taha Hussein, and determined to enter school. This requires expenditure, and so I had to work by day in order to study at night, in those schools which Nahhas (Pasha) established for fifty piastres a month. I used to visit my maternal aunt s husband, a khaymi, where he worked. The colors fascinated me, and I loved the profession from boyhood, when I was ten years old. I became attached to it since that time, and still am.

There is a rule for Islamic design, the Khaymi added. Not everyone draws well or understands the rule. It s like poetry, which is based on letters of the alphabet, but poets are different, and so is music, it s all from the musical scale, but there is Western and Arab. Thus is our profession, a musical scale, and I memorized it as an amateur. I knew how, if I placed two musical notes together, I would form a new tune, as in khaymi design. This inventive idea comes to me anywhere, at my desk, in the street. At the time I write it down on paper, and when I sit down to collect what is between these ideas and those thoughts in units. I put them down on special, brown-colored paper - they used to make bags for fruit from it until a few years ago and I begin punching holes in it along the lines of the drawing, which I have transferred from my brain to the eye of certainty. I want to see it with my own eyes. If it pleases me, I will transfer it from paper to cloth in sequential order. I mean by that using soft charcoal inside a sack of cloth as a bundle. I strike on the paper with holes in it, and the points of the drawing pass from the paper to the cloth. After that I join the points with a pencil, shake the charcoal dust off it, and the drawing remains, and work begins with needle and cloth.

Long-Lived Art

This work is long-lasting as long as it is preserved, one of them whispered to me. It is made from Egyptian cloths: poplin, lambark, damour, bafta, all of which are local cottons, without a single artificial thread. True, it fades, because the dye is not good enough. But dry cleaning preserves it, contrary to washing it in water.

The average cost varies, as another one of them confides to me. The average for handmade work is from 50 to 200 pounds, depending on the precision of the work. Good work, in a half-metre piece, takes a day on the average, and precision work takes up to six days.

Khaymis always talk about the desires of people coming from abroad to import this few who work in the art of khayamiya. They differentiate between the Japanese, who come to purchase without a question, and people from Indonesia and Malaysia, who ask about how it is made. Tourists make up about 75% of the customers for this art. But machines have been unable to imitate us, one of them comments. The large quantity of units in one piece makes it difficult to transfer them to a machine. Every profession accepts modernization except the profession of khayamiya. If the computer enters this profession, its taste will go. Is local cooking butter the same as vegetable cooking fat? In any place in the world, handmade work has its value. They can mechanize agriculture, but how can art whose uniqueness is based on the use of hands be mechanized?

One of the shopkeepers sought my help to translate a question which a Dutch lady asked him about the factory which supplies him with these works of art in cloth. He is overcome by anger mingled with astonishment. He answered her in broken English that everything he had there was made by hand, and when she was surprised at the quantity that he had on display, and in front of her was only one worker, he told her that fifty artists did business with him. They would go to him and to others and he would accept those things he considers suitable and regards as made professionally, with skill and sincerity.

One of those working in khayamiya asks for an association of people who carry out this art, while another hopes that taxation will be made easier for them, and a third calls for a guild that will spend on a craftsman is taken ill, particularly since his health is his capital. They all agree on the importance of listing the art of khayamiya among the products that the country exhibits in its exhibitions abroad, and of their street being a visiting spot for tourists.

Professional Secrets

In the manufacture of khiyamiya, a metre of raw material weighs 600 grams. Add to that 300 or 400 grams which include wood, lining and metal buttons, with iron and brass capsules and leather, and the weight of a piece of khiyamiya of two metres by three metres comes to about twenty kilograms. A khaymi brings things from their factories to place them in the tent. I have the machine and the qurma (which looks like the wooden block which a butcher uses) and leathers beside me, he says, and the cloth I bring from Mahalla (in the middle of the Nile Delta), and I have a friend in Nasiriya in Samnoud (another city in the Delta) who brings me cloth which is enough from here to England, even without my sending him a single piastre. We have dealt with each other in trust for decades, and the account is settled.

Poplin cloth is two metres and sixty centimetres wide, and it is the basis of the work, or the lining, so that it becomes about four millimetres thick. We press the cloth so that water does not leak through it. We treat it to make it fire-resistant, and it is prepared inside a special factory. This doesn t mean it won t catch fire at all, but it resists fire for a longer time. The pressure is by pounding (beating, pressing and squeezing on layers of cloth), rather than waxing cloth to make it waterproof. There are people who hire out the parts for temporary use on a daily basis.

Printed tark (the name for khayamiya cloth) has two sides, one of which is drawn by machine, while the other is sailcloth which acts as a lining. It costs about 14 Egyptian pounds per metre of the average. There is a great difference between it and handmade tark. The average price of a metre of it is 80 Egyptian pounds. The success of printing is in its speed and the cheapness of printed pieces. In one night one can complete the order.

We gave one of the artists a thousand (Egyptian) pounds, he went on. This was a sum which he found paltry in comparison with the work which he had done. A page from the book Wasf Misr (The Description of Egypt) represents one of the scenes of the trials in The Book of the Dead (The Emergence into Day, but copying Pharaonic pictures is not art, art is in the excellence of the proficiency in its accomplishment, rather, art is in inventiveness, in bringing the components together. I feel that art coming from the Far East is dangerous. But excellence and the antiquity of the calligraphy whose form I invent myself or which I copy from an ancient calligrapher are what give art its uniqueness.

The King s Khayamiya

One of them spoke about King Farouq s khayamiya, which was on one of his Nile rafts and included more than one tent. Each tent had a different decoration: Turkish, Byzantine and Arab. And how President Sadat had invited tenders to be presented for manufacturing similar khayamiya, which was not completed because of his death. As well as its historical value, its material value at that time was estimated between 1978 and 1988 at 200 Egyptian pounds per metre, depending on the work required. The final bill was according to size, because it was walls and roofs.

I accepted an invitation to dinner on one of those rafts, which had been turned into mobile restaurants, like necklaces on the body of the Nile. Part of the aroma of khayamiya had been transferred to their entrances through those colored cloth walls, which always prepare you to move from one world to another. The khayamiya dancer came to confirm this. He uses his costume made from this cloth to present an interlude of movements each one of which leads into another, just as night and day merge into each other.

The dancer begins his khayamiya symphony in which he never stops turning round in the circumference of where he remains standing, the geometrical shapes on his skirt, drawn in what looks like massive spearheads in colors which mingle and give a suggestion of the main color, white. It is as if with his whirling round he is making a sun from the colors of a rainbow. His hand frees itself from the four Dervish tambourines one after another like a person who frees himself from his burdens, and the music changes from one position to another. It is a link between the sad song of the people with the official song, between music and dancing, until we discover that the skirt is two skirts, which the dancer separates without ceasing to rotate, as if one of the lives is surrendered to another and the world does not cease turning round.

What does the khayamiya dancer do with that transient circle, which he snatched from the permanent circle? He wraps it round in order to make a baby s cradle from it. The musicians greet him with the music of birth and beasts of prey, as if it is a life from death! Then we discover another relationship with the permanent circle which he snatches from its place, in the relationship between the distinct white, which is turned into the sun, and the concealed black which is ascribed to the night. Once again we learn that succession and merging between the two worlds, until the dancer brings the last movement of his khayamiya performance with an intelligent movement, in which he raises the circle of magic cloth, the texture of life and death, equivalent to residence and departure, above the heads of all of us. Yes it is a circle that has to be answered.

Approximately twenty years ago, the director Hashim Al-Nahhas presented a 15-minute documentary film about the khayamiya weaving industry, produced by the National Cinema Center. It documents a scene of the invention of a drawing, transferring it, then the beginning of the embroidery and the magic stitch. We notice that there are several workers, whereas in the shops that we saw there are no longer more than one, or two at the most. There are movements to tighten, pull, cut and hit (pounding), against a background of khayamiya mural, in which the worker artist has become a part of the place. The master craftsman cuts cloth to the agreed lengths, and on the edges of the pieces of tark, which are synonymous with the cloth for khayamiya pavilions, there is a collection of holes, through which thread is passed to bind the pieces of tark together. These threads end with small pieces of wood called asfoura ( or si kanja). The holes are on one side and the pieces of wood on the other.

The film Khayamiya begins with a scene of these skilled workers, climbing up their steps to set up the pavilion which will separate the calm of life inside it from the movement of life of the outside world. The voice of a reader from the Holy Quran: He said, I have tarried for a day or part of a day. I contemplate the scene which follows successively to this day, as I go away from the khayamiya street: is all of life only that day or part of it?


Ashraf Abul-Yazid


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