Wissa Wassef

A short drive away from the pyramids in Giza, behind a block of informal apartment buildings on the canal road that leads south to Abu Sir, Saqqarah, and Dahshur, there is a humble enclave of peace called the Wissa Wassef Art Centre.

Ramses Wissa Wassef was a 20th century Egyptian architect. In 1951, he founded an art centre here in order to teach children from the surrounding villages how to develop their intrinsic artistic skills in crafts such as pottery and weaving. The skills they learned would also give them a means to make some additional money by selling their creations at the centre.

Today, the second generation of these children, now middle-aged men and women, still weave beautiful artworks out of cotton or wool, entirely by hand. These tapestries, which can be very large, are veritable paintings made of fabric—usually done without any preliminary plans or drawings.

The centre has a large gallery space, where visitors can also purchase the works on display. If you’re lucky, as we were a few times, you can also visit the workshops and see the men and women at work. It’s a humbling experience that will inevitably make you want to purchase one of their pieces.

It’s worth visiting the Wissa Wassef Centre even if it’s just to marvel at the beautiful architecture, which is made of traditional adobe bricks and rammed earth: lightly ascending staircases, soft angles, rounded archways, and delicate domes. But it’s hard to leave without buying a woven work of art once you’ve seen the artists at work.

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The Village of Potters

One thing we quickly realized after we moved to Cairo was that we couldn’t stay for more than a few weeks in the city without going mad or developing serious lung problems. We needed to get out and see some country.

One of our first outings—for my birthday, in fact—was to the region of Fayum, which is located a couple of hours by car south-west of Cairo, in an area bordering a large salt-water lake called Lake Qarun. In Roman times, the Fayum area was a bustling region with many settlements. Many of the famous Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits were found in this region, which is why they are often known as the Fayum mummy portraits.

Today, there is a small village to the south of Lake Qarun called Tunis, which has beautiful views of the lake. In the 1970s, a Swiss woman called Evelyne Porret moved to Fayum and established a pottery workshop in the village. She taught many local children, some of which eventually opened their own pottery studios, and now the village is dotted with a dozen or so of these studios where visitors can wander in, chat with the artisans, and purchase the wares on display.

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G. and I were charmed by the beautiful small hotel we stayed at, owned by another Swiss couple, and by the calm atmosphere in the village. Many walls of the houses in the village are painted with tasteful murals, which adds to the artistic feel of the place, which has become a haven for artists, artisans, and traditional crafts.

The pottery workshops are great, and the artisans aren’t pushy at all about selling—we got the feeling that they make most of their money from large orders for weddings, so they don’t really seem to mind whether walk-ins buy anything or not. We found their beautiful, hand-made products hard to resist, and came away with many bowls and cups of various sizes.

We returned to Cairo refreshed, with ears full of birdsong and eyes enchanted by unobstructed views of palm trees and water.

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Canada Dry

Doing tourist things in Egypt with my parents the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more chances to study the strange social behaviours that arise from the tourist industry. From the humble camel tout (“good price”) to the more elaborate story (“I work at the hotel restaurant, I saw you yesterday…”), many people who live off tourism will say anything to provide you with wares or services you usually don’t need in exchange for some of your money. Taxis, calèches (horse-drawn carriages), and boat rides abound especially in Luxor, where walking along the corniche becomes something of a joke that we then repeated amongst ourselves to lighten the mood.

“Hey, mister! Madame! Where you going? Where you from? Taxi? Good price! Calèche? Need a boat? Five pound. Market this way, market this way.” Some will stop once you say no thank you, many will persist, making you feel even less like saying yes. The pestering is constant, but it’s all part of the tourist game.

Of course, one of the strategies these sellers employ is to try and start a conversation with you. The easiest way is to ask you where you’re from. Ignoring the question is a bit too impolite for our Western sensibilities, answering the truth will inevitably open up some kind of opportunity for further questions or conversation. Sometimes I lie and say Bhutan, which inevitably gets quizzical looks. Apparently not many Bhutanese make it to Upper Egypt.

Whenever we say we’re Canadian, we inevitably get the same response: “Canada? Canada Dry!” It was funny the first time, it got old really fast.

But in fact this ubiquitous response leads to more questions. Do other nationalities get their special response, or are we the only one? Also, how did camel tour sellers and site porters and taxi drivers all come to say the same thing from Giza to Aswan? Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever seen ginger ale sold anywhere in Egypt. So what gives? How do they even know about this brand? Who started this thing and how did it spread?

Looking a bit online, it seems that many fellow Canadians got a similar response: “Canada Dry, Never Die!” It sounds like Canady Dry used to run some kind of successful marketing campaign in Egypt that caught on and worked too well.

Baladi

One of the first Cairene words we learned when we moved to Cairo was “baladi,” which is an adjective that roughly translates to “local,” “traditional,” or “of the street.” We first started discussing this term with our hostess, M., whose B&B we stayed in during our first couple of weeks in Cairo. She has a crazy orange cat called Baladi that she picked up as a famished kitten in the street. The alley-cat genes remain strong: Baladi has been known to jump onto things where he doesn’t fit, like lamps.

In French, we were used to hearing baladi as a term for belly dancing, but as it turns out Egyptians also use it for anything that is local or traditional: cats, dogs, neighbourhoods, music, cafés… We most often hear it applied to food. The elastic, slightly spongy flatbread that is ubiquitous in Egypt and sold on so many street corners is known as “baladi bread,” while the traditional side salad of cucumber, tomato, and herbs that accompanies any Egyptian meal is also known as a “baladi salad.” You get the idea.

Of course, baladi can also be a pejorative term. In a novel I read set largely in the early 20th century in Cairo, one upper-class character marries a young man from a lower class—he doesn’t wear the right clothes or go to the right beachside resort in the summer. The rich woman’s friends remark: “Isn’t he a little baladi?” But that, of course, is part of his charm.

The other day my parents were visiting me in Egypt and we headed out to one of the city’s baladi souqs, south of Bab Zuwailag, one of the old town’s most famous gates. It’s the kind of street where live chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigeons are on sale, where grinning men push in carts piled high with mint, and where old ladies wait in line for bread at the subsidized bakeries. We ogled and gasped and greeted back those who greeted us. My mother said her own mother used to talk about the ice vendor coming round the house, and she was delighted to find a man delivering blocks of ice from a horse-drawn cart.

As foreigners, we can do no better than look and try to understand; what is truly baladi will never be truly accessible to us. That, too, is part of its charm.

Cairo’s Last Bookbinder

Tucked away behind Al-Azhar Mosque, on a street lined with Quran sellers and butcher’s shops, a modern glass door opens into a shaded, cave-like shop with stone floors and walls lined with shelves of dark wood. This is Abdelzaher’s, Cairo’s last traditional book binder.

On display are beautiful leather-bound notebooks and photo albums of all sizes. The prices are more than reasonable for the workmanship, and they include a personalized inscription in gold letters. They make great gifts! I love watching the book binder get to work to make the inscription: lining up the movable type from trays against the wall, heating the metallic letters on an open flame, pressing them down carefully but forcefully on a ribbon of gold leaf.

If you wish, you can get your entire personal library rebound here—just keep an eye on your baggage allowance if you want to bring your books back home afterwards. I opted to get a single book rebound, Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, which came back to me a few weeks later bound in dark red leather with the title and author engraved in tiny gold letters on the spine. It’s beautiful and very luxurious.

A word of warning, however: I won’t pretend the bookbinder’s shop is always as charming as I make it out to be. The shop is well known among tourists and expats, and located around the corner as it is from one of Cairo’s main tourist attractions, a lot of people stop here to buy a notebook and have it engraved with their name. Okay, there aren’t busloads of people, but engraving the books takes a while, so the wait can be long and boring. One time it took so long that the guy told us he would finish our books later and have them delivered to us—he never did, and when we came round the shop again a week later our books were still lying around his worktable. Similarly, when I went to pick up my rebound novel a few weeks ago, they couldn’t find it anywhere even though they knew it was finished, so I had to leave empty-handed and wait for them to deliver the book later that day. Thankfully, that time they did.

Despite the minor annoyances (this is Cairo, after all!), bookbinding is a beautiful craft and I’m glad this place is keeping it alive.

Cairo’s Gold Island

A few weeks ago, our Swedish friend took us to discover a secret Cairo destination: Gold Island, or Gezirit el-Dahab. This island is just one of many that dots the Nile near Cairo, but it is remarkable because it isn’t connected to either shore of the river. There’s a flyover that goes right across it without actually having any entrances or exits, which means the only way to get to the island is by boat. One fine morning, we negotiated with some pleasant boat owners near the Semiramis hotel and they dropped us off on the island, promising to come get us a couple of hours later.

There wasn’t much to do or even see on the island, but it was interesting to walk about and soak in the atmosphere. You’re in the middle of a city of 20 million + inhabitants, and yet the lifestyle for those who live on the island is completely rural: green fields, dirt roads, donkeys, cows… Not a car in sight. It felt as if we’d landed in the middle of the Egyptian countryside, although we could still see the apartment buildings and high rises on either shore of the Nile.

We walked around for an hour or so, sharing an old dirt track along the water with some men astride donkeys. We even came across a mysterious palace, which a bit of online sleuthing has revealed is called Dahab Palace (Gold Palace). Apparently it was built twenty years ago by the rather mysterious Prince Naguib Abdallah, an art collector and aesthete (who probably deserves a post all to himself: he was apparently  the lover of the late socialite São Schlumberger in the 70s, and these are some pictures Architectural Digest took of his London flat in 1995). The palace was founded as a centre that raises awareness about environmental issues, whatever that means, but it was nearly demolished last year because it doesn’t follow building regulations along the water. Something must’ve happened to save it, because the palace was still standing when we went.

More online sleuthing has revealed that you can even rent a guest apartment inside the palace on AirBnB. The place looks lovely, and it appears to be rented out by Naguib Abdullah himself, along with a professor of architecture at the German University in Cairo.

The Tent-Makers Souq

The other day, G. took a cheeky afternoon off from her work so we could go visit the tent-makers souq together.

Markets of every kind abound in the old quarters of Cairo, just east of downtown. In fact, as you drive on the flyovers in that area and look down at the web of streets and alleys below, it seems like the entire neighbourhood is an open-air market, bustling at any time of the day and night.

Most tourists end up at Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s most famous souq, where you can find shiny dresses, tacky souvenirs, jewellery shops, and brass lamps. We went there a couple of times, and while there are some nice old buildings and lots of atmosphere, the vendors are used to seeing tourists and we didn’t find the wares all that attractive. Also, seeing the coachloads of tourists being driven in and away from the maze of small streets is a little depressing.

Head south, however, and things get interesting. The tent-makers souq itself is a two-storey, covered strip of market lined with stalls that sell rolls of fabric and handcrafted “tapestries” with different designs. You can hang these on walls or use them as bed covers. We bought several cushion covers with beautiful motifs at very fair prices, including some with adorable birds for our baby nephews and nieces. The shop owners here hassle a lot less than the ones in Khan el-Khalili.

Continue walking south past the tent-makers souq, and things get really interesting. The main street itself is a large food market, especially lively in the morning, where women haggle for fruit, veg, and meat–even live ducks, chickens, and pigeons.

The side streets are occupied by artisan’s quarters—these are real craftsmen who are making objects for the local market. We saw wood shops, including one tiny place that makes wooden buckets and barrels by hand, as well as lots of people handcrafting wire lamps for Ramadan, stone cutters, leatherworkers, carpet shops… The locals here don’t seem quite as used to seeing foreigners in their midst; they looked mostly surprised by our sudden appearance and we didn’t get hassled once in this area. Only the usual “welcome to Egypt!” which they love to shout out at foreigners.

We stopped at a little place specializing in hardwood floors. We loved the designs they displayed at the front of the shop and thought they would look really cool as a tabletop, so we ordered one for ourselves! Now we just have to figure out a way to bring it back and turn it into a table…