In the cool interior of his troglodyte cave, Ali Diglish is speaking at full tilt. The 26-year-old guide from Chenini barely draws breath. Like much of the country these days, this Berber village in southern Tunisia doesn’t get many visitors, so Diglish is seizing his chance.
This article featured in the Travel section of the Financial Times Weekend edition. The full article can be found by clicking on the link here.
It is midday. The sun is high and hot, yet the street is alive. Kids play football. Goats, tethered to a wall, observe stoically. Motorcyclists thread past on bleating, smoky mopeds. The air is filled with dust, flies, and lingering smells of rubbish. I am in a Cairo neighbourhood that few foreigners visit these days: al-Darb al-Ahmar. Walking among the many mosques and madrasas, I hope to learn more about the artisans that work there.
“Whatever manufactured items there are in the world”, wrote the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi in 1671, “the poor of Cairo get hold of them, set them out and trade in them. They get by in this fashion.” Nearly three hundred and fifty years later, this tradition lives on in al-Darb al-Ahmar. This extraordinary neighbourhood of 100,000 people, which lies to the south-east of central Cairo, is said to be home to a thousand workshops; the place is teeming with artisans, crafting everything from tents, books, boxes and brass lanterns to glass bowls and silk carpets. They trade what they can, and they get by.
The Street of the Tentmakers captures this vibrant, commercial spirit. Built in 1650 as an arcade, this covered street is a succession of workrooms whose interiors are lined with colourful, decorative textiles. From his cubic cavity in the Ottoman-era wall, a weaver called Hasan says that al-khayyamiya, the craft of tentmaking, goes back to Pharaonic times. Some of today’s weavers are descended from the families who would produce the kiswa, the fabric that covered the great stone at Mecca, as well as tents, cloths and saddles for those setting out on pilgrimage to Mecca. The sultan, sitting nearby on a balcony above the ancient Fatimid gate of Bab Zuwayla would watch the caravan depart in procession.
Perhaps Hasan notices my pleasure at imagining this sweep of history, alive today. “We are lucky to be born here”, he says, with a smile. “It is a heritage site, and a spiritual place. If you wanted to create a neighbourhood like this, you could not. It is impossible to conceive of all the elements that you find in al-Darb al-Ahmar.”
The district’s heritage is indeed remarkable. The area, covering just under a square mile, contains over 40 monuments built during successive Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman eras, spanning a thousand year period. In collaboration with the government, many of these, such as the Aqsunqur Mosque and Amir Khayrbak complex, have been restored by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Such efforts are crucial to preserve Cairo’s Islamic heritage and attract more visitors and custom to the neighbourhood.
In al-Darb al-Ahmar, the only foreign faces I see are young Muslims from Indonesia. They are attending the nearby al-Azhar University, a centre for Islamic learning. Western tourists currently avoid Cairo due to security concerns; there have been several Islamist militant attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority in recent years. Walking around the neighbourhood, however, I feel perfectly safe. Countless old men, seated at the ubiquitous qahwa where they drink glasses of coffee or tea, welcome me with the words “ahlan wa sahlan”.
At times the fortunes of al-Darb al-Ahmar waver with Egypt’s. Next to the 14th century Aslam al-Silahdar Mosque, I enter a thread-dying house. I meet Salama, who has been a dyer for 73 years. In the darkness, figures are hauling skeins of cotton out of a stone bath of black dye. Dark steaming liquid streams across the floor. Salama tells me how, under the revolutionary regime of Nasser, business was good: “the Russians would give us weapons, and we would give them cloth.” But in 1967 things changed after the disastrous Six-Day War against Israel. Then after Nasser came Sadat who liberalised the economy, opening it up to domestic and foreign investment. Cheaper goods entered the local market. Small producers in the neighbourhood were hit. Many lost their jobs. Families were torn apart. For a time, says Salama, it was “chaos”.
Most craftsmen from the neighborhood are physically and mentally immersed in their history, reviving elements of their culture each day. I witness a clear example of this inside the workshop of two bookbinders near Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque. Aslam and his colleague bind 150 books a day. Along their workspace are piles of half-bound books. They are currently binding a tafsir, a commentary on the Qur’an, written in 630 hijri (1232 CE). As I leave, Aslam smiles and describes one of their ‘special’ books, about Alexander the Great, first produced on papyrus in 330 BC.
When the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi visited Cairo in the 17th century, he recorded 20 workshops employing 300 carpet-makers. “They weave silk carpets and prayer-rugs, in praise of which the tongue falls short” he wrote. In a small room in the backstreets of the nearby Manshiyat Nasser slum, of all places, that skill is alive today. It takes two people six months to produce a two-by-three-metre silk carpet. They sit on a low bench, facing the vertical loom with a cartoon of the finished design above them. Their technique, says one plainly, has been employed for over 1500 years.
Near to al-Darb al-Ahmar is Cairo’s sprawling ‘City of the Dead’, where locals have been buried since the Muslim conquest of Egypt more than 1,300 years ago. Today, because of rapid urban growth, a quarter of a million Cairenes live among the shrines and tombs. In this living graveyard I meet an ex-boxer turned glassblower called Hasan ‘Hodhod’. Hodhod says his work has been associated with ghosts, mystery and myths that go back to King Solomon deceiving the Queen of Sheba. In an attempt to dissuade him from taking up such arduous work, his father tried to spook him, describing glassblowing as “the craft of the spirits”.
It is dusk. A bread-delivery boy cycles by, seated upright, balancing a five foot-long tray of freshly baked aish baladi on his head. Moments later I meet Mohamed, a third-generation lantern-maker. Our conversation reveals the influences that history has had on the craft sector. Inside his workshop, half-finished brass and iron lanterns rest on shelves and tables, dimly lit by a single bulb. To make the ornate metal pieces, Mohamed draws on Cairo’s heritage, using Mamluk, Coptic, Andalusian and Moroccan designs. Mohamed says that “now is the most difficult time”, as the prices of raw materials have risen yet there are fewer tourists, who were his main buyers. Yet he finds an unexpected positive: Syrians have come, because of the war. They started forming workshops, for upholstering beds and producing clothes. Through their enterprise, he reflects, they have contributed to the local economy. “They have helped us a lot”, he says.
Towards the end of my time in al-Darb al-Ahmar, I garner another perspective, which suggests that craftsmen possess a degree of resilience against historical events. I ask an 81-year-old cloth dyer what impact the Arab Spring-inspired 2011 revolution and subsequent counter-revolution have had on artisans. “For us, nothing has changed,” he replies, “except the President. Our lives, the food we eat, the money we earn – it is the same.”
It seems history laps over this place in layers, like the lines of a tide. The imprint is felt, but only lightly. Events are merely absorbed into the welter. Amid so much life, death, creation and renewal, the sense of flow, or cyclicality, is palpable. I believe these artisans are at the heart of this. Despite the tumult in their country and the wider region, they get by.
A version of this article was published in The Guardian.
The exhibition – ‘The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo’ – is being held at the Royal Geographical Society, Exhibition Road, London, between Thursday 22 March and Tuesday 24 April 2018. Admission is free.
Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, was primarily known as an art historian. Opinionated, snooty and disdainful of popular culture, he became something of an ironic celebrity in his later years. Between 1996 and 2003, he was a columnist for the Evening Standard with a brief to “express opinion on any serious matter that interested me”. The Orwell Essays presents a selection of these articles, on subjects as diverse as Zionism, fox hunting, pornography, bear baiting, homelessness and the Elgin Marbles.
Throughout these essays, Sewell challenges “political correctitude”. On spoken English, for example, he resents the “inverse snobbery” of the idea that “the ugly accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are better than a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide”. He describes the hypocrisy of “blinkered” MPs who ignore the cruelty of the poultry and livestock industries, but support a ban on hunting as a “politically correct absurdity”. He defends Enoch Powell.
Sewell emerges as compassionate, and committed to improving the welfare of the poorest in society, as well as animals. He empathizes with London’s beggars, and challenges the government line that young people on the street “should not have left home” as “unrealistic”, given the complex domestic tragedies many of these adolescents face. He attacks Tony Blair for seeing “the homeless, the vandal and the mugger as a single problem”. In several essays, Sewell abhors industrial animal farming. He laments the living conditions of battery hens: “reared in huge barrack sheds without windows, as many as 30,000 in each, the noise, stench and heat unbearable to any human being”; the birds are duly “slaughtered on the 42nd day of their wretched lives”.
Sewell possesses foresight on issues such as housing and foreign policy. “To save our countryside”, he writes, “we must first regenerate our cities.” Urban planning should focus on building upwards, rather than outwards. Attractive high-rise buildings with “airy” apartments, he believes, would be more convenient for city-dwellers while protecting the countryside from the encroachment of “wasteful garden cities like Welwyn, Letchworth, Harlow and the execrable Milton Keynes”. In a piece written in October 2001, he is sceptical of intervention in Afghanistan, asking whether any “replacement government” and “democratic elections” could work.
These articles are refreshingly honest, fearless, insightful and humane. Sewell was awarded the Orwell Prize for them in 2003.
I’m sitting in the shade of a courtyard in the medina of Tunis, and Aïcha Snoussi is telling me how she identifies with the octopus. “I love all the limbs, the ink, and how they release it to hide themselves with clouds,” she says. The artist’s fascination comes as no surprise. Snoussi’s work is alive with gothic visions. She conjures illustrations of crazed, bionic-anthropomorphic creatures, sometimes powered by a medusa’s head of cables, whose brains are exposed to the viewer. She says she always liked to draw “ugly, destroyed characters. Excluded characters.”
Snoussi grew up in Hammamet, near to Tunis. She studied in Tunisia before moving to Paris, where she is currently based. The fact that as a Tunisian woman she is able to exhibit such graphic images may reflect a more liberal Tunisian attitude towards art and the artist. This permissiveness was also indicated by her 2016 exhibition at the Tunisian Embassy in London, where she covered the interior with red ink drawings of vegetated, mechanic, sexual beings. “With red everywhere, it felt like being inside a body.” And this, perhaps, is Snoussi’s aim: to leave our heads, and be with our bodies, in all their instinctive, unspeakable, irrational ways.
Sabrine Jenhani and Ramy Zoghlemi are sitting opposite, posing with plates of fruit in Duken, a new gastro-café in the medina. Quick to laugh, playful, and on the cusp of stardom, they are Yuma, Tunisia’s vivacious folk music duo. On stage, Jenhani’s voice can be heart-wrenching, powerful yet fragile, while Zoghlemi accompanies in harmony, singing with a deep, breathy intensity, as if to himself, while playing acoustic guitar. Their melodies are intimate in themselves. But sung sincerely, in Tunisian dialect, across themes scarcely addressed by other artists, they are reaching a young generation eager to express themselves.
“People are making declarations of love after our concerts. Maybe they wouldn’t have before. We are addressing taboos and influencing changes,” Jenhani tells me. There is an implication that they may inadvertently be challenging familial traditions of arranged marriages. “Our songs are focusing on metaphors of love and emotion that are more real to people’s lives,” she adds.
At this point, a giddy adolescent girl rushes into the café to ask if she can have a photo with them. Yuma’s first album, Chura, and their second, Stardust, are pushing boundaries artistically. Their fanbase is growing fast, and they were awarded the ‘Public Vote’ at the Journées Musicales de Carthage in April 2017.
“For a long time creativity was not encouraged in Tunisia,” says Yasmine Sfar, manager of Tinja, a homeware hub. But this, she adds, is changing. “Design is being born,” she tells me. “There is a real wave of desire to do things, different things.”
Named after a little town in northern Tunisia, Tinja’s work evokes the colours and materials of that region. The boutique is filled with wicker lamp shades, rusted clay pots, blown-glass gourds, and pale yellow, grey and lime-green cotton cushions. The style is artisanal chic; hand-crafted, with modern, clean designs. “All our pieces are made in Tunisia, using local materials,” says Sfar.
Since it began in 2007, Tinja’s basic model remains the same: working with locally-crafted artisanal products, such as pottery from Sejnane, they then develop the designs from their workshop in Tunis. Success arrived after the Office National de l’artisanat invited them to exhibit at the Salon Maison et Objets, a major design fair in Paris. From 2012 they began producing a proper catalogue and exporting to clients all over the world. Despite acknowledging that they “offer a more avant garde vision” than most, Sfar says that their “inspiration still comes from meetings with artisans around the country.”
Fashion designer Salah Barka also recognises the influence of Tunisia’s artisans. “Our culture is very much based around clothing,” he tells me from his home in Menzah, a green neighborhood in the west of Tunis. “In each town in Tunisia people had to have five to ten outfits; for the day, the night, as well as for social and religious ceremonies and festivals. There used to be local artisans making those clothes.” He still derives inspiration from these old Berber communities’ ethnic outfits.
Black Africa is clearly important to Barka, too. “The first time I went to Africa, to Niger, I cried. It was a dream. I felt I was with family. I loved the energy of the people, the simplicity, and the poverty, which is actually a richness, une richesse humaine.” It was 2009, and Barka won second prize at the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA). Today his work often draws on the motifs, colours and history of sub-Saharan African cultures.
A black, gay man, Barka has had to overcome a latent racism and homophobia that lurks among a minority of more traditional Tunisians. The youngest of 12 siblings, his family, and mother in particular, were supportive. “If you respect yourself, people respect you,” he says. “This has really helped me with my work.”
It is sunset, and film director Sélim Gribaa is animated. We are chatting on a rooftop in the medina, not far from where his last film, Passicalme, was shot. The settings could not feel more different. Passicalme is strange and tense, a surreal, nightmarish sequence of individuals preparing to send two people through a shadowy gate (the medina’s Bab Jedid). Gribaa tells me his head has always been filled with abstract scenes. He says it was “after watching Mulholland Drive that I decided I wanted to make films”.
Yet Gribaa’s first award-winning short film, The Purple House, produced in 2014, was more conventional. The story centers around Hsan, a naïve old man who spends all his money painting his house purple, the colour of the national political party, believing this display of loyalty will yield advantages. But the party is ousted from power in a popular uprising. As the tragi-comedy reaches its climactic end, Hsan burns himself. It is an ironic nod to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose dramatic suicide sparked the beginning of the 2011 Tunisian revolution. Given its success, I ask why Gribaa chose such a new genre with Passicalme. “I wanted to evolve. Since I’m an autodidact, I didn’t go to film school, I need to try new styles to keep learning,” he replies.
Photography by Christopher Wilton-Steer
Book Review for the Times Literary Supplement
Michael Newman traces the lives and works of six politically engaged writers “in search of justice”: Victor Serge, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprún, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ariel Dorfman and Nadine Gordimer. They wrote journalism, novels, histories, plays and essays, and adhered to Bertolt Brecht’s notion that, as intellectuals, they could “turn the struggles into the spheres of common knowledge and, above all, justice into a passion”.
All six writers were committed to a tradition (pursued previously by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill) that seeks to answer the question “how can justice be advanced?” rather than engaging in the more celebrated “contractarian” tradition of considering “what would be perfectly just institutions?” (as examined by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls).
In their pursuit of justice, the authors made “compromises of various kinds”. Camus, for example, opposed though he was to the Vichy government and its racial laws against Jews, continued to write for Paris-Soir, despite it “carrying pro-Vichy propaganda and anti-Jewish articles”. He only left the paper when they made him redundant at the end of 1941. No doubt threats and the traumas of imprisonment and torture influenced these authors’ decision-making. Newman believes that Ngũgĩ, “partly as a result of his own brutal incarceration”, began to see “democracy and legal justice” over armed insurrection as the means to achieve “social justice” in Kenya. This idea was reflected in his novel Matigari (1987) and conveyed satirically in Petals of Blood (1977) and The Devil on the Cross (1980).
All the authors initially identified with socialism of various persuasions – what Newman refers to as a “Marxist conception of justice”. Yet their commitment to socialism was always relegated beneath “liberal”, “legal” or “historical” notions of justice. The former Bolshevik Serge, for example, “increasingly stressed the realms of liberty, free speech, artistic creation, democratic representation, and legal justice” over communist revolution. The one-time French Communist Party member Camus famously renounced his commitment to the ideology. He later shifted his focus, opposing Charles de Gaulle’s use of capital punishment following the Second World War. Dorfman similarly illustrates the trend: a former Marxist party member in Chile, aware that Pinochet’s brutal regime was dictatorial, he engaged in an opposition that eventually amounted to mere “recognition of, and justice for, the survivors and victims of the dictatorship”. Semprún also abandoned socialism, acknowledging that Spain’s transition “offered great continuity to the economic, political, judicial and military elites” yet supported the centre-right coalition as necessary to establish democracy.
Through her fiction, Gordimer also privileged “historical” justice. Her novel The Conservationist (1974), for example, portrayed apartheid as an unjust anachronism through the wealthy industrialist Mehring, a character “embodying the system of racial and socioeconomic domination”, whose world falls apart. Like most of the authors, Gordimer supported conciliation, or “transitional” justice: after apartheid, she championed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As a meditation on the shifting moral, intellectual and artistic compass of writers confronting oppression, Six Authors in Search of Justice is illuminating.
Last week I returned from Cairo, where I was working on a project with artisans from a wonderful, fascinating neighborhood called Al Darb Al Ahmar. It was an incredible experience, and great fun working with Chris Wilton-Steer and Ghada Kabesh. I will be writing up my notes and hopefully some articles and exhibitions will ensue over the coming months. Watch this space!