The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo

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.

 

 

 

Harry Johnstone

 

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.

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The Artisans of Al Darb Al Ahmar

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!

Darb cloth dyer.jpg

Bullfighting

 

bullfight

Ten days ago I watched a ‘bullfight’ in Jerez. We were there during the Feria. At the time, it was hard to process the experience of watching a bull slowly killed by a small group of men on a sandy floor.

The crowd are elegant. They wear suits and ties and elegant floral dresses. Those who sit in the sun have fans. People drink sherry out of small glasses. They applaud when the bull comes lumbering out.

It charges out of the gate. The first thing one notices is how much muscle it possesses. The whole body is rippling; the haunches creased with muscle that wobbles over his back. You notice its size. Most of the them are more compact, lower to the ground, than you’d expect. But they move fast. And stupidly. They have no expression. Dumb, is the word. They look around confused. They reach the edge of the circular ground. A man with a pink cape gets the bull’s attention. It moves towards him with trite gusto.

The ease  with which the man moves away from the bull makes one pity the bull immediately. We’re smiling at our superiority from the start. The picadors emerge. They weaken the bull. The armoured man on the protected horse emerges. He plunges a spear into the bull for ten seconds. He twists the spear in deep. The bull now is severely weakened. No longer does he run with gusto. He’s breathing deeply. His stomach contracts and expands greatly with each deep breath.

The picadors spring balletically towards it and plant decorated pins onto the arch of the bull’s neck. Blood seeps down his neck. The toredor spins the bull around him, to the joy of the crowd. The bull’s stomach is now wrenching fast.

Eventually he plunges a sword deep into a spot on the bull’s neck. I assume it carries through to the bull’s heart. If he misses the spot, the bulls stays alive. When this happens the crowd whistle. They do not approve of this. It is unfair to the bull! It is bad sportsmanship.

To me this ‘show’ of mercy to the bull seems absurd. The animal never had a chance in the first place. There’s no logic to their thinking. Sure, by hitting the spot you assure a less painful, drawn-out death. But you’re wounding the bull throughout its time in the stadium with the initial spearing and the pins.

The toredor eventually kills the bull. The crowd cheers. The bull lies on its side, tongue dangling. Sometimes its feet twitch as it dies. Horses come in with chains to drag the bull away. The trailing body leaves a smooth wide line over the sand as it is dragged towards the pen. Its feet remain taught. The banality of death.

I almost cried at times during the six fights we watched. The killing of animals was of course shocking in itself. But it would be hypocritical to oppose it while I eat meat, slaughtered in factories.

What is disturbing is we are paying to be entertained by the killing of animals. I looked across to examine the faces of the crowd and felt very alone and somewhat afraid. Like how I could feel sometimes on a dance floor when lots of people are on drugs.

And in a sense, what I was watching was the same. A kind of mass hypnosis. A sense that since others are there, participating, it’s ok. And my fears about human weakness came to the fore. Our hypocrisy. Our stupidity. The apparent ease with which we can legitimise something in numbers. Weakness in numbers.

 

 

 

Herat

Once again I was woken to the rising cries of the muezzin. Below, in the square connected to the Darb Khosh, carpet dealers are rolling out their crimson wares. It was an everyday scene in an altogether remarkable setting. 14-year-old Mohammed, the sullen relation of lazy-eyed Jalid, the Hotel Jaam’s manager, entered my room with yet another pot of green tea. The curtains of the open window were flailing again, and the wind smelled of rotten mangoes and car fumes.

Like the searing winds that swirl around it for 120 days a year, Herat is a city whose history rarely sits still. The wide plains that characterise this region of Afghanistan have made it difficult to defend. Its strategic importance as a trading route between Pakistan and Iran have made Herat the trophy city of successive vanquishers. Persian, Russian, British and Afghan troops all fought to acquire this prized domain within their spheres of influence. It was the birthplace of the Timurid renaissance.

Gawar Shad

More than a pawn of empires, Herat has also played host to some of Asia’s greatest personalities; Jenghiz Khan, Tamerlane, Queen Gawhar Shad, Shah Rukh and Babur all made their mark. It was famously at the end of Robert Bryon’s ‘Road to Oxiana’, the confirmed Afghanophile gladly wrote: ‘Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex.’ Were her glories still intact, or had the scars of war consigned Herat to the scrapheap of historical anonymity?

The Hotel Jaam was full of Pakistani salesmen or groups of Afghan traders passing through. All would leave their bedroom doors wide open. We would gather in the lobby for dinner, a horde of ‘shalwar kamiz’ (the flowing robe-like clothing) and beards, glued to an old TV that seemed to show solely Bollywood music videos, 2nd rate action movies or the occasional anti-Taliban video sequence. Contrary to ‘hippie-trail’ perception, few Afghans smoke. It is, after all, a luxury not many can afford.

My days were spent soaking up the loaded feel of the streets. I would walk up the Jada-i Qumadari, to the old carpet and curio shops, full of dubious trinkets, muskets and knives amassed from fields and forts, and coins scavenged from the Musalla complex. While Shah Rukh (think chess) was responsible for the original complexion of the city, his remarkable wife, Gawhar Shad, started building this complex of mosque and madrassa (school for the teaching of Islam, and Islamic law) in 1417. What used to be 30 of the world’s tallest, most ornately-tiled minarets are now 5 wind-worn, leaning towers, and the ‘complex’ is little more than a rubbled wasteland with a main road running through its centreBuddha Bamiyan. Byron believed it represented ‘the most glorious production of Mohammedan architecture in the fifteenth century’. It is yet another Afghan treasure, like the Buddha’s of Bamiyan, violated by war.

 

There is something deeply historical about the atmosphere of Herat. Afghans themselves seem to represent all those years of consequence in their appearance. The face of an Afghan man mirrors the fate of his country. Furrowed brows and weathered skin reflect a life surrounded by conflict and climatic extremes. Great wreaths of facial hair and a handsome nose uphold a weighty dignity. And then the smile. It demonstrates the warmth of character so unique to these people. To the westerner who is so fortunate to see such radiance in a land of supposed gloom, it is an inspiration. Herat’s streets are full of such faces, walking and hawking along pock-marked asphalt, dirt and debris, where crazed cyclists dodge past horse-carts decorated with red pom-poms and bells and stalls selling all sorts, sidle the thoroughfares.

“It was easier under the Taliban”, said Yusuf, former de-miner for OMAR (Organisation for Mine clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation), referring to their lack of restraint when it came to the job of accessing and exploding the ordinances. Esther, a Swiss doctor, showed me around the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Orthopaedic Centre. When asked about the Afghan people her face unmasked a raw emotion. “I’ve been trying to come here for years”, she said, as we moved through rooms of mine-victims, some paralysed from the waist down, some tetraplegic, others limping around with the aid of crutches. Many victims, if capable of using their arms, are employed after treatment in the making of others’ prosthetic limbs. “Many of our patients have relations who were in the Taliban. They don’t resent them”, she said. “I find the culture fascinating”, she sparkled intensely, and informed me that a female colleague believed the burka to be a source of liberty, like an invisibility cloak. The awful problems were evident enough but it was her inspiration, and her source of inspiration – the Afghan people –that gave one hope.

I had seen enough evidence of wars; the bullet-peppered walls of the Citadel, the guns-for-cash placards, the preponderance of crutches and cripples were all too visible. I had spoken to and seen many Afghans caring for their past, now I wanted to find Afghans who sought a bright future.

Masjid Herat

On my final day, I visited the Masjid-i Jami. It is undoubtedly Afghanistan’s finest surviving example of Islamic architecture. As I stood awe-stuck in the huge white marble courtyard, figures began to emerge from the shade of the hooded portals. They were University students preparing for an English exam the following day. Naturally, they hounded me, but my exasperation soon turned to admiration. I was being corrected on the passive tense and was subject to further enquiries of conjugation. They knew of Chaucer, quoted Shakespeare and venerated the classical 18th century English writers. Their youthful ambition in this harmonious, virtuous setting made me forget about war and suffering for an instant and believe that, more than just a hopeful future, Heratis are the possessors of something unique.

For this article I was awarded the Irish SMEDIA Award and shortlisted at the UK Guardian Student Media Awards for the category of Travel Journalism.