Featured image via Asma’ Bahari
One of Egypt’s purest art forms is facing a crisis like never before. The legendary art of khayamiya is seeing a considerable drop in demand, and if it weren’t for the few artisans keeping the supply chain running, this art form could have been gone with the wind.
Swirling in the wind at weddings or still and composed at funerals, these khayamiya crafts have been the companion for Egyptians through good and bad. This art, literally translating to tentmaking, includes all that could be constructed in tapestry; small decorative appliques, to huge tents shielding the sun.
The problem with khayamiya is that the younger generation dread the enormous effort and time it takes to complete such a tapestry. Demand has always been weak among Egyptians, but tourists kept it alive, and now with tourism not what it used to be, artisans feel a different path could better provide for them and their families.
The National spoke with a number of khayamiya masters in Egypt, amplifying their voice in the matter. Mohsen al-Khayami, a man named by his customers after the art itself, has been stitching one tapestry after the other for years on end. The 68-year-old started learning the craft at just 8-years-old, he says, “It took me years before I could master it and be able to finish a whole tapestry on my own.”
His colleague, fellow khayamiya maker, Abdullah Fathy, is a younger artisan at 31 years of age. He sees how many are starting to abandon this way of life in the hunt for quick money, but he firmly believes in this art form. Khayami believes that younger generations lack the patience to master the art, and the experience to withstand its ups and downs, but Fathy, who learned khayamiya as a 15-year-old, refuses to give up. “If labourers keep leaving one after the other, the craft may soon become extinct.” preached Fathy.
Khayami laments the drop in number of craftspeople, claiming it has dropped to around 20 from an original 60 in the 1980s, and Mamdouh Al-Sherbini, executive director of the Handicraft Industry Chamber, agrees with his figures. However, with the current boost in tourism, things may be looking up for these craftsmen. Mahmoud Fatouh, a 48-year-old khayami runs his family’s shop, erected in the early 1900s, believes that tourists make about 98 per cent of the khayamiya clientele.
We’re proud to see such loyal and talented craftspeople maintain their love for the khayamiya art form. Their devotion from a young age grows with them, and so does their mastery. With tourism numbers rising higher and higher, we believe that in the very near future, the number of such craftsmen will rise once more. But today we, as Egyptians, have a duty to stand with such craftspeople. Stroll through the bustling shops of Khayamiya Street, learn about this art form, support such talented, hardworking Egyptians, and appreciate this art before it’s too late.