The Tentmakers go to the mountain.

I have been shooting now for the better part of six months and have about 60+ hours of footage of the tentmakers of Chareh El-Khiamiah. ‘Chareh’ is Arabic for street, ‘El-Khiamiah’, the tentmakers, together, the Tentmakers Street.

An ancient falling down street which is home to most of Egypt’s traditional tentmakers. The street itself is one of only a few covered markets, or souks, and its dusty, dirty walls are brushed with the bright and beautiful colours of quilt like pieces which have been stitched by hand by the Khiamiah, the tentmakers.

However there are very few of these tentmakers that actually make tents. There is the odd tent or two about, mainly small tents about a metre high and sold to foreigners as kids cubby houses. This street is predominantly selling work that would have adorned the inside of bedouin style tents. Applique work which is sewn straight onto canvas backings, the same canvas that the tents were and are made from.

The best examples of these tents can be seen in some of the museums of Europe where 16th and 17th century Ottoman tents can be seen adorned in amazingly detailed hand stitched work that when in the right light can become overwhelming. One of the stitchers has told me that it is an art form stolen from the Mongols as they rampaged through the Sinai more than 900 years ago.

Over the four months I have been shooting I have got to know most if not all of the stitchers in the street but have become attached, for now, to a small group of stitchers. Hosam Farouk and his older brother Ekrahmy, Hanny who is married to Hosam’s sister and Tarek who works for the same shop as Hanny. I tell you this to show you that this street is literally stitched together as relationships are both competitive financial ones as they are blood relations and every pound that passes through this street also passes through one of these relationships in some way or another.

Stitching, applique, essentially quilts has never been my thing although to be honest it had never entered my world. It has now become something I spend my days absorbed in and the Khiamiah are a much bigger story than just the beautifully coloured applique and the laborious workmanship that goes into each piece. This street is going through change, as is all of Egypt, and having to adapt to new ways of making a pound, again, as

is all of Egypt. The old markets have, for now, disappeared and it will be awhile until they return. The new markets are found abroad and as the saying goes, “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammed, then Muhammed must go to the mountain.”

The old markets were foreign visitors and tourists who made up a large part of Egypts income in the years leading up to the 25 January Revolution in 2011. This market has now gone, well most of it anyway. It is now necessary for the Khiamiah to “go to the mountain” and so it is that a couple of stitchers have been given the opportunity to travel into the heart of the fabric, textiles, quilting and arts worlds. To events such as Art in Action and the Festival of Quilts in the United Kingdom, festivals throughout Europe and attending quilting shows put on by the American Quilters Society in the USA.

From these overseas visits a relationship has been formed between AQS and the Khiamiah. So much so that in the past couple of months contracts have been negotiated between most of the shops and the AQS to supply a large number of works to be sold into the USA. In the USA quilting is a multi-million dollar industry bigger than guns, hunting and fishing so this has huge potential for an industry reduced to maybe 40 competent stitchers. But it has also put a cat amongst the pidgeons as the old ways of doing business may not mesh with the new and the new way is, as yet, unknown.

With little to no regulation of the industry, other than individuals that carry it out with brash bravado, muscle and guts, the Khiamiah keep things close to their chests. Even those with the relationships mentioned before don’t necessarily work well together. The copying of work and designs and mass production of pieces known to sell well is prolific. Should a certain design or piece sell well with tourists that piece is mass produced as it is considered that all tourists will want to buy it. However once a foreigner has seen the same piece in every store their interest wanes and the store is left with stock that won’t sell and the opportunity to sell fresh new work has disappeared.

Many of the shops in the Khiamiah’s best work is not on display kept hidden just inside the door, in cupboards or galleries away from the prying eyes of other stitchers and shop owners. Possible customers, already jaded by the Egyptian salesmen stereotype, are unwilling and unaware to ask to see what treasures exist and so walk past oblivious. This can also be detrimental to the creation of new work as the fear is that work will only end up in another store for a lower price so it is never created. I know of at least half a dozen designs hidden under a cushion that have never seen the light of day.

A contract with the AQS could see some of this change as each individual piece will be selected by representatives from the AQS. Who will be looking for originality, quality and for stock they know the market in the USA will be interested in. Originality will be a great measure and will disqualify work that has purposely been mass produced on the basis that this is what sold last time. Quality of work should, in theory, increase as this, one would hope, will become the highest of measures in selecting work. Stitchers in need of work will be forced to produce better work or lose out. There will always be a eye on what sells in the USA however this should not stop the introduction of new and varied work as the market in the USA will always be looking for new fresh designs and colourings.

It is this change, development, new beginning that I am hoping to capture in the making of the documentary film ‘The Tentmakers of Chareh El-Khiamiah’. I am excited to see the the change in a market fighting tooth and nail against each other whilst smiling to one of competitive collaboration which will only serve to help all of those willing to jump on board. It may not happen but that makes it even more interesting.

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