Egyptian tent makers appliqué their way to fame
When King Abdullah II of Jordan wants a fancy ceremonial awning made for one of his outdoor soirees, who is he gonna call?
The tent makers of Cairo, of course.
And that’s exactly what he did. It’s a task for the experts and that is whom the ruler chooses. The tent makers’ intricate appliqued artwork is made in their shops in a Cairo marketplace dating to 1624, and last year 95 pieces of it became available in the United States through the American Quilter’s Society.
Two of the tent makers, Tarek Abdelhay and Hosam Hanafy, traveled to America and demonstrated their talents at a national quilt show in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Their exhibit was titled “Stitch Like an Egyptian: The Tentmakers of Cairo.”
Instantly they became “rock stars,” as show attendees gathered to marvel at the men’s rapid handwork and the panels on display and for sale, says Bonnie Browning, executive show director for the society. The art also was shared at an annual show in October in Des Moines, Iowa.
Appliqueing their designs to a fine cotton background on large pieces of canvas, the men stitch with a length of thread 2 to 3 feet long, turning edges of fabric under with their needles. A panel generally measures 197 inches by 118 inches.
In Cairo, tent makers often stitch 14 hours a day in their shops. The art is their sole means of livelihood, as well as a tradition in Egypt for the past 4,000 years.
The two men are returning this year with the “Stitch Like an Egyptian” art at AQS QuiltWeek shows in March in Lancaster, Pa., and in April in Paducah, Ky.
Browning and the exhibit curator, Jenny Bowker of Australia, met in Cairo in early December, selecting another 140 pieces.
“While we were there, we signed an agreement with each of the tent makers’ shops for AQS to become their exclusive representative in the U.S.,” Browning says.
Also, Abdelhay and Hanafy will be on hand to demonstrate their appliqué technique at both Lancaster and Paducah.
Bowker not only curates the exhibit, but also acts as the men’s interpreter, having first discovered their art while living in the Middle East for 15 years. Her husband, now retired, served as an ambassador in Egypt.
“They don’t make tents so much nowadays,” but the colorful panels are used as screens to provide windbreaks for cooking, eating and sleeping outdoors, and also for weddings, street celebrations and other ceremonies, according to Bowker, who explains the tent makers’ work via video on their Facebook page and at americanquilter.com. She also wrote an illustrated article about them in the February issue of The Quilt Life magazine.
Browning first saw the fabric panels at a 2011 quilt festival in Birmingham, England, then enlisted Bowker’s help to bring Egyptian appliqué to the United States. Their task cannot be compared to that of building the pyramids, but it did demand a fair amount of bureaucratic maneuvering and heavy lifting.
“All in all, it took several hundred emails between the U.S., Australia and Egypt to make this all work,” Browning says. “That’s international cultural cooperation at its best.”
On the video, Bowker explains how tent maker Hanafy draws patterns on brown paper folded into a layer of eight or 16 triangles, then pokes holes with a needle through the paper, opens the pattern onto the cotton background fabric and sprinkles talcum powder to transfer the dots. Finally, he joins the dots with a wax pencil.
A tent maker’s complex patterns, with their radial symmetry, are precious to the family, which relies entirely on sales of the finished art to buy food. On commissioned pieces, the payoff comes when the work is completed.
It can be said that “a slow tent maker has a hungry family,” Bowker says, referring to how quickly their needles fly through the fabric.
Abdelhay, who was trained as a lawyer, has returned to the family’s tent making company and says he derives much more pleasure from his stitching than he ever did from law, according to Bowker.
Primarily, men do the stitching in Egypt, perfecting the craft from previous generations. It is not acceptable for girls to participate in groups with boys as they are taught, she says.
Because recent political unrest in their country keeps tourists away, the tent makers are pleased that their U.S. exhibitions are well-received and appreciated. The exhibits boost their income as well as their self-esteem.
Americans are lucky to have access to such exotic appliqué with near-invisible stitches from the land of the Nile. Thanks to Browning and Bowker for bringing such art to our attention. We can only aspire to stitch like an Egyptian.
Email Sherida. Warner@GJSentinel.com.