Far from the noise and dust of Cairo, the Habib Gorgi Museum, small, gray-domed Egyptian house, stands amid palms and open fields - remote, almost unknown, yet unique. For the Habib Gorgi Museum houses a collection of sculpture lovingly created by young, superbly talented Egyptian children, and shaped, not from granite or limestone, like Egypt's ancient sculpture, but from another substance vital to the country's history: mud.
When you think of "Egypt" you may well think of sand - the Sinai desert, for example, stretching off toward the east. But for thousands of years Egypt's most precious element was its mud: the tons of rich black mud carried into Egypt by the Nile to carpet its fields and enrich its farms every year in the annual miracle of the Nile Flood. Indeed, in ancient times Egypt was known as the land of kamt or quemt, meaning "black" or "dusky".
In one sense, therefore, mud, the essence of Egypt, was the logical material to choose when Habib Gorgi, the Chief Inspector of Art in the Egyptian Ministry of Education, launched an experiment in sculpture to find, according to one source, "traces of Egypt's ancient skills in the souls of today's children." "In every human being there is a hidden power of creation," Gorgi would say. "Nothing can destroy it.
It has been with people since the beginning of time. It is like water and keeps on returning with each generation."
Habib Gorgi was the first to admit that this was an unorthodox view. He knew too that it would never be accepted in Egypt's school system; he was part of that system himself, after all. But he held to it firmly and in 1936 opened a studio in his home to prove it.
Even then, before his pupils had begun to turn out their sculpture, Habib Gorgi was said to possess a rare gift for understanding children on their own terms. "Inside us all, we know without knowing," he used to say. "We must just learn how to open the door."
Aided by his wife, he tried to open such doors - by opening the door of his own home. Choosing 10 children - there were never more than 10 at any one time - he set to work creating what he called "the right atmosphere." "We used to all sit on the floor in one big room," one said later. "We sang songs, and though most of us were very poor we forgot and were happy".
As part of his theory, Habib Gorgi thought it likely that traces of ancient skills would be more apt to exist among the children of the very poor - whose way of life had undergone little change since the time of the building of the pyramids;
In those days, Sayeda Missac, eight years old, and her numerous brothers and sisters, lived mostly by their wits in one of the poorest districts of Cairo. From the first, however, Sayeda responded eagerly to the experiment. She delighted in making small pictures in relief, a kind of wall panel about 16 by eight inches, showing the crowded bazaars and the haggling merchants selling chickens and rabbits in the teeming district she knew so well. Every so often, it is true, she would unexpectedly leave the house and go back to the excitement of the crowded streets of Embaba, but each time she left, she would return and work harder than ever. Her focus was on what she called her "people," usually traditional mother-figures wearing the traditional Egyptian cowl.
Another talent was discovered in Yahia Abu Serer. Yahia, who tended to keep apart from the others, lived in a pastoral world of his own and devoted all his time to sculpting animals. All the animals in the museum, in fact, are his work and some of his finest pieces are of boys driving cattle to drink from, and bathe in, the Nile.
Yahia is typical of the children who came to Habib's studio. He came at 12 and was still there 13 years later when, as an adult, he went on a month's visit to Luxor. Entranced by the paintings and engravings he saw there in the tomb, he returned to work at a feverish pace. During this period, Yahia, using only his small penknife, patiently worked for months on panels, each no more than 18 by nine inches, carving out delicate reliefs of animals moving through the Nile marshes. About this time, sadly, he lost two fingers and had to finish his last panel without them.
Sayeda, too, went on working long after childhood. At 28, in fact, she starred in a film on the sculpture of one of her almost life-size "mothers" from start to finish - a documentary called From the Depths of the Mud.
Always daring, Sayeda was the only one of the child sculptors to attempt life-size forms, and her "beautiful lady" - the figure of a hauntingly beautiful Egyptian peasant lady sitting on the ground - is the only sculpture in the collection in bronze. Cast under the auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, this figure was later placed in a small public garden in Alexandria, and is an attraction there to this day.
After nearly 30 years, the young sculptors have grown up - and most have gone. But their work remains. This is because Habib Gorgi, to the day he died, refused to sell any of his children's work. The success of his experiment, he suggested, was enough.
"Money comes and money goes," he said, "but this work in mud will always give pleasure to everyone who sees it. Why sell it?" Instead, the sculpture went into a museum - a museum built of mud by Ramses Wissa Wassif, Habib Gorgi's son-in-law and his wife, Sophie.
Like the sculpture, the museum itself is unusual. Built at Haraniya, on the road that leads to the Step Pyramid at Sakkara, it reflects the views of an accomplished if unorthodox architect. Ramses, for example, always believed that in building a house you should "use what lies under your feet" - and so built the museum out of clay pise, a mixture of rammed mud and a little sand. The total cost was just 800 Egyptian pounds ($975).
In planning the building, Ramses, now dead, instinctively drew on his knowledge of mud-brick Nubian architecture, which, he said, "is best for our Egyptian climate." Before starting to build, he also studied the angles of the sun for a whole winter and summer to find out how light might best enter - or not enter—all year round; in Egypt it is often just as important to keep the intense sunlight out as it is to let it in. He also studied the prevailing breezes to gauge how best to cool the house.
Like the mud it is made of, the museum is a humble place. But it is also lovely. On one wall of a sunlit courtyard are Sayeda's early market scenes of Embaba - the bazaars and the teeming crowds in the district where she was born. In tall arched niches open to the sun, so that shadows continually move about them, stand Sayeda's veiled Egyptian ladies. Intensely real, they seem to pause in some household task as if to speak. In a dark passageway you'll find the limestone panels carved by Yahia after visiting the tombs in Upper Egypt; as you might expect, they are lit by just enough reflected outside light. Yahia is also represented by a group of his beloved "parched water buffalo in search of water," only 10 inches high, one startlingly real on a ledge set against the glare of the open sky.
The chefd'oeuvre, however, may well be in a small courtyard, where, suddenly, there she is, sitting in the shade on the bare dusty ground as in any Egyptian village, the shadows of a live date palm moving about her: Sayeda's "beautiful lady" whose bronze replica delights many visitors to her garden in Alexandria.
In this same courtyard of shadows, set in a wall niche, is a 12-inch statue of a boy riding a water buffalo molded by Yahia when he was 15. Just below the niche, sitting on a mud platform, there's a larger group of women and their animals beside the Nile, work created by Yahia 20 years later.
Leaving the sunlit courtyards, you enter the cool darkness of two lofty, Nubian-arched galleries. Here, there is a profusion of small sculptures bathed in pools of soft filtered sunlight, skillfully angled in through the thick mud walls. After the intense light in the courtyards these ghostly figures, appearing in the semi-darkness, seem to belong in some strange dream: a boy leading his blind father, Semira Hosny's "gossiping village women," Badour's "cold and sleeping forms" huddled together for warmth – all the vivid thoughts of children given form in mud long ago.
The mud they used did not, in fact, come from the Nile; it came from a site near Aswan. When the sculptures were complete they were fired in a kiln to give strength. Even so, they remain quite brittle and can be broken easily. One day, it is hoped, funds will be available to cast the main treasures of the museum in bronze to preserve them, as Habib Gorgi hoped, "for all to see."
But though the sculptures remained, the sculptors - sadly - did not. Despite the obvious talent required to create such delights out of mud, most of Habib Gorgi's proteges never continued with their art. Even Yahia, was enticed away - to work for a local fabric maker - and soon lost "the hidden power" that Gorgi's experiment had drawn forth. Recently, for example, Yahia, now 46 years old, returned for an afternoon's talk and, on looking around at what he had created, said, somewhat sadly, that it was all over for him. "I can no longer do things like this."
With one exception, the girls also went away - to marry, never to sculpt again. The exception was Sayeda, who, as a young girl, was always disappearing, then returning. Eventually she vanished, apparently for good. But a few months ago, the indefatigable Sayeda, after 15 years, returned one more time — to work, as in the old days, "in the right atmosphere." She also returned, she said, to the things she does best, rather than what she had been doing these past years: commercial sculpture for tourists.
Of all the children found and taught by Habib Gorgi then, Sayeda alone has become a sculptor. She has, in fact, been sculpting in mud for nearly 50 years. Now 57, but still flashing a youthful, impish smile, Sayeda pounds clay as if she were kneading dough and can, with a scowl, ruthlessly smasha figure diligently kneaded, and patiently coaxed and smoothed.
"Why Sayeda? What went wrong? That was good "No," Sayeda says, "she did not answer me."
John Feeney, writer, photographer and film producer, writes regularly for Aramco World from Cairo.