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Volume 33, Number 5September/October 1982

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Tapestries of Harraniya

"… every human being … born an artist …"

Written and photographed by John Feeney

Ali Selim took nearly a year to weave his masterpiece-a tapestry three meters long, depicting one full day in the life of an Egyptian village. Its completion, however, represented the culmination of an unusual experiment begun 38 years before by Ramses Wissa Wassif, then a young Cairo architect, his wife Sophie and her father, Habib Gorgi - another man with a theory on the source of artistic gifts.

This experiment was based on a belief of the Austrian expressionist painter, Oskar Kokoschka, that all children are born geniuses, but lose their genius because of life's faulty teaching. "It begins with parents and goes on with teachers and if they don't get him, the other children will," Kokoschka said.

Like Kokoschka, Ramses Wissa Wassif and his family came to believe that very young children the world over are capable of making wondrously beautiful things, if only given the chance. And like Gorgi -who thought ancient Egypt's skill in sculpture still survived in today's children (see Aramco World, January-February, 1982) - Ramses Wassif decided to put his theory to the test by getting to children before their God-given talents evaporated.

Unlike Kokoschka, Ramses believed that education need not necessarily stifle creativity; indeed, it could be used to liberate it. "I had the conviction," he said, "that every human being was born an artist, but that his gifts could be brought out only if artistic creation was encouraged by the practice of a craft from early childhood."

Initially, Wissa Wassif, who studied architecture in Paris, planned to demonstrate his theory by helping children learn to paint. Later, however, he turned to a craft with a very ancient history in Egypt: weaving.

Egypt has been renowned for fine textiles from remote antiquity; the world's earliest known textiles, in fact, were woven in Egypt - three pieces of linen found in a royal tomb at Thebes. They date from 1412 B.C. and are woven with a pattern of lotus blossoms in red and blue. The high point of Egyptian weaving was reached, however, in the first seven centuries of the Christian era, when the Copts perfected the pictorial woven textiles that were to exert such a profound influence in Europe later.

There was another reason why Wassif chose weaving. His close friend Habib Gorgi - soon to be his father-in-law - was achieving a remarkable success in his experiment: teaching children to sculpt in mud. So why, Wassif asked himself, could they not be taught to weave too?

In 1952, Ramses, Habib and Sophie bought a small piece of land beside a canal outside the village of Harraniya, not far from the pyramids of Giza, and began an ambitious project to revive the ancient art. In a setting of vegetable gardens and fields of corn, they built a small studio, domed, vaulted and whitewashed in the traditional manner, to which they invited the children of Harraniya to come and play. They then picked 18 children - the eldest 10, the youngest 8 - none of whom had ever had a lesson, or touched a loom, and provided each of them with a small upright loom and supplies of locally grown wool.

At first, the only images to appear on the looms were irregular lines of color-a line of red, a line of yellow or perhaps black. One girl made two "legs" and said it was a bird. Another made four and said it was a cow. They could not, at first, make forms. Then, suddenly, the miracle happened: the children began to create-actually create-what must be called works of art. Madame Sophie Wassif says that, "one child made a complete tree with a bird alongside...the bird...as big as the tree. This was the beginning."

Because Wassif regarded adult criticism as a paralyzing intrusion on the child's imagination, no criticism was allowed. In the closely guarded environment of the studio, each child was free to work at whatever came into his or her mind - and they were thus able to develop confidence in their work, and to depend solely on their own imaginations.

To stimulate the children's imaginations, however, Wassif often took them on outings to the banks of the Nile, or on picnics in the desert, and once to far-off Alexandria -to experience the sight and sound of the sea for the first time in their lives. As a result, in a little more than a year, a profusion of images began to emerge from the children's looms: geese and ducks seen every morning on the nearby irrigation canal, Ahmad's water buffalo coming to drink and Shah-ira's chickens. But there were also fantasies: pink sheep, purple horses, and birds that fly without opening their wings-all woven with an imaginative power and vision that only children possess.

From the beginning, Wassif forbade the children to make preliminary drawings. The child had to visualize his picture and keep it in mind until the weaving was finished. As each tapestry progressed, the completed portion was rolled up so that the child was compelled to retain the initial purity of his conception until it was finished. Then, when the tapestry was completed and unrolled, the children exclaimed:"How did this happen?".. ."Did I do this?" A sense of triumph began to possess the children.

As each child explored and mastered weaving techniques, his, or her, expressions became bolder, yet at the same time more subtle - and individual styles began to emerge. Some exaggerated their subjects, as children do, while others delighted in realism. And though the great pyramids of Giza were just across the fields, the children ignored them; their thoughts were focused on the village life around them, never on the past.

As part of the experiment, a section of the garden surrounding the studio was used to grow dye plants - the roots of the madder plant, for example, which produced a red dye - and over wood fires and steaming pots set up in the garden, the children were introduced to the magic of dyeing their own wools, according to the colors they needed for their next tapestry.

At first, more girls than boys were attracted to the craft. Boys didn't seem to have the patience to stay put at the looms. But some years after the experiment began, a 12-year-old boy came to the studio and announced: "I want to work in your place".

Ramses was unsure if he should accept the boy. He told his wife, Sophie, "It's a big responsibility. Soon this boy will be a man and I'm not yet sure of what I am doing." And so the boy went away.

Unknown to anyone, however, the boy began to collect odd pieces of wood to make his very own small loom - a miniature of the ones he had seen at the studio - and to gather scraps of wool thrown out by others. By himself, he began to weave. Later, he came back to Wassif with his little piece of weaving, and defiantly holding it out at arm's length, said: "Do you accept me now?"

The boy was Ali Selim. Now 35, he is one of Harraniya's finest weavers. His very large tapestry woven in 1978 on "the hours of the day" was made after he had listened to Madame Sophie reading the Pharaoh Akhenaton's great hymn to the sun.

Like most of Harraniya's weavers, Ali has always chosen subjects close to nature. "God is so rich." he once said. "I shut my eyes and say, I cannot imitate God. We are children of God and all this nature he is doing for us." He spent a year studying life in the nearby desert before he wove another large "desert" masterpiece, more than three and a half meters long.

Recently, Ali began a study of the date palm, a very difficult tree to weave well. After months of contemplating the palms and trying out small-scale weavings, he announced: "I have not yet arrived. I know it's not right. I am waiting for you to come and we shall discuss it together."

So Madame Sophie and Ali went by car to see the date palms a short distance down the road on the way to Sakkara. It was nearing sundown, and the animals were coming home from the fields. In the background were the dark palms. Ali decided that his new piece "should be about animals going home at dusk. I will make all these animals with a white donkey and a man in colored clothes against the dark palms. This will be something."

The children who began Wassif's experiment nearly 30 years ago, no longer think and weave the way they did then. They have matured into sophisticated artists, capable of subtle color and fine shading. But their childhood themes of nature remain and are present in all their work.

Ghariah Mahmoud, the youngest of the original 12 children, began weaving when she was eight. Now she is 37, and one of her daughters weaves beside her. Her work -like that of Hanem Moussa, Myrian Her-mina, Samia Ahmad and Karima Ali - is recognized by collectors all over the world. So far, she has been the only one interested in doing people and faces. Like Ali's, many of her projects are ambitious and she often attempts very large tapestries, such as her "Marriage in the Village," which measures 3x2 meters. It shows people coming from far and near in small boats to attend a village wedding.

Sometimes Ghariah is known as "the gamousa (water-buffalo) lady" because of her famous tapestry of a herd of water-buffalo drinking at a village pond. One day a visitor from Sweden arrived at the studio and asked Ghariah if she would make a large tapestry for his native city. He brought along a short film to show her the city deep under snow. Ghariah had never seen snow, but she gamely tried to weave it. Then, however, she refused to go on. "I would like to give them my country," she said, and wove instead "The Village of Harraniya," which now hangs in the city hall at Hedesunda, Sweden.

After nearly 30 years, there still seems no end to the stream of village fantasies. Yet the weavers never repeat themselves. A recent visitor remarked to one young weaver: "This is lovely; why don't you do it again?" and was told: "I had this idea and I said it. Why should I do it again?"

Shehata Hamza, after sleeping outside one hot summer's night, awoke in a state of excitement and asked if he "could do what I have seen in the sky last night." The result was "Egypt, Land of the Nile" - an abstraction of stars, moon, brooding land and water woven in pale and dark blue with areas of black.

There have been a number of important exhibitions of Harraniya tapestries in Cairo, Paris, Zurich, Rome, London and Stockholm. In 1975, for example, the Exxon Corporation sponsored an exhibition of Harraniya tapestries in the United States, and they were received with delight in city after city. Many now grace the walls of galleries and collectors around the world.

Though Ramses Wissa Wassif died in 1974, his wife Sophie still carries on offering encouragement when it is needed. "We never know what is going to come next. Only yesterday one of the new boys was sitting on the grass. He had all his colors spread out in front of him and he called out: 'What will be my next piece?" I said: "Oh what beautiful colors you have there laid out on the grass. Put these colors onto the loom.' And so he began."

"I sometimes wonder," she said recently, "should I intrude at all? But two years ago I had a meeting with the people. I said: 'I want some time for myself, what about giving you looms at home and I can help with exhibitions?' But they all shouted together, 'No, we need you with us, we need to ask you more and more.' When I stay away three days, they come and call me: 'Please come.' This means we have not yet completely succeeded. The day they will be independent and continue to grow in their own art, on this day I will say that Ramses' experiment is successful."

John Feeney, a long time resident of Cairo, is a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 32-40 of the September/October 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1982 images.