The Tentmakers of Cairo: A Social History
This network targets a neglected but socially important topic and illuminates broad issues of social transformations and economic sustainability in an Arab urban setting. It is the follow-on to a successful exhibition, ‘Stitch Like an Egyptian: The Tentmakers of Cairo’ organised by Prof Piscatori and held in Durham in November 2011. The tradition of appliqué work referred to as tentmaking has existed in Egypt since Pharaonic times, but there has been no in-depth study of the Arab artisans who produce it.
A social history will delineate the endurance of a medieval craft over centuries, as expertise has passed from father to son (most stitchers are male) while the material produced has evolved from the colourful insides of functional tents to ceremonial pieces for social gatherings such as homecomings for pilgrims. The tourist trade has stimulated attention to luxury item spin-offs, yet the community is under threat due to changing consumer tastes, trade liberalisation, and governmental indifference.
Their social values and economic circumstances provide a window onto urban Egypt, as a microcosm of lower socio-economic strata largely beyond the view of the state. Finally, the tentmakers have close but opaque connections with Islamic circles that link spirituality to material production, for many of these craftsmen were responsible in the past for producing the kiswa, the covering of the Ka’ba in Mecca.