Ancient fabric art enlivens a children's book
CAIRO — The folk character of a "wise fool" exists in stories told over centuries in many cultures. For Jewish children, it's the wise fools of Chelm. In many other parts of the Middle East, it's "Goha." Known as "Juha" in other Arab countries and "Hoja Nasrudin" in Turkey, Goha and his antics have been passed down for centuries, spreading through the Middle East to neighboring countries and more recently across the globe.
While his character is familiar, Goha's appearance is not fixed - each illustrator brings his own ideas of what Goha looks like in the same way that Western artists have interpreted Santa Claus differently over the years.
When the American book publisher Philomel, an imprint of Penguin Group, decided to publish "Goha, the Wise Fool," a collection of witty tales translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, they sought help from some expert Goha artists: the tentmakers of Cairo.
Philomel editor Pat Gauch, who happens to be my mother, wanted an artist drawn from the culture to best capture the nuance of these tales. So she enlisted me, as a longtime Cairo resident, to visit the tentmakers and seek out candidates.
On a single street in Cairo, dozens of khiyamiyas (pronounced khay-ya-may-as), or appliqués, depict the popular folk hero as skinny or potbellied, with a white beard or goatee, and bug eyes. They hang in tiny one-room shops in the 350-year-old Street of the Tentmakers in Cairo's old Islamic quarter. Past the crates of smelly chickens and hawkers selling tacky lingerie, the Tentmakers' Street is one of Cairo's last covered markets, bursting with a kaleidoscope of colors from the tentmakers' wall coverings, pillows, and bedspreads.
Centuries ago these craftsmen only made huge, hand-sewn khiyamiyas, or tents, for weddings, funerals, and religious holidays in bright Islamic designs. Today, besides items with Islamic and Pharaonic patterns, they also create Goha hangings.
It might seem a strange pairing - the sophisticated world of New York book publishing and the simple tentmakers, who, like their great-grandfathers, still sit cross-legged and sew quick, perfect stitches, the rest of their bodies almost motionless. (When they aren't sewing, they're busy coercing people into their shops.)
While the tentmakers are expert at creating the funny Goha - who could be wise or foolish, a comic or a trickster - would their Gohas meet the standards of New York publishing? Was there a Goha somewhere in the Tentmakers' Street who would make American children laugh - and listen?
I took dozens of photos of the tentmakers' work, sending them on to New York. Philomel's associate art director, Semadar Megged, along with my mother, finally chose their perfect Goha - a round, squat character with catlike whiskers. "This Goha had more expression than the other Gohas," says Ms. Megged. "He was more vivid. He had this spark in his eyes."
I contacted Hany El Saed Ahmed from the Fattouh and Sons shop to give him the good news that his Goha had been chosen to illustrate the book. But Mr. Ahmed was strangely blasé at first.
"In the beginning I thought it was a joke," he says. "Customers often come and promise a lot of work, because they want a discount. They buy one khiyamiya and never return."
Next, shop owner Hag Hamdy Mohamed Fattouh, who sketched the khiyamiyas' designs, and Ahmed, his nephew, who sewed the khiyamiyas, had to prove they were up to the task of illustrating "Goha, the Wise Fool" by sketching and then sewing khiyamiyas for two of the book's stories.
After some back and forth with Philomel, Fattouh and Ahmed made two pieces that did indeed bring Goha to life.
One showed sly Goha sneaking from his house with an armload of his guests' shoes, to sell them for food. The other showed a bewildered Goha, counting his donkeys and wondering why he's short one donkey, forgetting that he's sitting on it.
Philomel asked tentmakers Fattouh and Ahmed to do khiyamiyas for the book's remaining 13 stories. The Philomel team had a few suggestions: simplify the backgrounds, diversify Goha's expressions, avoid brown - and to always follow their creative instincts.
By summer 2004, more than a year after the search for a tentmaker-illustrator began, all of the book's nearly three-foot-square khiyamiyas were delivered to Philomel's office. Together Philomel and the tentmakers had reached across continents to produce a book.
• "Goha, the Wise Fool" will be available Aug. 4. An exhibition of khiyamiyas from the book opens at the New York Public Library's Donnell Library Center Sept. 9 and continues through Nov. 7.