1001 Nights - Stories of Traditional Handcrafts from Egypt

History of Garagos Pottery and more ……….

Posts for Tag: Hassan Fathy

Tuesday 6th March 2012 - I Fall for Garagos!

Today we are going to visit the pottery and Peter has already made arrangements with Mr Riad to meet us there. We have to be there early as Mr Riad is going to a funeral at 12 o'clock. This morning we skip breakfast but drink tea to give us the little kick start we need. Before we leave the first floor Peter's mother offers to lend me something to wear – I guess that she means something that completely covers my body. I am already wearing full length trousers and a tunic that has a round neck and three quarter sleeves. In fact it is the top that I have worn before which seemed perfectly acceptable and I can't imagine how much more I can cover up. I decline her offer but do put a tunic with even longer sleeves over the top of my other top. I always dress modestly in the village but there seems to be more concern than usual about adhering to an appropriate dress code – not within the family but in other parts of the village. It's now about 9 am and we make our way down from the first floor to go outside. In front of me on the granite staircase is Peter and his father. The stairwell is dark, as we don't bother to switch the light on. The next bit, is a bit of a blur, as I misplaced my footing, thinking that I had reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs, when in fact I hadn't. All I remember is falling forward, landing with full force of my weight on my right knee.

My first thought was what a fool I must look in front of Peter's father, scrabbling around on the floor – not very elegant at all! I stand up and take a few moments to assess how I feel and where it hurts. Peter and his father are asking me if I'm all right and I repeat a couple of times that I am OK. To be truthful I just needed to get out of the dark stairwell and go and lie down. I felt a little odd, at first I couldn't quite describe it, but then as the blood drained from my face I knew I had to get off my feet as soon as possible. I could walk back up the flight of stairs okay, so I kind of guessed that my leg wasn't broken but it did hurt like billyo!

I lay down for about half an hour. Peter's father asks if he should call a doctor. My leg is throbbing but at this stage I don't feel it requires a doctor. I'm also not quite sure to what lengths they would have to go to bring one here. I will be back home tomorrow night so can assess how my leg is then. I know that we are going back to Luxor later that day so I also don't want to miss the opportunity to pick up a few more pieces of pottery to take home - regardless of a certain curiosity to check out the local health service! Peter's mother brings in a tube of cream for my leg. It says in English that it is for trauma caused by falls. I'm not sure if it can help, but rub it onto my knee anyway.

When I get up I find that I can walk but can't bend my leg. I imagine I'll wake up tomorrow with a massive bruise on my knee.

We set off again to the pottery. Once Peter's father has seen us down the staircase (safely) he turns left to go to the farm and we turn right to go to the pottery. I limp along the street slowly. Peter had told me before we left not to speak to anyone – especially the children if they approach me in the street. During our trip in September, in the short walk from the house to the pottery we had a small crowd of children following us trying to talk to me in English. It couldn't be described as threatening but it did at times feel a little uncomfortable.

This time there are very few children around – they are probably all in school. As we walk down “Montgolfier Road” I notice that the fields to the right that had been laid out with large squares of dates to dry September, were now home to well established wheat crops – land is never left fallow very long - it's too much of a valuable resource.

Mr Riad greets us at the Garagos pottery. He wants to take us over to the kiln to show us some pottery that has just finished being fired. It isn't possible to see all stages of the process when you come to the pottery but by now I think we've seen it all. Mr Riad tells us to listen to the pottery singing and sure enough, like a clay choir, each piece took a turn to make a high pitched 'chink' sound as it's body temperature acclimatised to the cooler air.


We know we don't have much time to spend at the pottery today so go to the store room and pick out a number of pieces to take home. Mr Riad offers us tea and Mr Louis brings it for us. We spend a bit of time talking to Mr Riad about the development of the pottery again. He confirms bits of information that we already have but again I think that we need to have some concentrated time with Mr Riad to talk in more detail – but as I mentioned before – bit by bit.

Before we leave the pottery we decide to go and visit the kindergarten which is located in a tall building behind the pottery. This building was built by the church, originally with the idea of developing it into a hotel for tourists who had come to visit the village. This was at a time when many tourists were coming to Garagos. Unfortunately this was no longer the case after the Queen Hatchepsut's atrocity. The building was never completed, however the ground floor has been converted into a kindergarten for the local school children.

We walk into a large open grassed area where children are playing. We are greeted with a large radiant smile by Sister Mariam who oversees the day to day running of the kindergarten including the administrative duties. We stay outside until the children have finished their playtime. Some of the children come and say hello to me in English – one little girl holds her arms out to me and kisses me on the cheek.

We go inside the building and Sister Mariam introduces us to some of the staff working there. We are shown around the two classrooms which are for KDG1 and KDG2. Shortly after a female relative of Peter's comes into the room to say hello to us. Sister Mariam invites her to join us and offers to make tea telling us that “our house is your house”.

Time is running by. We have quite a few more visits to make so decide to make tracks back to the house. We say goodbye to Sister Mariam and Peter's aunt and walk (or hobble) out of the pottery and kindergarten complex and back down Montgolfier Road. As we turn off this road past the wheat fields, Peter tells me that he has noticed a couple of people videoing me on their mobile phones – they're not used to seeing Westerners in the village. I imagine video's of this strange limping woman being posted onto Youtube!

We hear the loud, booming voice of Peter's Uncle Romani who is standing in front of a shop – when I say shop this is more of a roadside shack. After greetings we are invited back to his home for tea. Mr Romani's house is just around the corner – all the family live in such close proximity to each other. We walk into a bright hallway where two elderly ladies clad in black sit on chairs shelling nuts. They are introduced to me as the mother of Romani and the mother of Romani's wife. This is a large house which is decorated beautifully with gold embellishments along the cornice line. There are long cane benches along three of the main walls furnished with blue and yellow cushions – clearly the house of a successful man. Mr Romani is clearly proud of the room as he asks me what I think of it and I tell him that I like it very much. Dominating the room is a large photograph of William Mr Romani's son who died tragically in a car accident at the age of 22.

This is another visit that ends up a longer stay than we planned as we begin talking about the family history and Father Montgolfier. Peter's cousin Maged joins us and he speaks good English which is a relief for Peter who is suffering from interpretation fatigue. We spend over an hour talking about the history of Garagos and then another talking about politics (I'm not involved in the latter). This is broken up by a short break to eat a lunch of boiled eggs, bread, cheese Maged's father pops in at one point briefly as does a couple of other family members. Uncle Romani has given us lots of information this afternoon – not all of it new information but it is helpful to cross reference it with other things we have been told. It's now early afternoon and we had planned to leave at 2.00pm to go back to Luxor. I sort of had a feeling that we wouldn't be going back today so start calculating in my mind what time we will need to leave Garagos in the morning if we still need to pack and check out by 12.00pm.

Maged offers to take us to the village flour mill which is owned by Mr Romani, Maged's father and another member of the family. We turn left out of the house and walk no further than 20 yards to a large building. Firstly we are taken around the back of the building where Maged shows us an old disused water pump – Mr Romani's business (as well as government work in a school) is installing industrial water pumps for both agricultural and domestic use. The mill, the only one in the village used to pump water as well as mill the grain to produce flour. He points up to the roof to a whistle which used to be sounded to let the villagers know that the next batch of freshly ground flour was now ready to purchase.

Maged then takes us into a room in the back of the mill which houses a large engine - from the metal plate it indicates that it is of German construction.

We then follow Maged around to the front of the mill where a couple of elderly ladies dressed in black are filling bags with flour straight from the mouth of the tube connected to the milling machine. This has been very interesting to see and we thank Maged for showing us. We all walk back together to Mr Romani's house and Om Romani is sitting outside on the cane bench - Peter chats to her for a little while before we return back to the family home.

We go up to the first floor where Peter's Mother and father are watching television. I've taken the stairs one at a time as I can't bend my right leg and wonder now if we should have called a doctor after all. Anyway, I need to stop harping on about my knee!

We are offered food and tea but we had recently eaten at Mr Romani's so opt just for tea. We are told by Peter's father that Ehab is home from Safaga and that there is going to be a party for Sara and Susanna's birthday this evening. We tell them that we have already decided to stay until the morning but will need to leave early as we need to pack and check out by 12.00 lunchtime.

It's now late afternoon and we still haven't managed to visit the families that we said we would. Because the average visit can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours we decide to go and visit Peter's Aunt Matilda and her husband Mr Labib. This is always a lively house to visit with several generations of family living together in this large house. The house is a two minute walk. Along the way neighbours greet Peter and vice versa.

We first walk through an entrance to an outdoor area which has a hedge of Rahan (Egyptian Basil) growing. The aroma seems to peak in early evening. To enter the large double doorway we have to climb over a mound of sand that has been tipped in front of the doorway – I don't ask but assume building work is in progress somewhere. I grab hold of the metal door and haul my body over the sand hill dragging my leg behind me!

Mr Labib is sitting at a table in the large room reading a paper. Also in the room is cousin's Shaib and Aiyad. After exchanging greetings we are told that Peter's Aunt Matilda is out milking the cow but will be back shortly. Other family members come in to greet us – cousins Yvonne, Akmel and his two children Nardine and one year old  baby  and Akmels wife Katerine. Also Kissinger and his sons Mina and Shenouda. Gerges also pops in briefly but can't stay as he is meeting his fiance that evening. Matilda returns with a pale of milk. She speaks little English but we converse better in limited French (limited on my part as Matilda speaks fluent French from living with and being educated by French nuns).

Nardine, Mina and Shenouda play in the other side of the room. We watched them join hands and move in an out of the circle singing a song called "Eftahee ya warda" The song is about the opening and closing of a flower.

Peter's father has now joined us and it isn't long before the discussion turns to politics. It appears to be quite an involved discussion and I have no idea of what is being said but the children have brought out a box of plastic figures which they proceed to step out onto the chair in front of me. We occupy ourselves - the children asking me what the name for a certain object is in English and in return I asked them what the name for it is all in Arabic. And Matilda asked us if we would like to stay something to eat but Peter tells her that we have been invited to a barbecue at Mr Riad's house to celebrate the birthdays of Sara and Susanna.

Before we leave me take a few photographs of the family group and then make way to Mr Riad's house.

As we enter the house there are a lot of activity going on. Ehab is hanging balloons around the room, Margreet and Mr Riad's wife (Om Osama) along with Andre's wife Marmar are preparing food. Waseem tells me that he's going to be the chef of the night and is going outside to get the barbecue going and Sara and Susanna are playing with new birthday presents - a toy laptop each.

The men of the family take out tables and chairs to a passageway between their's and the house next door. We are invited to come and sit outside and and have a drink whilst the food is prepared. Michael has now joined us and along with Peter, Waseem and Andre they all take turns at trying to get the barbecue going.

Shortly after, a turbaned gentleman appears at the bottom of the alley riding a donkey. I am told this is Bakheet, a cousin and uncle somewhere in the family. Bakheet tethers his donkey to an empty gas bottle at the front of the house and comes to join us.

It isn't long before Mr Riad brings out a bottle of whiskey and offers it around. All of the adults except for Michael who is fasting, accept a shot. Several rounds of whiskey go around the group, and although I don't particularly like blended whiskey I accept the third glass of whiskey, explaining that I am taking it just for the pain!

I think the whiskey has gone to Bakheet's head because Mr Riad explains that he won't be going home on his donkey tonight but will stay here – apparently he can see three donkeys!

I looked down the alleyway and can hear excited laughter from Sara and Susanna. Ehab has climbed onto Bakheet's donkey and Peter has lifted Sara and Susanna in front of him. He takes them for a short ride up and down in front of the row of houses. When they are lifted off the donkey the stand on the mastaba at the front of the house – Sara happily plays with the donkey's ears but Susanna seeks refuge in the arms of Peter, clearly a bit more cautious about approaching the donkey. Riding on it is one thing but stroking it is another.

Waseem has done a good job of cooking the chicken on the barbecue however, it has turned a little chilly so we decided to continue the party indoors. Plates of food are brought out from the kitchen and put onto a long table. Egyptian tables are clearly built with large families in mind and most of us managed to squeeze around. Those that don't fit take seats elsewhere in the large room. There is barbecued chicken, macaroni, soup, fresh bread and salad on offer.

After the table is cleared of plates, two large cakes are brought to the table. They have been decorated with cream and fresh strawberries and are adorned with decorative birthday candles. The candles are lit, the lights go out and “Happy birthday” is sung in English and then Arabic to Sara and Susanna.

Time is running very quickly. It is now nearly midnight and we have to be up early in the morning to return to Luxor to pack before checking out. It's been a very enjoyable night and great to have been able to share in the birthday celebrations of Sara and Susanna. We probably won't have time to see anybody in the morning so we say our goodbyes now before leaving Mr Riad's house. We walk with Peter's father and Michael back to the house. Peter's mother is already in bed and Peter and I go straight to bed without a shower. 

I reflect on the trip with Peter.  One week has gone by so quickly.  It has been a real joy spending time in Garagos again but I think next time we will need to spend more concentrated time here.  I have probably learnt more about the village than I realise.  Not necessarily about it's history and it's development through the Catholic Church but about how far more conservative it is than Luxor - and Luxor is in comparison to Cairo and Alexandria, very conservative. 

The family are very willing to talk about Garagos but they all have slightly different versions of events from each other, but regarding dates when the Jesuits came to the village etc we can verify this with the church itself.  On occasion I have detected slight tensions from within the family particularly around religion.  Although all Christian, the family is still divided on some beliefs between the Coptic Church and the Catholic Church.  I'm sure Peter's parents will talk to him more next week about a number of issues. 

My knee has now swollen to quite a size but there is hardly a mark where I expected to see bruising. The village dust has permeated every pore of my skin and for now I imagine the luxury of a full-on bubble bath tomorrow morning back at the hotel. 

Saturday 3rd March 2012 - Nothing Goes to Plan in Luxor (or Makadi Bay!)

Peter had set his alarm to go off before 5:30 AM. He wanted to check that Lou and Bev had been picked up from their hotel okay. Firstly he phones Haney who confirms that he has arrived at the hotel and Lou and Bev are with him. He had driven all the way from Luxor the day before to get to them. They are about to set off for the 40 min drive from Makadi Bay to the checkpoint at Safaga. Peter phoned them intermittently to check that everything was okay. I knew everything wasn't going smoothly as soon as I heard Peter say “Ya ragal!” a number of times in a row. This translates as Oh Man! I can tell by the tone of his voice that everything is not well. Peter turns to me and tells me that the police at the Safaga checkpoint will not let the Louis and Bev through as they are saying that the driver doesn't have the right permissions. All I can do is sit there in disbelief – I can only imagine how disappointed they will be if they don't make this trip. It seems the police are adamant – they won't let them through on the permission that Haney has – despite him assuring us that he travels with tourists with this paper all the time. He also tells us that there are an unusual amount of police at the checkpoint – about 40 and that they are even getting on the coaches and checking the passports of tourists which isn't usual.

(The next section of this blog outlines the fiasco that then ensues and doesn't make for very good reading. However, I may look back on it one day and remember this and see the humourous side!)

Peter made a couple of phone calls to Bob and Tony to see if they could help in anyway. However despite their efforts nothing came of this. We kept checking back with Louis to see what was happening there but there was no negotiation. I could tell that they were feeling a bit fed up having been up since before five o'clock. I think they just wanted to go back to their hotel at this point. We had exhausted all leads by this time so the decision was made to tell Haney to take them back to the hotel. Peter and I were both gutted. I was completely exasperated as we had been assured that this driver had an annual permission which allowed him drive tourists to and from the Red Sea without any restrictions. Peter and I talked through a couple of options. After weeks and weeks of telling Lou what we had planned for them we must find some way to get them over to Luxor today or tomorrow. We had already discussed sending them by taxi from Ehab's hotel but at £150 this seemed expensive. Regardless, it was already too late to get this arranged for today.

We both started to think of other options. Peter suggested that we could go over to see them instead. Although this would have been nice, it defeats the purpose of the exercise of showing them the 'real' Egypt. I asked Peter to speak to Ehab again and if we need to pay £150 we would – even though this is the same price as an excursion to Cairo including flights, pyramids and the Egyptian Museum!

Peter phones Ehab and explains the situation to him and he says he will make some more enquiries. We phone Lou to tell him that we are looking at ways to try and get them over tomorrow and that we'll phone back when we hear back from Ehab. Soon Ehab phones back and tells us that the taxi driver can bring Louis and Bev to Luxor for £80 but this doesn't include any excursions. This is much better as Peter already has the tickets for all of the attractions that we wanted to see from Mr Sameer at Menf Travel. All Peter has to do is return the tickets that we don't use. Ehab tells Peter that Louis and Bev will need to fax copies of their passports over to his hotel. We send a text message to Louis telling him this with the fax number of hotel.

Whilst there is nothing else we can do, we decide to go down to breakfast - at least to take our minds off this stress. I can't say I really enjoyed breakfast, I couldn't help thinking how disappointed Louis and Bev must have been. However, Peter is more philosophical as always - a trait that I admire and wish I had more of.

After breakfast we go and sit in reception, to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. Peter had picked up old Wi-Fi dongle from the flat but for some reason it wasn't working. It seems that it needed a software update but this had all gone a bit wrong. In the end I gave up with it and we agree we should make do with the one hour a day free Wi-Fi when we're at the hotel.

Enough of this messing around. We now have a full day in Luxor and we need to decide how to fill it. Peter phones his friend Hamada and asks him to come and pick us up. We decided to go to Hassan Fathy village on the West Bank. This isn't something that Lou and Bev would be interested in so it makes sense for us to go on our own today. 30 minutes later Hamada arrives at the hotel. After greeting each other we get into the car and head off out of Luxor towards Awamia and then over the bridge onto the West Bank. Whilst still on the east bank we see smoke billowing out across the river. A boat pumps water onto the fire from the Nile – it seems that a fire set to burn the sugar cane stubble has got a little out of control – there is still a strong breeze today.

We get a phone call from Louis telling us that the fax machine in the hotel isn't working. Oh my God! The planets really are aligned in the wrong position at the moment! Peter tells Louis that he will phone Ehab and get an e-mail address for the hotel and to hang fire. Peter makes the call and Ehab says that he will go and get the e-mail address and phone Peter back. 10 minutes passed and we didn't hear back from Ehab so Louis tells us that they are going to go back to bed for a while. Shortly after, Ehab phones us with the e-mail address of the hotel which we then text to Louis. Louis phones us later to tell us that the hotel had emailed over copies of their passports. Peter phones Ehab to ask him to check whether the e-mail has come through. Ehab phones us back to say that the e-mail didn't go through. Exasperation doesn't begin to describe how I'm feeling at this moment in time! I find out later that Ehab ends up sending a car over to the Stella Makadi to pick up the photocopies of the passports. This really is turning into a farce!

Ehab tells us not to worry. He has already spoken to the owner of the car who assures us that they will sort out the paperwork and everything will be okay. They tell us to let Louis that the car will pick them up at 6 AM in the morning. We then send Louis a text message with this information.

By now we were over on the West Bank of the River Nile and making our way towards Hassan Fathy village. Before leaving for Egypt I had just finished reading Architecture for the Poor by Hassan Fathan and so was desperate to see what remains of the village he set out to build.



We arrive at, Hassan Fathy village and meet Mr Ahmed Abd Elrady. He tells us that his father was the first man to move into the first house that Hassan Fathy  built in the village. He asks us what country we come from and I tell him England. He says he will get his daughter Soraya who speaks English very well. Soraya takes us into the house. We go through a series of arches that takes through to a bedroom and living room. She tells us that there was a Hassan Fathy exhibition in Cairo last month. A limited edition of a Hassan Fathy book was produced to mark this occasion but it is now impossible to get copies – she shows us the copy she has. She then takes us through to another room which she tells us is the room that Hassan Fathy himself stayed in. She describes the bed which has a concrete base, a wooden platform that can be raised for storage, and this is covered by a mattress. She points out a narrow channel along the bottom of the bed and explains that this used to be filled with water and was the method used to stop scorpions from climbing into the bed. I remember how Hassan Fathy describes this in his book and also how the people of Gourna used to build a mud bed called Beit el agrab which was also designed to protect people from scorpions whilst sleeping.

We spent some time talking to Soraya asking many questions about what other people thought of Hassan Fathy. I tell her that some people think that he didn't care about the poor people – that he was a wealthy man who had no idea about the conditions that people lived in. She was quite fervent in her reply and said that this wasn't true and that he was a very kind man with a very good heart. We continue to walk around the small complex. I take in the details such as the coloured glass pieces set into the domed roof – attractive and also letting in light. Soraya points out some small circular tunnels set into the top of a high wall and tells us that this was for pigeons. When Hassan Fathy was consulting with the local people of Gourna on what they wanted of the houses they said they wanted a place for pigeons and so a type of dovecote was built into the design. This is an attractive building. It feels light and spacious and the details in the windows which serve to filter light but also let in air are attractive.

The visit to this house is short and we return outside to talk again to her father. We ask him if there is anything else that we can see that remains of the village. He pointed across the square to the mosque. We also ask him other questions about Hassan Fathy and I think that he realises that we have a genuine interest in him and already have quite a bit of knowledge about him from reading his book. He walks us over to the mosque and once there describes the design of the dome telling us that it spans 15 metres and that it took great skill to build. I tell him that I read in Hassan Fathy's book that he had to go to Aswan to find skilled workers who could make domes like this as this was a dying trade. He said yes this was true. He tells us that out of the 700 houses that Hassan Fathy built, only 70 remain. As people moved into the area they began to knock down buildings and rebuild them in a modern style using concrete and baked bricks. The local people weren't interested in following the principles that Hassan Fathy had used to design the village and he found this upsetting. He says that UNESCO had declared Hassan Fathy village as a heritage site and had invested money to refurbish the theatre, and the remaining houses. However since the uprising, work on this had come to a halt and everything is at a standstill. He explains that UNESCO will give funds to a government but at this moment in time Egypt does not have a government in power – hence the halt to work here. As we leave the mosque I go over to look at the school and another house across the road. There are also a series of domed arches which I'm told is the marketplace. Mr Elrady then decides to take us to see some of the other houses which he has now taken on as a project to complete.

The other houses are a short drive away and Hamada takes us in his car. The first house he takes us to he says is owned by a man who lives in Thailand. He bought the house with the intention of refurbishing it but discovered that this was a very expensive undertaking. Hassan Fathy had originally designed the houses with cost effectiveness in mind. Mud bricks were at the time the cheapest material in which to build. The mud used to make the bricks was a result of the annual flooding of the River Nile which washed up a lot of fertile silt. When the high Dam was built in 1963 the land was no longer flooded and now this silt is a protected resource – a bit like the restrictions we have on peat here. Now to refurbish a Hassan Fathy house baked bricks must be used and this is a much more expensive option. As we walk through this house into a small square yard we see a sunken swimming pool - I'm not sure if this is an original feature or a modern feature commissioned by the man in Thailand.

We climb some stairs up to a terrace which has breathtaking views of the Theban mountains. At that moment in time I could imagine myself living there.

We then make our way down the steps to go into another house. Mr Elrahdy asks me why I am interested in Hassan Fathy. He says that I am British and he doesn't know any British people that are interested in Hassan Fathy - only the French are interested in architecture and heritage. He says that he knows that some of the engineers that worked with Hassan Fathy were British but still they show no interest in the restoration project. I tell him that I first heard about Hassan Fathy through the Garagos pottery. I tell him I'm interested in finding out more about the Garagos pottery and I know that Hassan Fathy designed it. I bought his book hoping that it would give me more information for my research but there was no more than a paragraph on this. However, the book is very interesting, not a technical book, but a book about a mans personal journey and the development of a new village using an ancient technique. He then takes us to another house which he tells us used to belong to the to the police and that is why there are many rooms. The house is now owned by the University of Art. He points out the two domes in this house which he says are the only two remaining mud brick domed houses in the village. We now go up onto the roof of this house to see the domes from the top. Mr Elrahdy shows us that the domes are covered in turfs of mud so that the sun doesn't penetrate through the dome into the home.

We are over one hour in Hassan Fathy village. As we make our way back to the car Hamada whispers to me that Hassan Fathy did not live in the first house, but he lived in the second house that we were shown - the one with a swimming pool and the first-floor terrace with great views overlooking the Theban mountains. The first house when you arrive to Hassan Fathy village is more like a museum and I'm sure gives it a bit more kudos if people believe Hassan Fathy himself stayed there! I'm not sure whether tourists visiting the village are shown these additional houses but we are delighted that we have seen more than we expected to. Hopefully we will come back one day and visit the fully restored theatre and additional houses.

We thank Mr Elrahdy for his time and we drive back towards the Nile to the Ramla. Peter has phoned his old friends Osman to say hello. Osman can be described as a local entrepreneur, owning a couple of felucca's, motorboats, miscellaneous businesses and land. Osman tells Peter that he will come to meet him. Whilst we wait for him Peter sees a young man he used to know calls Abu Halawa. This is his nickname - he used to be one of Peters students when he taught science at a high school on the Westbank. He invites us to sit outside his shop and drink tea which we accept. I remember this man from about five years ago. He drove us back from the West Bank by motorboat one evening and I remember him telling Peter that he didn't need education as long as there is tourism. I think Peter felt a little dismayed that he hadn't completed his education but then he points out a restaurant above the shop which he tells us he rents to someone. He owns the shop, a restaurant and also still works for Osman – so he doesn't appear to have done too badly!

Osman arrives on his motorbike and invites us to his new cafe. Hamada drives us until we arrive at Ramla on the Beach. This place is right on the edge of the Nile with a great view across the river to the East bank. Sand has been laid down to give the cafe a beach feel. Osman tells us it has been open for three months. They had a big party when it opened with dancing and horses – not sure how they worked together but it sounded like a good night! Osman also tells us about his trip to Cyprus. We spend over an hour at the cafe drinking tea and watching life go by.

We drive back to the east bank not quite sure what to do next. We decided to go to one of the cafes down on the River Nile and choose the Metropolitan. I used to go here to have freshly baked baklawa and tea. When we arrive we ask if they have baklawa and he says no. We decide to stay and have something to eat anyway. We order pizza, garlic bread and tahini. They tell us they have no salami for the pizza but say they can do a pizza with hot dogs. We say without meat is fine. We take a seat in the sunshine. The man comes and tell us they have no garlic bread. We say ordinary bread is okay. Either we've picked a really bad day to come and eat at the Metropolitan or they've given up hope on any tourists visiting completely!

Michael phones to say that he is coming down with an old friend of Peters called Magdi who is a chief engineer at the Hilton hotel in Hurghada. Shortly after Michael arrives with Magdi and Hamada is back from parking the car. Michael is fasting so chooses a fasting pizza – a plain pizza with vegetables and no cheese. It is now getting cold as the sun goes down - it is about 5.30 and the sun is beginning to set. After we've eaten and had a chat we say goodbye to Michael and Magdi and Hamada drives us back to the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel we decide to take advantage of the one-hour free Wi-Fi to check our emails. After this we returned to the room for a bath and to start planning the day for tomorrow again. We also take time to catch up on the blog as we are in grave danger of forgetting everything that we have seen today. It's going to be another early start so we decide to call it a night.

10th February 2012 - Excerpt from Architecture for the Poor - Hassan Fathy

As part of my research into the history of the Garagos Pottery I am reading Architecture for the Poor - Hassan Fathy. More than just a source of information this book is actually a very good read - not too technical but an excellent social study of the Egyptian poor, particularly in the villages.

I wrote in the blog that the common theme running through the craft producing families we visited was that the younger generations were giving up the family trade/craft to take up other professions. In many cases they were going to work in one of the Red Sea resorts where tourism is thriving.

This passage from Architecture for the Poor shows that this is not just a modern phenomenon.

"I once talked to moallem Mohammed Ismail, a craftsman who makes windows out of stained glass set in plaster. This was once a common decoration in a city house, but when I asked Ismail how many others apart from himself practiced the craft, he could think of only one man, moallem Loutfy. I asked Ismail if he was teaching his craft to his children. He said, “My elder son is a mechanic and I have sent the younger one to school.” “So after your generation there will be nobody left to carry on the tradition?” “What do you want me to do? Do you know that we often don’t have anything to eat. No one wants my work today. There’s no room for a stained glass window in this new architecture of yours. Think of it, once even the water bearer used to decorate his house and would engage me. Today, how many architects even know of our existence?” “And if I brought you ten boys,” I said, “would you teach them the craft?” Ismail shook his head. “1 wasn’t taught in a school. If you want to revive the trade, then give us work. If we have work, then you will see, not ten schoolboys here, but twenty apprentices.” (I was able to give him a commission, and his work attracted the attention of other architects, so that his elder son, the mechanic, was drawn back to the craft, and has now surpassed his father in skill.)"

Architecture for the Poor, Hassan Fathy, Printed in Egypt by International Press

30th September 2011 - Another Visit to the Garagos Pottery

We wake up at about 10.00am today.  I slept a little better last night with the improved ventilation through the balcony shutters.  I must have been too exhausted to hear the misguided cockerels.  I remember hearing the call to prayer at 4.30am but must have fallen back to sleep shortly after.

We get up and go downstairs where Peter’s mother is already cooking.  Peter’s father has taken the water buffalo’s back out to the field.

We eat breakfast.  On the table is boiled eggs collected from the chickens that morning (unboiled at the time!).  Large chunks of bread, roasted spring onions, cheese, fuul, date jam and mish – a homemade cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo. http://articles.latimes.com/1999/jul/14/food/fo-55996

Although I’ve never been brave enough to try mish – probably because it is stored in a clay jar and kept on the roof of the house in the sun for a number of months – everyone in the family love it.  Also on the table is tameya, tahini and Peter’s father also brings in some freshly picked rocket.  Peter’s mother heats a pan of buffalo milk and places it on the table.  I’ve always disliked the smell of boiled milk.  It takes me back to my childhood somewhere but can’t quite pinpoint the circumstances.

After breakfast Ehab, Margreet and the twins come around.  This morning we are going to the pottery.

Ehab, Peter and I set off for the pottery which is a short walk away.  As soon as we are out on the street children spot us (or me) and start following us – some on foot and others on their bicycles.  Peter suggests that I don’t respond to any of them if they speak to me as it could get out of hand.  Although it feels odd ignoring children who only seem to want to say hello in English, I trust Peter’s judgement and do as he suggests.

We walk past a field that has dates laid out in large squares.  They must be at different stages of the drying process as each square is a different shade of red/brown. 

It isn’t long before we reach the pottery – a small complex built within the confines of a high mud brick wall and consisting of a number of separate buildings.  Behind the pottery buildings is the shell of a large unfinished building – probably five or six stories high.  I remember Peter telling me that before 1997 when tourists were stilling coming to the pottery, the Catholic church funded the building of a hotel.  The hope at the time was that a hotel would be developed where tourists could come and stay, spend more time at the pottery and in the village and ultimately develop the small tourism economy in Garagos.  The building has never been completed.  Everything came to a standstill after the Hatchepsut shootings and travel to more remote areas like Garagos became difficult for tourists.  The ground floor of the hotel is used as a nursery but apart from that remains empty and unfinished. 

I shall write separately the story of the Garagos Pottery and try to do it more justice than I have in this blog.  However, an interesting thing to note is that the pottery was designed by famous architect Hassan Fathy known as Architect for the Poor.  http://www.hassanfathy.webs.com/ .

We enter the first building that, amongst other pieces of equipment, houses two potters wheels each located in front of a window that provides good light in which to work.  Ehab’s father Mr Riad arrives and I also recognise Amjad and Louis from my previous visits.  I’m introduced to Mr Abd al Masir who is working on one of the wheels.  We watch him as he ‘throws’ a lovely curved pot. Once sliced off the wheel with a wire he places it on the side of the bench.  Ehab takes some clay and begins to throw it on a bench, mashing it down with his hands to soften it.  I’m then invited to take Mr Abd al Masir’s place at the wheel. 

The seat is wooden and slopes at an angle downwards.  As I try to put my feet on the kick plate I feel myself sliding down the seat.  I find it difficult to balance myself on the seat without sliding down.  I could do with some platform shoes or legs that are at least three inches longer.  Once I start pushing the kick plate back and forth I find that holding on to the seat with one hand helps keep me stable.  Anyway, a lump of clay is chucked onto the wheel by Ehab and I doubt I can attempt this with one hand.  I shuffle myself onto the seat again and start working the kick plate back and forth – I’m not sure what the optimum speed is for this.  I ask Ehab to start me off with the clay and after shaping and working the pot up a few inches he hands over to me.

I dip my hands in a pot of water and attempt to shape the clay into something that resembles some kind of receptacle.  Ehab does have to rescue it a couple of times but I must admit – I do much better this time than the last.  I place my pot next to Mr Abd al Masir’s and we all laugh at the comparison! 

 We spend a bit of time here watching everyone complete different parts of the process.  A small machines squeezes out long thin sausages of clay which are cut into fixed lengths.  These form the handles for cups.  The machine looks like a grown up version of something from the Playdough factory – clay goes in one end and as the lever is pressed a long thin tube of clay comes out of the other.  Matta attaches the handles to cups with slip that have already been left to dry.  We are joined by a cousin of Peter's, Yousef and his little boy – another member of the family.  His late father, along with Ehab’s father Riad and three others co-own the pottery.  Yousef also used to work in the pottery but similarly to the others of his generation now works in tourism on one of the Nile cruises.  Yousef seats himself at one of the pottery wheels and begins to produce a very intricate pot that curves in and out along its length.  His son sits on the windowsill in front of him watching – so comfortable where he is that he’s clearly sat and watched his father many times before.

I ask Mr Riad if he thinks there will be another generation of family to take over the pottery.  He is unsure.  All of the sons of the current owners, although trained in the pottery since childhood, work in the tourism industry – out of economic need rather than choice.  Mr Riad says that to work in a craft such as pottery, you really need to love the work.   I ask Ehab at what age he started learning to make the pottery.  He says he was about 8 or 9 years of age.  They used to come after school and during the holidays.  It never felt like work to them but almost like an art class.  One of the first things the children are taught to make is a palm tree.  He then takes a framed black and white photograph down from the wall.  The photograph is of Ehab, his brother Andre, a couple of other children and Yousef’s father Sabit teaching the children to make the palm trees.  Ehab takes the opportunity to show us how to make a clay palm tree! 

We go next to another outbuilding.  I remember that this is where the finishing is done – Louis hand paints the pottery in the traditional designs of the Garagos pottery in blue/grey, green, turquoise, browns and yellows.  This room also serves as a display room.  The walls house shelving and cupboards stacked with examples of the wonderful pottery from floor to ceiling.  Cooking pots such as Egyptian style tagines, baking dishes, tea sets and Arabic style coffee pots. There are a collection of figures representing local life – groups of musicians playing traditional instruments, figures standing by waterwheels and women carrying waterpots on their head.  There is a collection of nativity scenes, large fish shaped platters – some glazed and some not and a massive variety of different shaped vases and jars.  As always there is also a large box of Ankh’s glazed in dark blue or turquoise and another of Coptic crosses.  I have hundreds of photographs of the pottery - please look at my Flickr page to see more.


Matta asks us if we would like a cup of tea.  Of course we accept.  Ehab, his father, Peter and I take a seat and Mr Riad starts to tells us some of the stories of the pottery.  Again I will leave a lot of the detail out at this stage and save it for the story of the pottery.  But Mr Riad tells us about Father Montgolfier, a French Jesuit priest who came to Garagos in the 1950’s.  He had been working in village to help the locals attain better lifestyles by helping  to improve skills, health and the physical environment.  There was also Father Ackerman who had a nephew in France who owned a pottery.  It was this connection that brought pottery to the village of Garagos.  Mr Riad tells us that at the time the village had a lot of scorpions and they were a big problem.  If anyone got bitten by a scorpion their life chances could be slim as the village was so far away from a doctor or a hospital the poison may have killed them before they received medical attention.  Father Montgolfier used to pay the local people for collecting the scorpions which were later disposed of – only a few piasters each but this helped to significantly reduce the amount of scorpions and ultimately the health risks to local people.

There were no roads in the village at this time – just mud tracks.  Father Montgolfier owned a car – the only one in the village and everyone was amazed to see this vehicle enter the village for the very first time.  Father Montgolfier oversaw the building of an asphalt road leading to the pottery.  For decades this road was known as Montgolfier Road.  There was no street lighting but local men would walk ahead of the car holding lanterns to light the way.  The road that we walked down past the drying dates was this very road.  One thing you notice is that the roads and the rest of the village is elevated some five feet above the green land.

I ask Peter why the roads are so much higher than the land.  He tells me that when the roads were built, the soil was taken from the agricultural land and banked up onto the roads before they were asphalted.

I’m going to save the rest of this story for another time. 

We all walk to another building – the store room.  As we approach this building we walk past the kiln which is still cooling down from the last batch of firing. 

The store room is just floor to ceiling shelves stacked full of pottery – some glazed and some unglazed.  Ehab tells me that they leave some unglazed for two reasons.  Some customers want to specify their own design and others just prefer the terracotta look.  We spend ages routing through the shelves and photographing the products.  Ehab reaches up onto high shelves and brings down pots and jars so that we can see them¸ feel them and admire the beautiful colours.  I love the shape of the old style Arabic coffee pots. 

Thinking about our luggage allowance and how we got stung on the way into Egypt, we carefully select some products to take back with us.  Ehab goes to fetch  a pair of balance scales with kilo weights to help us determine how much we can take.  Peter and I have already decided to leave clothes and toiletries here to accommodate any samples that we want to bring home.  It’s very difficult deciding what to take and chop and change our minds several times – so much to choose from!  We settle on a number of ceramic Ankhs and Coptic crosses and also some nativity scenes which have a charming hand-made appeal.  We have got about seven kilos of pottery in total.  Mr Riad packs it tightly for us – that’s Peter’s hand luggage accounted for!  As Peter pays for the products Mr Riad tells us that this will cover the cost of the salaries for that week.

We actually spent most of the day in the pottery.  It’s nearly tea time and we go to leave.  As we walk out Amjad, Louis and Matta are preparing the kiln for the next batch of pottery to be fired.  Not everybody gets to see this part of the process Ehab explains, as they need to have enough pottery to fire to fill the kiln.  This is an electric kiln which is expensive to heat up so every spare inch of space is utilised.  Shelves of pottery are stacked on top of what look like ceramic egg cups or short candle sticks.  Once a shelf of pottery has been inserted, more ceramic legs are placed along the edges of the shelf and another shelf stacked on top.  We leave the guys to it and say our goodbyes.

As we leave the confines of the pottery we walk down Montgolfier Street and pass a row of men sitting with their backs against the mud brick wall.  They are drinking tea and smoking shisha.  I notice from the corner of my eye that one of the men has a rifle between his legs.  Although I’ve been told about the amount of guns being carried by citizens this is the first time I’ve seen a gun being openly displayed by someone who’s not from the authorities.

Peter tells me later that guns have always existed in the village but now the police are scarce people don’t care about carrying them in public.

We continue walking home, the children spot us again and one starts circling me on his bicycle.  Ehab tells the boy to go away.  We arrive home and Peter’s mother makes us a cup of tea.  Cousin David pops in and asks us if we are coming to see their new house.  We also need to go and see his Aunt Matilda and family so we go there first.  Ehab, Margreet and the twins walk with us until they take a right turn to go home and Peter and I continue another twenty yards to the house of Labib and his Aunt Matilda who is the sister of Peter’s father. 

This large house is surrounded by a painted wall to form a small courtyard.  Tall bushes of Rahan (basil) grow next to seating area – I still remember this fragrance from previous visits.  As we arrive we are greeted with handshakes and kisses.  I notice that there are two moustachioed young men sitting at a table facing the members of the family.  Everyone is sitting opposite on palm seast covered in brightly coloured rugs and cushions.  The two men are from a water filtration company and have come to give a demonstration of how their system works.  On the table are three glasses of water.  Two of the glasses have a brown slimy substance in them and in the other the water is crystal clear.  I don’t really need to understand the language too well to understand the demonstration.  The ‘audience’ is given the opportunity to ask questions – which they do and shortly after the two men pack up their sales materials, and after handing out their business cards say goodbye and leave.

Matilda brings out a large tray of tea for everyone.  There is Labib and his son Kissinger with his two young sons Mina and Shenouda.  Mina has grown a lot since I saw him last.  Labib’s other son Gerges who has just got engaged is with us.  There is also Shoaib and Ayad both younger siblings of Kissinger and Gerges and shortly after we are joined by sister Yvonne.  Peter’s cousins David and Madios are also here (sons of his Aunt Mariam – another sister of Peter’s father).  Michael is here too.  Although during my previous visits to Garagos I have been introduced to a lot of family members in a short space of time, I remember everyone easily, their bright happy faces always smiling.


As we drink tea and hold conversations on a variety of topics – the standard of hotels in Egypt, the benefits system in the UK and of course the subject of the Egyptian uprising takes centre stage.  Everyone is in agreement that the uprising has left the country in a terrible state.  Mubarak was a dictator but he kept stability in the country – and now he is gone everything is in chaos.  Labib tells us that today in Cairo, they are holding the protest to end all of the protests.  People are gathering in Tahrir Square which has now become the iconic location for the revolution.  He says that there has been trouble during the protests and that there was concern that this may spread to other parts of Egypt.  I detect a sense again, just the same as when visiting family in Cairo, that this is another family that feels unsafe, even within their own community.

Matilda says that she wants to cook for us and asks if we can stay to eat.  Unfortunately we have to decline but say that next time we hope to stay longer.  David and Madios had left earlier but we follow shortly in their tracks to go and see their new house which is currently being built next door to their existing house. 

Two minutes around the corner we arrive at the new house.  Wasfy, Mariams husband has been laying a new concrete floor in preparation for tiling.  We are shown around and shown the ceramic tiles.  Wasfy is a carpenter and has completed most of the work on the house himself.  David arrives and takes us to their existing flat next door.  Mariam greets us and invites us to sit.  It isn’t long before we are joined by Wasfy and sons Madios, Maximus and Bishoy.  Also there is Gerges and Michael.  They all speak in their thick, heavy sa’idi accents.  I know Peter speaks fast but the Arabic words are being shot out like rounds from an automatic weapon.  Peter told me some time ago that his Aunt Saffa used to call him a barbarian because of the way he spoke – particularly the speed.  They find themselves reminiscing over their childhood adventures.  Peter begins to recount a story about a particular fight he got into with some other local boys.  He describes how a gang of 50 boys were chasing him through the village and how he feared for his life.  His cousins roar with laughter and all shout something to each other then start slapping each other’s hands.  At this point I didn’t know what was being said but David who seems to have taken over from Peter as translator tells me that Peter is exaggerating and that there was only a handful of boys chasing him on this particular occasion!  Most of the young men in this group speak English and all have impeccable good manners.  Most are university graduates and all speak of the lack of employment opportunities for young Egyptians.  However, Peter’s family is more privileged than many others.  David teaches in the morning and then runs his own computer business outside of these hours.  Madios works for the  insurance company Alico and the only brother who isn’t present is Matero who is a tour guide and had left for Hurghada a few days earlier.

Mariam brings out plates of sunflower and pumpkins seeds and also a bowl of salted popcorn.  This is followed by glasses of a green fizzy apple flavoured drink.  Shortly after she brings out a sweet bread that tastes and has a similar texture to brioche.  A tray of tea is brought to everyone – Mariam (as with all other Egyptians) is surprised when I say I don’t take sugar  (and this isn’t the first time I’ve had tea at her house) – everyone else piles sugar into their glasses – even Peter who doesn’t have sugar in his tea at home.

We have another visit to make that evening – over to Mr Riad’s house to see Ehab, Margeet, the twins and the rest of the family.  We sit outside on the palm seats again and drink beer, chat, and feel the benefit of the fresh air circulating over the green land.  Lizards dart across the warm bricks at the front of the house and we are serenaded by a chorus of grasshoppers.  A donkey brays occasionally in accompaniment.